We started with another, yes – another, tasty breakfast in the Best Western’s lofty atrium on the lower ground floor, and then we were ready for a day of sightseeing around Budapest. We walked towards the Danube through the atmospheric streets of Pest, with the tall crumbling blocks, some restored, most in desperate need. We came out by the parliament buildings which rivalled, if not outdoing, Westminster for gothic grandeur. We could see the graceful main dome of some chapel or church at the interior, which is a defining element of the Budapest skyline.
The long queue put us off – that we had particularly planned to go in anyway, and we stuck to our plan to visit the Ethnographic Museum, housed opposite the parliament. We bought our tickets from an older man who was getting himself all mixed up, and then went through to the imposing main hall, which was richly decorated with lots of gilt, and was reminiscent of the Natural History Museum in Kensington, but even grander. We visited the series of rooms with exhibitions on Hungarian peasant life and traditions, cabinets full of costumes, implements, and lots of fantastic black and white photographs, blown up to wall size. It was hard to believe that this traditional society, as in the Baltics, used to co-exist with the relatively modern age. Another exhibition focused on musical instruments from around the world, with all sorts of weird and wonderful things, many from Africa and China.
After the visit to the museum we took one of the yellow and white trams along the river and towards the beautiful Chain Bridge across the wide Danube. On the other side, on the western bank, we took the Siklo, the funicular, up to the castle hill. It wasn’t all that high to climb but we like going on funiculars and cable cars just for fun. From a distance we had already been able to enjoy the views of the Royal Palace, another essential part of the Budapest skyline, with its wide front, erm… oh, just take a look at the pictures! We passed through the Corvinus gate which was topped with a statue of a big black raven, symbolising King Mathias Corvinus. The statue looms over the Danube, as if ready to take off in flight and swoop down on passing boats. Before entering the palace we stopped for a drink at the café along the walls, looking out across the Danube and Pest.
Inside the Royal Palace we visited the National History Museum. After some faffing with the audioguides we managed ok and took our time to tour the rooms, from Roman and pre-Roman, through the Dark Ages, when Hungary was at the centre of the waves of population migrations across Europe, and through to the Hungarian kingdoms, before the Turkish occupation which lasted 150 years, and then again from 1686 onwards. It was interesting context and revealed another corner of European history we didn’t really know anything about until now. After the Royal Palace we walked further along the castle hill and stopped for a beer and pancakes at Sisi, one of the touristic cafés.
The top of the hill with its cobbled streets and few cars, and with its collection of historic landmarks, and quieter atmosphere – well, plenty of tourists but not busy with Budapestians (?) at work or commuting – it reminded us of Prague, which has the same setup. A bit further along again was the tall Mathias Church, but we didn’t go into it. Along the top of the walls over the Danube was the Fishermen’s Bastion, a mock-medieval construction, providing a fantastic viewing platform. From here we had great views over the river and city, which was you have to pay to get onto the walls, unless you go for the pricey café below. The stretch of the white turrets is another picturesque sight typical of Budapest. We walked along the top, having paid for tickets, and then continued to the next “museum” – the House of Hungarian Wine.
This was in a large wine cellar which acted as a showcase for Hungarian wines, and we spent a long time “tasting”, getting pretty squiffy in the process. We started off with the best intentions, sniffing and quaffing, and reading the many panels along the walls of the cellars. In one alcove a group of Swedes was quite clearly already … well, they had tasted lots and lots and were now just going round picking up bottles to bring back to the alcove. For a single price of 4,000 forint (£10) you got a little packet of crackers, a sampling glass and you could drink all you could “taste” in two hours, and there was lots to taste. The two hour limit wasn’t enforced very rigorously though, and it was a fantastic deal. Halfway through the cellar we met two guys who were also several hours into their tasting and we got talking with them, at which point our attempts at tasting turned into just chatting and drinking. It turned out they were both Deloitties, the Hungarian one of the pair was a partner in the Hungarian practice and his friend, formerly with Deloitte, a South African based in St. Albans. We left as the House closed, with enthusiastic intentions to “let’s meet tomorrow” from our Hungarian friend – “call me tomorrow, ok?” but we never did, phew.
Outside it was now dark. The days have been shortening noticeably over the past few weeks. We passed the very drunk Swedes who were trying to get or share a taxi. We were in the mood to carry on a bit and went for another drink at a café in the Fishermen’s Bastion, which was now a romantic spot overlooking the dark river with the lights of the buildings on the eastern bank reflected picturesquely, and especially those of the gothic Hungarian parliament. It was a postcard picture from here. A gypsy fiddler added to the mood, and played a request for us – we suggested “anything by Liszt”, figuring that would be a good Hungarian choice, but he was expecting more popular choices, like those on his CD, which we ended up buying. We were still looking out for somewhere for dinner. A nearby café was only serving drinks and the castle hill felt like it was closing down for the night. Most tourists had either gone back to their hotels or on to the bars and restaurants in Pest. We took a taxi to our hotel and as that’s what we felt like most we simply went for a pizza, walking into the little basement Don Pepe just up the street and taking it back to our room, noshing on our bed [memories of Arequipa], and wishing we had HBO [a film channel].