“Budapest is a prime site for dreams: the East’s exuberant vision of the West, the West’s uneasy hallucination of the East. It is a dreamed-up city; a city almost completely faked; a city invented out of other cities, out of Paris by way of Vienna” M. John Harrison ‘The Course of the Heart’
The Ryanair flight landed around mid-morning at the Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport, named after the nineteenth century Hungarian composer (quiz questions below*) and once through baggage reclaim and passport control we looked for transport into the city a distance of about about fifteen kilometres away. I am a natural skinflint so turned a blind eye to the taxi line and Mike is an incurable train enthusiast so he steered us in the direction of a bus that would take us to the metro station.
The bus travelled for twenty minutes or so and then dropped us at the southern terminus of metro line three, Kőbánya-Kispest and we waited just a short while for a lumbering but workmanlike Prussian blue train to come into the station. Budapest has the oldest electrified underground railway system on the European continent, and the second-oldest in the world after London. I think this train may well have been part of the original rolling stock, it was noisy and uncomfortable but it was quick and efficient and in just a few minutes we were at our stop close to our hotel.
We walked the last couple of hundred metres or so to our hotel down a wide boulevard and across the River Danube (grey and uninviting rather than blue and gay) and as we entered through the revolving doors it was everything that we had been expecting. We had been tempted to stay at the famous spa hotel, The Gellért, after watching Michael Palin’s ‘New Europe’ when he featured the hotel in his TV travel programme. This is a five star hotel and ordinarily a bit beyond my budget (actually quite a lot beyond my budget) but with bargain price flights we considered the additional cost of a superior room with a view over the Danube to be entirely justified.
The hotel is a reminder of those powerful days of Empire with a towering façade, in need of a bit of restoration, and an entrance lobby of huge dimensions and acres of wasted space. After check in a bell hop tried to wrestle my bag from me but I held on to it and explained that I thought we would be able to find the room unaccompanied. I don’t mind someone carrying my bag for me it’s just that I am never sure how much to tip for the service. They haven’t done a great deal of work so I am not minded to tip generously but a couple of low value coins also seems embarrassingly miserly to me.
The third floor room was excellent, well decorated with substantial furniture, a mini bar with only slightly above prices (a big bonus in case of an emergency) and a balcony with a view of the Liberty Bridge crossing the Danube with Pest sprawling away on the other side of the river.
Trams ran adjacent to the river and every so often one would rattle by and ring a bell to warn pedestrians to move aside out of the way. I like to see trams as they are one of the distinctive and romantic images of eastern European cities and seem to me to be a symbolic reminder of the pre-war and the soviet eras. Immediately outside the hotel there was a busy intersection with an intricate spider’s web of overhead electric cables providing power to the yellow carriages that regularly rattled past on the steel tracks in the roads.
Some of these were modern Bombardier flexi-trams that hummed rather than clanked but my favourites were certain future museum pieces from the 1960s that conjured up images of the old days of the Soviet Empire that creaked and complained with rusty metal wheels that squealed along the metal tracks.
I noticed that as passengers got on board they immediately began to look grey and tired and seemed to become a feature of the tram as though locked permanently into a 1960s Budapest time warp. The trams whirred and screeched and sounded bells to warn of their approach as they drew up and pulled off, setting down and picking up and clattering away again between the rows of elegant buildings and out towards the residential apartments of the city suburbs.
After we had settled in and approved our rooms, the girls declared it coffee and cake time so we found a salon on the ground floor of the hotel and sat and planned our sightseeing tour of the city – we thought that we might start with the Danube and the Bridges of Budapest.
* Quiz Time
Which International Airports are named after these famous composers/musicians?
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Franc Josef Strauss
Bonus Question – What is the connection between Elvis Presley and Prestwick Airport, Glasgow?