Alarm goes off at 4.15am. Up before the dawn and we see it coming up as we head East on the three hour flight. A surprise at Budapest airport – trees are all covered in frozen fog – it’s still Winter here… Taxi to hotel and off for a first ramble. St Stephens Church, Andrassy Utca (Street), The Opera House (only two tours daily at 3pm and 4pm), the Terror Museum for a great recent history of Budapest under first the Nazi collaborators Arrow Cross, and then the Communists terror, the 1956 revolution and on up to today. Sobering, fascinating and scary. Back to the hotel down Kiraly street, grab a quick shower and then off for a Hungarian type dinner at a restaurant close to the Ferenc (we call him Franz) Liszt Music Academy. There we saw a superb chamber orchestra performance for about 10 euro/head, in an amazingly beautiful art deco influenced concert hall. Finally home to our superbly located and well-appointed city centre hotel. Deep sleep.
Up early(ish) and over to the venerated Café Gerbeaud in Vosmorty square for a wonderful breakfast. Not cheap, but great to experience the history behind my croissants. Walk down Vaci Utca through the familiar chain stores, then the traditional shops appear and finally to the teeming crowds of the Great Market (food and fruit and souvenirs). We straggle out and jump on a hop on/hop off bus that takes us back to the hotel past the Great Synagogue to regroup briefly. Back out and onto another bus and off on a circuit of the city. End up at the freedom monument (ironically created by the occupying Russians) above the city for wonderful views of the sun-drenched city below. Then down and onto to a cruise on the Danube at dusk (included in our bus tour ticket). Which began as interesting and ended as jaw-dropping as all the lights came on along the river bridges and the historic monuments. Off to meet friends Nicole and Dennis for dinner at a literary-themed restaurant called KonyvBar Budapest. A good night, followed by a wine bar visit. Home to bed. Sleep well.
Up around 10am and we walk past the Great Synagogue over to the New York Café – self-styled ‘most beautiful café in the World’. Rococo-themed, amazing setup, good food and a Hungarian band to entertain. They might just live up to their boast. Back onto the hop on bus and off to Heroes square and then into City park, past Europe’s biggest outdoor ice-rink. We see the famous ‘anonymous statue’, meander thru the park and go to the huge Szechenyi thermal baths – Budapest is famous for its thermal springs and there are multiple bath-houses around the city. After some annoying initial confusion about ‘where to go’ we end up simmering outside in 38 degree hot water with just our heads above the water. Then on to some cooler pools indoors. It’s a huge complex, but very memorable. Back down to Heroes square, catch our first (and last) metro down to the Opera House for their 4pm tour and a few live excerpts from Carmen. A beautiful building and very historic. Back to the hotel, re-group and then grab a basic dinner in nearby Spilers café before we head to St Stephens basilica that night for a string quartet concert in the massive church. And eventually we scamper back to the hotel as the temperature begins to plummet toward zero.
I was really surprised by Budapest. I thought it’d be nice but it was way beyond that. The sense of history, the beautiful buildings, the number of events that were on and the sheer joie de vivre of the bustling streets were all engaging, and seemed to energise us. The highlights are all recounted above, but if I had to pick one it would be the river cruise with all the bridges and historic buildings lit up. It was entrancing. Prices are reasonable for food and drink. We hardly used public transport because the tourist bus ticket we bought for 48 hours (for a reasonable 25e/pp) took us all around the areas we wanted to visit. Our hotel was great, central and reasonably priced. I know – and now so do you – we probably packed in too much, but there seemed little point in sitting in a hotel room ‘relaxing’ while there was so much to see nearby. I would like to see the parts we missed (yes, there actually were some) and possibly to visit again in Summer or early Autumn when the city’s tendency to ‘move outdoors’ is more pronounced. But I really loved Budapest, I’m a newly-converted fan.