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.

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