Budapest was an interesting place. Of all the places we went to, it was the one I was fairly certain I wouldn’t go back to. I think that’s largely due to the time we chose to visit. We arrived at the train station to find migrants surrounding the building, sitting in the shade and protesting at the main entrance. On the lower level of the station, there was a bare cement room, separated from the main area by bars, and very much resembling a prison (abetted by the fact that guards stood by every entrance). Migrants watched tourists through the bars and tourists took pictures of migrants from the other side of the cage. It was incredibly unsettling and evocative, and it set the tone for the rest of our time there in many ways. I remember walking past a sleeping baby in the metro, and thinking how utterly serene she was – long eyelashes and such a peaceful expression despite the fact that she was lying on bare cement and packed into a crowded space full of other families. Our stay in Budapest felt very surreal – it was bizarre to do all the ‘normal’ tourist things while knowing that on the other side of the curtain people were desperately trying to escape the city and move forward with their lives, while facing abuse, hunger and extreme exhaustion.
The city itself is quite a paradox. It’s beautiful, but its beauty is tinged with melancholy and nostalgia for its former grandeur. It’s a place of ruins and graffiti, where buildings bear bullet holes and relics of the old are covered in the new. Washing lines and window boxes are suspended from decrepit vestiges of the past, and there’s a stillness, interrupted by a low hum of energy and the sound of sirens. Sirens were the anthem of Budapest for us – day and night they howled, sometimes accompanied by the persistent whirring of helicopter blades. Prague smelt like raw sewerage on a humid day, Croatia was full of stray cats and Budapest sang the song of sirens. These are the things the guide books don’t tell you.
On one day we went to Margaret Island, suspended in the centre of the Danube, and spent a good couple of hours walking from one side of the island to the other. It’s a gorgeous public park, with a rose garden, dancing fountain, zoo, Japanese garden (home to a family of terrapins), forest, and plenty of benches for picnics and pondering.
Another favourite spot we visited was the castle on the hill (is it a prerequisite for every old European town to have such a castle?), which is a stunning spot, with lovely vistas of the cities (both Buda and Pest), along with an art gallery, museum, the Fisherman’s Bastion and a church with the most intricate roof I’ve ever seen. We wandered through the fortress, managed to get lost and walk in circles before finding our way out through the park. The Citadel was next – another fortress suspended on a hill, forgotten and revived and now a well-known tourist platform for river gazing. It also involved climbing up about 500 steps on rather a hot day.
I loved the market. The city is famed for its smoked paprika and fois gras and the massive hall is filled to the brim with stalls boasting all manner of meats, cheeses, charmingly packaged paprika products, wines, liqueurs, fresh fruit and veg, mushrooms, truffles and more. I could happily have spent a few hours browsing but someone (Thomas, I’m looking at you) was getting bored.
I think our most memorable experience was when I persuaded Tom to go to the Budapest baths in the middle of the city park. We weren’t quite certain what to expect and were mildly afraid of contracting athlete’s foot, but we banished these fears in the face of having an ‘authentic’ Hungarian experience. The baths consist of rooms full of steaming pools of various temperatures (starting at 34 degrees) and culminating in an exquisite outdoor pool area, surrounded by ancient yellow buildings. It’s magnificent and we spent a happy few hours toasting in the pool, getting prune fingers and playing horsey – I made Tom give me piggyback rides up and down the pool to the amusement (or not) of the other bathers.
My last ‘must-see’ Buda spot is Szimpla Kert. Ever heard of a ruin bar? Neither had we. Its exactly what its name suggests – a bar (or series of bars) located in a ruin. Szimpla Kert is fantastic – its essentially a giant artwork covered in clutter and art installations, with an outdoor bar, blow-up sheep, suspended bicycle, mermaid, cartoon kangaroo and everything else you can think of, including the kitchen sink. Part ruin, part cave, part jungle, part sky bar, it’s one of the best places to go for a beer (or cider) in the city, and we found the people much friendlier here too – maybe because it’s a younger, more cosmopolitan crowd.
Finally, the food. It’s quite similar to Czech cuisine – think goulash, soups and rich pork dishes, but Hungary is also a carb-lovers paradise. Noodles, potatoes (always fried), and crispy flat breads are the order of the day, not to mention pastries. We had a particularly delicious slice of apple tart, spiced with cinnamon and topped with crumble, that instantly won Tom’s heart.
So that’s it for the city that waltzes to the whimsical tune of the Blue Danube. Next we hopped on another train (for yet another 6 hours), heading to the place I wanted to see the most – Croatia.