A tale of two cities – Budapest, Hungary

A Tale of Two Cities. My short break in Budapest, Hungary, as part of my life purpose to photograph every country in the world. The 200 Club.

Sunday May 10th

The Travelling

Budapest, Hungary. It seemed a good idea when booking a 3am taxi for a 3.30am coach for an 8.45am departure, until I was drinking two pints of water before bed so I didn’t oversleep. I don’t sleep well when there is a plane to catch, so I thought I’d save money and a day by doing a sleeper coach rather than a Manchester hotel. It turned out a lot of other people had thought the same, as the coach had one spare seat when it arrived 10 minutes after the scheduled time. I nearly boarded the Heathrow coach by accident, until the driver informed me the timetable didn’t match the route point.

Walking stick in one hand, a University lad from Spain studying at Coventry helped me navigate the airport. As English is the designated international language, signs throughout the airport are only in English. Even I struggled looking at the lift floor options before trying Skylink, an aerial tunnel between public transport and the airport. There was a lot of walking, and I peeled off at the first sign that said Assistance Passengers, only to discover it was for Terminal 1 and not T3. When I walked in outside tunnels (what is it about airports that creates cold draughts? Even Dudley was still in the small hours) to the right assistance desk, I was 3.5 hours before my departure time with only hand luggage.

I had chosen Ryanair as the cheapest option, and successfully navigated the online check in system without being parted with more cash. I had obsessively measured my bag dimensions and weighed them, wondering if there was an Oxford comma missing and if the small bag counted in the 10kg weight limit (read: my 2kg camera gear). As it turned out, nobody checked. I was put in a wheelchair and my bags were never measured or weighed. I ate breakfast before security in case open sausage rolls and bottled water weren’t allowed. At this moment I was grateful Tabs gets me up early, as my stomach may have protested. The assistance staff were the jovial sort, managing with the “medical wheelchair” as it’s a small airport so doesn’t justify the electric buggies. The wait for the boarding call was aided with hot chocolate.

The flight was turbulent. Turbulent to the point the landing got applause from those who hadn’t braced their hands on the seat in front. Ryanair seems to be the bus of the skies – it was so basic there weren’t even pockets for sick bags to go, let alone sick bags. The safety card had been stuck to the headrest. It served its purpose, though the colour scheme of blue and yellow made me wonder if I’d woken up in a rubber duck.

Budapest airport is well connected. The assistance staff were in bright red and yellow, and while there wasn’t room in passport control for a wheelchair, the colours parted a quick way through the crowd for me to leave. First stop: seven day bus and metro pass. Second stop: 200E bus to connect to the nearest Metro Line – blue 3. First cultural adjustment – the bell press that at home indicate you want to get off at the next stop are only for emergency use. The packed hot bus driving past tree lined roads ended in a shopping mall that soon had a bunch of bemused travellers and an approaching security guard to say “Metro upstairs”. The modern out of town shopping complex gave way to a metro that looked like it had been plucked out of a Cold War film of communist Russia. The carriages were long and basic, with thick layers of enamel paint on the exterior; a dull green-blue. The interior had black leather bench seats with steel bars, grey hanging hooks and domed lights. The passing stations were non-descript – the same blue-green colour with the occasional giant advert. An orange light above the door and a two tone sound indicating it is about to close. A happy t-shirt moment: Jack and Jones, past and present.

Escalators are very quick on the Metro 3 line, and the steepness of the climb with the angled roof gives a tumbling down the rabbit hole experience. We were hurtled towards a vibrant surface. The sun bright. The people relaxed. The architecture stunning. I found the arch of the Arcadia hotel easily, but the slim grey entrance is hidden by cafes and restaurants. The room 204 was 4* black and white business, steel angles, facing the courtyard where the fountain sounds like the TARDIS. I had to change my phone ringtone from the rematerialisation sound so I knew when someone was calling! Next cultural adjustment: no kettle in the room. I was distracted from that by satin and velvet silver curtains, and a bathroom floor so polished it was like standing on a mirror. Bathroom drinking glasses by IKEA, made in Russia.

The Holiday

Sunday was my familiarisation day with the city aka aimless pithering. This walking in the sunshine took me over the tram lines to a Palinka festival, celebrating the Hungarian spirit. It’s fruit brandy, and the wooden shacks that you see at Christmas Markets were nestled together. I was amused by the labels showing a woman made up of cherries and other fruit. I didn’t sample any, as they would only accept a Heliopay card payment which you could sign up to. I walked North to Ezarebet ter (Elizabeth Park) to watch locals and tourists just relaxing in the sunshine on the grass, benches, decking around the shallow water feature pools, cycling lazily, children playing on apparatus and the big Ferris wheel. A display of Cola bottle advertising – lifesize! Steps covered in bar tables with adverts laminated to their round metal surfaces. A rather impressive fountain of Neptune with women surrounding the lower tiers. The grass temporarily fenced off to allow it to grow back. Signs saying to enjoy the area responsibly – welcoming rather than the forbidding “No ball games” back home. A temporary market for craft and design, sheltered from the sun by white canvas parasols over small tables with clothes rails fitted between them to maximise display.

