mbarrassed by open displays of affection? Don’t come to Budapest.
Young men and women entwine in each other’s arms on trams and enjoy much canoodling with little nods from spectators. On tram stops there are long spine-tingling goodbyes. Why have two seats when one will do? Relaxed groping is happening all around. Bum holding, French kissing -— on the way to work?
And it isn’t just young people. Middle-aged couples sit hand in hand and sprinkle each other with meaningful kisses. They smile at each other with no hint of nagging or criticism, just pleasure in being together. Willingness to please their partners.
Even older couples who creakily climb aboard sit opposite each other holding hands and revelling in each other’s wrinkles. What is their secret? Is Budapest the love capital of Europe? Are they just eternally grateful to have found each other? I’m always wondering. My family and I have been coming to loved-up Budapest for 12 years. My daughter has cerebral palsy and we come here for therapy at the Peto Institute. She has gone from lying on the ground and being able to do nothing (aged 9) to cruising around furniture and walking alone for short distances. She also uses the toilet independently, a great bonus. She can also use her hands much better, making it possible for her to study art in Cork.
Crumbling buildings my father always says this is why my husband, Graeme, likes Budapest. “The crumblier the better.” Well, there is no shortage of them. If you want to feel the chill of a bygone era, all you have to do is stroll into Nyugati Pályaudvar Railway Station and join the long queue for a hand written ticket.
Way above our heads on the extra high roof lurk flocks of cooing pigeons gather and the station is relatively unchanged for more than 100 years. One can’t enter here without feeling a chill. To leave the station and re-emerge into the sunny, thronged streets is like returning in a time machine.
Hungarians love to queue. It’s a hangover from the Communist era. They stand patiently clutching their paper numbers, untutting, unhurried, though the queue inches forward as slowly as a pregnant snail. They wait in line in supermarkets, train stations, telephone shops and post offices. They are a patient people.
The last time I went to the chemist, I instantly regretted it. Another number. With old ladies serenely seated, checking untrustingly to make sure I got myself a ticket. Their days will roll along again once they have their pills in hand. I waited a mere half an hour for my tube of Arnica. I even went out to have a cup of coffee while I waited. We lived in this city for two years, so I grew used to the strange ways. Bathing in Budapest will spoil you. You will turn into a wimp in every other swimming pool. It’s probably the only time wading into a pool will make you feel warmer. Imagine the snow on the ground, the mist in the air. You’re outside, surrounded by neo-classical yellow buildings and you sink up to your neck in cosy water.
A game of chess is being played on your right. In the water, about six men with baked bodies are floating and studying their next moves. This is Szechenyi Furdo and a wise tourist will head straight for it. Couples flirt and frolic in secrecy and I float in the mineral-rich water, pushing my feet down into the massage points and giggling with the tickle.
By now, my husband, Graeme, has tired of floating and has entered the 15 inner pools of varying degrees, ending in a plunge pool and sauna. He’s a glutton for punishment.
The staff here are hand-picked for rudeness. If you smile readily, you’re out. He who has the best frown stays the longest. You have to practise your snap. When asked a question by a wonder-struck tourist, it’s all in the bite back. You bark your response. Unhelpfulness is the key to promotion. And being helpful is a sure route to being fired. Do not accumulate words of English either as this is deemed unnecessary. Just talk away uncaringly in Hungarian and you’re tailor made for the post. But have you seen the view yet? The rudeness is tossed away when you glimpse the elegant pre-Raphaelite buildings; the blue skies; clear waters ; and yellow Roman surrounds.
Skipping aboard a yellow tram looks very simple. They are the best way to get around the city. The network is quick, reliable and cheap. But hang on a minute, don’t we need a ticket? Where do we get one? That’s not so obvious. You’ll need your passport to buy one and you can get one at either end of the 4 and 6 trams which travel from Buda to Pest, day and night. They come every few minutes by day and throughout the night.
No ticket? You might meet the poe-faced ticket inspectors. They spring on board looking like a normal passenger. Nothing suspicious at all you think. Just a man in a suit. Or a woman in a dress. Then they pounce. On goes the blue cuff and they cruise through the tram hopeful of a wide-eyed, trusting tourist.
You’re on your way to get a ticket? Forget it. You are just about to change money? Pull the other one. Ticket inspectors in Budapest are like nastier versions of Alan Sugar. “you’re fined.” You can blow a whole day’s spending money. Not the best way to start your trip. Children can have part-time paper rounds, can create their own apps and ride bicycles, but in Budapest, you can board a train which is staffed by under 14’s? Dressed in full hat and uniform and wearing proud smiles, the children mechanically check tickets as you ease your way on the Children’s Railway in the Buda Hills.
