The Modern Babylon

London – Past, Present & Future

Postcode Wars 2

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A few years ago I proposed that London’s postcodes were arbitrary and fundamentally devoid of meaning. One of London’s joys is the symbiosis of humans that coexist within it, that you can pay £20 million for a townhouse and still live less than 20 minutes-walk from someone wondering how to spend their last £20 before payday. This economic diversity is now under threat from spiraling rents that may eventually drive most working people, predominately renters and first time buyers, out into the city’s orbiting suburbs. Now we walk a fine line between geographic cultural identity and postcode tribalism.

To fully understand the arbitrary nature of the London postcode, you must look at its raison d’être. By the 1850s, rapid growth in London’s metropolitan area meant the city could no longer function as a single post town without a differentiating system for distribution. By the middle of the century, one fifth of all post sent in the UK was destined for London, and over half of these items originated within the city itself. To solve this problem, the Post Office produced an almost perfectly circular diagram of 12 miles radius from the central post office at St. Martin’s Le Grand, an area taking in six English counties. By subdividing into two central areas and eight compass points, London’s postcodes were set. Later on, the NE and S postcodes were abolished, with S being split in SE and SW to cope with further urban expansion. The E20 postcode was added to cover the Olympic Park in 2012. Little has changed in the past 160 years.

I’m sure you’ll agree, that paragraph was not at all interesting, but believe me when I say there really is nothing more to say on the methodology behind postcodes. Whether you are in SW1 or SE1, N20 or E5 has nothing more to do with civic reality than the postal subdivision by which your mail is delivered, and by which postman happens to be on shift that particular morning. This hasn’t stopped residents, some of them in my neighbourhood, getting bees in their bonnet about which particular numbers happen to sit at the tail end of their address, citing insurance or council tax reasons behind their gripes. I can just about understand that paying extra for car insurance would be irritating, but the rational among us would suggest this is a matter for the insurance companies, not the humble Post Office. I also fail to see the substance behind claiming that one local authority are vastly better than another, as if they don’t largely do the same job with the same budget. Tampering with postcodes for your own ends removes the point of having a universal system in the first place.

Owning a property in the central ventricles of the city has become one of the most objectively ‘secure’ investments you can make in the varying economic climate of the past forty years, but it does not come cheap. Postcodes can act like badges of honor, certifying the recipient with a lifetime of topographical boasting. This, in turn, fuels the sense that an area is ‘affluent’, ‘upcoming’ or everyone’s favorite estate-agent buzzword, ‘vibrant’. For my part, I live in a ‘vibrant’ area, in a postcode that has little to do with where my house is located. It’s as far away from the attached loci as it is from every other neighboring postcode, some of which command much higher regard from the type of people who reduce their city to a veritable Argos catalog of urban geography. My area, however, is now ‘upcoming’, in the sense that coffee shops are appearing where corner shops used to be, and we now have artisan bread stalls in our market. Hundreds of debates on so called ‘gentrification’ have revealed little in the way of solid conclusions, except that there are benefits and drawbacks both ways, depending on who you ask.

The other kind of postcode war, the kind which results in the wasteful death of young people as a result of simmering social and economic tensions, is equally arbitrary and serves to reinforce again the obvious problem with imposing objective bureaucracy onto our wholly subjective landscape. City Hall recently commissioned a ‘most stylish postcode’ competition (W9 and W1 won, although the author expressed surprise that E1 ‘hipster central’ or SW3/SW10 as ‘the birthplace of punk’ hadn’t won), as though the apparel choices of millions of Londoners can be summarized by the location of the wardrobe they are housed. Other London publications have also offered insight into ‘how people perceive you and your postcode’.

I relish the prospect of living in a city where the only boundaries are environmental, fences and railway lines, locked doors, rather than those we impose on ourselves. Hyping arbitrary postcodes for reasons other than the fact the mail delivery is particularly efficient places an invisible cage around our streets which has no grounding in reality. It is heterogeneity, not homogeny, that we should strive for in a city of infinite voices. A good place to start would be to stop dictating our impression of cities by how the Post Office delivers your mail, but how it informs and shapes your own imagination.