Palinka Festival

The discovery of mesmerising architecture continued up Andrassy Street, culminating in the State Opera House, complete with lady sphinx. The opera house has amazing frescos, large chandeliers, marble columns, tiled floor. Heavy wood benches covered in plush burgundy velvet. A lesson in opulence. I did pack posh clothes hoping I could get return tickets for Swan Lake, but the lady manning the box office didn’t get any tine to leave the phone.

Opera House

I took it as a sign to admire the buildings on the other side of the street, including giant lions, women, men, mermen, bands of carved scrolls. The buildings are so tall on both sides that the sunshine rarely reaches the fronts. The trees have grown as tall as the buildings to find the light. The buildings themselves were part occupied. Some you could peer through cracks in the heavy wooden doors to see disrepair. The occupied ones were mostly expensive boutiques, including a display window of a lifesize ceramic lion.

Andrassy Street

I realised I hadn’t eaten since 6.30am, so headed back to the hotel. Most places were closed, or expensive for being on the tourist paths. As it was, the Castro Bisztro by the hotel had filling meals. I opted for the beef stew with cheese pasta. The decor was an eclectic mix of posters tacked to the wall, some female icons, some stylised movie posters such as 28 days later in angular cartoon form. There were two Persian rugs hanging on the wall, and one was attached to a roller. The table cloths were mismatched woven cloths of intricate design, evocative of Turkey. The music was gritty, almost a repressed aggression. The staff looked like they had a rough day, until the evening shift arrived with his perky dog, who stretched out by the bar. I read it was customary to leave a 10% tip, so a 2,200 HUF meal had 2,500 change from a 5,000 note. The waiter counted the notes out very slowly, which I found a nice gesture for keeping up with the zeroes. He seemed delighted that a tourist knew how to tip, as the other equally lost looking solo tourists had not. This is why it pays to read up on local customs before you go.

Incidentally, public toilets are always manned and the service charge is 100-200HUF depending on where you are. I didn’t go in one, but I may be cheeky and walk into a Costa Coffee pretending I’m a patron and use theirs for free. It was a bit of a culture shock finding a brand I recognise. Most of the shops and cafes seem to be independents. It is international cuisine, not multi-national. Naturally, I photographed Costa Coffee, a small sign in a huge building topped with bronze statues, at the corner of a junction with 7 lane traffic. Pedestrian crossings are automatic and silent, and inevitably with such wide crossings the filter right traffic is turning before you have reached the pavement. They do turn slowly, thankfully. People also walk slowly here. If I am walking faster than someone, then they are taking it leisurely. Locals do enjoy savouring life. Even the cyclists are meandering, their front wheel swaying from side to side with each push. There’s so much to take in here, and it’s best to savour it slowly. Even if what you are savouring is being free to be out in the sunshine.

I suppose an inevitable feature of staying in a business hotel is people who sleep rough on the street coming up to you asking for money. Silently, he pressed his palms in front of me. Then he drew a circle in his palm. I said sorry in English, no, offered a sympathetic smile and then kept walking.

Back in my room out of the heat. I say out of the heat. While there was no radiator, there was a towel rail in the ensuite that wouldn’t turn off. Thankfully I was closer to the old windows that didn’t open in bed. TV on, went straight to the Simpsons dubbed in Hungarian! The TV was so big that the cartoon was pixelated. Most channels were Hungarian, some French, some English. A lot of news about the Middle East and the Kathmandu earthquake than in the UK. I had intended to have a nap and then go admire the river Danube at night, but I woke up at 11pm and decided sleep was more important.

Monday May 11th

They turned the TARDIS fountain off at night, and I woke up with it at 6am thinking I was being taken off to a great adventure. Then I looked at my rough itinerary and realised I already was! Breakfast started at 7.30, by which point I’d drunk enough water to not be dehydrated, to be presentable in public. There is a small sign by reception pointing to a small corner and large heavy door that opened into… Castro Bisztro! This time presented as a buffet breakfast. Suddenly it wasn’t feeling like detached business class, but like the rest of Budapest – a blend of old and new, recovering and shining. Matching vinyl cloths had been thrown over the tables. Like a hostel, the bar was now lined with cereal, yoghurt, juice, a coffee vending machine and… English Breakfast Tea! Hidden amongst all the fruit varieties. While the hot water urn wasn’t boiling, there was enough tea flavour released (however muted) to fortify the inner Brit. This cup of tea was symbolic of my current Budapest experience – potential waiting to be released in full.

I picked a hotel near a Metro hub, and it turned out to be a hub for trams and buses, including tourist buses. The pop up Palinka festival was now flat packed wooden sheets waiting to be removed. A man from Tunisia tried to get me on to two of the tourist buses, tempting me with including beer, goulash and bike hire on Margaret Island. He said he had never met an English person travel on their own. It’s a good way of getting a map for free. The tourist buses don’t give you access to any of the places it lets you on and off. Budapest, the Pest side certainly, is easy enough to walk on foot. I already had a bus pass, which I intended to put to full use, starting with the Number 16 minibus to Castle Hill. But first I booked dinner on a Danube evening cruise. The gentlemen booked my tour and seemed surprised that it was just for one. I get the impression the blurb about it being romantic is really true, or it might be that they are also not used to solo English travellers. I marvelled that everyone spoke such good English, and that I had only managed to say köszönöm – thank you. He said that was enough. 🙂 He then asked what the weather was like in Britain. I said wet, as always. When in doubt, talk about the weather.