The scenery is breathtaking and on a sauna-like day, it’s a relief to step on board the little red train and let the wind whistle through the open sides. It’s a great way to lose a fever or dispense with a hot flush.
Which brings me nicely to my romantic stop – the Castle District. Don’t come home without seeing this. Glorious turrets. Cafes spilling onto the cobbles serving creamy coffees and cakes. An ornate church with a green sparkly roof (St. Mathias). Colourful pastel old-style houses reminiscent of old Buda and views – yes! The Fisherman’s Bastion provides glimpses of Budapest and the Danube stretching out before you like a baby yawning. And as a mother is drawn to her offspring, it’s an irrestible pull. Oh to be sucked into that view. It puts you in mind of looking at paintings and while you’re up here, you have to take a peek in the dramatic Budapest Royal Palace teeming with art. But the views are forever swiping the visitor’s attention, making you question can any painting beat that vista?
Enjoying a beer in a bath? An abandoned beautiful building turned into a pub? What, I hear you cry. Yes. These are the ruin bars of Budapest, which are too seductive to miss. Zsimpla Kert in the old Jewish quarter is the first and the most famous of these. Nobody leaves this bar easily. It feels like the inside of an old ornate building is scooped out and a pile of old furniture, bars and old cars arranged within. It’s so seductive and hip inside. None of the seats match. Television screens droop from the ceilings and the vibe makes you feel young and zingy. Another experience to be savoured.
Being up close and personal with the Parliament buildings is another one of my favourite activities. Go on the metro to Kossuth Lajos Ter. Hop up the steps and there you’ll see the majestic building lazing around like a lioness. On a sunny day, I like hopping on and off trams, especially along the riverside on tram number 2, which is the prettiest ride. At night it’s oh so romantic to walk around the city and see the lights, especially over Chain Bridge. Lights go out at midnight. Andrassy Ut at night (the Champs Elysee of Budapest) is another must-see. If you go into Klass restaurant, you might bump into an eccentric English couple who go there for dinner and reserve a special seat for their teddy bear. He comes too and enjoys the food.
There are two positive aspects to leaving the city behind. One – you’ve survived the taxi journey to the airport.
Hint. Do not look at the speedometer. And do not take note of the risky manoevres your taxi driver takes to get your there.
Also Hungarian women are just too beautiful to live with full time. I’m just glad to stop pretending my nails and my hair always look that good.
How to get there
We flew with Ryanair for the first time, Dublin to Budapest. It was very prompt and took two and a half hours. Return flights cost us €300 each, but they can be as little as €100 return
Where to Stay: We like the Lanchid 19 hotel in Lanchid Utca, 19, a double room here costs from €67. It’s got the perfect waterfront location on the Buda side of the Danube. The Soho Hotel in Orzaghaz Utca is another hip hotel. A double room here costs from €84 euro, excluding breakfast. It’s decked out in psychedelic colours and it’s a retro feast for the eye. For something a little grander, try the Hotel Intercontinental on the Danube Bank or the 50-star Corinthia Hotel in the Elizabeth Boulevard. The Intercontinental Hotel also does a lovely Sunday lunch for 8,500 forints per person, (€30 per person roughly).
Where to Eat: Try Gerbeaud’s café in Vorosmarty Ter for breakfast before 11.30. Not a second later! It is good value and in a most luxurious setting with a fantastic view of the square if the sun is shining. Breakfast will cost around €8 and it is delectable. You can have lunch in Angelica’s Restaurant /café in Batthyany Ter, which sits overlooking the Parliament building and the Danube. It is very pretty and not pricey either. You can also try Café Europa on Szent Istvan Korut. Modestly priced and it boasts very nice cakes. For dinner, try any of the restaurants in Raday Utca or try the Jewish quarter in the 7th district for good value. I’d recommend Mazel Tov for a brilliant atmosphere. Don’t come home without trying the goulash. It’s good everywhere.
Sights to See: For a spectacular view of the city, visit the Citadella. It’s especially good in the early mornings. You can walk up there from the Elizabeth Bridge or take bus 27 from Moritz Zsigmond Square. You can go to Margit Island and see the lit-up musical fountain, which plays out to the park at 9 o’clock during the summer months.