Budapest: City Of Belonging In Bookshops, Longing

We kept discovering bookstores often returning for the memories they carried of a lost world

The Hungarian Parliament and the Chains Bridge in Budapest at sunset. Getty Images

By Anwesha Rana

In October 2018, my friend SB, a travel companion and observer extraordinaire, and I managed to make a longish travel plan by the standards of millennials such as us. The plan was essentially about roaming across three countries on a tight budget. We were happy to forego the comfort of renowned airlines and the luxury of European hotels. The money saved, we agreed without arguments, would be better spent on the cost of tickets to museums, eating seven times a day just because we wanted to, and buying countless things we decided at a glance were made for this friend of ours or that.

We travelled from New Delhi to Vienna via Kyiv and then moved to Budapest and Bratislava. Our experiences in each city were intriguing but Budapest captivated me. Budapest is a city of belonging in bookshops and longing reflected in what Yurii Andrukhovych wrote in ‘Nothing but Budapest’:

I could even wash the locomotives at Keleti station – just to be nearer Buda with her green hills. Not to say a word to sit and listen, as everyone around me talks about something in Hungarian.

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My good friend AD, now a seasoned traveller in Europe, always insisted Budapest is the most beautiful of European cities and that I would certainly appreciate it as much as he does. Having been enchanted beyond measure by London, which was the first city I had seen away from my own country, I was wary of his claim. Could anything surpass the beauty of London? AD, wizening under the European sun for years, was right once again. Travelling in Budapest captured my mind inextricably and I have been planning to revisit its comfort from the moment we left it.

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The beauty of Budapest lies in its casual and at once intense embrace of the scores of bookshops and makeshift bookstalls scattered across the city. I have learnt from my father to read and understand a city through its bookstores and habits of reading. Budapest has stores, shops, carts, and other interesting kinds of temporary stalls to sell books. The charm is furthered once you look around deeper within the narrow lanes in an old shop and discover dusty shelves stocked with old photographs, postcards, and maps from the Soviet era.

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We walked around the city on all days we were there and kept discovering more bookstores each day, often returning to the same one because of a particular scent it had, or for the memories it carried of a lost world. These shops and carts carry books old and new, small and large; ancient greeting cards, sometimes even keepsakes, all placed together in jumbles and mostly in no particular order.

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There are Hungarian translations of all kinds of books–from Harry Potter to Balzac to Roald Dahl, even Bridget Jones! In these stores, the books and memorabilia come together to form a curiously lovely smell–one that warms both your body and your soul and is so insistently inviting that you want to nestle into a corner and never leave the comfort they offer.

We stumbled upon a number of books from Soviet publishing, and despite some of them being in Hungarian, we could not resist buying them for the compelling sake of history and the need to relearn a lost world order. We stuffed our bags with all books on Hungarian folktales, history, and poems by Hungarian poets.

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There is much to learn from spending time in these corners of the city. The lane of our hostel housed a bookstore–Atlantisz Könyvsziget–complete with beautiful Hungarian artwork postcards, stationery, and prints, besides a spellbinding collection of books. This store became more interesting to us once we had a conversation with the staff managing it.

We were intrigued by a poster on the wall that said the bookstore encourages reading and studying translated works and books in English, and that should readers want a particular book, they only had to place a request for it and Atlantisz would have it brought to them, even if it included costs of post and shipping, which Atlantisz would bear. In a cynical world, there are few things that bring hope and joy. I felt this was one such. A bookstore willing to bring you any book you want, for no reason other than the fact that you want to read it, is nothing if not astoundingly sincere.

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