all the good men have gone east

Luton Airport is a miserable hellhole and I resent every moment of my life I have spent there. At the gate, the easyjet staff politely requested, for some space-related reason, that ten passengers surrender their hand luggage to be put in the hold (and get “priority boarding”, which is one of the more ridiculous scams of the modern era, but a couple of dozen idiots appeared to have voluntarily paid for it.) Overcome by altruism, James and I elected to do so, on the assurance that our baggage would be the first off and we wouldn’t have to wait around much longer at the carousel. (This, as it turned out, was a lie.) I slept for much of the flight, but woke in time to see Hungary appear as we descended below the clouds: a very controlled, geometric landscape, with lots of clearly delineated fields cut into strips of different crops, and neatly planted woods occasionally interrupted by broad ribbons of grass, which confused me until we descended enough to make out the figures of marching pylons. On the final approach to Budapest Airport, we flew directly over the city, and I made out the Parliament building and Margaret Island. The sun was a stunningly beautiful ruby-red.

After a long, overheated wait at the baggage carousels (moral: easyjet lie to you. Alternative moral: never volunteer to do anything), we were met by a diminutive taxi driver with a moustache that belonged on a Great War grenadier, who opened the front windows wide (getting my instant and permanent approval) and drove at terrific speed to our rented flat on Klauzal ter; at one point we had a drag race with another taxi. (We lost, though, so no tip.) The flat is one of those classically European apartments, thick walls and high ceilings in a solid, ornate, well-made building that’s seen better days: in this, it’s representative of about 80% of buildings I’ve seen in this city. There was no kettle, so we had to pan-boil water for an inaugural cuppa, but having settled in went hunting for supper, and, not wanting to screw around too much, promptly found a sit-down restaurant serving delicious food for delightfully little money. Sated, we strolled off to the riverbank through a dusk that seemed to last forever, walking past St Stephen’s basilica to the gorgeous Parliament building (surrounded by building works, unfortunately) and sat for a while beside the broad, turbulent Danube. Buda Castle shone on the far riverbank, a Hungarian Kremlin, vast and glorious.

On the way back, we bought some breakfast groceries at an all-night shop. I bought something called “Funny Drink” in a bizarre metal-plastic hybrid drinks can, and regretted it more than any other drink I have ever imbibed.

We woke up slowly from a night of miserable heat and, after a scrambled egg breakfast, ambled on into town. The Met Office website promised soothing rain through the day (this, as it turned out, was a lie), and we elected to see some of the more indoors things: Parliament, the Great Market, the National Museum, and Dohany Street Synagogue. Parliament tours in English ran at 12 and 2pm, but the noon tour was full, so we decided to carry on up to Margaret Island. Margaret Bridge is bizarre – built like a standard arch bridge, but bent in the middle to look more like a chevron than a straight line, with a third little prong at the point leading to Margaret Island. The island itself is parkland and swimming pools, with tree-lined avenues full of grumbling tour buses and squeaky little pedal-cars, dotted with fountains, public art and rather too many mosquitoes; we strolled around for a while, before finding a place to eat. A burger the size of a baby’s head set me back 750 FT (Hungarian forints, henceforth “huf”), rather less than £2.50. The food joint had misters spraying a haze of water over the front of the bar, incredibly welcome in the heat. We followed the food with ice creams (they have Twisters in Hungary!) on the journey back to Parliament.

The “Országház”, as they call it, is for my money one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, inside and out. The exterior is stunning, a vast symmetrical sprawl of Gothic Revival excess in white stone, intricate and spiky enough to make St. Pancras look plebeian, its many windows picked out in dark wooden shutters and frames, all topped by a glorious red-roofed dome. The interior is ornate grandeur to put royal palaces to shame, infested with statues, lined with heraldry and dripping with gold. Forty kilos of the stuff was reportedly used in decorating the building, and if you know how thin they hammer gold leaf for gilding, you’ll begin to understand how hellishly impressive the place looked. Under the great dome, flanked by sword-armed guards, the country’s thousand-year-old crown lies on velvet; above it, on each of the tower’s sixteen walls, Hungary’s greatest kings (and a token queen, Maria Theresa) look down with cold, sculpted eyes, their panoply a mix of Eastern and Western fashions across a dozen centuries, Ottoman headgear and curved swords mixing with European hose and harness.

Spending two hours on Margaret Island meant we wouldn’t have time to do the museum satisfactorily, so we instead took a tram down to the Great Market, a huge open glass-and-iron structure full of neatly ordered stalls. It didn’t have the chaotic clutter and mess of the Bullring market in Birmingham, but was definitely a functional, living place where real people shopped (albeit one with the same fruit and veg stall fifty times) rather than a kitschy tourist trap. We hadn’t quite figured out the ticket-punching machines on the first tram (unlike the similar devices in Copenhagen, you can’t just stick a ticket in, you have to pull the hole-punch thing, which we only realised just before getting off) so had, rather naughtily, kept our unpunched tickets. After some discussion about our next move (and a total failure to locate the abandoned Paris Court shopping centre), we used them correctly this time on a tram back towards the flat, via the Dohany Street synagogue. It’s the largest in Europe, but like most synagogues all the fancy bling is on the inside, and it had just closed to visitors (the information booth was called “Jewinform”), and while the outside is still pretty impressive, it is so for scale rather than beauty.

We went back to the flat for tea, as the long-promised rain began to batter at the windows, but couldn’t light the stove to cook dinner (the matches somehow got damp) and decided once the downpour ended to go hunting for langos, a sort of fried bread that Tom had had for lunch on the island and that Bill and James both desired strongly. Unfortunately, it’s the sort of disreputable street food that is sold from crappy roadside vans rather than any establishment with actual stone walls, so we eventually gave up and had cheesy pancakes (and a kebab) instead. Wandering around in search of a cakey dessert, we actually discovered a joint selling langos, and stuffed our little faces with its deliciously unhealthy greasiness, then strolled back to the flat in the evening dark.


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