The booking detour gave me more opportunities to photograph doorways, including the bank and Basilica. I came across my first low architecture building by Elizabeth Park, akin to 1960s council flats over here. Restaurants extended their seating area with plastic cubes, or canvas parasols. The restaurants by a bank picked the wilting flowers from the vases in preparation for customers. Flowers are plastic in the UK, but here, streets are filled with flower boxes. The bedding plants were being changed over from pansies to marigolds, and the sprinklers were automatic, so you get wet ankles in Elizabeth Park. I came across a metal triangle around a tree covered in padlocks etched with two names and a date. It’s my first encounter with the love padlocks I’ve seen on the Internet, where couples declare their love by sealing a padlock and throwing away the key. As it happened, two men were trying to find their padlock from years ago. How sweet.

To the 16 bus across the Danube and up the zigzag ridiculously steep incline to Buda Castle Hill. They aren’t kidding when they say Buda is the hilly side. A random inspection by 6 officers in high vis jackets and armbands asking to see our valid travel tickets. I’d opted to wear mine in a plastic pocket on a lanyard, as I didn’t want to keep opening my purse to retrieve it. The drivers don’t seem bothered about your ticket, as you validate single use ones in machines further in the bus. They are focused on keeping to the every 1-2 minute schedule. While I had written down my stop, and was counting how many stops I needed, I need not have bothered as a lot of people got off at my stop.

I confess, when I say castle, I’m thinking of a castle keep, not what’s inside castle walls. So when I was looking at the You Are Here sign, I wondered where the castle was! The highlight of the area was the restored St. Mattias church, closely followed by the Fisherman’s Bastions. Good luck trying to get a photo without people in it – even out of peak season, hundreds of people are milling around with cameras, either independently or following a tour guide indicating their language with a flag which serves as a handy pointing stick. Those guides without flags used an umbrella to keep the group together. The weather was glorious, glorious to the point I have a white oval on my chest where my pendant was preventing sunburn. This is what being on a high peak from 11am – 3.30pm does for a fair complexion.

St Mattias Church

It is probably possible to pick up all the information from the tours if you happen to stop to photograph in the same places they stop to talk. I picked it up at the fisherman’s bastion – the seven turrets represent seven wives, the shape honours the heritage when nomadic people travelled in tents, it is so called as the fishermen were tasked with defending this part of the castle wall. I also picked it up sitting for lunch by St Mattias church – a king of Hungary, who saw to the restoration of the church, hence the name and the sainthood (even if he had two wives). The Jews who took over had white washed all the medieval paintings, so they just washed it off. However, the faces of animals and people in carvings and statues were destroyed as it’s their belief there can be no such images. It’s all been restored to renaissance style. The hexagon tile roof is very shiny – acid proof, water proof, fire proof and self-cleaning. Women selling lace offered their wares on the castle wall steps. A watercolour painter took quietly to his craft. A violinist filled the air with song, and a pastry chef making traditional chimney cakes filled the air with sweet vanilla. The bell ringing cacophony indicated it was midday, and it was deafening.

Fisherman's Bastions

I managed to spend 4 hours photographing things without spending any entrance fees to museums or the church. Mostly this was because a lot of the museums are closed on a Monday. I imagine it would take two full days to do everything in Castle Hill, especially looking at the size of the military museum and art gallery. I avoided the eye wateringly priced restaurants by buying a sandwich before I got on the bus, and kept filling my water bottle up at the fountain taps (it’s a thermal spa town). I didn’t take as many photos of doorways and buildings. The walls seem to be smoothed over by coloured plaster, and it’s the courtyards behind the large round doors that offer metal balconies with hanging flowers. The ground floor is for tourist shops, while the upper levels I assume are residential. At the furthest point north behind the military museum, amongst a flagpole and cannons from different eras, are a few park benches where people had taken off their shoes and were sleeping in the afternoon sun away from it all. There are lots of lion statues amongst the columns, bronze statues.

The architecture becomes grand again in the south part of the town, as there were a series of blue flashing diplomatic cars going to a guarded building. I don’t envy them in their uniforms standing in direct sunshine. This seriousness was countered by the sweet pastry smell of chimney cakes sold by a lady in lace in a wooden hut directly opposite the grandiose front of the state building. The pastry was 300HUF cheaper than the one by Mattias. Behind the wooden shack, a fenced off ruined area with makers marks etched into the finishing stones, mostly a hammer and sickle. A modern plaque of St. George and the Dragon, who is of Turkish origin.

By far the best thing about Castle Hill is the view, both of hilly residential Buda, and the Danube, bridges and buildings of Pest. There are plenty of blue viewing binoculars along the castle walls to mark the juxtaposition of bridge and building from the high vantage point, or for Buda, the distant rolling hills.

