Monday, 7 April 2014

Budapest day 5 - in which we enjoy a decadent breakfast and return to traffic chaos

We have time to enjoy a leisurely start to the day and while Simon is packing, I go for a last-minute shopping trip to the idiosyncratic Spar, picking up the inevitable paprika and a few other goodies to take home. Then it’s off to the New York Café again to end as we began – with a decadent champagne breakfast. Here, for the first time we encounter the surly service our colleague Steve warned us about – the maître D looks as though he’s been up all night and his red-rimmed eyes can barely focus. Maybe he’s been celebrating or commiserating the result of the invisible election.

Returning to the Ibis to pick up our bags we take a taxi to the airport. It’s a miracle we ever arrive – the driver seems to have a death wish and weaves alarmingly between lanes. It’s a relief when we finally arrive in one piece. The flight home is unremarkable, which is more than can be said for the rest of the journey. Arriving at Terminal 3 we find it’s a long walk to the central bus station where we have just missed the Railair service. Then, as we approach Reading it’s clear that something is wrong with the traffic. There are no taxis at the South taxi rank and judging by the double line of buses backed up along Station Road, no chance of them arriving anytime soon. A traffic cop has given up trying to solve the problem and is simply standing in the road with his hands on his hips, shaking his head.
We quickly assess the situation and decide our best bet is the new north taxi rank. No taxis there either. The traffic seems to be gridlocked here, too. Suddenly, a stroke of luck – we spot a minicab dropping off a fare and quickly call his office to book him. Finally we’re on the move again, albeit slowly. It transpires that the council has decided to work on most of the main routes during the Easter period, with chaotic results. We’re late picking Alex up but at least this time we managed to make it home on the right day!

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Budapest day 4 - in which there is an invisible election and much water

For breakfast, we stroll around the corner to Ladó, a Jazz café which Simon knows from his previous visit. He’s not a big jazz fan (and mistakes Nina Simone for Rod Stewart while we’re eating!) but the food is good. Hungarian scrambled eggs are similar to Mexican Huevos Revueltos and my reduced-size 2-egg portion is amply delicious. I forgo the recommended glass of pálinka (the local plum brandy) to accompany it, and break briefly from eating to rescue a honeybee that’s battering itself on the inside of the window in an attempt to reach the flowers in the window box outside.

We’ve decided to try and reach the Legenda pier for its 11am river cruise – a bit of a stretch but if we miss it we’ll find something else to do for 90 minutes until the next one. We set off on foot and then hop on a bus that we hope will go as far as the river. It does, and we make the pier with 5 minutes to spare. It’s an impressive operation with permanent booking office and a comfortable waiting room. We’re shown to our boat and I persuade Simon to sit on the upper deck where there are no windows to obscure our view. Luckily, rugs are provided – it’s windier today, although still dry.

We enjoy the multi-lingual commentary, which has a male voice for Buda and a female for Pest (or maybe the other way round!) so that we know which way to look, and the complimentary champagne. The boat stops at Margaret Island, where you can catch a later service back, but we’ve already visited so we stay aboard.

We return to the pier and cross under the tramway to Vörösmarty Ter where there is an Easter market, then stroll down Váci Utca which is full of shops. I manage to pick up a T-shirt for Alex but other than souvenirs it’s just normal high street merchandise and the global chains are all represented. There are a few courtyard areas where small independent shops have opened up but, either due to the election or the fact that it’s Sunday, most are closed. At one point we find ourselves in an abandoned shopping centre.

We stop for lunch at Old Street Café, opposite the former grand market hall which now houses an Aldi. It’s warm enough to sit outside now we’re away from the river. We’ve decided to do separate things this afternoon – I’m going to visit the Gellert thermal baths and Simon wants to watch the Grand Prix – so we head across Elizabeth Bridge to Buda so that I can get my bearings. We walk along the bank down to Liberty bridge, passing the Rudas Baths, the Liberty Monument and the Cave Chapel . The Gellert Baths are behind the Gellert Hotel, which sits on a pleasant square by the river. A water feature sits above the staircase down to the brand new M4 metro line that only opened last week.

We wander further along the river, to the University building we saw from the boat trip and the surreal “whale” building opposite. Taking the tram across Liberty Bridge we explore the whale at close quarters and find it’s a partially-let shopping, dining and exhibition complex. So much of Budapest seems to have been newly built but only partly let. Official looking people in reflective jackets make us thing that this may be a polling station, but actually we can find no evidence at all that the election is even happening.
We walk back to Buda across the chain bridge, and start to walk back down to Gellert square but make a couple of false starts. First we try to go behind the riverside buildings along the old city walls, but it’s a dead end. Then we find ourselves caught up on a procession of locals in their Sunday best, all flocking to a newly opened portion of restored terracing that’s clearly the subject of some excitement. That also takes us back on ourselves, but finally we find the way to a tramstop that takes us back down to Gellert Square.

