The moment we realised our mistake was when we were marched straight through the empty restaurant and into the back-garden. High stone walls. Artificial grass. A white picket fence. Chrysanthemums.
Once the water was poured from a freshly opened glass bottle, I knew the cost was already ratcheting up.
As the American couples either side of us talked about running for council and winning big contracts, I considered the contradictions of Budapest.
The opulence of this, we later learned, Michelin-star restaurant and its clientele versus the Europa League game we couldn’t attend, because the Hungarian ultras’ racist chants and Nazi banners forced it behind closed doors.
Yet two days after Ferencváros beat the Go Ahead Eagles, a side from the Dutch tradition of unusual names, in an empty arena, a Pride Parade envelops the city. Exclusion and inclusion. Yet inclusion must win if welcoming tourists is to remain the leading trade of this exhilarating city.
On one side towers Buda; a mountainous terrain offering great walks from an imposing Citadella to a Castle that glows the most brilliant gold by night, and onward to the Fisherman’s Bastion, a striking ornamental terrace placed on the hillside.
Opposite it sits Pest, with its lively night life, main streets populated by souvenir shops and the Hungarian parliament, with a spire for every day of the year.
In between lies the Danube and even the bridges that unite Buda and Pest are tourist attractions. Heartily recommended was a night-time boat tour (our one of choice came free with the ‘Giraffe’ Hop On Hop Off bus tours - tickets from €16 for students/ €18 for adults), as this amphitheatrical city is built to be viewed from the river.
The boat tour was also a strange reminder of home, having to wear a jumper as we whizzed along the Danube. I had been jumperless since disembarking in a Frankfurt Airport that was steaming hot and strangely rural for the start of the trip seven days previously.
It turned out that Frankfurt has two airports and only one of them is within two hours of Frankfurt. Guess which one Ryanair flies to.
Not only were we immediately three hours behind schedule, when we finally reached Frankfurt train station (for the official start to our InterRail trip), every single train was running late as, like a tangerine-skinned Steve Staunton, they didn’t run well in extreme heat.
Deutsche Bahn’s trains had already disappointed in its promise of efficiency but they did kindly grant us a free bottle of water around midnight, once we were running an hour late on the line to Munich.
Upon arriving in the Bavarian capital, the Irish were everywhere to look after us on the hottest days ever recorded in Munich’s history.
We took a Sandeman’s walking tour (operated on a tips-only basis) the first morning, with our excellent guide Ben leading us along the shadowy side of Munich’s streets.
Even then, the 40C heat overpowered us and we had to quit early for a shady café. It was at this point, in dire need of rehydration, that we bought our first unwanted bottle of sparkling water. This trend would continue almost daily, including buying three two-litre bottles in a row, all sparking.
We learned the hard way that the Germans have 1,000 words for fizzy water. Beware of klassik, sprudel, sanft and 997 more still-sounding words.
Another Sandeman’s guide and Irish exile, Keith, also brought us on an excellent tour of Dachau concentration camp (€19 for students/ €22 for adults), albeit after losing the entire group of 30 on the underground within two minutes of the tour starting.
Turns out his concept of ‘turn right’ was opposite to our understanding of ‘turn right’. Must have been the language barrier...
After being reunited 20 minutes later at a nearby station, we continued on our way to Dachau — a thoroughly normal and indistinct town, which is branded with a nasty past.
Visiting a former camp is mandatory for all German schoolchildren, both as a reminder of their bloody past and a warning against future extremes, and a valuable part of any trip to Germany.
Both walking tours were guided superbly but a train journey two hours south to Fussen was the highlight of the whole week.
Lying above the local woods and cast against an Alpine backdrop was Neuschwanstein Castle.
A tall, whitewashed palace, built purely for its aesthetics, Neuschwanstein is one of those places you don’t need to see the inside of, as the outside is so stunning. So stunning, in fact, it inspired Walt Disney’s trademark castle.
