On Friday morning, we packed our bags, said goodbye to our flat on Klauzal ter and set off in the pitiless sunlight towards the train station, picking our way through construction works and admiring the total apathy towards safety barriers displayed by builders and pedestrians alike (they were there; they had been knocked over and everyone stepped over them). Some very cheap sushi bought along the way proved, once again, the old line about getting what you pay for.*
Budapest Keleti Station boasts a beautiful single-span glass roof, set like a vast gem in an imposing Eclectic stone palace; it was proudly considered one of the most modern stations in Europe, back in the 1880s. It has, of course, seen better days, and the fringes of the huge open central concourse are infested with small, grimy fast-food stalls, bakeries and news stands; piss-stained derelicts sprawl on the benches and the ambient smell of coffee, kebabs and engine-oil is tinged with the occasional whiff of vomit. Yet the infrastructure which counts is there and modern, and works nicely – the big LCD screens are a generation ahead of the scrolling orange LEDs or clickety-clackety physical displays that still hang in in some London termini. We retrieved our tickets, and had coffee at a nice railway-hotel bar which felt like a throwback to the 1940s, served by a wonderfully friendly, dignified waiter who had probably been born around then.
The train we boarded was huge and sleek and modern; like many European stations, the platforms at Budapest were much lower than back home, so steps extended from the carriages’ flanks in an exciting sci-fi fashion. Disappointingly, for much of the journey the view through the huge low-set windows was both limited and unexciting; the Pest-Wien line isn’t particularly scenic, and the only highlights were glimpses of wind farms like forests of massive pinwheels, huge marshalling yards lined with aged but well-maintained Continental rolling stock, and, once, an immense refinery. The line wandered for quite a while through Vienna proper, past a major station that was still under construction, all plateglass and white concrete, with platform roofs like giant stainless-steel quiffs.
Wien Westbahnhof is modern, but inoffensively so, and we extracted piles of euros from a post office cash point and hunted for the U-bahn. We negotiated a ticket machine whose English translation was like dealing with Jorji Costava (“okay, I buy the ticket”), and after some deliberation bought a “week ticket”, which we assumed would get us seven days of travel starting from when we bought it. This, as it turned out, was a… misdirection, as the ticket was good for seven days starting on Monday. Fortunately, Vienna uses the honour system too, and having resolved to try to get by on “but we thought it meant weekly from now! look, we actually went and bought a ticket!”, we didn’t once encounter an inspector.
A few U-bahn trains got us to Währingerstrasse, and our gorgeously swanky, aggressively reasonable rented apartment, whose incredibly hunky and muscular owner walked us through the facilities (extensive), the beds (large), and how to operate the sauna. We had an excellent James-and-Tom-made supper, with crumble and ice cream, watched surreal Die Antwoord music videos and drank G&Ts, and it was all very nice.
*I quite like the long form (widely but apparently falsely attributed to John Ruskin) – “there is hardly anything in the world that someone cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price alone are that person’s lawful prey” – but in the real world, I’ve only ever seen it accompany bare-faced price-gouging.