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Two cities for the price of one, and it’s not Edinburgh and Leith? It’s the sort of offer no right-minded Scot would turn down. Well, despite his mental shortcomings, Simon Walton made the right decision and straddled both sides of the Danube for a taste of Budapest.
So here we are, ground transport arranged from Budapest Ferenc Liszt, and all going with the synchronised efficiency of a concert orchestra. Named after the composer who called Budapest his home, it’s an omen for the trip that the international code for the airport is simply “BUD”. Friendly buddies, they are indeed, possibly because of our attempts at Hungarian - a language that offers little in the way of clues to the native English-speaking monoglot.
It’s not until the last moments of the half-hour drive that we catch sight of the Danube - but what a sight to save until last. Shimmering by day, illuminated by night, it’s the flowing heart that’s made Budapest the subject of countless river cruise adverts down the years. We’ve not arrived by the river though, we’ll be taking to the waters later. For those with hours, rather than weeks on their hands, Legenda offers a selection of day and night sightseeing experiences (www.legenda.hu). No time for a night cruise and dinner? No problem, they do dinner on board. It would be a travesty to miss out on the Danube (“Duna” to the Magyars) and Legenda provides just the right level of reverence for the most romantic waterway in Europe.
Before all that, the small matter of checking in.
“Darda, Hogy van ma, hogy már egy ideje?” Showing off a bit.
“Ah, hello to you too, Mr. Walton. I’m fine thank you, and it’s good to see you again”, says Darda - showing off even more and proving that English is just one of the European languages taught routinely in Hungarian schools. Living up to her name - it means the home of knowledge - she anticipates our preferences. “We don’t have your usual room available this time, so I’ve sent you up to the eighth floor, and one of our superiors is ready for you. It’s on the same floor as the executive business centre. I know you prefer the city view, as you’ll be dining in our riverside bistro.”
Ahh, it’s like this every time at the five-star, five-spa, Sofitel Chain Bridge (www.sofitel.com). At least, it is now. Of course, it wasn’t always this simple - or convivial. In living memory, Hungary, and Budapest, was a stark symbol of the Soviet Bloc, held down under the shackles of the planned communist economy. Where now stand a row of swish hotels on the Pest side of the Danube, there was, until the Cold War collapse, a haven, reserved for foreign tourists, kept under close scrutiny. Many of the ornate buildings were run-down shells, occupied by government departments of graceless charm. In fact. I think one of them was the Department of Graceless Charm.
Today, the close scrutiny is more attention to detail and the friendly service for which Budapest has gained a reputation. Ask almost any tourism organisation in the world who will tell you how polite and friendly their citizens are. Here it’s really true.
Enough of that though. Let’s step back a few decades, in the company of Eszter Talaber, who’s just old enough (and no more) to possess her Pioneer’s Scarf, and nostalgic enough to have a revolutionary song ringtone on her decidedly decadent not-towing-the-party-line smartphone. It lights up, like the proverbial Christmas tree, amidst the low wattage, vinyl seating and subdued, seditious conversation at the very retro Ibolya Espresso. They’re on Facebook, comrade, and on the net at www.ibolyaespresso.hu - all Hungarian but the pictures are cool.
Over coffee in this traditionally Soviet-era cafe, she shares some family mementos, including her grandmother's Party membership book, complete with work stamps - a sort of Red Shield savings programme to ensure her loyalty to the commune. Hey, this place is so authentic, that might be Radio Free Europe playing, and a Soviet tank rumbling past, 1956 style. No, it’s just roadworks and construction, in danger of redeveloping from memory this era of Budapest’s long and enthralling history.
Eszter is one of the enthusiastic guides - new best friends more like - from Budapest Underguide. They’re the hippest tour guides this side of the Iron Curtain, and do for Blue Badging what Jay-Z does for Jive Bunny. Ninety-nine problems but the guide ain’t one. Take advantage of their enthusiasm, either one to one or in a group, and they’ll show you a Budapest to suit your tastes, your interests, and your available time - the latter of which there will never be enough. Our desires were to explore the legacy cast by the Iron Curtain, and we were not disappointed, right down to spying out the side streets where illumination is still provided by the Soviet-era neon signs, one of the few splashes of colour during those drab decades.
For all other ways to brighten up your visit, the Budapest Card and it’s smartphone app can be your pocket rocket to all the tourist hot spots, galleries, museums, and the city’s famous thermal baths. Yes, the baths. Take Szechenyi Spa - as popular as any beach at Marbella, with a lot less sangria and a lot more decorum. Think less of Camden outdoor pool, and more of rococo-styled swimming lagoons, with water running hot and hotter, and plenty of room to lounge about, whatever the weather. Seaside without a sandfly in sight. Busy - it has it’s own metro station - but blissful. Treat yourself to a carefree day here in well-honed Hungarian company for about the same cost as ten minutes pampering back at your hotel, spent in the company of an overweight oaf on an overpriced package deal. It’ll put a smile on your face, but, then again, Budapest is famous for dental tourism, so leaving with a smile is only to be expected.
Get shopping. You’ll find market stalls and shops in many of the underground stations, and a friendly “just looking?” if you are indeed … just looking. You’ll find it hard to just look at the late-night doughnut concessions unless you’re hurrying on to the more upmarket and familiar stores of the Allee Shopping Mall in south central Buda. It’s big enough to warrant a tram line to the front door and another tram line to the back door. Eat your heart out, Trafford Centre.
In between those tram termini, in the leafy Siroki side street, you’ll find places like Richard’s - a cross between a basement bar and street cafe, where beer and big portions come as standard (www.richardscafe.hu). Just jump off the number 6 tram at the terminus. It’s a local haunt, so be prepared to practice your Hungarian.