View of Buda

View of Danube

I took a lot of photos of the Houses of Parliament from various vantages along the wall and framing it through archways. I found more of the love padlocks fastened to a criss-cross metal window in the Fisherman’s Bastion, which also offered a view of the Parliament building. I still couldn’t get a person-free photo of that, but then I thought as long as there are just two people it will fit the padlock theme. Couples are openly affectionate here. People saw my camera and asked if I would take their photo. Two offered to take my photo in return. One is touristy by the bastion arches; the other is with my Travelling Tea Towel. Naturally, people asked where I was from. The Swedish group said they had lived in Exeter for four years and their English was excellent.

Love Locked

Back to my hotel room to change bags and head to tram 47 (every four minutes) outside by hotel for a trip over chain bridge to Gellert Thermal Spa. Boy, did my legs and feet need it after the cobbled streets of Castle Hill. The spa entry just for the pools is 4900HUF (£12), and a series of stairs and tight corners gives the impression you’re entering another secret world. The 6.30pm arrival meant there were lots of ladies in the locker room, squished in further with benches down the middle. Then, more tight corners and marble stairs to reach the main hall, which is truly breath taking. Columns, mythical creature heads jetting water into the main pool, mosaic floor, glazed columns and urn wall features, white metal balconies, woven loungers, domed windows to view the outdoor bar and pool.

The outdoor pool was sunk low into the ground, and it featured a naked lady statue framed by glazed mosaic. Centrally was a cascading waterfall. Back inside, I stood for about two seconds in the main swimming pool before deciding my legs wanted something warmer. Apparently you need a swimming cap to enter the main pool, which I assume you get from an information point with the deposit-refund towels. I opted for the semi-circle capping the main area full of 36C mineral water. Marble seating lined the area, and people could be massaged by the jets coming out of the two mythical creatures’ mouths, which dripped underneath with striped mineral deposits like you get in stalactite caves. I opted for a full body offering, having the jet pummel by legs and feet, and especially my shoulder for my camera bag strap.

The building layout is symmetrical, and there is two of everything mirrored over the central pool. The frequent turns in stairs and corridors gives the sense every place is a secret discovery. The thermal pools on one side are truly breath taking. Nothing prepares you for the intricate detail of the mosaic floor, the glazed benches and tiles, drink fountains, head  and wall relief carvings, the statues of mer-children pouring water into the two pools – 36C and 40C. I knew enough Hungarian to know it said 20minutes and 5 minutes respectively, but people were sensible about their limits and staying hydrated from the lion’s mouths. The mouths in the pool offering ground thermal water seemed to have epic moustaches with the mineral build up which were reminiscent of the pagan kings! This side had the extreme sauna, near 100C, zero visibility steam blast from under the wooden benches; A constant hiss with the pressure, and a smell of basil in the steam. I didn’t stay long in there, and the small alcove pool outside that said 13C now felt like it had ice cubes in it. A shower in the five individually domed semi-circular area, before doing it all again the other side.

Gellert Spa

The other side was the gentler edition, in terms of temperature and architecture. The walls were unadorned, the decoration done with raising the white marble tiles in columns. The temperatures were 35C and 38C. Red granite drinking fonts with brass water pipes which, if you stuck your finger in the bottom, the water came out of the top and arched into your mouth! The steam room was a cool blue mosaic and light, at 50C. The tiled seat curved down to ensure your bum was lower than your knees. A mineral smell here. I found the sauna by accident by opening all doors that didn’t say toilet or bidet. It was three connected chambers of increasing temperature, and a giant clock so you didn’t overdo it. A sign said to put a cloth on the bench, so the oil from you and your swimsuit didn’t touch the wood. In total, I spent two hours here just doing everything once, and then I went back to my locker to get my camera. I hid it under a towel draping my shoulders as I’d seen the odd sign saying no photography, but I’m in several people’s photos and no bather seemed bothered. We were all too absorbed enjoying the tension ebb away.

Back to the hotel, and admiring the sunset colours behind Castle Hill whilst on Liberty Bridge, to put my costume and towel on the heated rail, before heading out for dinner. The Jewish district is meant to be cheap, and the rule still applies that the further from the Danube you are, the cheaper. After walking down a tight avenue of bars with outdoor areas, and what I assume are the “ruin bars” where a string of fairy lights, tarpaulin and stools make a bar, I turned onto Kazincy utca and found a small place called Stonesoup. I opted for traditional food – mushroom, cheese and spinach strudel with pumpkin and pesto salad, a Jewish cake comprising layers of apple, walnut and poppy seeds which I left for a few minutes to get up to room temperature, and a non-traditional coconut hot chocolate. The young male waiter in plain clothes was probably skinny from all the fast walking he was doing, while the other staff were more meandering. Service wasn’t quick with the staff to client ratio, but I enjoyed it (tip: if you want food quick and you’re on your own, order vegetarian). The tip wasn’t included in the bill, so I made a calculation in my head of 10% extra on what I’d had and handed it over at the bar (I didn’t fancy waiting for them to bring me the bill).

