Locals show the best family things to see in Budapest
It’s Sunday morning and we’re breakfasting outside Matthias Church high on Budapest hill. A tour leader walks purposefully past us, muttering away to herself. A long line of tourists follow silently behind. It is a large group, undoubtedly one of the many groups of passengers released from cabins on Danube cruise ships for a morning’s parole in Budapest. I look at my watch and wonder what time they had to get up to be in the Castle District so early. And wonder is it really a good way for a family to find the best things to see in Budapest?
What happened to personal guiding?
These water-people are a strange bunch. Their leader continues to burble on, but she’s several paces ahead of the group, and it’s hard to catch a word she’s saying. She’s nothing like the eccentric guides we’ve seen in Venice and Santiago; holding up colourful umbrellas, throwing out chunks of information in foreign dialects the way a zookeeper feeds the animals. Her followers are different too; they look like teenagers listening to heavy metal. Headphones plugged into ears, and cables trailing to small boxes hung around their necks, each marked with a number, their tour group identity tag. They walk like zombies; on automatic pilot without smiling or speaking.
This, it appears, is the modern form of tour guiding. The leader talks into a microphone and everyone hears her through earbuds, turning the volume up or down on their boxes as needed. There are no questions. There is no interaction. There are certainly no jokes. But there is a demand for this method of guiding. When this group have filed through, another load turns up to take their place. We watch three different tours from the same cruise ship go past before we get to the end of the froth on our cappuccinos.
Today we too will have a guide
We have never been guided around a city; we’ve always taken ourselves around, stumbling across the various sights and attractions. But today we have our own tour booked, and while the kids would love the earphones; we’re confident technology won’t be involved. We are being met by some Budapest residents who were recently involved in a cultural exchange programme with the UK. Groups from Budapest and Lancaster spent time in each other’s home-towns, learning about each others cultures and giving a series of lectures about their country. We attended one of their talks in Lancaster with a local friend who was taking part in the exchange. Marta and Lici were amongst the visitors from Budapest. And today they have kindly volunteered to show us around their city.
This tour is personal
We meet them in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel and it’s a very personal greeting. There are kisses all round. Marta and Lici present the children with shiny bags of sweets and drinks and freshly picked plums. Dressed elegantly in pastel lace outfits, Marta and Lici look more suited to a tea dance than an afternoon hiking around the city, and we soon find out why. Marta has enlisted her friend, Sándor, a professional guide, to give up his day off and show us around Budapest in his nine seater minibus.
On this hot day, it is lovely to jump in a bus. Parts of Budapest are very hilly and seeing it all by bike or on foot would have been a sweaty experience. But this is all air conditioned luxury with someone else taking the strain of the traffic. I instantly see the attraction in guided excursions. And I love the constant supply of information. Normally if Stuart or I want background on anything, we have to look in the guide book, on the Kindle, check Wikipedia on the phone, or rely on the information provided by the attraction. That can be a bit like hard work but it’s cheap! But as we leave the Castle District and go downtown, Sándor gives us a lively running commentary on the former cities of Buda and Pest, explains how two cities came to be one, and how the place and its people have evolved over the years. Throughout his musings, Marta chips in slowly with bits of personal information, and Lici, who speaks less English, smiles and nods.
We learn about history
We travel through the centre of town, to Andrássy Avenue leading up to the City park, past grand buildings built for aristocrats at the turn of the 19th century. At that time these were small single mansions; status symbols of the wealthy. Now many of them are preserved and used as embassies. But when communism was introduced, private property was confiscated and not just the grand mansions but even two bedroom apartments were nationalised. Even in small properties families were required to move into one bedroom so the second could be given to a family from the countryside.
At the Millennium Monument Sándor stops the bus. “We are getting out. I have an idea for the children.” Sándor is an expert enough tour guide to realise that our needs are different from the American parties he normally leads around. And that we have people on the bus with the concentration span of a flea, who don’t care a fig about who the Magyr were named after, (one of the seven tribe leaders who first inhabited the city), about the Medieval Kings or the Freedom Fighters adorning the huge stone monument in front of us.
We have family fun too
“We’re going boating,” Sándor says, jolting the kids out of their historical disinterest. Three children and a selection of Lici’s plums spill out of the bus in the direction of the City Park, followed by the two women, walking at a more ladylike pace. As we stroll, Sándor briefs me about the Millennium Monument, built in 1896 to celebrate 1000 years of Hungarian history, depicting how the people first arrived on horseback as nomads. He points to Arpad, the leader in the middle, and to Arpad’s Great Grandson, the first king; St Stephen who is considered the founder of Hungary. In just a few days the great and the good of this city will gather for an annual mass and fireworks in his honour.
