An Eastern European city that should be on everyone’s wish list

by ANDREW MOSLEY

LONG queues, snow, nothing in the shops, depressed-looking people living in a world of black and white. Only one of those is true.

Through the 1980s and 90s certain elements of the media made out that what are now former Communist countries in Eastern Europe were spectacularly ugly places you would do well to stay away from.

While the other side of the Iron Curtain painted the west as evil, we pushed our own brand of propaganda.

Since the breaking down of barriers and the ripping down of walls, the real beauty of Eastern Europe has become apparent with cities such as Prague, Riga, St Petersburg, Moscow and Berlin regularly making ‘must visit’ lists in the travel sections of papers and magazines. We can add Budapest to that.

Budapest is two places — Buda and Pest, strangely enough — on opposite sides of the Danube. The former has history on its side, the latter has a hefty touch of modernity — C&A anyone? — with some great architecture and a wide variety of restaurants and bars.

Our cheap but more than adequate hotel, the Royal Park ‘boutique’, was around two miles from the main action in the busy working neighbourhood of Keleti, but the walk in to the city was no problem, being around 35 minutes downhill.

Four central bridges — the Liberty, Elizabeth, Margaret and Chain — span the Danube and we chose the most grandiose in design, the Chain, to walk across to Buda to visit the impressive castle and historic Fisherman’s Bastion area, with its hugely impressive views over the river to Pest.

It’s a clean city, with wide, often cobbled, streets more than adequately serviced by buses, trams and the Metro. It is compact and walkable though and Buda is well worth exploring on foot, with the Gothic-style Matthias Church a must for a stop.

Exploring the windy and sometimes hilly side streets, we returned to the river and crossed back to Pest via the Elizabeth transport bridge in search of the ‘ruins pubs’.

Eventually we found one, the more than quirky Szimpla Kert, where we stopped for a much-needed warming of mulled wine. This is the most famous of the once derelict buildings, taken over by collectives and then turned into sprawling multi-storey labyrinths of numerous bars, furnished with whatever anyone has brought in — witness the bloke reading a book, lying down in a bath with its side cut out to resemble a chaise longue. Tourists have caught on to these bars and restaurants and many will wander in just to take pictures, but it’s really worth staying for a while to soak up the atmosphere.

The walk there and along the river via the amazing Parliament building — you will discover the Hungarians do a decent statue too — to one of the many piers for an early evening boat trip is stunning. Budapest really is a city to be appreciated by dark, with streetlights illuminating its riverside architecture and hills stretching into the far distance.

If shopping’s your bag, there’s plenty of that in the fashionable streets just behind the Parliament building, with most stores you will find in major cities here — plus C&A. Well, you might want to have a look for nostalgia’s sake — surrounding historical buildings such as the Great Synagogue and St Stephen’s Basilica.

The basilica itself, a requested donation to get in and a couple of pounds to make the trip up to the cupola, from where you can view most of Budapest, is well worth a visit. The views are spell-binding but it’s cold up there, very cold. Inside the building itself, the star attraction is the mummified right hand of St Stephen himself. For 200 forints, around 60p, you can witness the hand in an illuminated state. Whatever takes your fancy, I guess.

Our final morning before the trip back to the airport for the journey home saw Budapest covered in snow and beautiful it was too, the white stuff seemingly not causing any problems to the transport system and serving only to make the city, its architecture and river pretty much picture perfect.

Food and drink-wise the prices are decent, though the fact there are approximately 360 forints to a pound takes some getting used to when it comes to working out. If you keep away from the bars and restaurants near the main tourist attractions, a beer will set you back around £1.80 and a glass of wine a pound or so (we bought a decent bottle from an Aldi for £2), and main courses in restaurants are £5 to £7.

It’s hard to see these prices staying so low as the stag and hen parties will soon realise — as they did with Prague, then Warsaw and Krakow — the drinks are cheap and the businesses will catch on and raise the prices. Who can blame them?

Budapest can definitely add itself to the growing list of Eastern European cities that should be on everyone’s wish list.

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