The Buda side of the Danube, the west bank, is certainly the more artisan of the twin cities. Beautifully floodlit Buda Castle, the Citadel, and the Fisherman’s Redoubt are all here ... and so is Deli. Despite its name, it’s not a fair trade haven. No, this is, at first glance, a solid lump of concrete, about the size of a railway station. A closer inspection reveals that, actually, it is a railway station. One of the world’s ugliest railway stations - voted into the top ten in a recent online poll. Don’t laugh Britain, you’ve got two in the top ten, and no decades of communist town planning to excuse London Euston and Birmingham New Street.
All right, Deli station hasn’t had the megabucks facelift that New Street has, but then New Street is still a swan in the middle of Birmingham. Deli is the ugly duckling on the edge of Krisztina, a charmingly quaint 17th-century village now subsumed into the city. Restaurant Marvany Menyasszony (www.marvanymenassony.hu) achieves huge and intimate at the same time. You can sit in a secluded courtyard or wine cellar table, looked after attentively, while two hundred wedding guests enjoy a traditional Hungarian feast. If you only do Goulash once, do it here.
Head from Deli, up the Duna - as the Magyars call The Danube - on a combination of train and tram, to walk off your ample repast in the woods of Margitszigeti, the city’s beautiful river island. Stroll on to West Station (Nyugati Pályaudvar). It was designed by Gustave Eiffel but has not quite been given the Norman Foster makeover just yet. It’s dark and old-fashioned, and with departures to Odesa, Bucharest, Vienna, and everywhere else mentioned in The Third Man, you can imagine every other traveller has a covert mission to fulfill. There’s plenty of brightly lit shopping nearby, so sneak to an upper-floor department store for a bird’s eye view of the station’s exquisite barrel roof. If you long or something more cultural than the adjacent Tesco store, hop back on the metro to Opera, where even a glance at the ornate building is worth the journey. Dine like a diva, just around the corner at Ket Szerecsen - reservations are recommended on performance nights (www.ketszerecsen.hu).
Make overtures to Memento Park. It’s an epic public transport journey of Wagnerian proportions - more direct by the tourist bus route - but more interesting by the BVK route through the miles of Soviet-inspired apartment blocks in southwest Buda. There’s no likelihood of this legacy being redeveloped anytime soon. Take the municipal bus if only to spot the amusing Cafe Grottier along the way (it’s actually quite good for a coffee and a snack).
In the park, learn how to be a special agent of the notorious Department 3/3 - the secret police of Hungary. The instructional films shows continuously in the adjacent barracks building. Then enter the park itself - forty monumental monuments to the glory of the planned economy. It’s all set in a vaguely run-down industrial area - a bit like a concrete communist Carfin - for anyone familiar with the Catholic grotto in a grotty part of Lanarkshire. Here though, the mothers superior are all strapping agricultural workers, realised in bronze reliefs.
So, as the sun sets on the gigantic monuments from behind the Iron Curtain, and on this brief visit to Budapest, a quick call to Darda is in order. After all, with that fountain of knowledge name, Hungarian charm, and an unerring grasp of English, she was the obvious choice. “Darda, can you remind me when I need to be at the airport?”
“You’re still at Memento Park?”
“Well, Mr Walton, as they say in your country, good luck with that. Unless they’ve fixed up that Lada behind the ticket desk, you’re on your own, Sunshine.”
Simon Walton followed the advice of the official tourist board, www.gotohungary.com, and, having lingered too long with Lenin, is possibly still there. He seems to be enjoying himself.
What does Simon Calder know? Not much about Budapest Metro. That’s my experience. Far from being the pensioner’s refuge of choice for cold-hearted Cold War secret police officers, the Metro is staffed by amiable souls, who can’t do enough to help. If you should avail yourself of the ubiquitous Budapest Card - where the price is offset by the convenience and freedom of the city, then they’ll wave you through on the merest flash in their general direction, or scrutinise the card for validity and the chance to say thank you in your native tongue. I will admit, I’ve had similarly cordial greetings on the Northern Line, but under the streets of Budapest, the clientele tends to be better behaved. Also, and nothing personal you understand, but in a three-way “Fairest Simon of them All Pageant”, Calder is my ticket to silver. Behind Templar.
Card carrying in Heroes Square
The highly practical Budapest Card is a worthwhile investment. About £10 for each of one, two, or three days, it gives access to loads of cultural attractions, and not so cultural ones - about 500 in all, and audio guides and an offline map on the app as well. Probably the best benefit of all is the unrestricted run of the entire public transport system. Get the three day version - three times anything is a Hungarian charm.
Flash the card and use the metro to reach Heroes Square on the edge of Szechenyi Park. Emerge from the underground and you’re greeted by the archangel Gabriel atop a giant pillar, holding the holy crown of the Magyars and the apostolic double cross, signifying a millennium of Christian Hungary. The wide arc of surrounding statues tells the story of the people: from patron Saint Stephen, through to the premier who led the last victorious army into battle. Unfortunately, that triumph was in the fifteenth century, but, hey, you can’t win them all.
The bustling arrow-straight road along the edge of the square was built as a military airstrip during the Nazi occupation. It’s a reminder that Hungary is a nation whose fortunes have ebbed and flowed with the tides of change in central Europe. Left at a high water mark, that roller-coaster ride through the centuries has bred a pedigree somewhere between Mongol invaders, Slavic stature, and Latin good looks. Find even more good looks at the adjacent Museum of Fine Arts. It’s not what I’d call a premiership collection, but if Budapest’s MOFA was a football team, it’d certainly be a championship title contender.