Budapest Now And Then

By Jane Mountain | May 27, 2013

2307 km so far.

This morning we got up and went straight to the bike shop. Since failing with three shops on Saturday, Stephen had done some more research and found a shop online that sounded like the real deal: a place where they care about bikes and bicycling and really know their stuff. With an added note from our friend Mirko, saying that he knew the shop and the guys who work there, we were pretty confident we’d found the right place.

We hopped on our bikes and pedalled up the road to Recikli.

bike shop in budapest hungary

Recycled bikes. Awesome.

The guy working was very helpful, but didn’t speak much English, so he called the boss, who, we found out later, has lived all over the world. Stephen talked to him, telling him a little about our trip and our bikes. They actually weren’t taking any new work that week, since they had a backlog to catch up on, but they made an exception for us, because of our crazy trip and restricted timeline.

Only problem was, we would have to come back later so we could talk to him in person. We later found out this was because they didn’t open until noon. Turns out Stephen had just walked into a closed bike shop and started talking…

The Spice Of Life

This actually worked out great for us, since we wanted to do some grocery shopping on the other side of town, and if you haven’t gotten the idea yet, Budapest is large. Our bikes were by far the best way to get around. It was exciting and exhilarating to ride our bikes completely unloaded through the streets. Everything seemed so fast and easy!

Our first stop was the Asian supermarket we’d seen the other day, right next to The Central Market.

In case you’re ever in Budapest, and need some kind of international food, this is your place. There was an entire wall of tea (no Tetley British Blend though), a collection of dried Mexican chills and hot sauces, a big section each for Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and Italian foods, every spice you can imagine and many you can’t, and a cooler full of fresh tofu, seitan, and tempeh.


gellert hotel budapest hungary

The famous Gellert hotel.

We didn’t have our bike locks with us, so while Stephen shopped, I stood on the street watching over them, trying to stay warm in the unseasonably cold day, and watching the world go by.

I was standing quite near to a homeless man and his dog. It was surprising to see that as people stopped to give him money, they also stayed for a little chat. I don’t know what they were talking about, but I do know that I have never seen this happen in LA.

Later I found out that there’s a huge homeless population in Budapest (around 10,000 officially), so maybe this explains the human touch people added to their financial support.

Errands Accomplished

Next, we sought out the one coffee roaster in the city, called Lumen, and stopped for a brew and a chat with the owner. Stephen was very excited to be buying what he thought would be properly selected and roasted beans from someone who seemed passionate and knowledgeable about coffee.

I was excited to drink the best cup of coffee we’ve had since leaving home. When I told the roaster this, I don’t think he believed me, but it’s true.

Visiting Budapest (or live there) and want great coffee? Lumen is the place. They also do bicycle courier home delivery within Budapest.

Our final score of the day was visiting another bio grocery store, BioABC. We didn’t need any more groceries but we’d heard they serve food, and we needed lunch. We were pleased and surprised to find a little cafe (Lé-Bár) attached to their main shop serving all vegan food, including a selection of vegan cakes! We ordered a yellow Indian curry, mung bean stew, a fried tofu dish, and a big slice of cashew cream cake for dessert.

Then we whipped back across the city to Recikli. Our 2500 km gift to ourselves is to get some pros to fix up our bikes. We also wanted to eliminate all the squeaks, clicks, and tics before we hit the mountains of Slovakia. With great advice from the guys at the shop, we agreed we’d get new chains, new front derailleur cables, a serious cleaning, and a general tune up.

Even though we completely trusted them, it felt really weird leaving our bikes there and walking away. It’s the first time we’ve been separated since we began the trip, and I was a little anxious about all the things that could happen to them in 24 hours.

A Living History Lesson

In the afternoon, I left Stephen at the flat while I went off to join a Free Walking Tour. I usually steer clear of tourist attractions, but the one thing I love to do in cities is walking tours. I find that it really lends a depth to the things you are seeing, plus you usually get an excellent history lesson from people who lived it.

Today, the timing worked out perfectly so that I could go on the communism tour.

Our Hungarian friends thought it was a little bizarre (and maybe quite tacky, though they didn’t say so) to be taking a communism tour, since they or their parents had actually lived through it. The tour was anything but tacky, with two guides in their early 40s, Aaron and Agnes, mixing well known history with personal and family anecdotes about how it was to live under communism.

They told us about family members who had been imprisoned for trifling indiscretions, about ordering and paying for a car that they had to wait five years to receive, and about going to summer camp as a Pioneer (kind of like Scouts), where they learned communist principles such as teamwork and community, but were also “brainwashed” (the word Agnes used) into supporting the party.

They also showed us maps they used in school, in which Russia was a big powerful blob in the middle and all other countries tiny little blobs surrounding it. The U.S. was not on this map, but Aaron told us that on another page in the book, there was a U.S. map. There were no state lines and it only showed five cities. When he asked what was in the rest of the country, he was told it was mostly empty and filled with homeless, unhappy people.

Both guides spoke with some nostalgia about the good things they remembered about communism in the 70s and 80s. There was a sense of camaraderie and community that no longer seems to exist. There was free health care, no unemployment, no homelessness, quality educational television, and mass subsidised cafeterias where most people ate, since getting ingredients for home cooking was almost impossible.

Aaron also told us about communist-era apartments. The kitchens were tiny and the bathroom and the toilet were often in one room, “Which is kind of gross,” he said, “but just the way it was.” I wonder if he knows that every North American bathroom is set up this way?

old building in budapest

Needs a deep clean.

Agnes shared lots of her opinions on the current state of Hungary. She feels that Hungary has a long way to go before it becomes a real democracy. She talked about what she sees as the problems of post-communism: unemployment and homelessness, corruption, bribery, national debt, inequality based on wealth, the power elite running the government… I wanted to tell her that she had just listed most of the problems with a true democracy.

Welcome to it, Hungary.  

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  1. Comment by Naomi

    Naomi October 17, 2013 at 4:44 am

    I was in Budapest in 1990, just after the wall came down and I remember eating in some of those huge state cafeterias. I also have not so fond memories of the headwinds cycling up the Danube :(

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