‘We are going hungry,’ said Madam.
I was a little confused by this as we had just had dinner.
‘Hungry, my sweet?’ I queried.
Were we going on a diet? Some weeks ago she suggested joining a gym and eating healthier food but I pretended not to hear and she hadn’t mentioned it since. I had a sudden disturbing vision of getting half a grapefruit for breakfast and a bowl of weak cabbage soup for dinner.
She reads a lot of magazines for women of a certain age and they invariably have glossy pictures of the latest fad diet together with svelte models promoting its benefits.
Was it going to be Dukan or Atkins? Paleo or Ketogenic? None of them seemed appealing.
Madam sighed and looked at me. ‘HUN GAA RY!’ she snapped.
‘Hungary?’ I asked by way of confirmation.
‘Yes, Hungary. We are going to Budapest. Go and start packing.’
I was very disappointed in Southern Rail. We can normally rely on them to have cancellations or delays resulting in us being able to claim at least part of the fare back. Leaves on the line. A light rain shower. Wind blowing in the wrong direction. A mouse in the points. Pheasants on the line.
We caught the 11am train for the hour-long journey assuming we would get there just before our 4:20 pm flight. No such luck. We rolled in right on time at 11:56, so no delay repay for this trip.
Through security we still had almost three hours before the flight. We bought a sandwich and walked around the overpriced shops. A group of a dozen bikers clad in all leather were wandering the airport. ‘They will look silly on the bus in Budapest’ I thought.
A Harry Potter store was opening soon. Safety helmet wearing workers were furiously wielding hammers and saws. I was tempted to stick my head in and ask why they weren’t just using their wands but I resisted. Madam would have been cross and they were bigger than me.
There used to be a problem with dishonest and unlicensed taxis in Budapest but the city has clamped down and now only one taxi company is permitted to pick up airport passengers. They are required to use a meter and have fixed rates. The procedure now is to check in with a kiosk with details of your destination and they give you a printed ticket with the destination and approximate fare. A designated taxi then picks you up. It’s a good system that other airports could use. Our metered fare was less than the estimate.
On the road into Budapest we passed several soviet era grey concrete apartment blocks interspersed with lots of international stores. McDonald’s, H&M, Tesco, Burger King, Aldi and Lidl lined the main road.
A blast of hot air hit us as we entered the hotel room. Madam immediately rushed to the air conditioning controller and turned it down to 12C. ‘It won’t go any lower’ she snapped, ‘it isn’t blowing cold air!’
I opened the window to let in some cool air.
Madam checked with receptionist who told her that it wasn’t air conditioning season. Now it was heating season. I know it was November but it was still 20C outside and the hotel heating seemed to be turned to maximum. A thermometer in the lift told us it was 27C.
Breakfast in the hotel was buffet style with labels of everything solely in English. If you were a non English speaker, you had to lift the lids to find out what was in the warming pans. There were several nationalities in the hotel, I heard French, Spanish and German being spoken but everybody communicated in English.
The signs throughout the hotel were all in English. I guess we English speakers got lucky in the language lottery when ours became the de-facto second language of the world. It could just as easily have been French given the shifting winds of history. Sacré bleu to that.
The hotel had one of those automatic coffee machines where you just put your cup under a spout and press a button. I was waiting for it to dispense a cappuccino when I overheard the American woman at the machine next to me say to her husband in a loud and strident voice, ‘where’s the rest of it? Where’s my coffee?’
He had a hangdog expression that told me he knew he was going to get the blame for everything anyway and just accepted his lot. His mouth opened to form words but none had time to escape.
‘Mock… mack.. macchiato.. what’s that? She snapped.
Her husband started to open his mouth but gave up halfway and he just shrugged and looked at the floor.
Is macchiato European for a really small coffee?’ she asked.
We were out early, keen to explore the city. The streets were almost empty. There was still an early morning chill in the air.
‘What are we planning on doing in Budapest?’ I asked Madam.
She looked confused and said ‘No idea. My friend said it was really nice so I booked tickets.’
‘Did she say what was worth seeing here? Any museums, historic buildings, art galleries?’ I asked.
‘No, I don’t think so. She just went to the dentist.’ she replied.
‘The dentist?’ I asked thinking I must have misheard.
‘Yes, the dentist. It was cheaper here than in England.’
I could see that this line of questioning wasn’t going to be productive vis-a-vis sightseeing plans so we asked the Google.
‘One of the top attractions is the Terror Museum. They say it’s really grim so you should go to the Pinball Museum afterwards,’ said Madam.
