Sometimes I am just the worst tourist. I know that not many people like going to a new place and only running from tourist site to tourist site, without pausing to at least try to experience “real life” in that place (the busloads of Japanese tourists excepted). But sometimes I take that dislike to the extreme and become completely negligent. There have been trips, after which I’ve realized I haven’t properly visited or learned about a single tourist site and, instead, spent my entire time going to coffee shops and bars with friends.
Earlier this year, I went to Barcelona for the first time and my mother felt the need to call me and remind me to take a break from all the shopping and bar-hopping and see Park Güell. (My mother being the one who – when I was four and lived with her in Paris, would quiz me about the names of landmarks as we rode around the city on a public transport bus that happened to go past all of them.) So, see Barcelona’s sites I did, but as a more incidental aside rather than a focal activity.
It was the same with Budapest. My friend Aaron and I stumbled onto the spacious square stretching before the Saint Stephen’s Basilica by accident and sat down in a café to wait for our host Agnes (same one from the Yellow Brick Road) to come off work. It’s not that I didn’t notice the building on the other side of the square, it was too enormous to ignore and the whole space seemed designed to highlight it. It’s just that I was more preoccupied with deciding what to drink.
An espresso and a strawberry Bellini later, Agnes came along. We walked around the square, took a picture of our feet and peeked inside. She told us the church houses the mummified fist of Hungary’s first king, Stephen, which is taken out and marched in a procession around the basilica every year on August 20 – Hungary’s national holiday and Saint Stephen’s Day.
Now, I find out that the Basilica is one of the two tallest buildings in Budapest, along with the Hungarian Parliament Building, which was meant to symbolize “the equality of worldly and spiritual thinking.” No structure in the city can be built taller than their 96 meters.
I didn’t know any of that at the time. What I knew was that Saint Stephen’s Basilica was indeed huge. Very Catholic, imposing and impressive with its Neo-Renaissance style.
So, you can imagine the sight of me, standing with my back to it and my camera pointing to the ground, while hordes of Japanese tourists were going nuts taking pictures of themselves in front of the basilica. One of them, apparently quite stunned by what I was doing and not wanting to miss any photo-op, ran up to me and started peeking over my shoulder to see what I was taking a picture of. I could try to describe his expression upon realizing that it was a sewage cover, but no words at my disposal could do it justice.
Earlier, as I sat in the café drinking that Bellini, a scruffy guy with a crazed look in his eyes walked up to a nearby railing, tied a rubber chicken to it as if it was dead by hanging, lied down on the ground and started taking pictures of it with the basilica in the background. It is comforting to know there are always people who are crazier and even more dismissive of tourist sites than me.