Gangs of Old London

According to the Metropolitan Police, there are approximately 171 gangs currently operating in London. The Center for Social Justice defines a gang as a group of young people who see themselves as a group, usually with an identifying feature, who engage in criminal activity and violence while claiming ownership or control over territory in conflict with other gangs. The members tend to be males between the ages of 12-25 years old and involved in a wide range of criminal activities. The Center also make a direct link with gangs forming in areas with high levels of deprivation, unemployment and lone parent families. They also suggest that the majority of London gang members tend to be Black or Asian. The negative connotations of gangs are apparent, associations with poverty, social alienation and moral degeneracy are reinforced through centuries of historical and literary narrative and latterly, the advent of television and film, the latter of which goes some way to glamorize the gang lifestyle.

But the history of documented gangs in London shows a definite pattern which details both continuity and change. Ever since there has been money to be made in pocketbooks, weapons or drugs there have syndicates which seek to profit – whether it be the highly organized, hierarchical sub-societies or small groups in even smaller geographical localities. Most gangs are more readily identified with sub-cultures driven by music or fashion but they do of course have an obvious economic and political raison d’être for their members. Still, arguably the beginnings of London’s relationship with gangs had less to do with hairstyles and garments than it did with abject poverty, the absence of a welfare state and the means by which many survived and died.

One of the earliest documented examples of a London gang came with the Damned Crew, a group of young gentlemen in the late 16th and early 17th century who were famed for staggering through the streets, assaulting passers-by and watchmen while inebriated. In his sermon at St Paul’s, Stephen Gosson proclaimed these were “menne without feare, or feeling, eyther of Hell or Heauen, delighting in that title”. Leading member Edward Baynham rose from the Damned Crew to fight alongside and become knighted by the Earl of Essex before falling back in with the group and being arrested for brawling, fined £200 and imprisoned.  Baynham would later be implicated in the Gunpowder Plot. It was rumored that all members of the Damned Crew later drowned when a boat in which they sailing had sunk near Gravesend. Later on The Hawkubites terrorized 18th century London by beating up women, children, watchmen and old men in the streets after dark, prompting a pamphlet of the time to compare them to Gog and Magog, depicted in the Revelations as symbols of evil darkness.

By the 18th century an evil darkness had indeed descended on Georgian London. As the city swelled, stinking from plague and fire, it became a desperate and dangerous place to be. No less than 115,000 people were said to be involved in some sort of criminal activity but no one was more feared than The Mohocks. Taking their name from the Mohawk Indians they assaulted both men and women, leading poet John Gay to implore, ‘”Who has not trembled at the Mohock’s name?”. Such was the furor that a £100 bounty was placed on their head by the royal court, though unsuccessfully, few were ever caught due in part to their wealthy and well-connected nature. The Mohocks needn’t worry, they could buy their way out of any legal action brought against them.

Thief-takers began operating privately in the city, a role similar to that of the modern bounty hunter. These were individuals hired to capture criminals, bringing them to justice and appeasing the moral panic created by the new readership of newspapers. Unlike bounty hunters, who are usually hired by bail bondsmen, thief takers were paid by the victim or their families, often at a pretty price. They became known for their corruption, extorting money from criminals in order to evade capture while also accepting Government-funded rewards for their conviction. Jonathan Wild’s story has gone down in Georgian infamy, a man who led a gang of thieves, arranging the ‘return’ of stolen property and even handing over members of his own gang to be hung at Tyburn Tree, a fate he himself would eventually face after being tried for perjury in 1725.

By 1829 Sir Robert Peel had established the Metropolitan Police force, whose aim was to restore law and order to the city where criminal anarchy and corruption had previously reigned. Known as ‘Raw Lobsters, Blue Devils and Sir Robert’s Bloody Boys’, they were not received well by the gangs of London. But the implementation did force them to become more cunning in order to evade the various pledges for their eradication. Notoriously evasive were the Forty Elephants, an all-female gang who were based in Elephant and Castle, specializing in shoplifting luxury goods from the West End. Working as tightly organized group with outposts across London, the gang would dress in specially tailored coats, cummerbunds, muffs, skirts and bloomers with hats sewn with hidden pockets, raiding and plundering items worth thousands of pounds, benefiting from the prudish notion of women and criminality at the time. Using getaway tactics that involved disposing of stolen goods quickly using trains and cars the women were notoriously clean when stopped by the police. They were also well-known for blackmail, extorting hundreds of pounds from wealthy men as a result of being seduced by one of the Forty Elephants. Known for throwing lively and lavish parties, the later lifestyles of the early 20th century Elephants were glamorous and decadent, reflective of the 1920s aristocratic living of the time.

