We’ve all either heard about or felt what it’s like to be in a bustling room of people and strangely feel quite alone. To be surrounded by chatter that fades into a dream like mumbling. This moment now belonged to me, in an airport lounge, silently debating if a holiday by myself was really the way I wanted to spend my 29th birthday.
Since I was 15yrs old I’ve imagined travelling the world. Living in an apartment in Paris spending my days in coffee shops and art galleries. Doing yoga on the beaches of Thailand and meditating in temples in Vietnam. Or hiking through the mountains of Canada to return to my cabin in the woods for the moments I need to go off grid and reconnect. As time passed these dreams have never left me but also never materialized. A sense of fear always surrounding the idea that to pursue this life alone could only be dangerous. I would become lost and helpless, lonely or simply run out of funds.
All of a sudden I was 28 and still talking about the life I wasn’t leading. Friends had taken the course of marriage, mortgage and motherhood and for me the route ahead had never changed, I had just not hit the road yet. Finally I had enough of myself, enough of fear tricking me into leading a life I had become quite bored of. And that’s how I found myself on my fourth coffee out of a paper cup, checking, yet again, that I had packed my passport and waterproof mascara!
The destination ahead was Budapest. I knew very little about the city but George Ezra had given it a touch of romanticism that was enough to convince me in a moment of impulse to book a ticket for my first 4 day solo city break. Four days completely alone with a pocket sized tour guide, a camera to be used mainly to create a picture map to aid my appalling sense of direction, and a suede skinned notebook to keep me company in coffee shops. This was to be my test; if I could do this alone, I could go anywhere alone.
Nevertheless nerves slowly turned to panic in the walkway tunnel from the airport to the plane. The usual polite conversation that is made when you are uncomfortably close to those as tired as you turned into a barrage of questions; why go alone? Do you know anyone there? What if you get lost? Finally a woman of maybe 60 turned to me and said she had wished she had had my courage in her youth, when time was on her side to explore all the endless possibilities life could offer if only she had the courage to take hold of them. A wave of conviction comforted me in that moment. I was doing exactly what I needed to do for the life I wanted to live.
Rain greeted me upon arrival, the sky was rather grey for September. All of this though seemed fitting. I had timed my trip to Budapest with Europe’s escalating migration crisis (Sep 2015). The Keleti train station had become the setting of quite a cold reception towards those searching for salvation. Although I wanted to document this historic moment, I concluded adding this experience to my first solo trip would perhaps be too much and so I regrettably arranged for a car. The driver spoke no English and I hadn’t thought to learn a word of Hungarian so we sat in silence for the hours drive to the apartment I had found on Airbnb, the idea of a hotel room housing only my carry on luggage seemed depressing.
The car pulled up to a beautiful square on the Pest side of the river. I was met with the warmest welcome ever experienced from a stranger. The woman whose apartment I would be calling home was Iren, she spoke Deutsch and English and had all the style and charisma of those city woman you see in old hollywood movies. I liked her immediately. As she helped with my luggage and guided me through the largest hallway I’d seen in an apartment building, the inevitable was asked while we squeezed into the not so large, very old questionable elevator; do you have a friend here? My answer gave way to the response I was beginning to become quite accustomed to. Her body froze in a way that I was unsure the lift was still moving! The moment she saw her panic reflected back in my eyes she smiled and gave her voice a rhythm of enthusiasm sung purely for my benefit. We were in the apartment for maybe 3 minutes discussing the WiFi code and which keys I needed when I was suddenly shuffled out of the door, back into the elevator and once again in to that beautiful square surrounded by stunning architecture.
It’s funny how differently people prioritize the essentials they feel we should know when becoming accustomed to a new environment. Iren was leading me to the best coffee shops and restaurants that wouldn’t overcharge me and to my nearest metro stop that would take me to Váci Street in downtown Budapest; where everyone simply must go for all their shopping. We parted with exchanges of phone numbers, her own and all the local emergency numbers just in case. But the more I was seeing of this stunning city bathed in history and culture, the more content and confident I was becoming in my choice to be here by myself, to be dictated to only by myself as to when I should get up and where I should go.
I briefly returned to the apartment to freshen up and gather my camera and notebook. It was early evening and music was now playing in the square, it was the perfect time to wander and get my bearings in this city that I was to spend the next few days exploring at my own leisure. The Solo Pursuit had began.
The Pest side is quite flat and I was in the heart of Budapest. Within 5 minutes of wandering from my apartment I fell upon St. Stephen’s Basilica, a stunning example of Neoclassical architecture that was a theater in the 18th century and hosted animal fights! It didn’t take long to realize that Budapest was home to some of the most beautiful buildings I had ever seen, adorned inside and out.
