Budapest: the little giant

Paulo Rebêlo
The Budapest Sun
– 14.mar.2007

Is Budapest a big city? It depends on whom you ask. One of the demographic oddities of Latin American countries is the general absence of medium-sized cities. We have huge metropoli – usually capital of a State – where most people live nowadays. And then we have thousands of small cities, especially in the rural areas. In Brazil, this is particularly odd, because the landmass has such continental measures that, in theory, we should have more medium-sized cities and less populated mega- cities.

But we don’t. With more than 5,500 cities, each capital city is a huge place. In that sense, someone like me would say Budapest is not a big city, even with its two million inhabitants. Actually, the city where I come from (Recife) has almost three million inhabitants and it’s not one of the biggest in Brazil.

Once, when I was talking to a friend from Switzerland, she mentioned how the country is increasing in population, surpassing seven million people. And than I was able to understand why no one can understand how a single city like Săo Paulo has 11 million people itself, not including the smaller districts surrounding the city. If you include those, the number goes up to 20 million people. For the curious minds out there, Rio de Janeiro has about seven million people, being Brazil’s second largest city.

I always found it funny how most Hungarians feel surprised when I share these numbers. Also, for the average European citizen, Budapest is a very big city. I’d rather say Budapest is a little giant. This makes the city also an odd place when you give it a closer look.

One of the oddities of this little giant is how each part of the city is so different from the next. It might be normal if these parts were not so close to each other. But all you have got to do is catch the metro and stop by the last stations of the blue or red line. It is the same Pest side, the same city, but completely different. Notice how people behave differently and how different everything is: landscape, streets, shops etc. It’s usually not like that in Latin America.

Buda vs Pest

The Buda side is a whole different story. For me, it’s another city. I remember the first time I went walking there, I had to give up after a while. Let’s just say that round-big-bellies and huge upwards streets do not match.

The next time I took the bus to find my way around, and was impressed with all those large, rich houses with their big gardens. It felt like the countryside, like a parallel universe. Everything so calm, so peaceful, so silent… was that Budapest? They told me so.

I was even more surprised when I found a distant neighborhood Pest-side that looks like one of those small American cities, away from everything, with big houses one by the side of another.

By that time, I felt pity for the thousands of tourists arriving here every month and getting to visit only downtown and all those tourist spots we all know.

I wonder how many people out there consider downtown the true side of Budapest.

From my early days here, nothing impressed me as much as the way that a lot of Hungarians expressed their feelings about each side of the city. If you live in Pest, the Buda side is not a different city – it’s a different world. And people living there are different too, they say.

Some people from Buda talk of the “citizens” of Pest as a different population. And all we have between them is a river. From where you can easily see the other side, by the way. There are so many things making Budapest a big city. And so many things making it a small one.

There’s the restaurant behavior that I talked in our last column. There’s also this awkward habit of closing places (even fast food chains) before the actual closing time. Sometimes, you step into a restaurant 45 minutes before closing time and they just say it’s over, no more food.

In the heart of downtown, after 10 or 11pm, you will be a very lucky man if you find a decent place to eat in that remains open. Most probably you’ll have to stick to the daily gyros or those Nagyi Palacsintázója pancakes. And they all taste the same, oh boy.

As a matter of fact, there’s not much life in Budapest for the night walkers out there. If you’re not the club type, or if you don’t like noisy bars full of international youngsters, most probably you won’t find good spots late at night. Compared with some other big cities in the world, Budapest sleeps at night. If you don’t, you will be out of luck. Just get used to it, sleep earlier and you will be just fine.