Portraits from Pest

In the flat plains of Pest, which the Hungarian calls Peshth, we took over the city on foot. It drove our friend Vee up the wall, those long evening walks by the Danube when the fingers ached with a strange intensity, startled by the piercing cold of the night when even breathing seemed like a bad idea. Lights twinkled through the fog that sat thick upon Gellért Hill high above us as we crossed the Liberty Bridge, the bridge that looks like it was fashioned out of turquoise metal and ebullience. The kind of ebullience that comes with freedom, freedom from the Nazis. But then the smothering of that very freedom by the Soviet for at least five decades.

A saint stood high above that hill holding aloft a cross, a man who was stashed into a barrel and rolled down the hill by irate Magyars when he attempted to convert them to Christianity. For all his sins, Gellért Sagredo had the hills named after him, the very hills down which he was tumbled to his death. And a hotel too. Hotel Gellért of the splendid Art Nouveau façade and iconic thermal baths, a reprieve from the harshness of a winter’s evening. The baths of Budapest are like grand flourishes of the city’s past. There are said to be 120 warm springs simmering beneath the surface of the city which the Roman, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires lost no time in tapping, leaving behind a legacy that the city is quite so proud of.

The intense cold drove us back into the arms of Pest’s hipster heart – District VII. It helped that we had chosen to stay in a chic little apartment a stone’s throw from a sprinkling of Christmas markets, classical cafés and restaurants, strung with fairy lights most becomingly on frigid nights. The kávéház, the legendary cafés like Café Gerbeaud where you gave into a long-standing tradition bequeathed by the Austro-Hungarian empire and found yourself transported to the grand old cafés of Vienna. The glutton in you was hard pressed not to pleasure the gut at every stop. And oh, those vintage clothes boutiques where it was difficult not to sigh over the warmth and prices of sable coats, pieces of decadence that demanded deep pockets.

We sought warmth in local bars, the kinds where old men sit and drown their loneliness in glasses of whisky and we revived ourselves in shot bars where a pretty bartender handed out tulip-shaped glasses of aged pálinka, feeling the burn of it soothe the cold away with a dab hand, murmuring ‘come child come’. And then we wandered around District VII, letting its intriguing personality seep into us. The Jewish quarter secreted away into the district’s inner parts, the synagogues with their onion domes and Moorish exteriors making the jaws drop. Derelict buildings flanked a warren of cobbled streets that seemed to be a repository of rundown structures, often crumbling away beneath layers of gigantic murals which are infused with the spirit of the city and that of the artists inevitably.

Some of those ramshackle buildings that have been slipping into gradual disrepair since WWII have been converted into pubs. Ruin pubs. Hubs of underground culture. The oldest of the lot is Szimpla Kert. Set up in a disused stove factory, it is a place for the youth to hang out with cheap drinks, watch outdoor movies, buy fresh produce from farmers on Sundays… The layout was fluid. A sprawling space filled with themed rooms, one leading into the other, distressed furniture, winding stairs leading to more rooms, psychedelic lighting that kind of makes it seem right that a bicycle should hang over your head, that you should slide into a clawfoot tub to sit in cosy comfort with your lover and that there should be a disused Trabant car (East German commie car for the hoi polloi) standing in the garden, a remnant of grim times.

In that ruin pub, we sat on a swinging party night with a bottle of wine and took in our eclectic surroundings when there was a discordant note struck by carrots. Not a product of my imagination, no sir, though that would be a possibility given the heady wafts of weed in the air. A girl circulated around us with a basket of carrots. Did we want to buy some? Now how do you say no to carrots? It was a strange night that, wrapped up in the apple smoke of the hookah. It made me dream of Berlin and it also made me think that the more you travel, the more you see this underlying thread of similitude (this innate urge to break free) that seems to bring people and places together.

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Boscolo Hotel, a 120-year-old building
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New York Café, the traditional kávéház in Boscolo Hotel 
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New York Café 
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Shot Bars in District VII
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Because Pálinka will be your saviour
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Evenings along the Danube
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Liberty Bridge, the shortest one to connect Buda with Pest
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 Gellért Hill
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My two favourite photographs are this and the next
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A walk that shattered us
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Hotel Gellért
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District VII
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Architecture inherited from the Austro-Hungarian empire

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Carl Lutz memorial in the old ghetto dedicated to Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz who had saved the lives of over 60,000 Jews during WWII.
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Szimpla Kert

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Theme rooms at the ruin pub
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The Trabant that stands in the garden

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56 thoughts on “Portraits from Pest

  1. “…the more you travel, the more you see this underlying thread of similitude…” Couldn’t agree more!