A further 10 minutes of wandering and I found myself at the grand Hungarian Parliament building, around this area there are many memorials dedicated to the 1956 rebellion against Soviet control, but the one that compelled me the most stood opposite the Parliament building, a wall of bullet holes commemorating the victims of “Bloody Thursday”. This City is full of history and the House of Terror museum is also not one to miss for its moving exhibits.
A tremendous glimpse of the Buda side of the city can also be viewed from the Parliament building and it is a short walk along the Danube river before you find your self at the Chain Bridge, a cast iron suspension bridge that creates a link between East and West. But before I discover the older side of Buda I had more of Pest to explore.
Opposite the Hungarian Parliament building stands the Museum of Ethnography, it is one of the oldest institutions in Hungary. I was fortunate to visit during the World Press Photo exhibit that left me wandering the museum almost in a daze with silent tears rolling down my cheeks. The artifacts of Hungarian folk life followed and sent me in search of some lace and embroidery to take home for my niece. If museums aren’t for you I would still recommend visiting if only to take in the design of the building and magnificent paintings that are its ceilings.
The Pest side is also where I recommend for window shopping, particularly around the Andrassy ut area. This avenue will also lead you to the House of Terror Museum, the State Opera House and Hero’s Square. One thing not to miss is a visit to the Szechenyi Spa Baths, one of the largest in Europe, a stunning Neo-baroque palace built in 1913. You can take a dip in one of the many medicinal natural hot spring waters or detox in saunas and steam rooms before plunging into an ice cold bath. If that’s not your thing there are several massage therapies and facial treatments you can enjoy. For those looking to really let their hair down I recommend looking at tickets for the night parties held in the thermal pools once a month!
After two days of taking in the sights of Pest I wandered over the Chain Bridge to the more hilly side of Buda. I immediately discovered Buda castle, a breathtaking palace that is home to both the National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum. I wandered the grounds for nearly an hour and sat for almost as long listening to an old violinist playing notes carried in the wind. From here I followed behind a crowd of tourist looking for holy trinity square. This is how I spent the majority of the trip, wandering and hoping to cross off a good amount of sights on my list, little planning and navigation were involved. Although this meant I didn’t see everything, I saw enough to convince me that Budapest is a city to see more than once.
The tourist group succeeded in its quest and recognizing the image of the Old Town Hall I realized we had reached the home of Matthias Church, built in the typical Gothic style, the once Mosque incorporates beautiful ceramic tiles in its construction that radiate a rainbow of color when kissed by the sun. Inside is even more wondrous in decoration, something I had come to expect in Budapest, the underground gallery housing many relics and replicas of the Hungarian crown and coronation jewels. For me though, the terrace of Fisherman’s Bastion with it’s seven towers was the highlight of Buda, offering panoramic views of the Danube and home to a restaurant that hosted
a small live orchestra.
I only spent a day wandering the alleys of Buda but it was enough to see these two side of the city have very different personalities. Both having such distinct characters, I feel when I return to Budapest I could explore both sides as almost two separate trips. There is much left to absorb of this city and I’m captivated by what I have seen so far. One thing I did feel I missed out on as a solo traveler was the night life, particularly exploring the ruin bars. This isn’t to say as a lone female this is off limits, but as a first time single female traveler, I felt more comfortable sitting in the cafes and sampling the local dishes in the many fine restaurants than I did at the idea of moving from bar to bar following the gin and jazz. For my next visit, I will most likely stay in a hostel for the opportunity to meet others that I can join with for this part of the evening.
This uncertainty of drinking alone however did not stop me from taking in the beauty of Budapest by night, where the monuments light up and lovers roam the streets. Budapest is a perfect city to discover by foot and I felt safer wandering here at night than I have in many cities back in the UK. One thing to add is that as a single person comfortably roaming the streets you are often mistaken for a local and so avoid the usual attempts people may make to try and sell you various trinkets or tickets for events that do not exist.
My last day in Budapest was spent buying the usual souvenirs for friends and family and sipping coffee with a view of St Stephen’s Basilica. The sky was blue with only a slight chill to the wind. September was perfect for me, warm enough to pack light only requiring a few layers, and quiet from the return of the children to school. Upon finishing my birthday cheesecake I wrote a thank you card to leave for Iren and returned to the apartment for the last time; on this trip anyway. Usually at the end of a holiday I feel deflated not wanting to return to the 9-5 life, but this was different. I felt ready. Ready to go beyond a 4 day city break.
Sitting in the airport I connected to the WiFi and started researching how to make travel and earning an income coincide. I was astounded by the amount of available options, particularly for the technologically fluent, but where to start. A few days later I was home to Wales to visit family and give them their gifts from Budapest. It was a chance meeting with my first employer and her friend that set me on a new course. I signed up to gain a certificate as a TEFL teacher and a few months later completed the course and began the second round of research, where to relocate to! It only took a single trip by myself to find the courage necessary to make my life an adventure. And so here I am, on the solo pursuit to an extraordinary life.
You can find Iren here on Airbnb Hello Iren