Personally, it doesn’t seem long ago that the fall of Communism in Russia took place, creating a domino effect among its satellite possessions. But then I have to remind myself that some of you may not have even been born, and after the depression has subsided it’s a good reminder to provide some context when writing about Budapest. Sure, today Budapest is a popular tourist spot, but even now we can see shadows of the past creeping their way back into current politics. That’s why it’s important to learn about and appreciate the history of Hungary, and one of the best ways I’ve found to do that is on a fun and completely immersive retro tour, featuring the good, bad and ugly of Hungary’s Communist era. The tour was an excursion on a fantastic river cruise I joined with Avalon Waterways, one of the top river cruise companies in the world. The experience was a fantastic way to be reminded of the city’s history and to appreciate the long strides that have been made since the early 1990s.
Immersive Experiences with Avalon Waterways
Routinely named one of the world’s best river cruise companies, I was an Active & Discovery itinerary. Offered several times throughout the year on different rivers and ships, these itineraries are definitely not your average river cruise experience. These cruises are for guests who want to do and not just see and offer a wide variety of included-excursions that enable passengers to be active and fully engaged with the local cultures. As I learned, immersive is no understatement and on my cruise guests had plenty of options, including this fun optional tour in Budapest.
Riding in Style
Standing in front of the hotel I watched in awe as a fleet of colorful Trabant cars rolled up to our small group of suddenly grinning guests. Often called a spark plug with a roof, the Trabant was a small car produced for more than 30 years in East Germany for distribution throughout the satellite Communist nations of Europe. With no tachometer, indicator lights, fuel gauge, seat belts or external fuel door, this is as basic a vehicle as one can imagine, but for millions of Hungarians it was a symbol of personal freedom. The Communist era in Hungary lasted from 1949 until 1989 and was firmly within the Soviet sphere of influence for the duration. Daily life in Hungary was also similar to that in other satellite nations, and the wait for the opportunity to buy a new car was often more than a decade. That’s why the Trabant is still such a powerful symbol. It was a rare opportunity to enjoy some freedom and to explore; a chance to be an individual. It was also how we were escorted around town on the tour, and as I somehow fit my 6’2” frame into what is essentially a clown car, we were off to do some exploring of our own.
History Through Culture
The most valuable part of the tour was chatting with the guide and Trabant driver throughout the afternoon, both of whom remember what those darker days were like. Throughout the Communist era and until today, the Hungarian people never lost their sense of ironic humor or ability to turn a bad situation into something more positive, and that’s definitely seen in the city’s many ruin bars, one of the important stops on the tour. These have become really popular in recent years and not just amongst the backpacker set, but just about every visitor to the city. Ruin bars are bars and cafes that started when people wanted cheap places to drink. Taking over decrepit buildings that had fallen into disuse, entrepreneurs set up shop creating eclectic spaces where nothing matches and everything is unplanned. They’re fun places to meet friends, hang out, relax, drink, get a bite and just enjoy the evening. Of course they have now been taken over by hipsters and tourists, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still fun, they are, and if you really explore them you’ll see old apartments and stores from the Communist era that offer a surprising glimpse into the city’s darker past.
For something a little more light-hearted, we also stopped by a very unique café to sample the always-popular Aperol Spritz, the Trabant Retro Lounge & Bar. Every square inch of the lounge is packed with kitsch and memorabilia from decades long gone, from the country’s favorite Rubik’s Cube to toys and even a Trabant permanently on display. It’s an overload for the senses, but a really fun place to sit back, relax and catch up with friends.
After the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the government softened their approach to Communism by trying to elevate living standards and instituting a limited suite of economic reforms. This unique blend of cultural liberalism with the basic tenets of Communism came to be known as Goulash Communism, named after the country’s favorite dish which itself is an assortment of strange ingredients. But that doesn’t mean the Marxist principles were dead, far from it as we saw on a tour of Memento Park on the outskirts of town.
This very unique open-air museum is dedicated to monumental statues and plaques from the Communist period. Ultimately, it’s just a small assemblage of the many statues that were once strewn around the city and country and feature everything from Lenin and Marx to prominent Hungarian Communist leaders. The park opened almost immediately after the last of the Soviet troops left Hungary, an obvious testament to how much Hungarians wanted to celebrate the introduction of true representative democracy. The site has been updated over the years, but still stands as a reminder to the dangers of dictatorship. It’s a powerful place to visit, and I spent a fair amount of time wandering around on my own, trying to better appreciate the installations.
When we visit any new place, it’s incumbent on us to delve a little deeper and try to appreciate it on multiple levels. While it was a lot of fun, this retro tour with Avalon Waterways was the perfect way to also learn about Hungary’s past and what locals today think about their time behind the Iron Curtain. If anything, it made me appreciate Budapest much more than I ever have before and, let’s face it, who doesn’t want to spend an afternoon riding around in a 35 year-old Trabant?
I’ve spent a fair amount of time sailing the rivers of Europe, but so far none of my experiences were quite like the week I spent with Avalon. Their Active & Discovery itineraries are well planned, active, immersive and fun. It was the ideal mix of experiences, ones that I got to choose myself and, in the process, they created a trip that so far is one of my all-time favorites.