The 20th century was a fashionable one – or at least, famous for its a la mode approach to culture. Approaching the inter and post-war period, rivalry on London’s streets became more about sartorial identification than it had before – confrontation between mods, rockers, teddy boys, skinheads etc. became more commonplace, as did purely territorial conflict. But for those for whom gang warfare remained less to do with scooters or braces it was still primarily about making plenty of money, or indeed enough to survive, during the hardship of Thatcherism. The representations of film and television had little in common with the hardship of the gangs of this economic landscape, leading to incidents of ‘steaming’, descending on victims en masse to rob, preventing capture or identification and ensuring maximum material gain. This was far from Hollywood’s depiction of the finger-clicking West Side Story or the be-leathered T-Birds of Rydell High – it was a landscape of social and economic alienation to whom for some, gangs became the remedy.

 

Urbex

In April last year a group of urban explorers released pictures of themselves atop the then incomplete Shard building. The dramatic images brought urban exploration out of the dark recesses of university cliques and onto prime time news screens, inviting us to question our relationship with our surroundings and asking us to make a clearer distinction between what is unlawful trespassing and what is rightfully ours to traverse.

Urban exploration, or urbex, is the reconnaissance of abandoned or otherwise off-limits buildings or localities, primarily documented through photography, journalism and written historical testimony. Manifesting itself at the extreme end of these pastimes, urban exploration on the level of the Shard incident presents many obvious hazards – imprisonment, injury or mortality.

So why do it? Urban exploration is not primarily about taking black and white photos of derelict warehouses with ivy growing through long-smashed windows, it is bipedal protest against the idea that certain places should be ‘off limits’, i.e. the Shard, which looms over the city like a plutocratic Tower of Babel, but remains private property only accessible to those who pay extortionate amounts to use it as a viewing platform or dine in one of its exclusive restaurants. Despite its prevalence in the London’s peripheral vision, it isn’t a building you can just meander into.

The capital is a patchwork quilt of Exclusion Zones, places where you cannot drink alcohol, walk your dog or drink alcohol whilst walking your dog. It is also a subterranean city, the bustling surface the mere epipelagic zone of the great urban ocean. In his book Night Vision: The Art of Urban Exploration, Troy Paiva writes, ‘hike far enough and you will find yesterday and tomorrow is right next to it, time is a landscape.’ Urban exploration lifts the lid on the narratives and visions of the architectural past, but also says a lot about where we are today and where we can and cannot go.

The Shard incident was newsworthy because it was extreme in its aesthetic qualities, the fact that the group were able to reach the top without detection in one of the most expensive projects ever undertaken by London’s property developers was nothing short of a momentous achievement. The image of the explorer atop the teetering edge reminds us that in its essence, the city belongs to the people, who either nurture it or let it burn.

(N.B. – Photographer Paul Talling as undertaken an impressive project documenting derelict buildings and areas in London, see his website for an impressive selection of images and potentially some pointers for your own urban exploration. As Talling says, ‘there are no rules’…)

The Legacy of Windrush

Sixty-five years ago today, the SS Windrush pulled into Tibury docks carrying 493 West Indians- 490 men, 3 women and one stowaway. Many of the passengers had intended to remain for only a few years. Many were destined to raise families and become a vital part of the ‘the mother country’ who had itself been a strong presence in the Caribbean for centuries. The people on board the Windrush, many of whom had served  in the RAF during the Second World War, faced a long, arduous journey with no certainty of employment or housing on the other side. The ship that pulled into the Essex dock that day carried more than people or cargo, it rang in a dramatic change in London’s social history, British culture and most importantly for the lives of those it transported.