The thermal baths are an interesting experience. A friendly attendant shows me to a curtained cubicle where there’s a mini wardrobe for my clothes and a narrow couch with a vinyl covered mattress. After I’ve changed, she chalks a number on the inside of the wardrobe door and gives me a numbered token. Her English is very limited, so I don’t ask for any guidance and instead begin to explore for myself. The first thing I find is the swimming pool, in a colonnaded hall flanked by loungers, palms and a balcony. It’s cold, so I give that a miss! At the end there’s a semi-circular thermal pool, much more to my taste. Next I walk through to a room with two thermal pools of different temperatures at either end, which I find fairly disappointing. The guide book has described Gellert baths as like “bathing in a cathedral” but there’s nothing remotely cathedral-like about it. Apart from the high barrelled roof I could be in any municipal swimming pool. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Nirvana.
The other thermal room is more impressive – the tiles on the walls are more ornate and there are throne-like benches and a fountain with a chubby cherub riding on the back of a turtle. All very rococo and more in line with my expectations. I bumble around for a while, moving from pool to pool and people-watching while grumpily trying to avoid the people taking photos. There’s one skinny youth who spends his whole time strutting around showing off his tattoos and lots of couples, some of who could do with getting a room.

I ask about the outdoor wave pool but it’s closed out of season. But exploring the gallery above the swimming pool I find a note explaining that the outdoor thermal pool can be accessed by taking a door between two of the changing cabins; it’s a nice day so I make my way outside and spend some time enjoying the afternoon sunshine in the warm water. Finally I check out the sauna, which is as disappointing as the first thermal pool – just a concrete room with wooden benches, really depressing.
The lobby area is pretty spectacular, so I stop there for a piece of cake and a coffee after drying off. There are treatment rooms for facials and massages and I buy some avocado oil soap to take home. I’m glad I came, as the thermal baths are part of what made Budapest a thriving and cosmopolitan city, but if this is one of the more impressive ones I think they’ve been left behind.

I take the brand new line 4 and the older line 2 back to the Ibis and time my return to the hotel perfectly – the Grand Prix is just finishing and there’s time for a quick glass of wine before going out for dinner. We haven’t booked anywhere as none of the restaurants we contacted were open on Sundays – we’re just going to wander until we find something we like.

But first, a drink at our favourite ruin bar Fogas Hazs. It being election day, it’s filled with balloons bearing the faces of two of the candidates with gives it a rather surreal air. This is genuinely the first sign we have seen of the election, though. We check out a nearby pedestrian area flanked by restaurants but they are all rather commercialised and uninspiring. It does give us the opportunity to enjoy the façade of the Ferenc Liszt Academy which is one of the prettiest buildings I have seen in a city of gems.
We end up at Magdalena Merlo, a family-run restaurant with a good selection of dishes that claim to have been handed down through the proprietor’s family. The food is excellent.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Budapest day 3 - In which a volcano erupts but fortunately not in our hemisphere

 We wake to the news that a volcano has erupted but luckily – for us, anyway – it’s in Equador and highly unlikely to affect flights in Europe. Our first mission today is an expedition to CandA where we hope to find a swimsuit so I can go to one of the thermal baths. I managed to forget mine and it seems the most cost-effective option – the lingerie and swimwear shop we tried in Mammoth was charging £60! Although a round of drinks in a bar is less than a fiver and dining out is reasonable, clothes seem disproportionately expensive. We find the CandA, in a shopping centre called West End, next to the central station. We planned to stop for breakfast on the way but failed to find anywhere suitable, so we eat in the basement food court. Frozen yoghurt with fruit compote and seeds for me and a burger and chips for Simon!

Next stop is the imposing parliament building on the Pest riverbank. It’s enormous and ornate, modelled on the British Houses of Parliament but built from a stone so porous it’s been under constant repair since 10 years after it was built due to its susceptibility to pollution.

We discover that we can visit some of the rooms so we book for the 3pm tour and meanwhile enjoy the campest changing of the guard ceremony we’ve ever seen, and the oddest water feature, where water vapour is sprayed from outlets in the pavement giving the impression that the tourists - and especially the children who run towards it - are being gassed. We spend the intervening period exploring the embassy quarter and the basilica. The embassies are arranged around a pleasant garden square but the “land of the free” has high steel fences and strong security. A bronze statue of Ronald Reagan lends a surreal touch in a nearby corner and nearby a couple practice their tightrope walking on a tape stretched between two trees.
The basilica is impressive and houses Hungary’s most precious religious relic – the mummified right hand of St Stephen, although the Holy Right Chapel where it resides is closed for a private function. Instead we take the opportunity to go to the top of the dome and admire the views of the city. Having read in the guidebook that construction of the church had been briefly abandoned when the dome collapsed, Simon is not wildly enthusiastic about this, but I’m fascinated to get an insight into the hidden parts above the gilt and marble and a sense of how the building is constructed.