The children cry in delight at the boating lake with its half sunk sculptures. “That’s a park bench, with a light. Look! I can see a house. There’s a house in the middle of the lake. Oh there’s a toilet. Can we go on that toilet?”
“What! Will Cameron get to go on that toilet? Can I go on that toilet too Mum?”
“I’m having a go first!”
“No. Me. I really need a wee,” says Hannah.
Within a few minutes Sándor has bagged a boat for our family to explore the portaloo in the middle of the lake. There are too many people in our party for us all to take to the water, so I opt out, but the children are keen to enlist Marta into the rowing crew. It turns out that although Marta was born here, and has lived here all her life, she has never been boating on the recently refurbished lake. She looks happy to put that right. “Would Granny like to go first?” the man asks and Marta steps on to the boat, smiling at the thought of being Granny to our three nomads. They paddle around in the sunshine. Three children, their dad and their serene adopted granny.
And the history is made personal too
“My parents took me on that lake when I was a child and I still remember it. It was a treat for my own children when they were young, and I wanted your children to also enjoy it,” says Sándor , as we take a seat with Lici on the promenade surrounding the lake. He explains that the boating pond it has only been open for a few months after its refurbishment. He also explains the mechanics of how it is turned into an ice skating centre in the winter with a massive refrigeration complex beneath it.
The children paddle in and demand some refrigeration of their own in the form of ice cream. “Now we go to the amusements!” says Sándor once that has been sorted out. As we walk from the lake to the amusements, the children are oblivious to the wealth of information he is feeding Stuart and I. We learn about the castle in front of us that was built out of wood in 1896 as an exhibition centre, and then rebuilt properly later due to its popularity with the Hungarian people. He points out all the styles of architecture from different periods and different regions of the country; gothic, renaissance, romanesque, baroque. He encourages us to pay attention to the detail around us, stuff we wouldn’t notice ourselves, like the 100 year old Sycamore trees that line the gardens “They are as good as anywhere in Europe. Or perhaps anywhere in the world,” he says.
We see the city the way the locals see it
Passing the gorgeous Széchényi Thermal Baths complex, we take a look at the amusements, the circus, and the zoo with its elephant house that looks like an Indian Mosque. We tour the pony and goat park. Hannah enters the pen with the goats and then instantly regrets it, “The goat is eating my dress,” she cries, trying to escape from the chomping creature. Then we pass the most expensive restaurant in the city, where Sándor once came across our Queen of England while guiding a British tour party around, “Security wasn’t the same back then as it is now. We were invited to meet her,” he chuckles. Sándor began his working life as an electrical engineer before changing careers, “It was my hobby, learning about the history of Budapest. I have always been part of this city. I learnt to swim in the Gelert Baths, but I never imagined this would be how I’d make a living,” he confesses.
We return to the minibus via a huge concrete square. I comment that such a big empty space is unusual in a city. “It was built for the communist parades. The tanks needed space to parade up and down. We all had to participate. School took us here.” says Sándor.” Marta says she was also forced to be a part of it. At work she would have to leave the office and stand and wave. “The leaders would stand on a pedestal and wave to the people.” adds Sandor. “Communist leaders liked pedestals.”
And we eat plums
The children are still scoffing plums in the back of the van as we tour the rest of the city while Lici tells us in her quirky English that her daughter is flying in from Italy at midnight, “She come on plane at night-noon.”
We drive back through the pedestrian streets of the Castle District and Sándor explains how the wine merchants kept their wine in the surrounding lime caves. Back at the Hilton, Hannah throws herself at our new friends for a kiss. Matthew shyly comes forward to hug them. Cameron runs away in case Marta tries to kiss him. The ladies climb into the bus and I already feel I am already missing them. We do happen to have a trailer that could fit a granny, but they have their own busy lives, volunteering in the cultural centre, learning computers, and growing plums in the gardens of their summer homes in other parts of Hungary.
Sándor skilfully manoeuvres the bus out of a tight space. There are no other tour guides dropping off their passengers. Their day is long since done, and their microphones put away until tomorrow. Our tours over, the kids fish their earphones out of their pockets, pop them in their ears, flick on their I-pods and turn into zombies themselves.