Night and fatigue do not mix well. I arrive late in the evening, exhausted from a full day of work, from airport transfers and queues. My hotel is luxurious, with an atrium that stretches up into the sky. There are art nouveau touches, grand Baroque architecture. I notice few of this that first night, it is only in a day time filled with blue sky that I am finally ready for exploration in a new city.
We buy three day passes, I attempt some Hungarian. The word for three, thank you, please. Good morning is ridiculously hard and I keep forgetting Good evening and Good night so I give up eventually. The tourist traps all have great English anyway so this doesn’t matter.
It’s a slow jaunt of exploration this time; we hop on the metro to the riverside. The Danube is fat and lazy, winding langorously past Budapests’ bridges and the White Palace, a confectionary of white Gothic spires. The funicular takes us up to the Royal Palace, the Labyrinth and the Old Town of Buda. The view from Fisherman’s Bastion is superb. We buy icecreams and I finally harangue a smile out of the old men who sell them to us by attempting to order in Hungarian. They smile seldom, these Hungarians, though every single one with whom I spoke to were polite, eager to help and lovely to me.
I love the gaily tiled, colourful roof of St Matthias Church; we sit in the sun to rest for abit. There is a falconer and his hawks, playing up to the hordes of tourists here to gawk. There is a pair of old men playing the violin and horn, playing gypsy music, playing old classics. There are pairs of old men everywhere in this city, it seems, dripping out with music at Vorosmarty Ter, while we sit in Gerbeauds and eat decadent cakes and icecreams; along the riverside with a ready hat and quick fiddle.
The city is a quilt of different architectural styles – the flowing, organic lines of art nouveau, the heaviness of Baroque, the classical lines of French Renaissance. There is a small Basilica, housing Saint Stephen’s right hand (or so it goes) – we eschew the dimness of its vaults for more icecream, carved into delicate roses on stalks of waffle cones. They look almost too pretty to eat, so we buy another, and another.
We head to Heroes Square and the Millenary Monument, there is a remembrance service. It is very solemn, very serious – the men in uniform very bold in their red stripes. City Park’s castle is satisfactorily medieval, set in lush gardens. I rub the pen of Annoymous, the court scribe in the days of old – the tip is shiny from would-be writers and aspiring novelists. We get lost in the park, trying to find a restaurant that floats on the manmade lake that my friend recommended. We eventually get to it, a little grumpy and bewildered, but the food makes it definitely worth it.
The next day we head to Szechenyi Baths, the largest of Budapests’ thermal spas. The amenities are dark and old fashioned and simply old, but the people, although few speak English, are warm and welcoming and helpful. We cope by simply following the lead of little old people who are obviously pro at this sort of thing. There are three very large outdoor pools, complete with fountains, benches in the sun, whirlpools, massage jets, jacuzzis. The locals hop right in; older women with perfect coiffs and gold jewellery and skin browned by the sun. The hottest pool is 38 Celsius – not very hot at all; the water comes up at a almost-boiling 78 degrees, but is cooled down and piped into the indoor thermal pools for safer use.
Relaxed, mellowed out, we head back to the riverside for lunch, more time in the sun, more of Gerbeaud’s ice cream and cake. Budapest is, arguably, where cafe culture started from; there is a slew of cafes across the city. We watch some regional dances that night, whirling colour and singing and the magic violins of the Hungarian National Orchestra. The view across the Danube at night, with the city’s most beautiful buildings flood lit, is magical.