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.