I arrive in Budapest at dusk after an hour-long bus ride along miles and miles of lavender fields dotted with hundreds of windmills. The picturesque drive has led to a suburb lined with cottages. The houses are adorned with tiny curtained windows and cobbled front yards. Some have bikes resting against their low boundary walls; some flaunt neat flowerbeds with read and pink carnations peeping out of them. In the first glance Budapest looks quaint, quiet, and quintessentially Europe.
The real Budapest, however, unfolds itself only a few hours later. A few minutes after I board the underground that seems to have come out of a communist era Hollywood film, I am standing in the centre of the city, strikingly different from what I have just left behind.
By virtue of being the other half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the capital city of Magyars ruled most of Eastern Europe until World War I. During this time the city flourished, and art, music, and culture thrived. The decline began after World War I when it was occupied by Nazis, and ruled by Communists, thereafter. Until the early 1990s all that remained of the city was a dark shadow of its splendid past. This rich—somewhat tumultuous—past of the Hungarian capital is reflected in every aspect of the city today. From art and architecture to language and food, present-day Budapest is a melting pot of diverse cultural identities. Budapest is made up of two parts—Buda and Pest. While the royal family and aristocrats occupied the Buda hill at one time, Pest was for the common man. The Danube, meanwhile, acted as the boundary wall between the two. Today, however, much of the action happens in the Pest side of the town while Buda retains its quiet aristocratic charm.
But, I do not know any of this yet. All I know is that I am lost in a city where hardly anyone speaks—or follows—my language. Initially walking along the imposing buildings, looking for the apartment, and talking to strangers in sign language seemed like fun, but eventually I begin to panic. Thankfully, my host Jackie manages to find me.
It is only in the morning that the city unfolds itself and I realise that I was lost in one of the most beautiful streets of Europe, ensconced by heritage that is over a thousand years old.
“Andrássy Avenue, also called the Champs-Élysées of Eastern Europe, is steeped in history. Lined with some of the most beautiful turn-of-the-century buildings, High Street brands, Broadways, Opera House, Cathedral, Galleries, Museums, and Café’s, it is the spine of the city. The road leads to Hero’s Square or Hősök Tere. Like most of current day Budapest, Hero’s Square was built in 1896 to commemorate 1,000 years of the city. Incidentally, just underneath the avenue, runs the oldest underground line of Europe, M1, which is still in use. The first trains here were pulled by horses. Today, of course, they run on electricity.” The guide, a young local girl on the Hop on-Hop off bus, tells us in her accented English as we drive along the most beautiful boulevard I have ever seen.
Everything you see in Budapest is at least a few hundred years old if not more. The city park, for example, which was built in 1751 and was used for the millennial celebrations in 1896. No wonder it is the oldest park in the world to have been opened for public. The park is home to many other attractions, too: the world’s oldest carousal, a zoological garden, the museum of transport, municipal circus and a castle. The small castle, flanked by a private chapel is known to be a replica of the Transylvanian Castle. The locals, however, refer to it as Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Maybe, that is why it is always buzzing with people—adults and kids alike—probably expecting Princess Aurora to wake up and wave at them from the high tower.
People are everywhere in Budapest. Young, old, singles, couples, families, you see men and women of all shapes and sizes, religions and nationalities, especially when in Thermal Baths.
The city is home to more than two dozen hot springs and has very smartly built community baths around these springs. The biggest such bath—the Széchenyi Bath—is located at one end of the City Park. I have read a lot about it and desperately want to soak my feet in the warm medicinal water but looking at the sheer number of semi naked bodies around, I make do with preening through the viewing gallery.
If Pest is the current hotspot of the city, what with tourist attractions, hip clubs, parks, open air cafés, high street fashion, and the oldest underground, Buda is not in the least behind it. Looking over its twin, the Buda hill stands majestically on the far end of the Danube flaunting the most important landmarks of the city: the Buda Castle, the Palace, Gellért Hill, Fisherman’s Bastion, Matthias Church, and, most importantly, the Funicular Rail—a train that goes up the castle hill on a steep incline.
After having driven through the Pest side of the town, I am now at the Castle Hill that stretches for miles and miles with twirling roads and steep inclines. Every corner of the district throws up a surprise—a lost bakery, a hole-in-the-wall souvenir shop, a chapel with baby Jesus, and houses with lace-curtained windows. Just like Pest, it is easy to get lost here.
Much of the castle hill and its buildings were destroyed during the World War and had to be built from scratch. Even though it has left almost nothing to be seen inside the castle and palace, the space is now used to host art exhibitions and shows, and, like much of the city, is thronged by tourists all year round.
What I love most about the hill though is the view of the sprawling city, especially from the tents of Fisherman’s Bastion (also built for the celebrations in 1896). From here you can see the sprawling city spread along the majestic Danube in all its glory. It is from here that I first spot the two most prominent structures of Pest—the Parliament and the Chain bridge.
While the Parliament, that looks more like a royal palace, was built for Budapest’s big millennial bash, the Chain Bridge is much older. It also happens to be the first bridge to permanently connect Buda and Pest. At the time of its completion, in 1849, Chain Bridge was considered to be one of the wonders of the world. I doubt if any other bridge can compete with it even today.
Days pass quickly in Budapest, even though the sun does not set until 10pm or later. One doesn’t know when or how the hours have slipped by. It is almost dusk now and my day seemed to have flown past in a jiffy. I have already run from Pest to Buda and Buda to Pest, gone around the town in the Hop on-Hop off twice over, bought bags full of souvenirs and a Hungarian doll, and walked to the Parliament in scorching sun. I have also revisited the Hero’s Square, taken the millennial underground, strolled along the Promenade, and walked the Charles Bridge. My feet are blistered from the walking and my breath is ready to give up any minute. But there are some things I have yet to do: a cruise on the Danube, a ride on Furnicular, a trip to the ruin pubs. I decide to start with the cruise.
Touted as the lifeline of Europe, Danube is at its mightiest in Budapest. While during the day the river retains its quiet, elusive charm, at dusk it is at its glamorous best. Perhaps, it is to capture this element that most people, whether local or tourists, choose to cruise on the river at this hour. Or maybe by now their feet are blistered, too. I soon take my seat on the upper deck of a ferry and breathe deeply.
As I sail leisurely along the blue Danube looking at the gleaming citadels and spires, legendary monuments and buildings, and the towering bridges, I realise how huge and significant the city is. Although quintessentially Europe, it is neither quaint nor quiet as I had first thought it to be. And that is the most wonderful thing about Budapest.