17th August 2017 was not a day we expected to be at the baths. Neither of us take a dip at home, so why would we in Budapest? Because it’s the thing to do. Young and old alike, especially the retired end. Walking about, talking, being on your own, lying on a sunbed as well as standing, sitting, lying and even swimming in the water. Stone statues, mosaic tiles and art nouveau main hall. Popular large outside pool and a smaller one at 36 degrees which is recommended for only five minutes or so. I asked some senior moochers how long they stayed. “Three days.” “Forever.” So important then. There are several inside facilities, for treatments as well as swimming. Ah! Budapest sits on hot mineral springs around which a social life has grown. Then there is the wave machine – powerful and inelegant.
Our Budapest story began a couple of years ago when my son and his Hungarian partner split on the day the childbride and I were due to fly out to stay with her parents. They had stayed with us prior to that, happily, despite no speaking English whatsoever. Earlier this year we celebrated our 70th birthdays at which our son and daughter presented us with tickets and vouchers for flights and accommodation. Where else but Budapest.
We are veterans of many a short break, but we had mixed feelings about this one. Would the arrangements work? Might we be able to wonder at this new place, its history, architecture, food and drink? Would we be looking over our shoulders for the erstwhile in-laws. They did cast a small shadow, but we needed something as the temperature was 35 degrees throughout our stay.
The first impressions, during the taxi ride from the airport, were those of the outskirts of any large European city. A grey, elderly World War Two film set with preserved working tramcars. A city centre walking tour the following day quickly changed these impressions, but still the guide managed to find one building that had bullet holes. Todays buildings are monumental and modern, created out of war rubble. So they are neo classical, neo renaissance and neo gothic, but impressive. No chards or gherkins here. And there are modern styles in keeping with the neighbouring traditional.
It didn’t take us long to discover that Budapest is a big tourist attraction. Especially for youngsters, with their skimpy clothing and bottles of water. Lots of bars and restaurants. We ventured out one night for a cruise, dinner and musical trio. Wasn’t great, mostly kids talking quietly amongst themselves, either in groups or couples. The nightlight city views from the top deck were however stunning. We heard there were ‘ruin’ bars downtown, authentic war torn apartments cum drinking dens in which to get slaughtered. Maybe the kids moved on from the cruise. Walking back to our apartment around 10pm, the streets were full of lively people clearly enjoying themselves. Who knows it may have got even livelier.
Below the froth there are solid coffee grounds. The history of Hungary and its language is complex, mostly about destruction and rebuilding, from the Romans right up to 1989. A nomadic tribe initially, they settled around 1000 and established a kingdom. The country was then occupied by Mongols and Turks before becoming part of the Hapsburg Dominion. An 1848 revolt was suppressed (when the Citadel was constructed). The Austria Hungary compromise came into being in 1867. Despite the gentry defending conservative economics and slow social development, the rest of the nineteenth century seems then to have been a period of stability, with Andrassy as prime minister. Pest was modelled on Paris, most of the monumental buildings seen today were constructed, and Liszt composed music. By the early twentieth century, Budapest rivalled Paris and Vienna as a cultural centre. A period when the gentry were being challenged by emerging middle classes and the jews. In 1918, following the war with Germany, Hungary became a republic, broken up by treaty and dropped from 20 million citizens to 8 million. The Soviets took over after World War Two and stayed until 1989. An attempted revolution was crushed in 1956. A lot of the city was levelled by the Nazi Communist battles at the close of the second world war.
Living in the town centre, we regularly encountered the river Danube, strolling alongside, crossing its bridges or cruising. Our walking guide took us over the Chain Bridge, the first permanent stone crossing which opened in 1849. So to The Castle District or Hill, home to Matthias Church, Government Buildings, galleries and museums. It was impossible to remember them all at the time and websites are confusing. Just looking at the images will have to do. The Labyrinth
We also caught the hop-on-hop-off bus. It drove up Andrassy Avenue to Heroe’s Square. Later we were taken to The Citadel. Iconic Andrassy Avenue connects City Square to City Park. A wide boulevard, completed in 1875, it was home to the city’s elite. Public transport was banned so they built a subway, the first in continental Europe. Heroe’s Square and the monument with Angel Gabriel on the top were completed in 1896 to commemorate 1000 years of The Magyars.
St Stephens Basilica which named after the first king of Hungary. A catholic church, it was inaugurated in 1906. The Market Hall, built in 1897. Food on the bottom level and tat everywhere else. Finally The Citadel. Built in 1851 to help the Hapsburgs repress the citizens, the Austrians didn’t leave until 1897. Both the Nazis and Communists used it for similar reasons. The monument is a woman holding a palm leaf, ironically called Liberty Monument ostensibly to celebrate Soviets overcoming the Nazi occupation. We did not have time for the jewish quarter.
Whilst a short break is an enjoyable event, away from the normal humdrum of home life, it is also an opportunity to explore whether new experiences challenge or confirm what makes sense to us. We are no strangers to the history of recurring violence and large numbers of casualties. Visits to Belsen, Auschwitz and Kilmainham Gaol, amongst others, have given us cause to ponder inhumanity. Not a personal memoire though. Again we are the golden generation: free university education, easy mortgages and no wars on our own doorstep. I wonder what this does for our resilience and tolerance, or is it that, in these days of social media, we are simply more aware of unnecessary magnification of personal misery, increasing anger on the streets and in the home, and the easy often illegal ways to have what celebrities and footballers have. I guess all this goes over the heads of youngsters with their skimpy clothing and water bottles.
Going to Budapest doesn’t answer any of these questions. Superficially it is another hedonistic stopping off point, counting the ways the tourist industry relieves us of our cash. We were warned about mugging before we set off and an important part of the walking talk was the do’s and don’ts of being a tourist in Budapest, including a brochure. We hugely enjoyed it nevertheless, the highlight being our walking-tour guide. A young sociology graduate with a passion for all things Hungarian.
Travelling is an issue these days. A series of queues, two hours in a flying tube and a taxi ride at either end. The destination has to be sufficiently attractive to justify putting up with the hassle. Our son and daughter can rest easy. Their arrangements were fine.
Would we go again? Yes – two days give a taste. We managed to do quite a bit, but there wasn’t enough time to visit a museum or a gallery. The childbride wants to go back on the cruise boats going from Budapest through Vienna up to Nuremberg.