Tuesday May 12th

The morning was spent in the Great Market Hall by Liberty Bridge. It’s the place where locals do their shopping, and it’s like Cardiff market on steroids. Local delicacies became apparent. I have never seen so many tins of goose liver pate – “the black and gold”. Nor have I seen so many ways to present paprika. They even stuff them like cabbage leaves rather than using them as a sweet or hot flavour. Honey was in abundance. Fruit and vegetables cascaded from the stalls when I first arrived, but after two hours the locals had brought great quantities leaving the stalls comfortably full. There were just as many meat stalls, most of which had salami sausage of various type and size – not bad for a Jewish area! The ground floor was fresh produce, while the upper ornate staging split between a fast food area of native dishes, including langos – a massive flat doughnut that can have sweet or savoury toppings. A strudel stall offering apricot-curd cheese, poppy-pumpkin combination. Every stall called out “Szia, halo”, Hungarian and English for hello, and I wondered if the dual language was because Budapest is an international trade port, or because Internet travel sites recommend you come here.

Great Market Hall

Upstairs also offered fabric of intricate lace and embroidery. I snaffled a reduced poppy cloth. I said köszönöm and the lady said “Ah, you are learning.” “I only know one word.” “It’s the one to know.” (Incidentally, I do get a free language app when I book holidays so I have an impression of a language. Hungarian seems very specific in its pronunciation with its squiggly bits above letters. A different stressed vowel creates a different word, which is a far cry from the amalgamation of regional accents in England, where the squiggly bits are confined to the Oxford dictionary.) The traditional hand crocheted Hungarian lace was way, way out of my price range – a table runner was £100. The national folk dress blouse started at £40, before adding the skirt and the waistcoat. There seemed to be a lot of Christmas decorations, Santa dolls, lady dolls, painted eggs – some real, some not – hanging bells. Kids’ building blocks alongside chess boards and other games in coloured inlay boxes. I found the smallest bottle of Palinka I could find (cherry), and my taste for marzipan meant I couldn’t resist the liquor miniature. The lady offered a calculator to overcome any language barrier about the price.  There was an Indonesian market up central isle, and there was a big version of the dragon I had in the Maldives but it wouldn’t fit in my suitcase. I could only find one reference to a Rubix cube.

Outside, a Middle Eastern lady with her head covered was begging on the central reservation of a pedestrian crossing, with her knees and elbows on the ground and her hands pressed in prayer. Adjacent, Liberty Bridge looked pretty, so my camera and I took a walk, admiring the architecture and the view. It features the raven on a gold globe. Trams go over it, and it’s not for the unsteady with the Danube flowing beneath you and the trams rattling the metal structure, especially when you’re looking up with a camera. People sat and lay down on the wide supports, with road traffic one side and foot and bike traffic the other. Hungarians are like cats – they will sleep anywhere! It did offer views of other bridges.

Liberty Bridge

A metro 1 journey to Heroes’ Square, a monument to Hungarian Kings. The first metro line looks like the ceramic tiles and wooden ticket booths of the London Underground, on which its based as the first continental underground. At the Opera station, I couldn’t get my camera out quick enough to capture a lady that looked like Geri Halliwell in a Hungarian flag boob tube with matching fascinator. Of all the stations she could have been at… Always this juxtaposition.

At the square, I was rather impressed that I could get photographs without people in them, by finding the gap in the wave of tours as tour buses stopped outside the Museum of Fine Arts. I offered to photograph other tourists, including an American totem pole with their tour guide to mimic the main column. They photographed my Travelling Tea Towel. “What does it mean?” “It’s the flag of my region in England.” Behind me were flags for a gathering of “people for peace”. It’s the scale of Heroes’ Square that impresses first, and then as you study the bronze figures (whilst waiting for people to get off the monument as they want to ride the horses) you see each one has a unique character. I especially like the horse with the reindeer antlers, as it reminded me of the elephants in LOTR. A thousand years of history, as told in the semi-circle framing the column. Each King has a bronze plaque underneath depicting what happened during their reign.

Heroes Square

A metro back to Oktogon, where an 8 sided roundabout is framed by Rolex and Burger King. A 9 bus over Margaret Bridge, a walk past Elvis Presley park, where kids were playing on apparatus or shooting hoop. Onto a hospital which hides a really old Turkish bath. It’s a hidden gem. I think it’s owned by the hospital, and it pays the bills to let the public use it at 2800HUF. This isn’t about grand opulence like the other baths. This is about going within. The alcove walls are painted an earth tone. You step into an octagonal hot pool under a domed ceiling peppered with small sky lights letting the sunlight in. It’s like sinking back into the stillness of the earth, and relaxing in solitude. Proper solitude, as I went at 3pm when it reopened and I assume everyone was at work. (Actually, I arrived a little earlier, and treated myself to a black tea with honey in a sachet as milk isn’t an option. I also encountered an old Hungarian lady here for medical treatment who spoke no English, and we had fun sitting on the Turkish style sofas pointing to things and saying what they were in our native tongues before her English speaking daughter arrived to take her home. Our conversation started because there was no paper in the free hospital toilets. Nem papier.)