The arrival of the Windrush was not politically orchestrated. The reality was that Britain needed cheap labor and the passengers needed jobs. Adverts appeared in Jamaican newspapers that promised job security and cheap transportation to England so a passage to the UK seemed like a sensible and straightforward economic choice. Britain was facing decades of mass-regeneration in the wake of the destruction caused by the war, economically it seemed to be all (commonwealth) hands on deck. The British Nationality Act of 1948 had reiterated the message that all members of the colonies had a right to travel and work within the boundaries of the empire, a sentiment that has been conveniently committed to memory, despite the fact that last major outpost was only handed back in 1982. These policies were to undergo significant change beginning in the early 1960s and culminating in The British Nationality Act of 1981 which partially closed off the ‘right to roam’ the Windrush generation had entertained.

But the passengers of the Windrush had no idea how they would be received by the British public, or their fickle government who faltered in deciding their official stance on greeting the ship, despite the fact that they desperately needed migrant workers to fill the post-war labor gaps. Sam King, future Mayor of Southwark and a Windrush passenger, stationed two ex-RAF domino players outside the ship’s radio room to eavesdrop on the incoming signals. What they heard was Arthur Creech Jones, Colonial Secretary to the Labour government, insisting that “these people have British passports and must be allowed to land”, but adding that he did not believe they would last the winter, so “there was nothing to worry about”, proving that politicians really do say the worst things.

Nevertheless, on the 22nd June 1948, the SS Empire Windrush docked at Tibury, where the West Indian passengers were met by the media. The majority of reporters predominately wanted to know what they planned to do when they arrived, for some, it was to rejoin the RAF or work on the new transport systems. For others, it seemed to be to change the sound of British music irrevocably. Among the men and women were two such individuals, Lord Kitchener and Lord Woodbine. Lord Kitchener, featured in the clip above, was the ‘king’ of calypso and famous for his urban ode ‘London is the Place for Me’, a whimsical and hopeful song which encapsulates the excitement and anticipation of arriving in a new city. Kitchener went on to work in London pubs and perform in the city before returning to Trindad in 1962. He is regarded as a huge influence on the British reggae and calypso movements, and his acapella performance of his most famous song on the deck of the Windrush a defining moment in the history of British music. Also aboard the Windrush was the ‘sixth Beatle’, Lord Woodbine. Woodbine was a promoter of The Beatles (or the Silver Beatles as they were then known) during their teenage years and they were often referred to as ‘Woodbine’s Boys’ as a result of their close relationship. It was Woodbine who suggested they add percussion to their four-piece guitar band and the rest, as they say, is history.

Most of the passengers aboard the Windrush arrived with little money, a small suitcase of belongings and nowhere to stay. The government (once again displaying impeccable standards of hostessing) reluctantly agreed to open one of the old air raid shelters in Clapham South where the travelers could rest up before heading to the labor exchange in Brixton the next day. Even after they had found work, the West Indian community faced widespread discrimination and racism for the next forty years and even to this day. The Windrush generation, who had traveled across the world for a better life, had doors slammed and abuse shouted in their faces, criminalized by police until these tensions boiled over in a steaming social mess that signaled the need for change.  In 1966, Trinidadian Claudia Jones organized the first Notting Hill Carnival, a celebration of West Indian culture which sought to educate Londoners, encourage tolerance and bring peace to this vibrant and growing community. I have theorized that the carnival is still as important as it once was, given that it is a statement of occupation against the various social and political forces that would coerce us into believing they are owned by those with the most financial and social capital.

The benefit of hindsight has rightfully alerted us to how important the docking of the Windrush truly was. Though it was not the first time Caribbean people had lived in Britain, it was the first time that a West Indian community was settled here, albeit unknowingly. By 1955, 18,000 Jamaicans had moved to Britain, forging a new diversity that grew with the arrival of other citizens from around the world. Immigration continues to be a controversial and emotive topic, but for now we should remember the bravery and hopefulness of those who arrived in London sixty-five years ago today.

Baroque the Streets

‘Fight Club’ by Connor Harrington

Spurling Road, SE22

Baroque the Streets is a collaboration between Street Art London and the Dulwich Picture Gallery, seeking to explore the links between street art and art history.

