Budapest, the Hungarian capital, is a classic Eastern European city. Grand architecture; coffeehouses in abundance; and relics of the days when the city lay behind the Iron Curtain and under Soviet control. Budapest’s history, like that of so many European metropolises, harks back to Roman times; the Roman settlement was called Aquincum, and was itself preceded by a Celtic town whose inhabitants had dubbed it Ak-Ink (meaning “Ample Water”).
Adding to its allure, the modern incarnation of Budapest is bisected by the storied Danube River (the source of the “ample water” of which the Celts spoke); and that river — along with the Chain Bridge that spans it — make for some spectacular scenery. (The hilly area of Buda rises on one side of the Danube, while the Pest section is situated on the opposite side. In 1873, Buda and Pest, which had previously both been independent towns, merged to become the single magnificent city that we know today. True story.) During my first visit to Budapest, in November 2016, an additional attraction presented itself: Budapest is home to one of the Christmas markets that Europe is known for.
While I desired to thoroughly sample Budapest’s charms, there was one further, high-priority, item on my agenda when I descended upon that city. Since you know me, you know that it was inevitable that I would want to sing karaoke there. 🙂
An afternoon at the opera, sort of
Before undertaking my own singing adventure, I visited a building where a more cultured type of singing takes place: Budapest’s opera house, officially titled the Hungarian State Opera House, which opened in 1884. Standing on historic Andrássy Avenue, the edifice is elegant enough on the outside:
Inside, however, the building is nothing short of stunning. I highly recommend taking the available guided tour, which showcases the opera house in all its splendour.
Of course, it would be a shame to enter a world-class opera house without taking in a performance. My schedule didn’t permit me to attend a complete opera. However, when purchasing my tour ticket, I opted to pay a little extra for the opportunity at the conclusion of the tour to watch a “mini-concert.” This consisted of a member of the resident opera company performing a couple of operatic songs. Even though this informal recital was delivered on a staircase outside of the main hall, it still sounded awesome. Here’s the second of the songs: an abbreviated version of “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” (Italian for “Let’s drink from the joyful cups”). It’s a brindisi, which according to wikipedia is “a lively song that encourages the drinking of wine or other alcoholic beverages.” This particular brindisi is from Verdi’s La Traviata.
Note that in the opera that it was written for, the song is a duet rather than an aria.
Karaoke: I didn’t make a Pest of myself
Based on my internet research, I’d planned to make my Hungarian karaoke debut in Janis’ Pub in the Pest section of the city. However, upon arriving at Janis’ I learned that the bar had undergone a change of ownership several months earlier, and the new management had exercised the poor judgment of cancelling the pub’s karaoke nights. Moreover, they had neglected to accompany this move with an updating of the place’s Facebook page to reflect the new lack of karaoke there. So I had wasted a trip to Janis’. I’m sure it’s a perfectly fine Irish pub, but that wasn’t what I was looking for.
Fortunately, the bartenders knew of a nightclub that wasn’t very far away (and was also on the Pest side of the Danube), at which I could find karaoke on the night in question. Thus it was that I ended up at Morrison’s 2 Klub, a multi-level venue adjacent to a youth hostel. The karaoke was in the basement.
As I’d begun doing my “on the road” karaoke appearances earlier in 2016, I broadcast my first song of the night via Facebook live video. Sadly, I couldn’t get a very strong signal on my smartphone in the basement room where I was singing; thus, the image quality of that video is quite poor. So I’m posting it here in an audio-only format.(It’s like listening to an H-Bomb performance on the radio! 🙂 ) The song is “Use Somebody” by Kings of Leon:
For my second song of the evening, I chose another tune that’s firmly entrenched on my karaoke A-list: “True” by Spandau Ballet.
