We arrived at Budapest with mixed feelings. Our first visit four years ago was not wholly positive and involved a run in with the authorities which heightened our collective anxiety and left us both disappointed by the city which we felt to be, outside of the big sights, grubby and unkempt with a vibrant street culture of extortion.
After a hearty Hungarian lunch at our campsite of chicken paprika and spiced sausage and cabbage we were fortified to explore again the centre. Buying a 72 hour travel ticket meant we had unlimited access to the trams, metro, bus and train lines and crucially could avoid the rodent-like and black arm-band wearing ‘inspectors’ that scurry about the metro stations looking for the opportunities to issue tourists with random and hefty ‘fines’.
It was 40 degrees so what better to do than climb steeply up to the hillside citadel with its triumphant Habsburg monument to liberty, and enjoy panoramic views to re-orientate ourselves? The Danube sparkled and was busy with day boats and river cruisers (howdy Americans!).
The glorious skyline of Pest’s Parliament, Basilica of St Stephen, Great Synagogue and the city’s many bridges shone in the sunshine. It was mesmerising and absorbing.
Excitedly we scooted down the chicane pathway to Rudas Baths and Pump Room at the bottom of Castle District. Gulping down some smelly mineral water before catching a tram at the riverside we planned a tour along the banks of Buda, but were quickly brought to a halt by construction works. This was to be a theme of our visit.
It’s wonderful to see the huge programme of investment in restoring the historic buildings, alongside improving public transport, but work is seemingly being carried out in the most disruptive and disorganised way possible. A good example is the new Ferris Wheel situated in the Belvaros quarter of expensive hotels and high end boutiques.
The Wheel is up and running but the pedestrian pathways leading to and around it are still being laid. Consequently the pods on the wheel were sailing largely empty of passengers in the hot afternoon sunshine.
We left behind the flashy bars and late night shoppers at the stylish boutiques to hunt down a happy memory. During our last visit we had stumbled along unlit and dug up roads around the Jewish Quarter to find a ‘ruin’ pub.
These were bars initially set up informally by young people in derelict buildings as a venue for their own entertainment. Would the one we remembered for its 1980’s paraphernalia of computers and technology still be running?
Indeed it is. Not only is ‘Szimpla Kert’ still the same inspired collection of variously decorated rooms within a former agricultural building, it’s now the top attraction on the ‘ruin pub’ tour! Bemused we watched gangs of Japanese, American, and underage kids meander around the neon lit and cavernous bar.
It was an enjoyable way to end our day and to make plans for the following ones…