That sounded interesting. A hundred and thirty pinball machines and play on them for as long as you like. No money needed. I looked at their website. It was closed for a special event over the weekend and didn’t reopen until 4pm next Wednesday, five minutes before our plane was scheduled to leave.
‘Closed,’ I told Madam, ‘anything else?’
‘Well, there’s the Parliament Building, some bridges and ummm, stuff…’ she said.
We don’t normally bother with the ubiquitous open top tour buses when we visit a new place but we were clueless as to navigation and what was worth seeing so we made an exception and bought two three-day passes.
We sat on bus for the complete city tour, passing Heroes’ Square, several Danube bridges, the Basilica and the Parliament building. We passed Freedom Square which had both a Soviet Monument honouring those in the Red Army who died liberating the city in 1945, and a statue of Ronald Reagan. Make what you will of that.
We got off the bus at Great Market Hall. I don’t believe I have ever seen a larger indoor market. I didn’t attempt to count the number of stalls but there must have been at least thirty different greengrocers as well as butchers, fish stalls, wine merchants and an alarming number of stalls just selling paprika. The ground floor was firmly aimed at local residents but the first floor catered for the tourist market. Every stall had the same selection of Hungarian dolls, lace shawls and fridge ornaments.
The narrow gap between the stalls on the first floor was packed with tourists. There was hardly room to move. Madam immediately plunged into the crowd and shouted ‘Christmas ornaments! I can get Christmas ornaments!’
I quickly lost sight her amongst the crowds and, since I had no need of any tourist tat, I headed back down the stairs. Madam followed a minute later complaining she couldn’t get near the ornaments for American tourists.
We stopped in at the cafe on the square opposite the market. It was sunny and mild and the outside tables were packed, waiters dashing between them with trays held at shoulder height. I only wanted a cup of coffee but Madam saw some traditional Hungarian Dobos torte layered cake being delivered to a nearby table so we had to have cake. It was a very sweet layered cake with a hard caramel top. I later learned that it was supposed to be a brittle top but ours seemed to be cast in sheet metal.
I had been to the dentist just the previous day with a chipped tooth and was worried about causing further damage so bit tentatively into the caramel, then a little harder. The faintest impression of a tooth was left but it remained stubbornly intact. I carefully ran my tongue over my teeth to check for damage.
Just as I was examining the caramel and pondering whether it would be impolite to offer it for road construction, Madam said ‘This cake is really nice but how do you cut the top?’
Not wishing to explain a damaged tooth to my dentist as being caused by cake I tried stabbing it with a fork, which left only the faintest impression of the tines.
I looked at Madam and she looked at her cake and shrugged. I stood up and leaned in with all my weight, pressing hard on the fork.
The caramel broke into two, one half flying across the table and knocking over the salt shaker.
Shame about the broken plate but you can’t have everything.
Back on the bus we went up to Heroes’ Square. This is one of the major squares in Budapest, noted for its iconic statue complex featuring the Seven chieftains of the Magyars as well as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was a vast and open pedestrian area busy with tourists taking selfies. Madam took several. Selfies, not tourists. I’m sure you have seen them on Facebook by now.
Adjoining the square is a massive outdoor ice rink. It was empty but being prepared for winter. I later learned that the skating area is 12,000 square metres (130,000 sq ft) and is the largest and one of the oldest in Europe.
We were both tired by late afternoon, in spite of spending much of the time sitting on a bus so headed back to the hotel. We ended up walking back from the square and my knees were complaining and my feet aching as I collapsed on the bed.
‘Where are we going for dinner?’ asked Madam, ‘Make sure you pick somewhere nice.’
Madam spends a lot of time focusing on food when we travel.
I opened up a web browser on my iPad and typed in “Restaurants near me.”
The closest was an Italian restaurant called “Al Dente.” The reviews were mixed, one complained that they were Italian and didn’t speak Hungarian, although the reviewer claimed to be from Texas. Another review said the food came out too quickly. I guess you can’t please everybody.
‘It needs to have good reviews’ she reminded me.
The internet apparently assumes I have a car when it lists ‘near me’ results. Their top choice was over two miles away.
‘There’s an Italian. It has, um, reviews and it is just round the corner’ I told her.
Al Dente had only half a dozen tables and was empty. It is usually a bad sign when the staff are looking forlornly out of the window for customers but I had the best pizza I’ve had outside of Italy. Better than anything in England. Madam had a carbonara pasta and practically licked the plate. The bill with two drinks came to 5,600 forint (£15.30). You should go and eat there immediately.
