Note: I am having to write this retrospectively, because my plan to use hostel computers didn’t work out. Above is a rough plan of where we ended up going – not too much of a deviation from the original, in the end! And what follows will be posts I’ve made up from notebook entries I made while travelling.
Budapest, 30 August: So we have arrived, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, in Hungary’s capital city. It’s not a pulsating place, but it has lots of character; its strength is in its quietly beautiful architecture and safe streets. We have walked around the Jewish Quarter in order to see what they call “ruin pubs”, located in formerly abandoned buildings, and in doing so have come across what we can only label as the Brick Lane of Budapest. Its colourful graffiti, mix of late-night cafés (we went on a lazy Sunday evening and it was still buzzing) and bustling, non-threatening vibe all contribute to this association. A towering synagogue – Europe’s largest, and the world’s second largest – is a potent reminder that Hungary lost around 600,000 members of its flourishing Jewish population to the Holocaust. Today, despite this, Hungary still has the largest Jewish population in Eastern Europe outside of the former Soviet Union.
But the best thing about Budapest are the baths. Wondrously warm, steamy, swirling blue spas of spring water. One morning, we walked from our rented apartment to the Széchenyi baths in the rain, and stripped thankfully to our swimming costumes. We headed to the outside area first, which consists of three large pools and a rapids area(!!). Ropey old Hungarian men play chess in the water, leaning over blocks of stone which serve as boards. Pot-bellied husbands give tender massages to their rotund wives; younger couples prance around on each other’s shoulders in the deeper water. It’s all very … Roman.
The first (and best) pool is 38 degrees C, and is perfect for half an hour – the ideal temperature to keep you happy, just before you develop hyperthermia – but a certain light-headedness does set in after a while, so water is essential.
The Buda Castle area is also stunning. It has a magnificent view of the city, although it was obscured by a downpour the day we visited. The Danube appears to be at least as wide as the Thames, with several bridges. There’s an island in the middle, like Paris’s Île de la Cité; it’s covered with dense trees, like a patch of forest has been cut out and placed there. We were soaked in minutes, but the view was worth it. The Houses of Parliament also look similar to London’s.
Hungarian people are friendly and helpful; more than twice people crossed the street just to offer advice when they saw us poring over a map. They all seem to speak excellent English, even if it’s sometimes a little nervously, and they’re sturdy-looking and hardworking. They seem refreshingly unattached to smartphones. Few people realise, I imagine, that the Biro pen, the helicopter and the Rubik’s cube were all invented by Hungarians; Harry Houdini was Hungarian, too.
Our plan after Budapest is to go to the “mountains” in the north of the country (I say it this way because the tallest peak in Hungary, Kékes, is a mere 1,040 metres) – the Mátra range. This gives way to the Bükk Mountains, a total of 120 kilometres. We hope to hike the lot. We’re armed with our backpacks, our boots, and our high spirits; if we could find ourselves some raincoats, we’d be well on our way.