Remembering Tyburn

A small plaque is all that remains at the former location of London’s most formidable execution site, traipsed over by weary shoppers at the junction of Edgware Road, Marble Arch and Oxford Street, the triumvirate of European retail muscle. Tyburn, then a small village which took its name from the Teo Bourne ‘boundary stream’ housed a tributary of the River Thames now since covered over. The site of the first piped water supply for the city was carried from the village in lead pipes from where Bond Street station now stands, east of Hyde Park to the hamlet of Charing and then along Fleet Street to the public conduit at Cheapside.

Tyburn’s more sinister practice began in 1196, when populist leader of the poor William Fitz Osbern was cornered by a crowd in the church of St Mary le Bow, dragged naked behind a horse to the site, and promptly hanged. Fitz Osbern once proclaimed; “I am the savior of the poor. Do ye, oh, poor! who have experienced the heaviness of rich men’s hands, drink from my wells the waters of the doctrine of salvation, and ye may do this joyfully; for the time of your visitation is at hand. For I will divide the waters from the waters. The people are the waters. I will divide the humble from the haughty and treacherous. I will separate the elect from the reprobate, as light from darkness.”

But Fitz Osbern’s execution marked the beginning of a period of extreme darkness for Tyburn, culminating in the erection of the Tyburn Tree in 1571. The ‘Triple Tree’ was a form of gallows, comprising of a horizontal wooden triangle supported by three legs, a structure which enabled multiple felons to be hanged at once, on one day in June 1649 24 were hung in a single day. Tyburn’s main political appeal was its ability to create spectacle. Much like its ‘towering’ cousin in the East, the executions that took place at Tyburn generated huge swathes of spectators. Villagers took advantage of this, erecting giant stands for audiences, selling food and drink and all manner of hawked goods and services. The executions were treated as public holidays, relished by the London mob which would jeer and laud the condemned in equal measure. William Hogarth famously depicted this in his satirical print, The Idle ‘Prentice Executed at Tyburn (1747).

The Hogarthian scene is traditionally a rowdy one and much like the rest of his work, the tableau has an aural quality to it. One feels deafened by the intricacies of the scene, a ballad singer peddling her wares, food and drink is sold raucously while fights break out among the frenzied crowd. All the while the executioner sits atop the gallows, smoking his pipe nonchalantly, waiting for his work to arrive. Hogarth’s image sums up the frenzy of the crowd, while simultaneously commenting on their moral apathy towards the practice. These executions were spaces of social exorcism, a momentary displacement of the fear of volatile feudal rule.

Such was Tyburn’s reputation that it became a euphemism for capital punishment itself, with phrases such as ‘taking a ride to Tyburn’ or to ‘go West’, ‘dancing the Tyburn jig’ (being hanged) and the ‘Lord Mayor of Tyburn’ (the public hangman) entering the public consciousness. Some of the most famous necks to be wrung by the ‘Lord Mayor of Tyburn’s noose’ included;

Perkin Warbeck – Guilty of treason under Henry VII for pretending to be one of the missing ‘Princes in the Tower’
Elizabeth Barton – ‘The Holy Maid of Kent’, a nun who unwisely prophesied that Henry VIII would die within 3 months if he were to marry Anne Boleyn
Francis Dereham and Sir Thomas Culpeper – Courtiers of Henry VIII who supposedly had sexual relationships with Queen Catherine Howard
Robert Hubert – An accused ‘French spy’ who falsely confessed to starting the Great Fire of London
Jack Hall – A young chimney sweep hung for burglary and subject for the folk song of the same name which laments ‘my neck shall pay for all when I die’
‘Gentlemen’ Jack Sheppard – Renowned for his attempts to escape imprisonment, Jack became something of a local celebrity and supposedly the subject of an autobiographical ‘Narrative’ by Daniel Defoe (sold at his execution), as well the inspiration for many other novels and plays depicting his life. The public’s insatiable hunger for anything ‘Gentlemen Jack’ lead to authorities refusing license to anything containing his name for forty years.

