The Danube cruise I’ve booked is a simple no frills trip, ideal for the solo traveller. We do get a shot of vodka, or soft drink for the more sombre. I elbow my way to the aft viewing deck. The soundtrack is good, with enough classic rock zest to enliven the night. We set off down the Danube through a city of light. Yes, I could have stayed on deck forever, float on a river forever and ever. I steeled myself against the unlikelihood of receiving another drink, bathing my eyes in the nocturnal lightshow. Palaces appear to float on air where Buda rises to the West. Bridges, ablaze with light, span the dark honeyed mirror of the river, from the heights of Buda to the flatter land of Pest, just as magically aglow with its swarming boulevards and towering domes.
We soon glide past an architectural highlight that tops and tails the tour.The Parliament Building is one of Budapest’s signature landmarks. A sublime confection of spires and facades gathered around an impressive central dome. It was designed by Hungarian architect Imre Steindl in the Neo gothic style. Completed in 1904, Stendl would never see his finished masterpiece; he went blind at the turn of the century and died in 1902.
After that, there’s still more spectacle, and a constant buzz of sublime delight suffuses the deck. It feels like a sightseeing tennis batch, head constantly swivelling to catch the next spectacle. We pass beneath the four main bridges: St. Margaret’s, Chain Bridge, Elizabeth and Liberty. And back again. Returning to our dock after an hour afloat, there was a firework display farther up the river, which somehow seemed less spectacular than it must have been.
I walk home by Bajcsy Zsilinszky Utca, much easier to pronounce than spell. It’s a long walk on a wide boulevard, terminating in Deak Ter. Saint Stephen’s Basilica is near my destination. Budapest’s twin landmark with the Parliament Buildings, the summits of each reaching the same height of 96metres .
Saint Stephen refers to Hungary’s first king who ruled from the start of the second millennium until 1038. Stephen forged a unified kingdom in the Carpathian Basin that is regarded as the genesis of the modern state. His espousal of Christian doctrine and custom ensured his kingdom was acknowledged throughout Europe where paganism was in terminal decline. While anarchy followed his death, order was eventually restored and Stephen was elevated to sainthood. A cult arose around his relic: the Holy Dexter, or right hand. This has been around, to put it mildly, but after many centuries of sojourn at last came to rest in his eponymous Basilica in 1950.
I return to visit the Basilica in the hot glare of noon. The huge Neo-Classical building was begun in 1851 and took over fifty years to complete. It was designed by Miklos Ybl (1814-1891) who was the country’s leading architect, also the designer of the Hungarian State Opera House nearby on the grand avenue Andrassy Utca. The majesty of that particular building was denied me by the curse of scaffolding, to which I was particularly prone on this trip.
The Basilica awaited in all its sun-blasted glory. The facade is framed by two slender bell towers, with the dome towering impressively over all. This is accessible, either by lift or by stairs. After yesterdays exertions I take the lift, leaving me with a short few steps spiralling within the dome before bursting out into raging air at the cupola. Dizzying views from the top whiten my knuckles; it is the vertigo of paradise.
Back on terra firma, I take some time to recover my nerves with a cool beer, or two. Budapest can be just as beautiful from the ground and I stroll aimlessly for a while, which is an essential pleasure in any city. Ever decreasing circles as I find myself back at base camp. The Jewish Quarter is just south of Karoly Utca, cramped and busy with plenty of informal bars. The Jewish community thrived here from the 19th century until the 1940s. Though decimated by Holocaust and Exodus, a small Jewish community survives. They can enjoy the legacy of happier times with the largest Synagogue in Europe with room for over three thousand souls. Designed in Byzantine style by Ludwig Forster of Vienna in 1851, there is a Jewish museum onsite.
I don’t want to wait anymore
I’m tired of looking for answers
Take me to some place where
There’s music and there’s laughter
Darkness falls and the carnival is in full flight at Deak Ter. At the arcades off Karoly Utca, the beat pounds on. I’ve found my favourite bar, usually quiet, counter service where I perch at a barrel adrift from the river of life flowing past. They do Italian food here too, good for a light evening bite. Where the two main pedestrian thoroughfares meet, there’s an ad hoc dance floor, where tyro movers and shakers try out their latino steps and the panoply of Ballroom skills. It’s borderline chaos, sex with a smile, fun for all within its ambit, whether participant or passer through. Just watch me now, heel to heel and toe to toe, a few too many on board, just a few steps from home.
I’ve woken up in a hotel room
My worries as big as the moon
Having no idea who or what or where I am
Show me my silver lining
First Aid Kit My/Silver Lining