Four pools were hidden away in corners, offering different temperatures from 26 to 40C. Outside the main area is a flat glass roof to trap the heat and offer a view of the roof domes. More modern looking spa treatments included two steam rooms, one sauna and one infra-sauna, which I think means sun lounge as there was only room for one and strategically placed heat grates. I was certainly freckle-ier when I left after my 3 hour spa limit. There was a Jacuzzi, a swimming pool, and a rock mineral area where you walked across pebbles in hot water to soothe your feet. As I could get change from £10 for a 30 minute massage, I opted to try and fix my legs from all the standing and gawping I’ve been doing. The background music wasn’t the Earth song or temple chants of home, but reggae and hip hop.

Veli Bej Thermal Spa

I came out of the Turkish spa in time to see Parliament lit up at sunset, as viewed from Margaret Bridge. They love their ladies here. On the Pest side, I treated myself to a chimney cake for 290HUF (the cheapest, like the stalls in the metro lines), and unravelled it on the way back (I do recommend watching one being made.). I made an unintentional detour to St Stephen’s Basilica and the front looked lovely in the evening sunshine. Then onto a 47 tram to Liberty Bridge to get a 2 tram along the river to Chain Bridge. The bridge offers giant lion statues, stunning framing of Castle Hill, and cool views of Parliament. And photographers. Lots and lots of photographers. And piles of tourist bus leaflets left on benches ready for another day.

I got bored waiting for them to switch the bridge lights on, so I went in search of the world’s most beautiful restaurant to photograph it – the New York Salon (Michelin stars way out of my price range). Who needs a tourist bus, when you can do it all with a bus pass? I didn’t find it on the first attempt. I overshot the Metro stops and ended up at a football stadium. The buildings were very run down in the dark, and the metro 2 station (1980s style blocky red and yellow) was full of people sleeping rough, their hand held upright for people to make offerings. At the top of the steps, an elderly lady offered small bunches of flowers. This was still true of the metro station by the restaurant. Such a contrast that in 50 metres of road, at one end fine dining under frescos, and the other, a metro station full of people bedding down for the night in dirty blankets under a concrete strut.

New York Salon

Walking back through Elizabeth Park, the strings of lights were switched on and there were more people than Sunday afternoon enjoying a drink or just the weather. A theatre by my hotel was emptying its well-dressed patrons into the surrounding bistros. The chatter of people was the hub of sound, and you only caught traces of music as you walked by speakers. I thought of home and how music drowns conversation.

Wednesday May 13th

I figured out the timing of the sun in photographing the sides of the Danube – Castle Hill and Buda in the morning, and river-side Parliament and Pest in the afternoon. I spent early morning doing all the same photos I’d done of Chain Bridge in different light conditions. Road traffic lets you cross to get the best angles, as they are not in a rush. Life is relaxed; they value free time and the pedestrian and the tram lines. The roof of St. Mattias Church really glistens when a shard of sunshine hits it. I imagine before all the bronze turned green that they were equally shiny. I think there is a hidden competition for how many bronze statues and monuments you can fit in one city, and this is with the communist ones being lifted out and mocked in Momento Park.

Chain Bridge Morning

Once again the tourist bus toting was out in force, and none of them seemed to be Hungarian. Imagine promoting tourism as a non-native! I tried to deter them with a map. From a 4×6″ fold over, one lady could tell that it was a competitor’s map! I later discovered having my bus pass visible is the best deterrent, as effectively that’s what they are offering. While waiting for a bus, a group of tourists asked for my help in getting around. I felt like a local! I could actually help them, telling them to cross over the road to get the ubiquitous 16 bus to Castle Hill. I popped on a tram back, and the guy who I moved out the way for so he could sit down said köszönöm. I had successfully blended in. Someone even asked me to press the stop button (I found out the hard way that not all vehicles have automatic doors at every stop, as some have buttons with pictures of doors on them), and my blank expression at her words prompted her to point at said button. For the city centre, the emergency “stop” buttons are put further up the hand rails.

Basilica exterior

St Stephen’s Basilica is huge. I thought, being named after the first king of Hungary, that it was really old. It turns out it was built in the 1800s by various people and very recently renamed. They do love their red velvet here. I first paid 400HUF for the pleasure of 302 steeply spiralling steps to find a platform being used as an art gallery, to have my ticket checked and being given the option of having more stairs or using the lift. Considering I was prostrated on the floor, that was a no brainer, and the offered a glimpse of a space between the inner dome and the outer dome of the building, before having a few more steps and out into a breath taking panorama of the city. Everything about this place is breath taking (except the treasury. Don’t bother with the 500HUF). The river and the buildings sparkle in the sunshine. Thankfully it wasn’t windy, being the highest point in Pest. Apparently they delayed building the roof until the surrounding buildings were finished so it was higher, and that’s probably why there’s a gap between the main domes. I opted to walk down the tightly turning metal steps to the gallery level (complete with wine bar, Go Christianity!) Then I found a lift I could go back down to the entrance way. My poor legs. Not even my holiday dose of energy tablets was saving me from leg ache.