The last execution took place at Tyburn in 1783, though not before the site had played host to centuries of religious and political persecutions, most notably to the various Catholic conspiracies that occurred during this tumultuous time. Tyburn now is nowhere near as politically foreboding as the monolith of terror located on Tower Hill but it was here a lot of ‘ordinary’ Londoners lost their lives. Denied the luxury of a private turret or the clean sweep of the Executioner’s sword, staring into the famished faces of the baying crowd, it was these people who faced the reality of a judicial system whose morality truly hung in the balance.

When a man is tired of Budapest…

Budapest, the city of thermal baths and pálinka before breakfast, a place where even the drain covers are ornate. The etymology of its name is equally beautiful, deriving from the two distinct areas separated by a natatory division, The Danube, slicing the city into the western district of Buda and its eastern, younger sibling, Pest. Margit-sziget, or Margaret Island, is mired in the middle, the lungs of the city, its verdant playground. Budapest is a city of unassuming beauty and communality, but above all, a city of survival.

History

Like all European capitals, the keys to Budapest have changed hands many times. The first recorded settlement was by the Celts, before 1 AD, until the Roman settlement, Aquincum became the main city of Lower Pannonia (the region of the Roman Empire that covered Hungary, Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina) a hundred years later. The Romans originally used Budapest as military settlement before implementation of roads, amphitheatres, baths and houses gradually created more of commercial and domestic status for the city. By 829 the Romans had lost Pannonia to the Bulgarian army of Omurtag. The Bulgarians set up an additional fortress, Pest, creating the city’s modern topographical blueprint.

By the 9th century a Hungarian settlement had been established, leading to the foundation of the Kingdom of Hungary in the 10th century. In 1361 King Béla IV built a royal palace and stone walls around the city of Buda, establishing it as the capital of Hungary and sparking a gilded cultural age that would last until the Ottoman’s invasion in the 1500s. In 1686, the Holy League army comprising of soldiers from all over Europe successfully regained control of Buda from the Turks and returned the city to the Hungarians, but at a cost, the city was destroyed during the battle, marking the first of many architectural scalpings.

In 1849 the Chain Bridge was built, linking Buda and Pest with the first permanent highway across the Danube and so Budapest began to emerge as a growing metropolis. Pest flourished, becoming the country’s socio-political hub, mass immigration from rural Transdanubia and the Great Hungarian Plain along with a large Jewish influx at the start of the 19th century, boosted the population and diversified the city. In 1918, Austria-Hungary lost the war and the empire collapsed, leading Hungary to declare itself an independent republic.

The Second World War was catastrophic for Budapest. Partly destroyed by British and American air raids, besieged during the Battle of Budapest, the city bore deeps wounds of bombs and tanks, its bridges were destroyed and 38,000 civilians lost their lives in the pervading brutality of the conflict. Tragically, between 20 and 40% of Budapest’s 250,000 Jewish population perished in the genocides ordered by the Nazis. But the end of the war did not mark the termination of Budapest’s sufferings, as by 1949, Hungary was declared a communist People’s Republic, setting in motion a chain of events which changed the face of the city forever. Buildings like Buda Castle were gutted, its interiors destroyed as a statement against the former regime. By 1956, dissatisfied with the Soviet presence in the country, the Hungarian Revolution began, leading to 3,000 civilians deaths.

From the 1960s onwards Budapest began to heal its wounds, repairing much of the wartime damage and constructing essential infrastructure which was crucial to its recovery. By 1987, UNESCO had added Buda Castle, the banks of the Danube and Andrassy Avenue to its list of World Heritage Sites, setting in motion a new era in Budapest’s history.

Buda
Buda is older than water, which makes up most of its charm. Sparser and less functional than Pest, Buda’s main appeal to tourists lie in its plethora of sights. The epicenter of this aesthetic feast is Buda Castle, watching over Budapest like a great architectural patriarch. The cobbled, hilly streets have more in common with the rural towns of Mediterranean Europe than the bustling, grand boulevards of Pest but herein lies the great contradictions of Budapest. The adventurous can meander up the cobbled castle slopes, or there is the option of the Buda Castle Funicular, a four carriage cable car system. The views from the top are spectacular, allowing one to get a transpontine view of the sprawl of Pest and the verdant oasis of Margaret Island. Buda’s primary charm lies in the fact that it feels as though you are being somehow baptized in history when wandering its streets, it is a living museum to the city’s past, the caveat being that Pest is the city’s future.

