Budapest, Hungary
August 8-13, 2005

When I last toured Hungary in 1990, my visit coincided with the end of the Russian occupation, celebrated in Budapest as a festival known as Bucsu. The title of the event gives reference to a local patron saint, but it is also a play on words, as "bucsu" can be literally translated as "farewell."

Today, Budapest has blossomed into a heavily visited tourist center. Stunning architectural monuments can be found in every corner of this city that somehow managed to escape the eyesores that were erected in other eastern European cities under Communist architectural ideas.

The east and west sides of Budapest are divided by the Danube River. All of the bridges that span the river were destroyed during World War II and rebuilt during the following decades. The most dramatic of the bridges is the Chain Bridge with its massive stone arches, echoing those of the Brooklyn Bridge. On the west side of the river is Budapest castle, an expansive complex that is brilliantly illuminated at night. A massive tunnel passes through the hill beneath the castle to give pedestrians and automobiles quick access to the west end of the city.

On the adjacent hill to the south is the citadel, a heavily fortified complex that was most recently used in World War II as a largely unsuccessful anti-aircraft stronghold. Both hills offer stunning views across the Danube into the heart of Budapest.

On the east side of the river, the most prominent landmark is the Parliament building with its slender white spires, intricate details, and burgundy roof. Even further east is Hero Square, a towering monument built for Hungary's centennial in 1896 to celebrate the country's kings and chieftain leaders.

As in 1990, my visit to Budapest once again coincided unknowingly with a massive party. This time, it was Sziget, an annual music festival on Obudai Island that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world. Budapest isn't set up to accommodate the massive crowd, so during the seven days of the festival, an expansive tent city springs up, stretching to every corner of the island. Temporary ATMs, bars, and convenience stores are erected so that no one ever has to cross back to the mainland.

Sziget draws very few well-known headline bands - Natalie Imbruglia, Sean Paul, Good Charlotte - but with 8 separate stages, hundreds of participating bands, visual artists, and sporting events, there is always something to see and do. During my first night at Sziget, thousands of revelers packed around the main stage so see Sean Paul. Unimpressed by the performance, I started to leave for the train when I was drawn into an adjacent tent by the rich, fresh beats of B-Turv, a tiny local band that combines the sounds of traditional Hungarian folk music and modern rock played on a recorder, acoustic guitar, marimba, electric guitar, and drums. A small audience danced wildly in front of the stage, appropriately borrowing moves from traditional folk dancing.

During my second day at Sziget, I was befriended by Gerry, a tall, boisterous Irishman who came the the festival to fulfill a drunken promise to a friend. Throughout the evening, Gerry continued to pull others into his group until we achieved a sizable crowd composed mostly of young revelers from Ireland and the U.K. Our search for house music landed at an enormous canvas tent packed with dancers who throbbed to the beats of Speedy J. The heat and perspiration from the pulsating crowd caused moisture to condense on the cool canvas ceiling to the point where it was literally raining inside despite being a clear, cool night outside.

After two full days of Sziget, I'd had my fill of secondhand smoke and instead spent my last day seeing more sights around Budapest. For the first tine during my stay, I decided to visit one of the gay bars. Arriving at the Mystery Bar, a seemingly benign Internet cafe, I was greeted by a small group of locals who immediately set to work on getting me as inebriated as possible for a final memorable night in the city. Throughout the night, the bartender presented me with free shots of Unicum, a Hungarian liquor. Each time, I would politely decline, prompting an outburst from the rest of the crowd, "Don't you know it's impolite to decline a free drink from the bartender?" Their collective efforts were largely successful, and I didn't leave the cafe until it closed in the wee morning hours with a spinning head and a negligible bar tab.

The following morning, I left Hungary for the Croatian coast, which I am now visiting with a couple of guys that I met at my hostel in Budapest. All that and more in the next issue!

© Copyright 2005 by Rob Jagnow.