The capital with the eye of an expat
Paying to pray
When visitors say they want to go to the baths, I try to persuade them to avoid the typical tourist haunts like the Gellért and Széchenyi – unless they’re older (the former) or much younger (the latter) than me. If they’ve any sense of history and an active imagination, I suggest they go to the night baths at Rudas. Built by the Ottomans around 1550, it still oozes Hammam, with its octagonal pool and dome.
I love the place.
I’ve brought many visitors there, arriving promptly at 10 pm and always on my way home before midnight, before the party crowds arrive. I was all set to do the same this time, too, until I checked the prices. A whopping 12,600 ft. No party. Just the baths. For the uninitiated, that’s about $37 or €35. And for visitors, maybe that’s not an issue. Last time I looked, my lakcímkártya had a Budapest address.
I’ve always made it my business to take visitors up to Fisherman’s Bastion. Built between 1895 and 1902 as part of a broader city development to celebrate the millennium of the Hungarian state, the series of turrets and balconies offers a bird’s eye view of Pest. ‘The romantic notion was to recall the old times, so Halaszbastya is often likened to a castle prop, which does not feel real. It was meant to be like a fairy tale, feel like history rather than be history.’
It gives my visitors a sense of where they live in relation to landmarks like the Parliament and the Basilica. I’ve even ventured up without visitors in tow when I needed a sense of perspective. Once free to do, there’s now a charge. Unless you go before 9 am or after 7 pm or with the masses on national holidays like 15 March, 20 August, and 23 October. And, okay, it’s only 1000 ft, so why am I complaining …
I’m working up to something.
Bear with me.
I’m a semi-regular at the Basilica. When I’m in the vicinity, I pop in, light a candle, and say a prayer. It’s one of the few churches in the city that has real candles. Not the electric thingamajigs that add absolutely nothing church-like in terms of smell to the general ambiance. I’m a card-carrying Catholic so I figure I should be allowed to go say my prayers when the mood takes me, right? Sadly, no more. Now I have to buy a ticket for 2000 ft ($6/€5).
I’d approached in a hurry, obviously not a leisurely tourist. I went to walk in as I always do but was stopped. I said I was only going in to say a prayer and light a candle. I lived here. I could prove I lived here. But no way was I getting in without paying the price. Instead, I was sent around to the side, to a chapel.
There, I met more resistance and only after arguing my case and getting increasingly incensed, was I let in, ‘and only to pray’ (am not sure what else I’d be doing). And the candles there are electric. I was less than impressed, I can tell you.
The last time I flew into Budapest, I had a ticket for the 100E in my purse so I didn’t need to buy one. Imagine my shock when I read that the already increased price of 1500 ft had been increased even further, to 2200 ft. And in all the times I’ve used it, I’ve never yet snagged a seat. Now, as a resident, I know that I can get the M3 to Kőbánya-Kispest and then change to the 200E, a trip that takes 10 minutes longer for me, costs a third of the price, and always comes with empty seats. But occasionally, I like the direct route and if I take it, I pay.
In India some years ago, I visited the Charminar in Hyderabad. There were two lines of people, queuing in front of two ticket desks. One was for tourists, the other was for residents. As a tourist I was more than happy to pay extra.
Dual pricing is a complicated beast. Yes, it can help boost the local economy as revenue generated by higher tourist prices can be fed back into the local infrastructure benefitting locals and tourists alike in the long term. And yes, it can be viewed as fair – as I see it anyway. As a tourist, I’m wherever, whenever for a short time. I get to decide if I want to pay to see an attraction – if I see the price as worth it, I’ll go. It’s my call. I’m not a regular customer; it’s likely a one-off ticket for me. I’m not going to be going to the Basilica every day or the night baths at Rúdas every weekend.
And yes, by its very nature, it’s discriminatory. And some might say unfair. Unethical even. Tourists visiting might feel put upon, unwelcome. They may think they’re being taken advantage of and it may even encourage widespread fleecing of visitors.
I don’t have the solution.
I’m upset because I have to pay to pray. And I wish I’d known the last time I was in Rudas that it’d be the last time – literally.