Sixteen hours after leaving Bucharest the Euronight Ister pulls into the Keleti Palyaudvar station in Budapest. This magnificent station was constructed between 1881 and 1884 as one of the most modern railway stations of Europe and in a tilt to the glory days of rail travel, the main façade is adorned with two statues depicting James Watt and George Stephenson. It’s been a comfortable night with the two-person sleeper on the Romanian train one of the best on which we’ve travelled. Sadly the same couldn’t be said for the restaurant car, which, although it had dining car written on the side, and tables and seating internally, wasn’t actually a dining car at all. Just a snack bar. But the Romanian red, while not containing many nutrients, at least helps to pass the time. At 6.00am we were awakened by the Romanian border police, and had just about returned to sleep when 45 minutes later their Hungarian counterparts again disturbed us.
In Budapest we fell into the arms of our long-term besties, Ross and Mary. They’d been to a wedding in Oslo and had tracked south to meet us via Berlin, Prague and Vienna. We will travel together for the next 20 days.
The city of Budapest, straddling the Danube (or Duna here), is extremely pretty. The centre is dominated by the Parliament building, larger than Westminster, and built with considerably more excess. The Hungarians have removed their upper house, and now function as New Zealand and Queensland does. It’s probably an option Malcolm Turnbull wishes he had. While the Pest side of the city is flat, the Buda side, which contains the Castle (or Palace depending on who is telling the story), Mattias Church, and Fisherman’s Bastian etc climbs steeply away from the river.
We have sight-seen like crazy people. Budapest has a public transport second to none with a metro, trams and buses integrating seamlessly. We started at Mattias Church, originally built in the Romanesque style in 1015, and then rebuilt in the florid Late Gothic style in the second half of the 14th Century. In it’s time it’s been a mosque and was the second largest church in mediaeval Buda. It now dominates the Budapest skyline.
In front of the church is Fisherman’s Bastion, a terrace in neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque style and it’s a great spot for views out over the Danube. We catch the historic funicular down from Buda castle and walk over one of the many bridges that cross the river. Having heard that Dracula (who in our view is a Romanian – rather than Hungarian – legend) had been incarcerated in the labyrinth under the Buda hills we just knew we needed to investigate further. 45 metres underground lays the most elaborate (well) labyrinth and we allow ourselves to get lost and slightly alarmed as we roam the low ceilinged, misty caverns deep beneath the ground.
Next day we take the cog railway that runs from Varosmajor, just across on the Buda side, high up into the Buda Hills. The line is so steep that without the cog system underneath the engine, there would not be sufficient traction to make the incline. (Trust me, it’s a boy thing!) At the top of the line we walk through the park until we catch the Children’s Railway down the other side. This railway is manned and staffed entirely by children who sell tickets, perform ticket collecting and conducting duties, change points and sell souvenirs. Although, admittedly, we were somewhat relieved to see two adults in the cabin of the diesel engine.
Maggie remarked that it teaches the children numeracy, organisation and social skills and gave them a tangible sense of responsibility. The young conductor we spoke to was 12 years old, could converse well with us in English, and when we asked him what enjoyed most about his “job” he said “the atmosphere” without hesitation. There’s a pix of two of the boys below.
That evening we headed out to a restaurant with the name and address scribbled on a piece of paper. Somehow we’d brought neither map nor phone but someone, (who will remain nameless), is certain she (oops!) knows where it is. We catch the M1 metro, which has the cutest little carriages seating just 14 people in each. We wander the streets near the Opera, searching for this damned restaurant before we admit defeat, and catching the metro back into town, ending up in Gozsdu Udvar, where in memory of my previous traveling companion Wingo, I eat the 1 metre long sausage.
For a country that only emerged from communism in 1989, Budapest is a vibrant, elegant city. But move on we must and we are now seated in the Rippl-Rónai train as it pulls out from Budapest Station bound for Zagreb. We are the oldest people on the train by 30 or 40 years and it’s been fun to watch the hordes of young, nubile back-packers squeeze on board with their luggage. The train is over-full but there’s one advantage we have over the young backpackers who have youth on their side and the whole of their lives ahead of them – we have reserved seats.
Next stop, Zagreb.