From Waning Communism to a Vibrant Metropolis

First up, Budapest

Last year I became obsessed with visiting Budapest. Whether it was the exotic name, that Hungary was approaching the eastern part of Europe that sends shivers down a Brexiteer’s spine or even the George Ezra song of the same name, it was somewhere I had to check out. Sadly I never paid much attention to history at school; and so on my arrival, I was surprised to see that Hungary looked a little, well, Soviet.

After doing a little research and a conversation with someone at the pub later that night it transpired that up until the late eighties Hungary was a key component of the Warsaw Pact. A pact in name, but very much not in nature. Hungary was subjugated by the Soviet Union in its entirety. After forty or so years of rule, in 1989 after a turn of events that aren’t relevant to a travel blog, various revolutions across Central and Eastern paved the way to Hungary releasing itself from the shackles of communism. Now, 1989 might seem some time ago for many, but that really isn’t the case. It was a year before Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years of incarceration; five years before I would be born; eight years before Princess Diana would die and just twelve years before the tragic events of 9/11. Events which I’m confident you all remember. I only use these examples (aside from my birth) to demonstrate just how raw the Soviet Union was for many Hungarians — especially for those who lived through its iron rule.

I’m not saying that Budapest isn’t a nice place to visit, but I found the locals to be quite unwelcoming. It may have been due to the cold winter weather, or maybe simply cultural differences; but when you’re followed around a Tesco Expressz by a security guard because you look a little British, or being barged into by a few randomers on the street when trying to take a photo, everything just felt a little hostile.

But then everything became a little more clear after a conversation with a Lithuanian during my last night. Being another former member of the Soviet bloc, and being just old enough to remember the revolutions, he sensed a strange type of Stockholm syndrome sweeping over the country. The elderly people who had lived through Soviet rule became convinced that things were better then than they were now and that it was likely, especially for the elder Hungarians, that this would be the case also. I shouldn’t take it personally he said, they just don’t take well to long-haired ginger blokes from Northern England.

Of course, I can’t simply put my disappointing experience all down to communism — that would be short-sighted and presumptuous — but I felt it was a contributing factor. The amount of Soviet-era cars on the road, grey and miserable trams, or the dull rectangular state buildings was uncanny. Would I return again? In the summer maybe, but definitely with a couple of drinking buddies, as for me, the city has very little to offer. Shame, yes, but that’s just how I feel.

Hallo Berlin

Fortunately my next destination was a city I very much love. Berlin. I first ventured through this bustling metropolis on my first ever solo trip in 2017. It’s nitty and gritty, full of life, diverse, welcoming, and most importantly has a fantastic drinking culture. Who’d have thought that just over seventy-four years ago this was the centre of Europe’s most ambitious takeover bid? But again, while it wasn’t the friendliest place then, it’s left over some unarguably awe-inspiring landmarks and the people are great.

I kicked off my trip with a spätis tour. For those who aren’t familiar with the concept let me try and explain. First of all, a späti is a shop, not a bar. They consist of fridges full of beer, cigarattes, a seating area full of drinkers and a smoking room — but it’s a shop, not a bar. Some spätis are more späti than others. Some literally just sell drinks, where you’re forced to stand outside in the freezing cold — which also has a certain charm about it — while others are definitely pubs. Whether it has something to do with the taxation of products sold for consumption off premises, or that nobody really knows why spätis came to be, it doesn’t really matter. Berliners do get very defensive about their spätis though; to the point that as I pushed them to admit they were really drinking in a stripped-back pub they got a little irritated. I had to let the issue lie, but after a few beers I didn’t care.

Oh, and on the topic of beer, don’t drink the stuff from Berlin as it sucks. Berliner Pilsner tastes like soda water mixed with rotten leaves. Schöfferhofer on the other hand, introduced to me by another German friend during my time in Malta, was my go-to beer. I did try other varieties of beer that night, but frankly, I can’t remember much past 10 pm. And so, after visiting a few spätis we headed off to a rock bar in Friedrichshain, then to a club and then to another club. The only reason I know my final destination
— Zur Wilden Renate — is through my online banking. I got cash back at 4:04 am, just as the party was getting started. From what I remember it was a multi-level venue full of hip, cool and all-round Berliners. The music was shit, the beer was expensive, but I had a great time dancing like a twat.

From there I stumbled out at 7am and amazingly navigated home without a hitch. All I needed was an Uber driver to drop me off at an unknown u-bhan station after becoming frustrated at my inability to communicate with words; where I then purchased four ubahn tickets (on purpose obviously); rode all around Berlin to come out at Alexanderplatz station some thirty minutes later; to then ride the tram home while tucking in a mars bar to keep my morale and blood sugar levels up. I then floated into my guesthouse silently without disturbing the main residents, efficiently removed my clothes and folded them up neatly, tucked my self into bed and woke up feeling fantastic at three in the afternoon.

Sunday was a write-off. There was no way I was making it into town. As the local Netto was closed, as with every other shop in the whole of Germany on a Sunday, my only option for sustenance was an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet a solid two minutes walk away. I only managed three plates. Monday went a little better. After work, I ventured to Alexanderplatz for an actual walk-around. But sadly after a couple of hours checking out the main sites around the eastern part of Berlin, eating currywurst and having a couple of beers, I had no choice but to venture back to my place. It was just too dark and too cold.

I guess I’ve learned a very valuable lesson about travelling around Europe while working — either stay for a week or visit Southern Europe and work your way up; the days are longer, it’s a little warmer and you have much longer to take advantage of the sights. Not that I was disappointed with Berlin as the big party on Saturday was a good enough reason to come along, but I think I’ll have to come back again in summer.

Now it’s time to head back to Malta HQ. After a few weeks of travelling alone I’m looking forward to seeing some familiar faces. Ausweidersein fur now.


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