I never quite counted Slovenia as proper ex-Iron Curtain eastern Europe. Sure, it was part of Tito’s fun park for many years, but it lacked that certain blockhouse ambiance I was seeking. But arriving in Budapest station I detected a whiff of post-imperium residue hanging in the air like steam from a bowl of goulash. I traded my euros for forints from one of the cashed up black market moneychangers loitering near the platforms. A woman spruiking on the train as we approached the capital had offered us the same place we had decided to stay anyway, but with a free minibus ride thrown in. She had made some dire warnings about the shortage of accommodation in the city due to the F1 grand prix, that I had no way of ascertaining if it was true (it was). I tend to go on the assumption that anything that comes out of the mouth of a tout is most probably a lie, and Karina haggled her down on price as she does. Vanless, this was to be our lot from now on.
The minibus was an hour late, and the driver appeared to get lost on the way as we passed the same intersection for a second time and made a couple of spontaneous u-turns. We had booked into a place in Buda, on the hilly west bank of the mighty Danube, and copped our first look at the river and the city with it’s night lights twinkling on as we crossed one of the three bridges that span it. By the time the Danube arcs through the city I’d reckon it’s almost a kilometer wide in parts, flowing at a fair rate of knots, and a turgid brown instead of a Straussy blue. The hotel turned out to be a towerblock near the summit of a hill, a university building that was whoring out it’s student dorms during the summer for tourist cash. Our east-facing window on the tenth floor had to be one of the best views of the city, with the city, the citadelle, and a giant statue of what looked like an angel catching a frisbee all lit up. We dropped of our hefty packs, and wandered out and back down the steep hill looking for some hunnish action. The street seemed fairly quiet, and we learned later that there are only two zones in the city that support substantial nightlife. The only place selling food was a country and western theme bar, but the beer was cheap and the chicken wings came with paprika.
The next day we wandered across the bridge to Pest, and up the main shopping street. I wanted to find a Lonely Planet on Eastern Europe, but either by will or luck no store carried it, so I had to pay over the odds for their Europe guide. Now Europe has 48 countries so it doesn’t get into a great level of detail on any particular one, especially not the ones we were planning to go. I have mixed feelings about Lonely Planet, and try and use the internet, maps and whimsy instead to plan my journey, as they are so ubiquitous they sort of create their own busy backpacker web that distorts things around it. However it does have one thing that other pretenders lack, and that’s good city maps with budget accommodation listed. If you’re carrying a heavy pack and have arrived at an unseemly hour at some train terminal, they definitely pay their own way or at least give you a point of comparison if you head off the page. And in those traveling hours on trains or in hotel rooms, I’ve read each one cover to cover, from the authors’ ‘zany’ bios to their ads for their website. The Europe guide allowed me to read about bus timetables in Moldova and their pick for best bakery in Reykjavik.
The huns (i use the term but they’re no more related to Atilla and his merry horde than Paris Hilton, and more people have seen her axe wound) are great ones to have a soak, so we went out on their spacious metro train to some pleasant parkland in the midday sun where a huge Rococo bathing complex was. We were ushered to our own changing cubicle by some white uniformed staff that looked like they were working in a soviet mental asylum, and wandered through vaulted halls past marble spas of differing temperatures. Emerging into a huge walled courtyard, we had the pick of three large heated lakes replete with fountains and jets, and joined the many local Budapestians floating contentedly or reclining on the boardwalks and lounges. After a couple of hours of acting like a new potato, I opted for one of the massage treatments on offer. Following an old fashion ticketing system, the woman masseuse when my turn came wouldn’t have looked out of place as a bond villain. She ushered me into a steamy cubicle, complaining that the fan was broken and that she should not have to work like this. I’m not sure what school it was, but what followed was one of the most brutal massages I’d ever received. The next day my calves ached from the pounding they were given. Instead of Celtic whalesong muzak, the ambiance was provided by a yelled argument with the woman masseuse in the next cubicle that flared up throughout the half hour.
After a last recovery soak we caught a tram back and across the bridge near the base of the Buda citadelle. As we neared the gate, our path rose as steeply as the beer prices, but we came across a cafe on the castle walls with such a lovely vantage point that we couldn’t resist a sit down. A gypsy three-piece of violin, double bass and harpsichord came and serenaded us in quiet a romantic moment, broken when the violinist started putting the hard sell on Karina to buy one of his family CD’s of cheesy covers. We went down for dinner that night to a long street of restaurants and bars, and ended up yaking for hours to a retired couple from Illinois who were following the F1 grand prix around Europe. The next day we had a late train to catch, so we dropped our bags off at the station lockers than went for a long walk on a hot day ending in some parkland with a stately home and lake. While we lazed on the lakeshore some bloke’s youngster fell into the lake and floundered, before being rescued by a helpful stranger. I was in such a lazy funk lying on the grassy bank that my only reaction was to prod karina awake to point it out.