The Danube does look blue from the air, sinuous and sensual, the main artery of Central Europe. Down there, Budapest glistens in the morning sun, its dream-laden domes floating above a millennium of urban development. The Celts, the Romans, the Magyars and the Turks have all ruled. Today it is the capital of Hungary, a city of almost two million people.
With Budapest, you get two cities for the price of one. Buda, on the West Bank of the Danube, is hilly and ancient. The old town is well delineated around its hilltop fortress, a typically medieval town spilling down ancient, winding streets. Pest, on the eastern side, is built on flatter land. This is the Enlightenment power city of Empire; grand wide avenues lined with palaces, everything on a massive scale, the layout geometric and modern. It seethes with life, traffic, trams, pedestrians, cafe and bar society with an urban beat. The two parts merged as one city in 1873.
Budapest airport is hectic and dull in the early morning. Take a quick bus into the city centre. It’s cheap and direct, easier than I anticipated. Late August approaching noon, and it’s hot, hot, hot in the traffic miasma of Deak Ter. I have to kill a few hours before check-in. I put into an Irish Pub nestled under a high archway through tall modern blocks. It’s called Publin. The waitress is pleasant and keeps steins of local brew coming. Pint’s about €2.50.
This, I find later, marks the outskirts of Pest’s fun precinct which centres on a couple of extensive pedestrianised arcades, fitted within the city block west of Deak Ter and south of Karoly Utka, It consists entirely of eateries and drinkeries. There’s good life here after dark, though strictly modern.
Town Hall Apartments are on Karoly Street. This is a busy narrow street with shopping, fast food, convenience stores and the like. Stalled traffic, queues, passive smoking, hip hop, shouting and sirens are a feature. I quite like it. My room is at the back of the large apartment block, so it’s nice and quiet. The balcony enjoys, or suffers, permanent shade. I welcome it. There’s a pleasant urban garden beneath, otherwise I’m hemmed in by walls, some balconied, some plain. To one side a slit of sky is provided by an older three story block. Apartment towers rise to my right with balconies attractively lit at night.
Having attempted to crash, after one fitful doze, I reckon I might as well press on till midnight and make a full twenty four hours of it. I step into the sturm und drang of Karoly Utca and on to Deak Ter.
Deak Ter is really two squares. Deak itself is a transport hub, to put it mildly. Bus, tram, train and car traffic converge with the junction of two mighty auto thoroughfares and all the attendant pedestrians you could imagine. Elizabeth Square is something of a continuation, heading towards the river, and provides similar recreational escape to a carnival. There’s a funfair with ferris wheel to calm a soul down, kiosks and snack bars and a strip of crowded parkland to lounge around in. I head towards Vaci Utca, a couple of blocks on. This is a pedestrianised zone but still abuzz with foot traffic. Vaci Utca itself, is a long and winding road heading eastward, somewhat the equivalent of Grafton Street, with more emphasis on the elegance of boulevardiers and cafe society.
Next, I make for the River and find myself twixt two bridges, Chain Bridge, the original bridge connecting Buda and Pest and Elizabeth Bridge, which, when built in 1903, was the longest suspension bridge in the world. A tramway runs along the riverfront and there’s something about the scale and energy of this setting, the impressive bridges connecting Pest with the hills and palaces of Buda across the mighty river, all suspended in the cocoon of evening, that imbues me with the certainty that I stand at the centre of Europe.
Nearby, I put into the Panoramic riverfront restaurant where Anton is my genial host. I’m regaled by a band of Gypsy musicians as I sip a brew in the setting sun. The meal was Goulash, both tasty and generous, with melt in the mouth meat and potatoes of great taste, lemon and coriander, I’d guess. My Gypsy serenaders return. They have chosen to pester only me, leaving others unmolested, but I’m so moved, in truth probably tired and emotional, that I buy their cd; even accepting their insistence that they’ve run out of change for my proffered six grand, nearly 20e. Kinda loved it. In truth, I struggle to get rid of money in Budapest which is very cheap. I fork out forty euro or so for a Budapest pass card the following day, but possibly only mine three quarters the value of it on trams and towers. I feel Ive earned my sleep, certain it will come. First though, a navigation of the music channels and a glass or two of wine. Something plays which resembles a strange melange of Irish Rock, Hip Hop and House. A suitably mad mix for the city I’m in.
So wake me up when it’s all over
when I’m wiser and I’m older
All this time I was finding myself
And I didn’t know I was lost.