Basilica Panorama

Back on level ground, a 200HUF (50p) donation to enter the church itself, my jaw was now on the floor with my knees (imagine the entry to St Paul’s Cathedral in London being 50p, and realise this is the same entry fee as a toilet with beige paper that disintegrates in your hand). Budapest may quickly be known as the city where people holding cameras stagger around slowly, not knowing what to focus on first. I’m not sure how to put into words the scale of this place, the vibrancy of the stained glass windows of saints and crowns, the religious fresco domes, the white marble saints, the gold sconces and chandeliers, the white marble altars (plural, depending on who you wanted to ask help for). The domed ceilings have the same roundels as the Turkish spa bath, letting the light in as the sun passes over. You have to sit down in silent contemplation to figure out who you are in this place. After a TTT moment at the main altar, I followed a tourist group into a corner that revealed yet another area. This seemed to be a private chapel, and it contained, amongst the many stained glass windows of female saints and a sign to the Black Madonna area, the right hand of the first king of Hungary (which seems to have travelled as much as my TTT). For 200HUF you can have two minutes of light on the holy relic, as flash wasn’t allowed. Thankfully my camera copes well in low light conditions. The ornate display case it’s housed in is pretty impressive, too. Part of me could hear the Adam’s Family theme music…

Back in the sunshine, I parked my posterior on the steps along with other natives and tourist pockets, and ate a sandwich (made at breakfast, as I paid for four breakfasts but I was only there for three). The midday bell ringing was impressive, and more discernible than the time check on Castle Hill. I discovered by yesterday’s accident that the 9 bus stopped outside my hotel from the Basilica. I hid in my room out of the midday sun to protect my fair complexion that was distinctly red on my chest. I also kept my feet up with a strategically placed pillow to ease the throbbing. I had time to think that if London and Blackpool had a lovechild raised on steroids, it would look like Budapest. Maybe I’d been in the sun too long!

Back out, I tried to photograph the Parliament, but even the afternoon sun was too hot for me; the 30C heat reflected off white flooring and the manicured gardens and benches offering no shelter. The homeless and the homed splashed water on their faces and hair to cool off.The restaurants in the surrounding streets had expensive restaurants, with aproned male waiters waiting in the entranceways to tend to the guests eating outside under the canvas canopies. Even here, the sun was too much, so I opted for a magical mystery tour of trams and buses just to see where it took me. I do love the 2 tram on the Pest promenade. The 47 tram over Liberty Bridge and an 18 tram behind Castle Hill, where the international restaurants were still in Hungarian and English. I imagine I’d have to go beyond the bridges for the English text to fade out.

There were statues on the ground directly behind the posh end of Castle Hill of people in pagan robes, showing the heritage of Hungary. I read the Hospital in the Rock was in this region, but the tram line went away from the hill, and to a tunnel where it became single lane traffic. A long wait with others of various international accents speaking English (mostly white European and some Middle East) catching an 18 back to Gellert Spa to catch a 19 tram on the Buda Promenade, but only as far as the Furnicular railway/Adam Clark at Chain Bridge, as the tram line was being renovated from this point, too. A bottle neck of traffic and replacement buses taking you to the nearest metro and bus station to get underground. In the shade of the buildings, I walked the rest of the promenade past high wire fencing, hoping for a square-on photo of Parliament in full sunshine, but there was a boat in the way because of how far back from the edge I was. A 9 bus over Margaret Bridge and a walk down streets in the shade of tall buildings full of antique shops and galleries. In England, people would be disgruntled at diversions at rush hour, but here everyone was peaceful and happy on crowded buses. It’s an adventure rather than an inconvenience to find where the bus stop has moved to, and the public transport is so frequent that no-one runs for the bus. I was so relaxed, I had a moment with a raven on Margaret Bridge. I think it was hoping for food out of my bag, as it flew off when it saw my camera.

My full circle tour of the city centre framed by bridges culminated in the 5 o’clock changing of the flag at Parliament. This involved the two guards walking in peculiar slow motion with high leg action in a semi-circle, around a flag pole so big it made them look like miniature clockwork figures. This side of Parliament was in full shadow, and it was a relief to look at the features without being cooked. More lion statues guarded the entrance steps. Lions and ravens and mermen – oh my! And a romantic couple standing on a plinth to be photographed with Parliament in the background.

Back on a 2 tram (my favourite) and a 47 tram (my second favourite) to the hotel into a cold bath to try and halt the inflammation pain in my legs, as I’d seen Eddie Izzard do it during his marathon running in Africa. It does work. A change into my posh waistcoat and to the meeting point for the dinner and cruise, complete with award winning national food and live Hungarian music players. A short en-mass walk to the river side to walk through an expensive old boat to reach our two boats, which looked distinctly less expensive. And however award winning food may be, if it’s a serve yourself buffet in silver mass catering tins with paraffin heaters underneath, it takes away from the charm. Especially when you’re sitting between them and a row of tables that get to be by the windows. Thankfully, this boat tour had an observation deck upstairs that had be abandoning my four course dinner at several points. My goulash soup (chunky vegetables and beef in a paprika liquid) was interrupted by Parliament windows glistening gold in the sunset light at 7.45pm.

