In the early hours of Sunday morning we sat outside our apartment and enjoyed Budapest’s unseasonably warm night in late September.
There, in the shadows of a building that dated back to the Soviet occupation, by the look of it, she smoked as I sipped beer. But chatting about our day of exploring the city, we weren’t expecting the slice of Budapest life that was about to unfold.
And we would have missed it completely if our accommodation plans had worked out as intended.
Several floors up, a door opened and a man hovered on the threshold. From the shadows inside the front door a woman softly called…
But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
A birthday surprise
The trip to the Hungarian capital came as a complete surprise. It was my birthday a few days before, so I had just a few days to prepare myself and plan for the trip. I was flying on a Friday evening to meet my other half, already in the city for a conference. But rather than stay in the conference hotel, she had booked an apartment for a couple of nights.
Online, it looked pretty good. And I’m sure it is.
But when she collected the keys from the agent, it turned out we’d been allocated quite a different property. Whereas the apartment we had seen online was refurbished to a pretty good standard, the one we got was a shambles and was poorly furnished. The double bed seemed to be a couple of pieces of furniture pushed together. I didn’t investigate what, but no bed is that shape. And there was a danger of us falling through the gap. The front door didn’t even lock, although thankfully there was a grill that did.
But there was hot and cold running water, a small kitchen with a fridge, and there was wi-fi. And it was located right in the centre of Budapest, so couldn’t have been more ideal, from that single point of view. Not exactly luxury accommodation.
That was what we had, so that was what we would make do with. We were not planning on spending hours in our apartment. We just needed somewhere to sleep and a place to store our luggage while we were out exploring the city.
Friday night: banks of the Danube
And explore Budapest we did. I arrived just in time for us to go to a nearby restaurant for a much-needed beer and something to eat.
I was looking forward to Hungarian food and drink, and on the whole I was not disappointed. Almost everything we ate was really good and excellent value for money. The local brew tasted good, too.
You see a lot of goulash on restaurant menus, a dish that is definitely worth trying at least once. Many dishes are spiced with paprika, and sour cream is another frequent ingredient.
After dinner, we took a stroll along the bank of the Danube, watching the moonlight on the surface of the black water compete with the lights of the city and the occasional river traffic.
Budapest was created in the nineteenth century by the unification of three towns; Buda and Óbuda on the west bank of the Danube, and Pest—where we stayed—on the east.
Walking along the riverside, there were plenty of youngsters sitting and drinking, enjoying the warm weather before it finally broke. We got as far as the Chain Bridge, a suspension bridge opened in 1849 and, according to Wikipedia, the first permanent bridge across the Danube. On that Friday night they appeared to be filming though, the area taken over by a film crew and a car crash staged on the bridge.
On the way back along the banks of the river, we came to a small square where a dance class was taking place. A number of couples danced their own tango, with music provided by a portable music player. It was surreal, but nice to see the locals enjoying themselves on a warm Friday night.
We slept surprisingly well on that odd bed, and woke to another glorious day.
First job of the day was to find somewhere for breakfast while we decided exactly what to do with ourselves. I had had little time to plan our sightseeing but spent a couple of hours the day before flying looking at some of the itineraries posted online. From those, I added the most frequently recommended sites to a custom Google map I had access to on my iPhone, while on the move.
While enjoying a delicious “Budapest breakfast” at Anna Café on Váci Street, we talked about what we would do for the day. From there we walked to Kossuth Lajos Square and the Parliament building. It is pretty impressive, but best seen from the other side of the river, but from our position, we could take the metro under the river to go to and explore the Castle District. This area is dominated by Buda Castle, but consists of many architectural gems, including the Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church. Here, the cobbled streets and mixture of Medieval, Baroque, and 19th-century buildings make it a natural draw for tourists, and the Fisherman’s Bastion provides a spectacular vantage point for viewing the Pest side of the city.
We visited the ruins of the church of Mary Magdalene, and here the true horror of Budapest’s more recent history became apparent. A tower that is almost all that remains of the church, mostly reduced to rubble during the Second World War.
Here among the ruins is an exhibition of photography comparing modern Budapest side by side with shell-damaged buildings. The damage remains atrocious, and much of the city’s glorious architecture has been rebuilt, having been flattened; first by allied bombers, and then during the siege of Budapest. For 50 days from December 1944, the city, defended by Hungarian and German troops, was surrounded by Soviet forces and pounded mercilessly. It wasn’t until the 1960s that most of the city began to be reconstructed to reclaim its former glory.
After being refuelled and refreshed by a beer and goulash at one of the many restaurants in the area, we headed for Buda Castle. But when we arrived we found there was a chocolate festival, and decided to not go in after all. Instead we explored as much as we could of the castle and its gardens from the outside. In fact, it consists of a rather spectacular palace surrounded by the castle walls, and is immensely impressive when illuminated at night. However, it is largely a post-war reconstruction. The communist regime tore down much of what remained during the 1950s, and even rooms that survived were gutted. The interior was modernised and several surviving exterior details were simply demolished.
After Buda Castle, we walked down the hill and along the Danube again before taking the tram across the river to Deák Ferenc Square and back to the apartment.
That night we headed to see St Stephen’s Basilica, and then to the area where you find the so-called “ruin bars” for a beer and a bite to eat.
There we went into the Yellow Zebra Pub, which as well as food and drink, weirdly, offers bike rental. It was extremely relaxed and the staff were friendly, but the bar did get packed. But that’s as it should be on a Saturday night.
Locals and tourists alike enjoyed live music. I sampled one of a selection of local beers and we shared a bottle of a local red wine.
For starter we tried camembert marinated in some kind of pickle, the only wrong move we made all weekend. It was one of the worst-tasting things I have ever eaten. The main dish was a selection of cold meats, which was interesting, although not spectacular. The Yellow Zebra was great value, though, and after dinner we took a leisurely stroll back to the apartment via the Danube. And that brings us back to where we began.
A slice of real Budapest life
Back at the apartment we sat outside in the dark, with a cigarette and a beer while planning our Sunday morning. Several floors above us a woman called softly to a man just outside the front door. When the man tried to leave she wrapped her arms around him, kissing him, unwilling to let him go.
And as he tried to disentangle himself, she just held on tighter until she followed him out onto the gangway, running the full width of the apartment block.
She was completely naked. Although she appeared to become aware of our silent presence several floors down, she continued to call to the man as he escaped her clutches, blowing kisses and waving at him as he descended the stairwell. Only after he disappeared into the night did she slip inside her apartment and softly close the door.
Photos by David Leigh – All Rights Reserved
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