One of the reasons why I love going to the baths at ungodly hours of the morning is that it’s the time of The Locals. The Locals are generally late middle aged to ancient, mostly men (a typical group would be four male friends or a group of three men and one woman), with a supernatural gift for long, peaceful conversations while being almost boiled alive in the sauna. As the temperature rises, then becomes unbearable and every inch of your skin is screaming for mercy, they leisurely discuss a variety of topics ranging from the trivial (so you discover, somewhat dismayed, that the complications of relationships and betrayals do not subside as people get older) to the deadly serious. Such as climate change. How this autumn, with its extended Indian summer lasting until the end of October, is strange compared to what the weather used to be like a couple of decades ago. Climate change is real, blessed be the wisdom of Budapest spas, shelters to the wise men and women of our discombobulated tribe. Then the cynical local (each group must have one of those) chuckles: I count with being here for perhaps fifteen more years, optimistically speaking, so at least I’ll enjoy the autumns.
I’m guilty as charged, too. In spite of the spectre of the ever widening hole in the ozone layer, Venice flooded by the Adriatic and orphaned baby seals, I love a freakishly warm autumn. Cold autumns with their soggy mornings, dirty air and rotting foliage are the stuff of nightmares, whereas warm autumns with rusty leaves and golden sunsets create the illusion that winter never comes. The air is of course still rotten, as we discovered during our seasonal pilgrimage to Normafa, when the enjoyment of the forest’s glorious October shades was somewhat dampened by the dirty film of smog covering the city, so that most of it became invisible, a jumble of indistinguishable shapes as if flooded by murky dish-washing water. Still, I chose to ignore the sure signs of the season of unbreathable air and dove into the warmth like the last swimmers testing the waves of the sea before the storm that brings winter. I wore light skirts and warm weather shoes, glad that my moderate early September tan had its time to shine. I ran in the dark on Margaret Island, safe that I was not alone, we all ran in the dark, because it was warm, at least one of the two prerequisites of summer were met. I did all this until a couple of chilly mornings I braved with summer optimism resulted in an annoying autumn cold. The forces of nature always prevail.
There’s nothing strange in crowds swelling on Normafa on weekends with fine weather, irrespective of the season. Yet when we went on another compulsory autumn promenade, up Gellért Hill, something in the atmosphere had shifted. There was something unfamiliar about this crowd, something my inner Local, slowly rearing its head with age, would not have experienced five years ago. This crowd was not happy to pause on the benches dotting the ascent, this crowd would not stop to pet a shaggy mutt, this crowd did not have time to waste. This crowd was on a mission. Spilled from the metal bellies of planes arriving at an ever more alarming pace to Forever Ferihegy’s one orphaned terminal, all they wanted was a selfie with the city view, beer/spritzer in hand, look mum I’m in Budapest, on to the next pub crawl, the next traditional restaurant, the next selfie spot, erase, rewind, next city with the same dishes on the menu.
If I sound bitter, I’ll take it on the chin. The past few years have turned many spots in Budapest into candy shops for what I call the Barbarian hordes. Not to sound retrograde- I do believe that the opportunity to travel and move freely, when done with curiosity and respect, is one of the greatest blessings of our times. Yet when the tiny café where I spend a quiet half an hour on Saturday mornings is invaded by a loud armada of tourists pushing, shoving and screaming their orders like enraged crows I do feel that something has been stolen from us, our city slowly slipping away like an alien Disneyland.
I still remember the still summer evening in the castle when our only companions were a group of people clad in matching dark blue tracksuits- the Argentinian football team visiting the city for a friendly game in the shabby old Puskás Ferenc stadium. Whether a certain Lionel Messi, about to make his debut for Argentina for a whole two minutes, before being sent off for a foul on Vilmos Vanczák, was admiring the Fisherman’s Bastion that night or not is a mystery I do not wish to unlock. Because that was a time when the Castle still had mysteries, calm mornings and tall shadows befitting Gothic novels. Now it has expensive cafés, somewhat questionably reconstructed structures and mosh pits around the most scenic spots.
All of this brings money, of course, though this money doesn’t always land in the best pockets, and each infrastructural improvement seems to be paired with a vaudevillian dream of kitschy grandeur (don’t you get me started on the atrocity that is József Nádor square). We’re drowned by asphalt, bars catering cheap drinks to stag dos and dog shit- also, recently, rats, as if we wanted to give Paris a run for its money. There, nine hundred words spent complaining, and yet I sill live here and have very little intention to leave. And if that is so it’s because I feel that, in spite of all we’ve done to turn it into a circus attraction, Budapest doesn’t want to give up, and when the mid-autumn light spills through the trees on Gellért Hill, it is breathtakingly beautiful and lonely corners bring forth intimations of its past, a connection to those before us who have lived and died here, and chose this particular place to call home. And if she doesn’t want to give up on us, then I won’t give up on her either.
(Here we take a short brake to celebrate this last thought, but do scroll below these autumnal Normafa pictures for some, ehm, practical information.)
In the practical information section: if you’ve survived the ascent to Citadella untrampled by touristic rhinoceros, you will actually find a decent bar, 1xfent, hosted by a structure built by the HelloWood Collective. They offer bar food (the gyros seemed awfully popular), wines and beers from Hungarian craft brewery Hübris, the latter at prices matching the normal downtown averages. Hübris also happen to have recently launched a fun ad campaign that you can indulge in here. Normally, I’d only recommend places I liked, leaving critical assessment of establishments to those whose job it is to rate them, but such was the disdain of the barista in Picnic, on Döbrentei square, towards anyone who entered the shop that I will quickly mention that I will probably not return for a second try, especially as the coffee she brewed was fairly sub-par as well.
Fueled by the questionable liquid, we did however chance upon Hegedüs köz, which is a narrow passage connecting Döbrentei tér with Attila út. Spurred by this discovery, I tried to investigate which is Budapest’s narrowest street, and sadly came up empty handed, if anyone has connected intel, do not hesitate to share it.