Madam was indisposed on Sunday morning so I found myself wandering the streets and squares of Budapest alone with no location in mind. I walked down past the indoor market and across Freedom Bridge, stopping to watch the boats cruising along the river Danube, and over to Buda.
Budapest is a combination of two cities, Buda and Pest. Well, technically it’s a combination of three but Obuda (old Buda) got lost in the combination in 1873. It’s a good thing really as Budaobudapest would have sounded silly.
I walked for a long way along the river. Cruise boats were crowded and a steady stream of joggers ran past me. The road was noisy with the sound of several lanes of traffic. A man was fishing from the river bank.
I hopped on a tour bus which took me back over the river past the parliament building and grim Soviet era buildings which had housed anonymous communist government agencies. The recorded guide on the bus explained how little freedom people had during communist times and how bleak their lives.
I needed to use the facilities and get a drink, so I got off the bus at the railway station and went into the nearby McDonald’s. The sign told me the toilets were in the basement so I walked down the stairs and got my own taste of the Soviet era. A grim woman of indeterminate age blocked my entrance. Her grey hair was in a severe bun and she had the beginnings of a respectable moustache on her top lip. Her eyebrows met in the middle and she had a frown that would curdle milk. She was probably an attractive woman once if you always fancied the female shot putters at the olympics. She crossed her arms, looked at me and said ‘Nyet!’
She then banged her fist on the wall by the sign that said something along the lines that toilets were for customers only and I couldn’t proceed without showing my receipt. She had obviously been to that special Soviet charm school where they teach you that anybody not Hungarian must be Russian.
She repeated ‘Nyet! Nyet!’ For emphasis, banging the sign again with her fist.
I thought about arguing that I was a customer just hadn’t bought my drink yet but she had a heavy wooden mop in her hand and looked ready to use it in an offensive manner.
I certainly wasn’t going to outwitted by some angry harridan of the east and returned to the top of the stairs, grabbed a receipt from a discarded tray and returned to the babushka. She snatched my receipt and studied it carefully. She looked at me and again at the receipt, then at my stomach. Had I spoken Hungarian or Russian she might have asked me how I had eaten two cheeseburgers and a chicken sandwich in less than a minute but she grudgingly let me pass.
I walked past studiously ignoring her tip saucer. I was tempted to tell her not to mess with an Englishman but she still had her mop.
To be fair, she was the only Hungarian who was even slightly unpleasant during our trip. Most were friendly and happy to chat in English.
I was concerned about Madam being unwell, so was back in the hotel by early afternoon. We sat and read for a couple of hours until Madam decided she was hungry and sent me out to McDonald’s for food.
McDonald’s meals always leave me with a strange craving for chocolate, so I looked in the hotel mini bar. Two sticks of Kit-Kat would cost me 300 forint (84p) and if I wanted a beer with that it was 1050 forint (£2.92). A weedy little Kit-Kat wasn’t going to cut it so I walked a hundred yards to the corner shop and bought a family sized bar of fruit and nut chocolate and a litre of beer for 527 forint (£1.46). Budapest was starting to grow on me. A two day supply of two of the essential food groups for less than £1.50 can’t be bad.
Madam was feeling better by the following morning so we resumed our exploration on the tour bus. Our first stop was St Stephen’s Basilica. It was named after Stephen, the first king of Hungary who died in 1038. His supposed petrified right hand is housed in the reliquary and it’s not often you get to see a thousand year old dried up hand in a glass case. We stood outside and took a few pictures but realised that, since we had lost a day on our three day bus pass, we would have to come back to see the inside tomorrow.
Back on the bus, our next stop was the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, a suspension bridge spanning the river between Buda and Pest. It was designed by the English engineer William Tierney Clark and built by the Scottish engineer Adam Clark and opened in 1849. You just couldn’t keep those Victorian engineers down. At the time of its construction, it was regarded as one of the modern world’s engineering wonders. Its decorations, made of cast iron, and its construction have elevated the Chain Bridge to become a major tourist attraction.
Just along the river from the Chain Bridge was The Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial. It was created to honour the Jews who were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during World War II. They were forced to take off their shoes and were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away. Many people had left pebbles, flowers and candles amongst the shoes.
Over 437,000 Hungarian Jews were either killed or sent off to concentration camps between the fascist takeover in 1944 and liberation in 1945, most of them never to return. Just before we came to Budapest a USA home-grown fascist had stormed into a Pittsburgh synagogue shouting ‘All Jews must die’ and killed eleven worshipers in a twenty minute attack and this was on our mind as we looked at the shoes.
