Our visit to Pest
In Pest [pr. “Pesht”], we stayed in a flat belonging to a friend of mine. It is situated off Andrássy Street, which in USSR times was the headquarters of the political police. Reports of screams and secret burials were rife in the 50s/60s. Now it is a busy street full of restaurants, one of which is a Sicilian Italian one where we heard many customers speak their native tongue.
This street is also where Budapest’s first Metro, M1, connects Heroes Square with a square in the centre of Pest called Vörösmarty Tér. Mike planned to visit Heroes Square to see an Egyptian exhibition in the museum there, but instead stayed in the square to enjoy a Saturday special children’s event. He will report about this in another article.
Apart from the famous New York coffee house, one of the.other best known coffee houses is Gerbeaud. We took an M1 to the last stop in Vörösmarty Square. Service at the café took a long time. When we remarked on this, the waiter complained about staff shortages. During Covid, waiting staff found jobs in other industries. There they found that the pay was similar to their wages in catering, but with less unsocial hours. Very few returned to their previous work places.
Pest Cafés played a vital role in the city’s society. Like in Vienna, business negotiations, political discussions, poet’s meetings all took place in the mostly 19th century built coffee houses. They serve customers hot, strong Italian style espressos, cream cakes, sandwiches and strong drinks.
It’s worth mentioning that public transport in Hungary is cheap and it is even free for over-60s. During our stay in Pest we used the M1, the oldest Metro of a very good underground network. We also jumped onto a yellow tram which goes along the internal circular road of Pest. We were told to simply show ID to show our ages.
What worried us a bit, though, was that we were the few people who wore masks on public transport and in shops. Social distancing in the overcrowded tram was around 1.5 centimeters.
Around the corner from Gerbeaud is the former British Embassy building in Harmincad Utca. One can still see the name beside the entrance door. The embassy had been there since 1947 and everybody in Pest could tell you where Britain’s representation was. I asked a police woman guarding the traffic about the new address of the embassy. She didn’t know. The magnificent building is standing empty awaiting redevelopment. The embassy moved in 2017, when the government decided to cut back on staff located in European capitals.
There is a plaque on the building honouring the memory of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who helped thousands of Hungarian Jews to escape. He used the basement of the building for his brave operation. Wallenberg was arrested in this house on 17 January 1945 and subsequently executed in Moscow.
The most elegant shopping street of Pest is Váci Street, which starts at the square where Café Gerbeaud is. Since Mike needed some shoes, we walked along the row of international stores. There is a choice of exclusive Italian and German shops, but we also found a middle-range German brand offering good value with good quality.
Sadly, what appears reasonable to us is often unaffordable for Hungarians where the average wage is £5 an hour. It is no wonder that every town we visited had Chinese shops offering cheap goods. This also explains why several people we spoke to were working in more than one job to make ends meet.
We met a young friend the next day. She works at one of the ministries in central Pest. She suggested having a meal close to the Dobos Street, also called the Great Synagogue, which is the largest in Europe and second only to New York.
It is a reminder of the historically traditional Jewish life in Budapest and the horrors of the Nazi era. My family also suffered during the persecution of Jews in the 40s. One of my aunts was taken by the Gestapo with the rest of the family looking on helplessly. My mother never forgot the terror they felt. My aunt never returned from Auschwitz.
During our meal with my friend, we touched on Hungarian politics. She has to be careful about voicing her views openly. She raised her fear about current politics resulting in the loss of the country’s EU membership. We compared everyday life experiences in Budapest and London. Sadly, populism and corruption in government seem to characterise both the UK and Hungary.
On our final day in Pest, we took a taxi back to our flat. The taxi driver persuaded us to have a look at the view of the city from a vintage point called the Citadella. This circular building which is standing empty at the moment, was built during the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. After one of the many unsuccessful revolutions against the Habsburg rule, it was to remind Hungarians that the Emperor was watching them.
The view from there is stunning.