“Your hotel is bought?” asked the middle aged man in a heavy accent after picking us up in his transfer van from the airport and driving us through the dark and drizzly streets of Budapest.
“Yes, we booked it over the internet.” replied Darryl from the back seat, the chief organiser and therefore semi-official leader of our weekender group of Nathan, Aaron, Katie and myself.
“No, no, no. Your hotel is bought? Is cheap?” The driver asked again, looking down at the written address Darryl had given him on our arrival.
Confused, we all looked at Darryl, whose uncertain face mirrored ours.
“Err, yes, it wasn’t too expensive.” he replied hesitantly, unsure of just why his first answer was unsatisfactory.
“No, no,” started the driver again, this time more impatiently, “Is sheep? Is bought?”
We were all flummoxed. After a couple more repetitions the driver became more impatient still and then tried a different tack, waving his arms at his sides. “On water.”
Ah. Boat. Ship. Darryl hadn’t mentioned anything about us staying on a boat and so we all turned to him with the same confused faces. His uncertain face, still, mirrored ours.
“I don’t think so...” he trailed off, diving into his bag for the hotel confirmation.
It had been difficult for Darryl to find accommodation for the five of us, mostly due to the staging of the Hungarian Formula One Grand Prix on the same weekend, and after an apartment had fallen through almost at the last minute he jumped onto the only reasonably placed hotel he could find. And so what looked like it could have been the Hungarian word for ‘hotel’ on the confirmation of the reservation at the ‘Botel Fortuna’, or perhaps a typo in English, actually turned out to be a deliberate play on words.
While admiring the vista of numerous majestic bridges straddling the Danube River and across to the brilliantly lit palace and fort on the steep Buda hillsides, we pulled up at the shoreline of the Pest side of the Danube opposite Margit Island. And there at anchor was our sleeping place for the weekend, a rather large river cruise ship. The cabin Katie and I got was small, a little hot and stuffy and had two uneven sized single beds (not quite the sleeping arrangements we were expecting after having just returned from our honeymoon), but we still felt much indebted to Darryl for managing to find such a reasonably priced hotel on such a busy weekend.
Despite walking in the drizzle we were all in high spirits, especially after dining heartily at a fantastic restaurant that almost offered too much choice. Nathan in particular seemed keen for the high life, getting out ten times more Hungarian Forints than he’d intended when we stopped at an ATM.
The rain had cleared, the sun was out and it was a relaxing Saturday morning as we stayed on the Pest side of the city, wandering around and taking photos (which being with Darryl and Nathan meant this was a pretty hard-core exercise). Budapest had the requisite ornate buildings like the national Parliament, and though I’m not much of a student of cathedrals, it seemed to me that St Stephen’s Basilica was the equal of any in Europe in that flamboyant, it-took-three-hundred-years-to-build-this-sucker-so-stand-in-awe-or-else kind of way. Introduce subdued Communist-era architecture into the mix, then some modern and busy shopping streets, dingy graffiti covered pedestrian underpasses and metro stations, a smattering of sleeping, rambling and/or drinking homeless people and old women selling flowers on the footpaths, and it all added up to a city atmosphere that didn’t feel like being in a postcard. It felt honest, real and lived-in, and I immediately liked it a great deal.
But despite this I’m consistently left wishing I could have been in a position to visit this and other former Eastern Bloc cities before they were on the mainstream tourist trail. Even just the last few years have made quite a difference according to Katie, who had made a quick trip here in 2001. The extra funds allotted to Hungary since joining the European Union have apparently given its capital a greater sense of optimism and vibrancy since the previous time she had been. But somehow it just doesn’t seem as adventurous to visit in the current age.
After lunch Katie and I left the other three at Deák Square while they took an afternoon walking tour. My wife was in the mood for shopping, and being relaxed and happy I felt that wasn’t too much of a burden for me. But, after only ten minutes of unsuccessfully looking for a particular clothes shop she had wanted to check out, she gave up on the shopping idea and was content to cross the river and continue our sight-seeing. If only the rest of our marriage could always operate this smoothly.
Across the Erzsebet Bridge we strolled, and then along the zigzagging walking tracks up Gellért Hill to the fortress Citadel. After taking it easy and admiring the views across the Danube we wandered back down the hill and re-joined the guys at the Buda Palace. In this area of town the Formula One fans were out in force, and we were amongst a huge crowd gathered around a market set up on the Chain Bridge.
Nathan was keen to try a small restaurant recommended by their walking tour guide out in a neighbourhood east of the city centre, and I for one found it pleasant to have slipped away from the crowds. For the second night running we had a fantastic, reasonably priced, meat-centred meal washed down with a Dreher beer or two. Katie expressed her contentment by falling asleep at the table, and I wasn’t far off myself. Jetlag and fatigue after having flown from the US to Switzerland and then to Hungary over the previous 48 hours may also have had a little to do with it. So while Darryl and Nathan went back to the Palace to take some night-time photos (or at least that’s what they said, perhaps they’d stayed out to party up all those extra forints of Nathan’s), Katie and I along with Aaron were very ready to call it a night.
It was a sluggish start to the morning, and we started by heading north of the Botel to District 13. Darryl and Aaron were on the lookout for a particular architectural style reputedly found throughout the area, and all of us were keen for a café for breakfast. We lucked out on both fronts, it seems in that area of Budapest the only way to spend a Sunday morning is to hang out in small, dodgy bars to drink, smoke and play the pokies.
The Communist Statue Park was next on our agenda, and it turned out to be quite a trek by public buses. Katie remembered the outdoor collection of old statues as being outside the city surrounded by corn fields, but we would have completely missed it had it not been for a local who had correctly guessed our destination and told us to get off the bus at the right time. In yet more evidence of the changing face of the city in recent years, the park was now completely surrounded by light industry and quite posh looking housing subdivisions.
One of the park’s major advertised attractions was the remains of a statue of Stalin. Given the vigour with which statues of the much hated and feared dictator were destroyed after the fall of communism, this was a pretty big deal. It didn’t amount to much though, all that was left of this one was his boots. Back in 2004 I had seen a much more intact incarnation in a similar statue park in Moscow. I remember being told it was the only example left in Russia, but perhaps it may well be the best surviving one in the world.
We broke up the journey back to the middle of the city with a long and late lunch in between buses. There I had a tipple of Unicum, the local spirit marketed as a digestive aid. It looked like brown shoe polish and smelt like paint stripper, and although it didn’t taste nearly as bad as either of these it still left me wondering how much of my innards were being burnt away.
We finished the afternoon back close to the botel, meandering in the very pleasant parklands of Margit Island, the summer weekend playground for a huge number of locals. Our time in Budapest was up, and on the way back out to the airport I was left with the nagging feeling that I’d have liked a little more time here. The trade union representing aircraft refuelers and passenger screening staff did their best to comply, deciding that a Sunday night when the airport was crammed with people leaving after the Grand Prix was the perfect time to call a strike. We eventually took off just after midnight, missing Geneva Airport’s curfew time and being diverted to the relatively nearby French city of Lyon. After waiting some more for coaches to transport us back to Geneva, we eventually got home at 5am. This didn’t exactly put me in the right frame of mind for my first day back at work after five weeks off, but given the choice, work will never get close to travel on my list of preferred ways to spend my time anyway.