    I’ve seen so many pictures of New York Cafe and have long dreamt of making my way there. You captured its magic beautifully here 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hiya Lynn, thank you…you know what I gab on about at the end. Thank you for the appreciation. May you find yourself sitting within its gilded interiors soon, sipping daintily and nibbling on a slice of something heavenly. xx

      Like

  2. Ah, District VII is just so much fun, it has its own distinct vibe. I did the same thing as you – lived a stone’s throw away from the area – and lapped it up over and over again !

    Also loved your description of Szimpla Kert 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hiya Anushree, you know what I am talking about here. It is the best place to stay I think, right in the heart of the action so to say. All for the cause of stumbling back home 😉 Thank you for the lovely comment and Szimpla Kert was trippy as you must have experienced. xx

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Poor Gellért Sagredo! What an awful way to go. Loving the wonderful nighttime photos of an extremely cold night. Hope you kept yourselves warm enough! Who can say no to carrots? Especially the ones nestled in a ring :-P. Lovely post – Neek

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Yes, it looks cold to me. I have to admit that when we travel, we don’t take long walk in the cold especially at night. Get warm staying in the bar in between walks sounds like a good idea. Your photos are excellent. The lights on the taxi are funny.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ain’t that taxi something? It stopped for me to get my photos and then had to move but it was the perfect moment. A fairylight laden taxi passing through the silent streets of the Jewish quarter 🙂
      I think my friend Vee would have heartily agreed with you about the long walks on frigid nights in winter, especially by the river. xx

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Tracey, hah now there you have got me. I am an idiot who chose not to go to the baths *sheepish look. I hope to remedy that when we return to Budapest. Our friend Vee did and he recommended it highly even though he froze when he had to get out the baths.
      I believe it was an alternate universe (ref: where girls sell carrots). What would your best bet be? xx

      Like

  5. Not sure if compliments have been had enough yet, but I can’t help but comment on your style. You possess an uncanny ability to drag and draw readers right into the scene, up to the point where you start yelling at the narrator to now go to that bath and get warmed up for heaven’s sake! The description of Szimpla Kert is so vivid that I practically see myself peeking up the stairs to see what’s behind the next corner. Thoroughly impressive.

    By the way, the social media buttons in the left-hand side menu aren’t connected to your profiles, you might want to change that. I can’t seem to find you again on Twitter?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I shall check my social media buttons right away. But I do see that we are connected on Twitter. Thanks for retweeting my post by the way. I am quite so lazy at tweeting!

      Thank you again for the wonderful words Lars. Always a pleasure to read such generous comments. Szimpla Kert is exact that and you have got the gist of it after ‘peeking up the stairs to see what’s behind the next corner’ 🙂 Cheers.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wonderful! This drew me right in and I even felt a little chilly reading it. Loved this line, “And oh, those vintage clothes boutiques where it was difficult not to sigh over the warmth and prices of sable coats, pieces of decadence that demanded deep pockets”.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Seeing and reading your wonderful post makes me feel rather ashamed of my shoddy efforts to wander and catalogue the city of York. 😦
    Loved those photographs. I think I am a true believer in night photography now. 🙂
    Loved the line “where old men sit and drown their loneliness in glasses of whisky.”
    Keep up the excellent work!
    Kindness – Robert.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are not doing a shoddy job at all, you are showing us York as a local. I thought I had seen a fair bit of it but a visitor can see only that much.
      Europe is transformed at night, so I would not give night photography a miss even though my fingers threaten to disown me. Thank you for the kind words, Robert.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. It’s so magical-looking there! But so cold, too, eh? What took you to Budapest, Dippy-Dotty Girl? What adventurers you are. It reminds me a little bit of my visit (only visit so far) to Florence when my older son was doing a study-aboard there, November of 2001. They didn’t quite have all the holiday decorations up, but I remember there were already Advent Calendars in the little stores, and I even brought one home for my daughter, an Advent Calendar that had small compartments with tiny decorations you could put on the tree. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It as cold as it is hot in summer I believe, Theresa. Friends of mine were there in summer that same year and they found it too hot for them to enjoy anything. Budapest was on our minds for sometime, Theresa, and the lure of the excellent Christmas markets was too much to resist.
      Your older son studied in Florence? Sigh. It is the stuff of dreams. How memories make all the difference, is it not? Like your reminiscences about the Advent Calendar which sound cosy and pretty especially when teamed up with the warmth of home. xx

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Buda and Peshtt look so magical! I lament that I was not able to visit on my last trip, even more so for seeing your photos. What architectural treasures. Your writing also added an extra layer of enjoyment to reading this post! Well done! Beautiful descriptions.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Haha, in the first of your favourite photos it looks like the two of you are frozen in place. There’s something about the winter cold that makes exploring a beautiful city like this all the more romantic (for me at least).

    Liked by 1 person

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