I sat for a long time looking at the memorial, watching the river flow past and thinking about those who had lost their lives during that terrible period and those that continue to do so. I wished I had bought a pebble or two from our own beach.
We walked across the river on the Chain Bridge over to the Buda side of the river. An open-sided shuttle bus took us to the top of Castle Hill with far-reaching views over the Danube and Pest.
Castle Hill is now a World Heritage Site with eighteenth-century Baroque houses and cobblestone streets. Cars are supposedly banned with only people who live and work here permitted to drive but both sides of most of the narrow streets were lined with parked cars.
Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion sit on top of the hill. We took a lot of pictures of the views over the river and walked around the town. There was a small open air market where Madam bought a Christmas ornament and two postcards. It was a lovely area and we would have been happy to spend more time there but it was getting late and we needed to fit in a river cruise, so we headed back to the shuttle.
The shuttle was an open sided affair with no seat belts. We were sitting in the back seat hanging on to a flimsy side rail. We were bounced around in an alarming fashion and the shuttle drove down the steep and winding cobbled streets which added a certain frisson to the journey. ‘I wonder what their safety record is’ said Madam.
‘Remind me to Google “Budapest Castle Shuttle Death Crash” when and if we get back’ was all I could reply, my knuckles white from gripping the rail.
A 75 minute river cruise was included in the price of our tour bus ticket and we made our way to the dock with a few minutes to spare. There was an option to add on a pizza and beer for €20 a person. During this trip I realised that anything priced in Euros instead of Forints was aimed at tourists and probably a bad deal. It didn’t take a maths genius to work out you could buy three pizzas and two litres of beer for that money.
It was a pleasant enough cruise, passing the Parliament building for photo opportunities from the top deck and back south on the river to an area away from the normal tourist attractions. We had seem most of the buildings from the river bank and they didn’t look a lot different. It was starting to get cold towards the end of the cruise so we headed to the enclosed lower deck and watched through the windows.
One family was eating indifferent looking pizzas. They didn’t look happy.
‘I wonder if they have any life jackets’ asked Madam.
‘There’s one on a chair over there, but I think the crew will get to it first,’ I replied, ‘remind me to Google “Budapest Cruise Ship Death Sinking” when we get back.’
We were tired by the time we got back to the hotel so we picked a local upmarket restaurant near the hotel. ‘Will you have the grilled grey cattle steak’ I asked Madam as I read the English menu, ‘or would you prefer the dijon in piglets ripened with mustard and a spicy jus?’
‘No, I think I will have the Beef cheek goulash with egg barley and sausage’ she replied.
We both thought goulash was a sort of stew but it came on a plate with a knife and fork and was pronounced delicious by Madam. Mine was supposed be ginger salmon with spiced potatoes but tasted of neither ginger nor spice. The bill was around £40. Not as good as my £4 pizza I thought, as I handed over my credit card.
On the outside of the Terror Museum wall is a line of portraits of those who were executed or tortured to death by the Soviet regime during or soon after the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Below the portraits people have left dozens of candles, ribbons and lamps, many of them still alight. Inside of the museum are rows of portraits of Hungarians who perpetrated the torture and murder of their fellow countrymen.
For reasons known only to the custodians there is a ban on photography inside which was disappointing. It’s hard to summarise the museum. It’s moving certainly, detailing the inhumanity of man but I found it disjointed and confusing. Many of the exhibits were either unlabelled or only described in Hungarian or Russian. There were strands of barbed wire in a glass case, tattered items of clothing in another, but no explanation as to their origin or meaning. Rooms have things like a reconstruction of cells and gallows, uniforms of the police and photographs of some of the victims but there never seemed to be a coherent theme.
It was also packed with visitors and hard to get close to anything which didn’t help.
There were several pages of handouts in English which gave a history of fascism and communism but very little information on the exhibits. I was left with a powerful image of the horrors but no real understanding of the history.
We left the museum and walked randomly through a pleasant area of bars and restaurants, which turned into a slightly less nice area, then into a decidedly grim area. Graffiti clad doorways were used as toilets, the few shops amongst the boarded buildings were offering adult entertainment, tattoos or Thai massages. Two red curtained areas at the front had a spot for the masseuse to stand. Both were empty, the masseuses were either busy or maybe still asleep after a long night of muscle kneading.