It’s a surprise to realise that the inner dome visible from inside the church and the outer dome are actually two different elements and the outer dome is lined with timber. The views are stunning. Returning to ground level we do a circuit of the church and see the newly married couple whose wedding was taking place in the Holy Right Chapel having their photos taken.

We walk back to the Parliament area along the river, happening to pass the Shoes on the Danube Memorial where a poignant collection of brass shoes represent the Hungarian Jews shot and thrown into the river by fascists in 1944.
We just have time for a quick lunch of goulash soup at the nearby Grey Goose bar before reporting for our parliament tour. We only see a few rooms but they are incredibly opulent – the Congress Hall in particular is all velvet, silk and gilt and each doorway has a cigar holder outside, numbered so that emerging politicians can relocate their cigars. The crown of St Stephen on display in the domed hall has a rakishly tilted cross on the top which we later see echoed in architectural features. It’s rather endearing.

We decide to walk from here to Margaret Island which is accessible at either end by bridges spanning the Danube. It’s a popular place for relaxing and exercising and there’s a large sporting complex where Olympic athletes train as well as a running track. It boasts a wide range of attractions, some more attractive than others. We enjoy the ruins of the Franciscan Church, the Domincan Convent and the reconstructed Premonstratensian Church, and there are some attractive flower beds and pergolas, but the Japanese Garden and the Musical Fountain are a disappointment. Like much of Budapest, they are badly in need of renovation.
Our next stop is the Jewish Quarter, dominated by The Great Synagogue with a touching Tree of Life memorial in the rear courtyard, each leaf representing somebody lost in the holocaust. It being the Jewish Sabbath we can’t go inside. We walk back to our hotel via the arts district, and rest briefly at the Alcatraz Garden bar, which has sprung up on a patch of derelict ground found the corner from our hotel.

After a brief stop at the Ibis to freshen up (stepping over a vagrant asleep in the lobby on the way in), we go out to dinner at Firkász, one of the restaurants Simon enjoyed on his previous trip. It was apparently established by two journalists and the décor has a newspaper theme and a homely feel with lots of dark wood and soft lighting. A pianist doodles while we eat and we find ourselves caught up in the conversation between adjacent tables occupied by an American couple, another American who lives above the restaurant and some visiting Bulgarians. We share a meat platter then I have the famous Mangalita pork that Simon had enjoyed at Klassz, he has lamb and both are good, although I think the pork at Klassz was better.
After dinner we walk along the Danube as far as the chain bridge, admiring the illuminated bridges and buildings, and then back to the Ibis by tram and bus. As we pass through Blaha Lujza tér we see a man apparently rummaging in the bushes (but more probably taking a pee) suddenly keel over, drunk. This seems to be a feature of Budapest, each park bench has a sleeping hobo, many clutching cans of beer. The benches are designed with a pronounced wave, presumably to deter people from sleeping on them but it actually looks pretty comfortable.

I’m realising Budapest is a city of contrasts – the boundless spending on civic buildings like the parliament (which, like the palace, had to be almost completely rebuilt after WW2) is not matched in the privately-owned buildings which are being allowed to quietly crumble. In a spirit of enterprise this dereliction has been converted to an opportunity by the establishment of ruin bars. But, long term, investment is needed to avoid Budapest becoming a city where only the buildings owned by the state and the church remain standing. And the extensive urban renewal projects that are being undertaken (many with EU funding) don’t seem to be enough to provide economic stability for the citizens.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Budapest day 2 - in which we visit a crazy Spar and a ruin bar

Simon suggests we should begin our first full day with champagne breakfast at the New York Café. It seems rude to argue. Legend has it that when it opened, one of the well-known artists of the time threw the key into the Danube so it could never close. The breakfast buffet is impressive and so is the opulent rococo décor. We eat and drink our fill and set off on foot for Oktogon, where we buy a 72 hour Budapest card and catch the M1 metro.

This is the oldest Metro line and the tiny carriages are quaint, as are the stations. It runs in a straight line just below street level and you have to go back up to the street to change direction. It ends at the Danube, where we switch to line 2 to cross under it and emerge at St Ana’s Basilica. The square is flanked by clock towers, and I’m so busy looking at those, Simon has to point out the spectacular parliament building just across the river.

We stroll along the river to the bottom of the funicular railway, which we take up to the palace area, within the old city walls. The palace is massive and the architecture impressive – more so when you realise how extensively it was damaged during WW2. It’s now a museum. Alongside are the foundations of much earlier fortifications, and the current presidential palace.