I have to admit that the random person in the bar who was filming me may not have done the greatest cinematography job of all time on this particular video. At times, it looks like either part of her hand is in front of the lens, or she’s shooting from a position partly behind an audience member. Perhaps both of these things occur. Such are the perils of not having my own travelling camera crew. As long as I depend on the kindness of strangers for the recording of my karaoke videos, there will be times when I get what I paid for. 🙂
My final song of the evening was yet another number that I’m always willing to perform anywhere, anytime: “La Bamba” (the karaoke version of the Los Lobos cover that was featured in the 1987 movie of the same name).
And that is how, on Friday, November 25, 2016, Hungary became the 43rd country on my World Karaoke Tour — and the first new country to join that list since North Korea in early June. My attention then turned to my trip to the Middle East in December and January, during which I would attempt to extend the number of countries in which I’ve karaoked to 44 and beyond.
Additional highlights of Budapest
Other than karaoke and my tour of the opera house, here are some of the things I did or saw in Hungary’s capital city:
The Book Café
The Book Café, also called the Alexandra Bookcafé or Lotz Terem, is so named because it occupies the second floor of the Alexandra bookstore on the main boulevard of Andrássy Avenue. You may not associate bookstores with aesthetic excellence, but this café is simply gorgeous. It’s worth checking out just to gawk at its ceiling:
The Dohány Street Synagogue
Seating some 3,000 people, the Dohány Street Synagogue (known alternatively as the Great Synagogue or Tabakgasse Synagogue) is the second largest synagogue in the world, surpassed only by the Belz Great Synagogue in Jerusalem. It was built in the mid-19th century, and is notable for its Moorish-style architecture which is unusual for a Jewish house of worship. On its grounds are various memorials and monuments relating to the Holocaust.
Shoes on the Danube Bank
The “Shoes on the Danube Bank” Memorial consists of 60 sculpted pairs of shoes fashioned from iron, affixed to the stone embankment at the very edge of the promenade above the water. It commemorates the several thousand Budapesters, many of whom were Jews, who were literally shot into the Danube during a terror campaign by the Arrow Cross party (basically a local Nazi affiliate) during World War II. The victims were ordered to remove their shoes, and were then shot at the river’s edge so their bodies would fall into the river. The memorial represents their shoes that were left behind.
House of Terror
House of Terror is a museum that tells the story of how the fascist and Communist regimes that successively controlled Hungary for much of the 20th century tortured and murdered vast numbers of people. Abounding with historical artifacts and unflinching in its depiction of real-life brutalities, House of Terror is powerful and disturbing. The very building that it occupies formerly served as an interrogation site in which hundreds, if not thousands, of citizens were subjected to torture by Communist authorities.
The Chain Bridge
Officially the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, this suspension bridge was completed in 1849, becoming the first permanent bridge to cross the Danube in Hungary. Today it’s emblematic of its city. I walked across the Chain Bridge several times to transit between Buda and Pest. Here’s a view looking across it from atop Castle Hill on the Buda side of the Danube:
The Matthias Church
The Matthias Church, perched on Castle Hill on the Buda side of the Danube, is known for its colourful roof tiles. The current building in the Gothic style dates back to the 14th century, although it was throughly renovated in the 19th century. (An earlier church on the site was constructed in 1015.)
The Hungarian Parliament
Situated in Pest, set back just a little bit from the bank of the Danube, is the Hungarian Parliament Building. Boasting a Gothic Revival design, which in some ways is reminiscent of London’s Palace of Westminster (the home of the U.K.’s Houses of Parliament), it was built from 1885 to 1904. A still photo of its exterior accompanies the audio of my first karaoke song in an earlier section of this blog post. Here’s a view of the Parliament building’s dramatic central staircase:
St. Stephen’s Basilica
St. Stephen’s Basilica was named in honour of St. Stephen, the first king of Hungary (who reigned from 1000 or 1001 to 1038), and was completed in 1905. Its reliquary contains what purports to be St. Stephen’s preserved right hand. When he said “I would give my right arm for the chance to become a tourist attraction,” he didn’t expect to be taken literally. 😀 (The rest of him is interred in a basilica in the Hungarian town of Székesfehérvár.)