Parliament Sunset

The boat criss-crossed over the Danube, which probably offered better views if you were sitting by a window, but I had people to look at with the view. Very nice people – a couple from San Francisco, and a couple from Sweden celebrating their tenth wedding anniversary. (Pet peeve alert – when I say I’m from England they say “London?” There is more to England than London. Imagine if every person from America was asked, “Washington?”) They saw the big camera and asked if I would take their photo. In return, I got to sit in their window seat to have the Chain Bridge in the backdrop rather than the central buffet! A professional cameraman came around, and the ‘official’ photos of you holding your welcome drink I think cost £6. Posh waiters offered a seven bottle wine list for your other free drink, and naturally kept offering you more, including spirits if you seemed to have finished your main meal. I had one orange juice, that came in a massive posh glass. As I’d continuously drunk water all day, and despite the best efforts of the 21 paraffin burners to dehydrate me, I didn’t even need the still bottled water (a glass bottle, how posh), that came in a pink cap. On tables with two people on them (a really romantic cruise, is a romantic dinner for one masturdating?) the pink bottle was joined by a blue one (sparkling mineral from the city of spas), which reminded me of the pegs in the Game of Life.

The modern take on Hungarian food showcased melt in the mouth meats in sticky paprika sauces, jasmine infused rice, curd cheese fried with polenta, mushroom and garlic sauce for poached fish, dumplings that were a congealed mass rather than the round balls I’m used to. Pudding was the only thing I’d encountered in Hungary that could be described as small, but it was a perfect sweet finish of raspberry cheese cake, seasonal fruits, and various flavoured sponge based cakes served in tea light holders – I opted for the raisin, almond and chocolate sauce one.

Dinner Cruise Entertainment

The trio of professional musicians at first offered Hungarian classical music, and then came to each table, asked if you had a request, and if you couldn’t think of anything, asked for your country. From England, I had two renditions of the Beatle’s Yesterday, as the bassist was selling his CD Songs of the Danube to a neighbouring table for the first one. They had the 10,000HUF tucked (the largest note) under their violin strings in a bid to part you with cash for their services rather than asking directly (as with the CD). As they had posed for my camera and didn’t flinch when I sang along, I gave them £10/5000HUF, which they pocketed along with their other tips. After a meandering pass from Margaret Bridge to one beyond Liberty Bridge, the boat returned to berth at 8.30pm, the time they switched on the city lights. Castle Hill looked resplendent, and all along the Buda side, monuments that had been lost amongst the trees now had their time to shine.

Back on dry land, the traffic was much calmer, to the point it was possible to stand in the middle of the road to take symmetrical photos of Chain and Liberty Bridges lit up without facing death by tram. Even an Asian wedding/prom couple posed on a central reservation to have Chain Bridge as a backdrop.

Chain Bridge Night

As I returned to the hotel, a few drops of rain hit my room window. I looked outside to a silent electrical storm, and an empty courtyard. The weather was quickly changing from 30C to rain tomorrow. The hotel night shift was a fabulously funny guy who probably wasn’t Hungarian in origin as he said as he counted the Forint, “too many zeroes”. I ended up with the smallest coin I’d encountered – 5Ft, which is 1.25p. He offered to pay trumpets outside my door as my 3.45am wake up call, or to throw me into the river. Originally, I thought to get the bus back to the airport, but having seen how many improvement works were going on, and how many yellow triangles appeared on my Google route planner, for peace of mind I booked a taxi. The taxi driver looked like Brenden Frasier in the Mummy films, and was a perfect gentleman in taking my case and opening the taxi door, which was well worth the money. He spoke hardly any English, which surprised me given how fluently it had been on this trip. He offered to play music on the radio, so for 25 minutes on eerily quiet roads (save for the public transport blue buses), my yellow taxi serenaded me with Hungarian and English lyrics at 280HUF/km, totalling 6,550HUF. Thankfully they took Visa, as I don’t think the 11p of remaining HUF would have got me very far.

The red sunrise was pretty fabulous at 4.30am. There is no special assistance desk at Budapest Airport – you have to queue at check in, even if you already have a boarding pass and aren’t checking anything in. The staff through the airport are multinational, as I heard thank you in three different languages through security, passport control and the waiting area to go to the boarding gate. I may regret the day I had a glow in the dark key ring finder, as my keys now can’t get though airport security without being swapped for the radioactive trace on them. Not that I was in a rush, as I was first in the waiting area and last out, as I figured the wheelchair wouldn’t fit through the turn style doors, and I was right – I was whisked away to a lift to a special assistance van, where I was first to the plane. By now the heavens had fully opened, and the special assistance guy was pretty quick at getting me up the stairs to the plane!

The people sitting next to me had also done the Sunday to Thursday run of having fabulous weather. In reverse at Manchester airport, I got wheeled to the coach, some half hour jaunt from the plane to the station. England seems so modest in comparison to Budapest, but seeing the familiarity of patchwork fields is home. Eating cheddar cheese on toast with milky tea is awesome, but the chlorinated tap water is not.

I feel like I have only touched on the surface of what Hungary has to offer. It’s an interesting blend of honouring the old and embracing the new, of imperial scale, relaxation out in the open, social drinking, and magical lights. I felt welcome to explore everything Hungary had to offer. They are not ashamed of where they come from, or where they are going. köszönöm, Hungary, and Szia.

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