Changes and constants in Budapest

I returned last night from a business trip to Budapest, Hungary, my first visit there since 2003.

Reading the Budapest Sun and the Budapest Business Journal during my stay, I was struck as always by the vibrancy and energy of the business climate in this country. While Hungary may not currently have the strongest economy in central and eastern Europe (Ukraine arguably has that claim), you wouldn’t notice that from reading these newspapers.

I used to travel frequently to Budapest in the early 00s, and I lived there in 1999 before moving to Amsterdam. So it interested me to observe how some things had changed (and some hadn’t) since my last visit:

  • First visit since Hungary joined the European Union, so the immigration check at Ferighey airport now has an EU channel. The rather severe-looking (Soviet-era style) immigration officials still take ages scrutinizing your passport, though now without the interrogatory questions.
  • A brand new multi-lane highway into the airport is nearing completion by the looks of it. The paved road looks ready, just missing the white lines being painted. That road will be a big improvement for easier and quicker access to the airport.
  • The current highway (an optimistic description if ever there was one) from Ferighey airport into the city center has a long section as you get close to Budapest where the traffic in both directions is a single carriageway. This was always a take-your-life-in-your hands journey where cars overtake each other on blind corners at high speed in the face of oncoming traffic. That behaviour hasn’t changed a bit.
  • If you every wonder what happens to old (before about 1990) Mercedes taxis in other countries when taxi drivers upgrade to new models, I’d say they all come to Budapest.
  • Advertising hoardings on the roadsides seem to have multiplied ten-fold since my last visit. And the majority advertising hi-tech products especially the latest mobile phones and cellular services (Vodafone imagery all over the place).
  • A pack of Marlboro Lights costs HUF 590, about € 2.35. It was less than € 2 last time I was there so not too much of an increase in two years. (Price contrast: € 4 in The Netherlands and € 8 in the UK.)
  • Car license plates are now appearing bearing the EU gold stars and country abbreviation on a blue background strip.
  • Coffee served in my hotel was still as dreadful as I remember it. They seem to brew acorns as coffee. Mind you, whatever it’s made of, it appears to have a lot of caffeine in it judging by the kick it still gives you.
  • The night-time views of the majestic buildings in the castle area on the Buda side of the city as seen from the Pest side of the river Danube are as stunning and breath-taking as ever.
  • Wi-fi hotspots are just about everywhere in the city center. Every time I turned on my laptop, no matter where I was, it showed two or three different networks in proximity, all with excellent strength.

Traveling to the airport yesterday afternoon for my flight home with Malev, the Hungarian airline, the journey took just less than 20 minutes in an ancient but well-maintained Mercedes taxi (a glance over the driver’s shoulder at the mileage meter showed over 950,000 kilometers recorded). The driver presumably drove an ambulance in his spare time judging by his prolific use of the horn and the hair-raising speed of his driving as well as his care-free approach to not avoiding the many potholes. He deserved his tip for getting me there in one piece.