Playing some blackjack
In Budapest I found a 24-hour casino — the Las Vegas Casino in the basement of the Hotel Sofitel — and played blackjack. I won over 15,000 forints at the table! That sounds impressive until you realize that my haul from the casino was worth about $50 US at the exchange rate that was in effect on the day on which I gambled. Still, 15,000 sounds like a lot. 🙂
Peter Falk statue
One of the more unexpected sights that I came across in Budapest was a bronze statue of the actor Peter Falk as Columbo, the detective whom he portrayed in an American television series. Adjacent to it is a statue of Columbo’s dog, a basset hound which was not given an official name in the series (although Columbo sometimes referred to his canine companion as “Dog”). As for why Mr. Falk is memorialized in this manner in Budapest of all places: according to what’s almost certainly an apocryphal tale, he was distantly related to Miksa Falk, a prominent 19th-century Hungarian politician and journalist. Some of Peter Falk’s maternal ancestors were Hungarian, but it’s unlikely that Miksa belonged to the family of any of those progenitors. (The statues of Columbo and the pooch were installed in 2014.)
The Christmas market
Set up seasonally in Vörösmarty Square not far from the Pest terminus of the Chain Bridge, the Budapest Christmas Fair and Winter Festival (popularly known as the Budapest Christmas Market) is fun to stroll through. The most recent edition of this market ran from November 11, 2016 through January 1, 2017. Visitors wandering among its wooden stalls and outdoor stages could find, among other things, traditional Hungarian Christmas cuisine; “fair”-associated foods such as strudel and a Jewish layer cake called flódni; winter drinks like mulled wine; cultural performances; and craft workshops.
One unique type of nightspot in Budapest is the “ruin bar,” a large pub with many meandering rooms built in a reclaimed, formerly derelict industrial space and garishly decorated. I went to two ruin bars during my time in that city. Here’s a photo from inside a bar called Instant. You might say that this watering hole was an Instant classic for me! (The other ruin bar that I checked out, Szimpla Kert, was also quite good.)
On the outskirts of Budapest, Memento Park displays several dozen Cold War-era sculptures. It wasn’t easy to get to; I had to take a tram to the metro to a bus. But it was nice to get out of the city centre, and to experience the park’s glimpses into a different time. For a full set of photos taken in Memento Park, go here. Below is a selfie of me with a representative sculpture from the park. The depiction of two hands cradling a ball, created around 1976, symbolizes the progress of workers under Communism. It’s hard for me to say that last part with a straight face, given that Communism resides in the ash heap of history. 🙂
Postscript: in which I emulate MacGyver
Ever since the demise of MALÉV Hungarian Airlines in 2012, there have been no direct flights between my home base of New York City and Budapest. When I was flying home from Budapest, I connected at Warsaw Chopin Airport. During my layover in Warsaw, an incident occurred that tested my ingenuity.
It happened while I was lunching at an airport restaurant. After my waiter placed my food on the table, he spilled a large mug of beer all over one leg of my jeans. (It wasn’t my beer). The tiny napkins that the restaurant offered me were completely inadequate to absorb the moisture from my jeans. But I couldn’t board a 9-hour flight in totally soaked pants. Meanwhile, my luggage that contained another pair of jeans had been checked straight through to New York from Budapest, so I had no dry clothing to change into.
My initial thought was to try to pull my luggage before it was loaded onto the New York-bound plane, and then re-check it after changing; but it soon became clear that it would be too logistically difficult and time-consuming to do that, partly because I would then have to go through passport control again and go through security.
But then I had another idea and my airline, LOT Polish Airlines, agreed to it. They permitted me to enter their lounge free of charge, even though I only have silver status with Star Alliance (and entering the lounge without payment of a fee normally requires gold status). In the lounge was a shower with a hair dryer, which I used to dry my jeans. Problem solved. 🙂 Wearing non-soggy pants, I boarded my flight from Warsaw to New York JFK, and my Budapesti adventure was finally at an end.