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.

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