I arrived in Budapest in the middle of a horrendous thunderstorm, after grabbing an airport bus that connected to a glorious tram with an interior daubed with olive green walls and low-light yellow glass wall lights I arrived in Budapest at Nyugati train station. After getting slightly confused in a rather grim underpass that had partially flooded from the torrential downpour that was continuing above, I discovered the correct exit and, closely hugging the semi-shelter of building walls, walked the few hundred metres to my hostel. The weather refused to allow any evening activities and with a common room full of bedraggled travellers I chose to have an early night.
The next morning was grey and dismal, not too dissimilar to a a typical Mancunian day and my first order of business was to buy something a little warmer to wear, although this was briefly postponed by a trip to a McDonalds for breakfast. This was possibly the grandest McDonalds I had ever visited, seemingly created within a redeveloped train station building.
After fulfilling my dietary and clothing needs I wandered amongst the streets with the general ambling direction being that of the Danube River. The first significant site was the Parliament Building and the rather disorganised and blandly attired guards (compared to other similar guards in capitals around the world). I didn’t go inside the Parliament Building or museum, preferring to save my Hungarian Forints for something more appealing to my nature.
I walked south along the Danube, trying to make out sights along the ‘Buda’ side of the river across from me through the murky skies. I was aiming for the Chain Bridge but along the way I came across ‘Shoes on the Danube’ (pictured below), a memorial to Jewish prisoners who were shot by the river during the Second World War by the fascist Arrow Cross militiamen. Before they were shot they were ordered to remove their shoes, hence the memorial. Quite a moving and thought provoking installation, especially on a suitably dark day as this was.
After crossing the iconic Chain bridge I walked up to the Hungarian National Gallery, there is a funicular tourist trap but the walk is more enjoyable for some of the openings amongst the trees that give you some good views back towards ‘Pest’. The National Gallery, once part of the grander collection of buildings that compromise Buda Castle, has an expansive collection from a multitude of artistic eras right up to the modern day and some really good exhibitions, my particular favourite being the Gunda Antal poster exhibition that depicts some of his striking movie poster work. (http://budapestposter.com/artists/gunda-antal)
As I emerged back into the now slightly more vigorous drizzle that had preceded my entrance to the National Gallery I went in the search of food and found a small cafe to shelter within to dry off and hopefully watch the deluge pass. The Castle District sits proudly on a raised hill above the Danube and is also home to the eloquent Matthias Church and also Fisherman’s Bastion. The cafe had a view of both, the popularity of each attraction was still evident despite the weather, as throngs of plastic shrouded tourists took thinly veiled smiling photos along the parapets of the Bastion. The rain eased slightly and I took a walk around both monuments but found little pleasure dodging umbrellas and impatient amateur photographers.
Seeking refuge I took a rather ambitious decision to blindly navigate to the southern part of the city in search of the Ludwig Art Gallery. Through a combination of walking, subway and yet more walking I arrived with a little over an hour before closing time and managed to have enough time to look round a couple of exhibitions. Being part of a string of art galleries, based on the donations of Peter and Irene Ludwig (being not only art collectors but chocolate magnates), the choice of work on offer is quite personalised to their tastes, but if you enjoy pop art (as I do) and general modern contemporary art it is worth the slightly inconvenient journey to the edge of the city.
The following day I dedicated to relaxation and there is no better way to apparently indulge yourself this way in Budapest than by visiting one of the renown natural hot spring spas that are scattered around the city. Being only in the city briefly I plumped for the widely talked about (at least on the internet) Szechenyi Baths. Having experienced some amazing yet rather naked spas in South Korea (jimjilbangs) I was slightly relieved to find that bathing suits were mandatory here. After paying the entrance fee, collecting a towel and depositing my stuff in the lockers I headed to the various indoor and outdoor pools.
The indoor pools varied in size,purpose and strangely colour. In one pool a group of elderly patrons were wading around single file as the water whirled round and unbalanced them causing some awkward collisions, in another pool people relaxed in oversized jacuzzi style baths and a slightly bigger pool hosted a more family orientated vibe. However the ‘piece de resistance’ was the splendid outdoor baths. Again it was lightly drizzling but there was something quite wonderful about that when you are sat in a forty degrees pool with water jets to massage my aching muscles, pain that still lingered from my epic hike almost a week back in Bulgaria. There was a swimming pool with cooler water sandwiched between the two expansive hot pools although you needed a swimming cap to use that, not that I was in the mood to do anything but relax. Although the entrance fee allowed you to stay all day I decided mid-to-late afternoon to make a move and explore some of the more central areas of the city. I wandered quite aimlessly grabbing food and drink now and again as well as stopping off to read my book before heading back to the hostel. In the evening I joined a couple of Australians who were in my hostel room for a few drinks in the quite unbelievable Szimpla Kert ‘ruin bar’, but I went home earlier than them as I had a train to catch in the morning to Vienna.
Budapest had left quite a mark on me despite the rather grim weather that had followed me throughout, Hungary has received a lot of bad press over recent weeks because of the refugee crisis that has affected this region of Europe but I found the people to be very friendly and helpful throughout my stay. Stress resulting from such a huge crisis often brings the worst out in people but I wouldn’t consider it to be reflective of the Hungarian people. Although I was in Budapest shortly before the closure of the main train station, Keleti, I did witness the mass of refugees around that area when I caught my Vienna bound train the following day. The underground pass outside the station was full of waiting families and the streets above full mostly of fervent young men animatedly discussing ticket prices and such, it was a sobering exit to this great city.