‘What’s next?’ I asked Madam.
She thought for a while and said ‘the Hungarian National Museum is close to the hotel and doesn’t close until 6pm. It’s near the hotel, so we won’t have far to walk afterwards.’
I liked that idea. The not far to walk bit. I wasn’t so sure about the museum. A visit to Budapest was a one off. Neither of us felt the need to come to Hungary again. What did I need to know about the history of the country? I had seen enough of their horrors of the last century.
Madam was of course right. It was fascinating and absorbing from the 720 square feet Roman mosaic in the basement to the piano on the first floor used by both Beethoven and Liszt (not simultaneously), and made by John Broadwood of London. I almost forgot my aching feet and we ended up staying until closing time. I think we were the last visitors there.
We started in the vast basement filled with Roman mosaics, gravestones and statues. ‘I suppose they were the selfie of the day’ said Madam as she looked at the statues of long-dead dignitaries. She held up her phone and took a selfie in front of a minor caesar.
Different periods of history were covered on different floors. The section covering the WWII and the communist era was far better presented then the Terror Museum and almost empty of visitors. I would have liked to linger longer but Madam was keen to see a dress or something embroidered by nuns a thousand years ago. We searched several sections to no avail and ended up asking one of the custodians. It was in a small side room which he had to open and turn on lights. I got the impression that we were the only visitors that day and he was pleased that we had wanted to see it.
Our plane home didn’t leave until 4pm so we had time for one last attraction.
‘Where would you like to go?’ I asked Madam.
‘I don’t know,’ she replied, ‘where would you like to go?’
‘I don’t mind, you decide.’
‘No, it’s up to you.’
We went on in this manner for several minutes until Madam suggested seeing the inside of the Basilica. My mind was already imagining sitting in the lounge with a cup of coffee and reading the papers, so I replied ‘The Basilica? How far is that?’
She looked on her phone and said ‘two point two miles, but we have an hour to get there before it opens.’
My ankle still hadn’t fully recovered from being twisted the week before while we were in Oxford and it gave a little complaining twinge.
I wonder if we could get a taxi back? I thought.
‘We can always get a taxi back’ said Madam.
We had briefly passed the Jewish Synagogue yesterday without realising what it was, so we took a slight detour for a closer look. It was twenty minutes before it opened but a queue was already forming. We sat outside for a while admiring the architecture and looking through the iron gates into the gardens.
I had previously looked at reviews for the Basilica and although many of them were positive, several reviewers said the staff were rude, it was almost dark inside and it was just like every other cathedral in Europe. I still wanted to see a thousand year old withered hand though.
‘Would you rather go in here?’ Asked Madam, ‘into the synagogue?’
‘I don’t know,’ I replied, ‘where would you like to go?’
‘I don’t mind, you decide.’
‘No, it’s up to you.’
‘The reviews for the Basilica are a bit mixed,’ I offered.
‘I’ve never seen the inside of a Synagogue,’ said Madam.
‘Me neither,’ I replied.
And so it was decided. We joined the queue, which turned out to be mostly elderly women from New York.
And what a good decision it was. After passing through a cursory bag search and metal detector (and who can blame them?) we passed into the Synagogue. We both stopped dead and just stared, mouths agape. I don’t think I have ever seen the inside of a building as stunning, as beautiful. Having been to museums and cathedrals where photography was discouraged or banned, Madam asked the guide if it was okay to take photographs.
‘You must. You must take photographs. I insist you take many, many beautiful pictures,’ he replied.
We sat in the synagogue pews and listened to the guide who told us about the history of the synagogue and the Jews who worshiped there. It is the largest in Europe and the second largest in the world with capacity for 3,000 worshippers. It was designed by a non Jewish architect so has a large organ (which was played by Franz Liszt at the opening ceremony) and naves based on a typical cathedral design. You have to wonder about architects sometimes. The guide told us that Jews were not allowed to play the organ on the sabbath so ‘we have to bring in a goy to play on the shabbat, God bless him.’
Outside of the synagogue there is a memorial garden with the Holocaust Memorial, also known as the Emanuel Tree. This is an artificial weeping willow tree with the names of Hungarian Jews killed during the Holocaust inscribed on each leaf. Also part of the memorial are marble plates, commemorating many non-Jewish Hungarians who saved Jews during the Holocaust. Prominent was a plaque to Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who gave protective passports to thousands of Jews. Wallenberg survived the Nazi occupation of Hungary only to be captured and imprisoned by Soviet forces in 1945. He was never seen again.