We begin to walk around the top of the city walls, along an avenue of blossom trees. There are great views of the distant Buda hills and the closer rooftops of building from various periods. We notice a couple of ancient rooftops that have miraculously survived centuries of neglect, as well as a more modern but fascinatingly undulating roof that we decide to check out later.
Arriving at the centre of the old town, we can’t miss the hideous Hilton Hotel which jars horribly with the native architecture. They are relaying the cobbles here and we’re happy to move swiftly on to St Stephen’s church and the Fishermen’s Bastion. The bastion is Disneyesque, reminiscent of the medieval style castles in animated movies and, although it pre-dates them it’s much more modern than it looks. It gives great views of both the Pest area across the river and the lower parts of Buda, though.

We’re ready for a rest and a drink now and stop at the first appealing bar, called Sörözö Knajpa, which turns out to be tiny – the entire bar area is no bigger than our dining room, with just two small round tables and a two-seater bench opposite. Luckily it’s warm enough to sit outside, where we’re amused to feature in the photos of other tourists.

Leaving the walled city we walk down into central Buda in the direction of the crazy undulating roof. It’s disappointing to find it sits above a disastrous piece of architecture and is apparently an apartment and office complex. We can sort of see what the designer had in mind but didn’t quite carry it off. I’m still without glasses so we go into the Mammoth shopping centre, which is as giant as it sounds, and find some.
Crossing back to Pest we make our way to heroes square, a large plaza with a column at the centre, flanked by colonnades bearing statues of rulers and statesmen from Hungary’s history. Beyond the square, we enter City Park, a pleasant green space with some romantic buildings. The first looks like a medieval castle flanked by a lake, part of which is a skating rink in winter. It houses the Agricultural Museum.

City Park is the location of the Széchenyi Baths, one of the many thermal baths fed from natural hot springs. There’s also the Palace of Art, a Zoo, a circus and numerous statues. I’m particularly amused by the travelling bar, which drinkers power by pedalling.

We make our way back along the length of Andrassy Ut, the smartest street in Budapest, which houses many of the grandest buildings although many are in a poor state of repair. There are mansions, theatres and the notorious House of Terror, the former HQ of the secret police reputedly constructed with walls of double thickness to muffle the screams of those it interrogated. Arriving back in our quarter Simon takes me to see the Spar supermarket which is housed in a building that seems to have been perhaps a factory in a previous life – it’s a cavernous space with high ceilings and metal gantries, really quite bizarre.

Opposite, and equally bizarre in its own way, is Fogas Ház ruin bar. These bars spring up in abandoned buildings and are furnished with found objects – this one has a pleasant open courtyard and beyond it a tented space like a mini big-top. We enjoy a drink there before dinner, then we eat at Klassz on Andrassy Ut, a wine bar with excellent food. My cauliflower risotto is amazing and Simon orders the local Mangalita pork – actually wild boar - which is delicious. The wine is fantastic, too.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Budapest Day 1 - in which we dispatch our son to Cordoba and run away to Budapest

Alex is going to Cordoba on a school trip so we’ve decided to take advantage of being sans child and go to Budapest. Last time we tried a similar trick the unpronounceable volcano in Iceland erupted and we got back a week after Alex. Surely the same thing couldn’t happen twice. Could it?

Alex’s departure is a rather inconvenient 4.30am but luckily Simon offers to take care of that. Our flight is at 2.35 pm so we have time for a leisurely start and an ample lunch at Heathrow. Budapest airport is modern and efficient, with a mini terminal 5 wave design, and Simon’s experience means he knows we have to book a taxi at the official booth rather than taking our chances with the unlicensed ones.
First impressions – the makeshift shelters in the woods don’t bode well – a sort of semi-rural shanty town – nor do the many Tesco billboards. Those aside, I notice the liberal use of the word “legjobb” on ads, which I later find out means something along the lines of “really amazingly good” in Hungarian. Everything is legjobb until the arm breaks off my reading glasses in the taxi. I didn’t bring spares.

It takes less than half an hour to reach the Ibis City, the hotel where Simon stayed last time, which is clean, cheap and central. Our room is at the back and looks out onto the rear of a traditional apartment building, flanked by concrete. After we unpack we head straight out to one of the bars Simon visited last trip, the Bodeguita delMedio. It has a Cuban theme so a mojito is in order. It’s a balmy night and we sit in a colonnaded courtyard among the trees. A skeleton gazes down on us from his perch on the balcony above.
We walk to a restaurant called M that Simon has picked from the guidebook. It’s small and cosy and the quirky décor consists of brown paper wallpaper with furniture drawn on it. We eat upstairs.  The food is good – we share a cold meat platter then I have rabbit in white wine and Simon has duck. I can’t resist a chilli chocolate parfait for dessert.

After dinner we stroll around the quarter near our hotel and have a look at the opera house – and the derelict theatre opposite which is being allowed to fall into ruin, with a wooden roof over the pavement to protect pedestrians. This semi-permanent damage limitation method will become a familiar sight.