Pest
Visually speaking, Pest has more in common with its European metropolitan cousins than it does its sibling across the water. Grand boulevards are framed by huge Parisian style buildings housing apartments, shops, restaurants, bars and offices alike, trams run sporadically along the middle of broad roads blessed with wide pavements. There is an emphasis on underpasses which make walking a less discontinuous activity than in London, knitting together the under and over world in a linear motion of bipedal exertion. The main attractions in Pest are the baths (which they share with Buda) and the bars, as well as countless museums and a grand park located at the north eastern end of the city.

Városliget, or City Park, is a playground of attractions, housing Budapest’s Zoo, Circus and the Vajdahunyad Vára, a castle built for the 1989 World Fair. The park is located at the top of Andrassy Avenue, an iconic boulevard dating back to 1872, lined with spectacular neo-renaissance mansions and townhouses. At the southern end of the park lies Hősök tere or Heroes Square, housing the Millenary Monument which is dedicated to ‘the memory of the heroes who gave their lives for the freedom of our people and our national independence’. Also located in Városliget is the Szechenyi Baths, the largest medicinal spa in Europe. These baths, used night and day during summer and winter, are dotted around the whole of Budapest and are part of the universal social infrastructure of the city.

A more recent addition to this social fabric has been Budapest’s trend of ruin bars, which take dilapidated, abandoned buildings and turn them into huge outdoor, labyrinthine drinking establishments. Szimpla kert in the Jewish quarter has just been named runner up in Lonely Planet’s Best Bar in the World Poll, and for good reason. Budapest’s ruin bars are welcoming and friendly, attract a diverse range of people and reflect the laidback tone of the city. They have perfected the formula of an unpretentious atmosphere with plenty of outside space and a diverse clientele.

Pest is a sprawling mass of boulevards, side streets, avenues and squares which make it perfect for cycling around. Budapest’s chain gangs have just successfully campaigned for better and more extensive cycle lanes to be introduced around the city. Trams and Metro Trains are fairly useless to the casual visitor, distances are predominately close enough to walk or cycle and the ticketing system can be somewhat confusing, as we found out when we were hit with an ID card, a dog-eared leaflet and a hefty 8,000 HUF fine.

Food & Water
The Hungarian love their alcohol. This is a city where morning pálinka (fruit brandies) can precede morning coffee, the beers are gargantuan and the wine plentiful and cheap. Pálinka is served in many different flavors, qualities and proofs and is an umbrella term for fruit brandy. The sour cherry sweetened with honey is a particular highlight, served with the pickled cherry at the bottom of the glass. Pálinka is a sweeter and more palatable version of the otherwise popular Unicum, historically the ‘national drink’ of Hungary, a bitter spirit with a recipe that disappeared from the country when the Zwack family fled the Socialist regime. Unicum was only restored to its former glory on their return after the fall of Communism.

The food has a lot in common with other parts of Eastern Europe, meat features heavily, as do the condiments and sauces which are often creamy and rich with mild spice. The omnipresent paprika permeates but its presence on Hungarian menus is overhyped by souvenir stalls. Lángos is a staple but delicious offering found across Budapest, composing of a deep fried flat bread topped with a plethora of options including garlic, sour cream, mashed potatoes, cheese, ham, sausages, mushroom, eggplant or cabbage. Other highlights include pastries and cakes, especially from the old confectioners of Buda, who serve up gluttonously large slices of sweet, velvety, vanilla and fruit flavoured heaven, as well as Pest’s more rustic eateries which serve up generous portions of marinated meat with delicately spiced beetroot patties, hearty casseroles and fresh salads served with sharp, sweet pickles.

Nagycsarnok, or Central Market, is located beside the beautifully named Liberty Bridge and dishes up fuel to tourists and natives alike in a huge building studded with Zsolnay tiling, a culinary jewel in Budapest’s crown.

Budapest is a city that has endured hardships and its scars are clear. They will never fade completely because they are part of the fabric of the city, a city of opulent humility.

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