Sunday, 3 November 2013

Budapest

In tourist shops around the Hungarian capital they are fond of selling tee-shirts bearing the motto, "Good girls go to Heaven. Bad girls go to Budapest." I am far too old to understand what they mean, but they seem to be enjoying themselves. I did not go to Budapest to find bad girls. In fact I cannot recall with any certainty what I expected to find. The lack of expectation perhaps enhanced the very agreeable surprise when I got there. The city is imposing, picturesque and charming, as well as remarkably cosmopolitan in its cultural and architectural heritage. It has of course been disputed between rival cultures for much of its history.
Upon arrival, the captain of our riverboat obliged us by sailing downstream to the inner city limits before returning upstream to our berth. The Danube on a fine day affords glorious views of the twin cities, high Buda on one bank, low-lying Pest on the other, that were united in the late nineteenth century. The fine series of bridges connecting the two were all destroyed in the war but are now reconstructed and restored to their former glory. When the principal buildings on each bank are illuminated after dark on a warm, fine night, the entranced viewer might very well have been transported into a fairyland.
The remarkable parliament building, the centrepiece of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, is far too large for today's small Hungarian state. At the same time it must be one of the most picturesque legislatures in the world, and one of the most photographed. When once you recognise the building, you seem to see it everywhere in travel advertisements.
Almost equally stunning is the huge expanse of Heroes Square, which contains some of the most beautiful equestrian statuary that I have ever seen and which is flanked by two national museums. The ornate baroque Basilica of St Stephen's is another architectural highlight. In Buda, the magnificent views from the heights of the Castle district are not to be missed. Wandering around the hilly medieval streets of old Buda is demanding on the legs, but educational.
If your legs will still stand it, there is a fine covered market in Pest that offers an interesting range of local products and foodstuffs, but it's on more than one floor and takes a long time to get round. Why is it so often the case that markets tell you as much or more about the local culture than the guidebooks? I think perhaps that whilst buildings impress us, people fascinate us. Sharing a market used by local people helps us to feel that we belong.