As well as offering views across to the adjacent Hohenschwangau Castle, a further five minutes uphill you can find Marienbrucke, a daredevil bridge built to provide the perfect vantage point to the castle and valley below.
From there it was on to Salzburg, via Munich, again, for a 24-hour stopover. Salzburg is another polished diamond in a rugged setting. A Unesco world heritage site, it is dominated by a triad of hills, topped in turn by a fortress, a monastery and a modern art museum.
We tried out the latter, a gallery (costing €6 for students/ €8 for adults) accessed via an elevator at street level, up through the cliff to the top of the hill. The art was hit and miss at best but the views were spectacular.
Again a bus tour (€16 standard rate) helped cover all bases inside a day.
Although the city is impressive, it is more exclusive than the others and with most accommodation proving beyond our price range, we settled for one only modestly beyond our means. However, the comfort and wonderful Austrian breakfast that the Hotel Astoria afforded us was just what was needed after all the walking of the first three days.
Next up: Vienna, another Austrian marvel. Vienna is marked out for its incredible, and borderline ridiculous, number of sculptures on every building. From the palaces of Belvedere, Hofburg and Schonbrunn to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, with its impressive collection of art, including Vermeers, Rembrandts and Durers — well worth the entry for students (€11, or €14 for adults).
Located on the outskirts of the city, the golden palace of Schonbrunn was 24 carats worth of pure tourist utopia. It had everything, from the mandatory sculptures and gardens, to the magnificent Gloriette, offering excellent views of the city.
Unfortunately, time militated against exploring the public bath, maze or zoo; Schonbrunn is simply an attraction that demands a full day.
However, Vienna was also home to the truly awful Sigmund Freud Museum, which we dipped into to escape a rare thundershower. The former home and practice of the father of psychoanalysis offers a sparse collection of artefacts accompanied by an audio guide that stubbornly refutes logical order and historical context.
I left not knowing whether Freudian slips were still at the cutting edge of neurological analysis or had been replaced by some other thing.
While in Vienna, we stayed in the shoestring budget hostel A&O Hauptbahnhof, with a perfect location near the train station and underground, but genuinely overrun with 500 children on school tours. Our German roommates seemed more concerned with their international image though — soon after ‘hello’ came a borderline apologetic question: ‘I know there was that stuff in the past, but what do you think of us Germans?’
Before I recall my answer, the strains of piano chords took over. The herds of schoolchildren, worried Germans and budget accommodation dissolve from my mind. Back in Café Pierrot, now, the Budapest back-garden, a piano player warbled in the corner.
The waiter and Americans suddenly say they’ve met before on a cruise. From shoestring to splashing out, it’s quite the way to end a whistle-stop tour of Central Europe.
Still, the greatest twist was saved for last, with the arrival of the five-figure bill.
Thankfully 11,000 Hungarian forints divided into less than €20 each and, too embarrassed to wait for our 70 forints change, we left with just enough banked to make the plane home.
Whether InterRailing for a week (€192 for those 25 and under) or three (€281), costs can be kept down by bookending your trip with cheaply accessible cities. Ryanair is a friend of students and rural airports alike, and does offer cheap fares from Dublin to Brussels, Cologne and Copenhagen, among others.
Most major cities have a wide selection of cheap hostels, so focus on getting a good location, such as the Goetheplatz in Munich or District V in Budapest. District V’s Green Bridge Hostel gave a cool sense of Budapest living, while Hotel Astoria in Salzburg offered value for money.
The aforementioned Café Pierrot was a taste of the high life. The Afro Café in Salzburg is also well worth a passing visit.
Otherwise Italian diners were heavily relied upon; after all, pizza means pizza in any language. Drinking has to be balanced with early starts in a seven-day trip, but the Augustiner beer garden in Munich and a drink on the River Danube are worth experiencing.
Almost daily commuting means you need a good book to make the most of cramped planes and crowded trains, with no sockets available. I covered Simon Kuper’s Football Against the Enemy (235 pages) but any medium-sized paperback is about right.