Monday, October 15

Down by the Danube

The fog was still lingering as I left the tube station in Hammersmith on Thursday morning. As I walked to work I wondered if the weather was causing delays at Heathrow. In less than 12 hours we were scheduled to fly to Budapest for three days. Sure enough, when Garry and I arrived at Heathrow shortly after 6:30pm, it was immediately clear that chaos had descended. Long queues at the ticket counter snaked out of the departure hall. I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve seen this sight at Heathrow over the last two years.

Our flight was due to departure at 8:10pm. This deadline soon came and went. It wasn’t until midnight that we turned on to the main runway and heard our aircraft engines roar to life. It was well after 3:00am local time before we finally reach at our hotel in Budapest, exhausted and ready to hit the sack.

Needless to say we slept until almost 2pm the following day. At first it seemed we’d let our first day in Budapest go to waste. However, we soon made up lost time with an afternoon and evening packed with activity, leaving us with some of the weekend’s most memorable highlights. Perhaps the first such highlight was our hotel.

Our weekend away was a birthday treat so I’d splashed out and booked us into the New York Palace, a recently renovated, grand old, 19th Century hotel. The main atrium alone was truly breathtaking - five floors of white marble balconies framed by a series of graceful arches.

Commissioned by the New York Insurance Company, the architect was briefed to create "most beautiful café in the world". It opened for business on October 23, 1894 and soon became a centre for intellectual life in Budapest. Sadly, the First World War brought this experience to an end and the hotel never truly recovered until the mid-1950s.

We had afternoon tea in the street front café on our first day. The experience was extraordinary leaning against velvet-covered railings taking in a vista of gold leaf trim, crystal chandeliers and unmistakable opulence. It was easy to imagine the city’s most influential gathering here all those years ago.

We walked into town on our first day via Andrassy Boulevard, the city’s main thoroughfare. This is a broad, majestic street lined with mature trees and grand buildings. Many of the entrance ways were works of art in themselves. The opera house was a particularly spectacular venue. We eventually reached the Danube and caught our first glimpse of the Chain Bridge, the city’s oldest river crossing. This low-slung suspension bridge is a masterpiece all of it own. On its opposite end sits the Buda Castle District - a long, low hillside topped by a magnificent castle.

We caught an old venicular railway (c.1870) replenish with wooden, tiered carriages up to the top of the castle hill. Here we enjoyed our first spectacular view across the Danube and the city beyond. We made our way back to the river via the castle's empty, winding cobblestone access road. This leisurely route took us through mighty stone gateways, past towering defensive walls and an array of classic castle abutments.

Later that evening we ventured out again to see the city lights by night. The Chain bridge and castle hill were impressive, as was the nearby gothic-influenced Parliament building. After some wandering we came upon Karpatia, a restaurant that’s become something of a local institution. For more than 120 years Karpatia has been serving local Hungarian food in one of the most spectacular interiors I’ve ever had the privilege of dining in. We enjoyed amazing meals while being entertained by a roving band of gypsy musicians. Our experience was silently witnessed by a wall of dusty old paintings and intricately carved wooden panels. All in all an incredible experience.

Our second day saw us climb Gellert hill. This is the site of perhaps the city’s most visible communist artifact. On the summit sits an over-whelming 17-metre statue of a woman holding aloft a giant palm frond. She symbolizes the fight for freedom of behalf of all good proletarian workers. As with so much socialist art, the effect is dramatic and over-powering. However, while the public art on this site may be a little crass, the view quickly redeems things. The scene along the Danube, across the city and over nearby castle hill is one of the most memorable I’ve ever experienced in a major city. Budapest is blessed by natural beauty.

From our high vantage point we made our way back into the city for a late-afternoon lunch, then wandered through the heart of the old town. Our stroll took us past the square outside Parliament where dozens lost their lives in 1956 as Soviet troops violently quashed remnants of the nation's attempts to throw off communist rule. Nearby is a sculpture of a lone man standing on the bridge. This is Imre Nagy, the Prime Minister who formed an interim government following the collapse of the Soviet-backed leadership. He was later executed following a brief show trial.

As we headed back to our hotel we made a final stop at St Stephen's Basilica, completed completed in 1905 after 54 years of construction. Like so many churches in Europe, this is a majestic building, set at the edge of open plaza. We stopped for coffee at one of the many upmarket wine bars nearby, watching the sun's last rays slide across the dome of the basilica. Later that evening England beat France in the Rugby World Cup semi-final being televised from Paris.

Our third and final day in town saw us soak up the last of the city’s most popular tourist sights. First on our itinerary was a visit to the local House of Terror. This bold stone building once housed the feared State Security Service during Communist Rule. Today it’s home to a moving exhibition on the nation’s post-Nazi horrors and the lost years of communism. I was astonished to learn that the last person deported by the Soviet Army after World War II only returned home in 2001. It’s staggering to comprehend how long it’s taken this nation to overcome the last of its socialist legacy.

Perhaps the most poignant moment inside this building was the last stop on our self-guided tour – the basement. Here in simple, bare concrete cells many of the government’s opponents and so-called "enemies of the state" were tortured, and often executed. Standing in these cold, dull rooms was spine-chilling.

Our next sight was rather more uplifting. We caught the aging metro line to Hero’s Square where a striking plaza sits dominated by a tall slender column. Atop this columns rest a welcoming statue of the archangel Gabriel. Behind the plaza is the lush City Park filled with classic buildings, including a neo-classic castle consisting of a series of wings built in differing architectural styles; baroque, medieval and gothic.

Our final tourist highlight was a quick afternoon tea in the drawing room at Gerbeaud Café, a city institution serving some of the finest pastries on the edge of Vorosmarty Square. Sadly, as our empty coffee cups were cleared away we knew it was time for us to also disappear. Our flight home awaited. In contrast to our inward flight three days earlier, we departed on time, arriving in Heathrow on schedule.

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