I love ’em. Europe-wide, they’re the three places I feel I could stay for months. One is highly publicised – Berlin, one stole my heart the moment I arrived – Barcelona, and the other showed me enough in a few days to make me come running back for more.
I’m talking about Budapest, and yes, I’m putting it in the same category as the Prussian and Catalonian capitals. In 2007, I ventured here knowing next to nothing about it, save a violent water polo match against the Soviets in the Melbourne Olympics, but rather due to the fact that Hungary was covered in my Eurail pass.
My three days in Budapest went by in a whirlwind; eating, drinking and sightseeing as much as possible with two Americans I’d befriended in my hostel. I’d loved the city and thought that I’d seen quite a bit of it. It wasn’t until months later, when I was reading about the city, that I realised I hadn’t even visited Budapest’s three main sights; the Parliament, Castle Hill and its thermal baths. Whoops. A return visit was definitely in order.
It didn’t take long for me this time to figure out what gave Budapest’s its edge. Xavier, a fellow guide on the trip, hit the nail on the head, “It’s as if Vienna and Berlin had a love child.” It’s true – it has all the grand architecture, boulevards and history like Vienna, but was trapped behind the Iron Curtain like much of Berlin, and therefore has its quirky nightlife and general rough and ready vibe.
You can’t actually get more grand than Budapest, really. It’s all about the Danube – Vienna hides it, but Budapest keeps the waterway which inspired Strauss’ famous waltz front and centre. Each bridge which spans it seems more beautiful than the last, with me struggling to photograph them all during our 45-minute river cruise between offers of more and more rum to warm me up. Yes it was cold, but not as cold as Poland, and seeing the Parliament building for the first time was enough for me to forget about the howling wind.
If you haven’t seen the Hungarian Parliament Building before, Google image it now. It is absolutely breathtaking, way too elaborate to be a house of parliament for a 10-million strong country, but I don’t care. It may be modelled on Britain’s Houses of Parliament, but that was just a start I reckon. It is dreamy, romantic and quite possibly my favourite building in the world (not counting any which house any sort of sporting display).
I often wonder which city would be the best to enter via the water. Venice would surely be one, but there’s also the novelty of arriving there by train, choo-chooing over ocean. Budapest at night would be up there – it rivals any city in Asia in terms of how it lights itself up at night. Says guide Amelia, “This city would have a pretty big electricity bill.” We’re eloquent, us guides.
We checked off some of the main sights I’d missed last time, such as Castle Hill with its magnificent views from Fisherman’s Bastion and the glitzy Matthias Church, and doubled up on a few others such as the House of Terror and Heroes Square. We ate bowls of goulash we could swim in, schnitzels twice the size of our heads and local noodles that could double as skipping ropes. We shopped for sloganned tshirts, ogled at window displays of whitegoods (always the one reminder of being in Eastern Europe) and tried on patterned beanies and mittens in the Great Market Hall.
All that excitement and you’re destined to be buggered. And we were, so off we trotted a couple of times to the Szechenyi Baths, a century-old Neo-baroque bathhouse which looks more like a final resting place for kings rather than a glorified big bath. With the temperature hovering around the eight-degree mark, there was no better place to be. It’s something I’m definitely advocating for; mandatory thermal baths after a period of travelling.
And, just like that, Budapest took its rightful place amongst the other two ‘B’s, with Beijing and Bangkok not far behind. Watch out Beirut, Baku and Baghdad!