Everyone had just left. After celebrating my birthday and some basic tidying up we sat down for a moment.
“Why don’t you check your email?” she asked.
I took the hint.
Taking out my iPhone I opened the email app. And there I saw confirmation I was flying to Budapest on Friday.
Now that confused me – she was supposed to be attending a conference in Budapest the following month.
She quickly filled me in on the details. She was leaving for Hungary on Wednesday. It was this month she was going – this week, in fact.
Since the conference hotel was fully booked for the weekend she’d booked us an apartment for two nights. The only thing I needed to do was get myself to Barcelona Airport on Friday afternoon and get aboard that flight.
I was speechless. I hadn’t had the slightest inkling she had organised all this!
Obviously I needed to rearrange my week a little, but on Thursday I blocked out time to plan some sightseeing. Thanks to Google I cross referenced a number of suggested itineraries and added them to a custom Google map so I could access the info on my iPhone when in Budapest.
After a couple of hours I was hardly an expert on Budapest, but I had a plan for our time in the city. I had no idea how much of the itinerary we would be able to manage in the short time available to us, but at least it was a start.
Friday arrived and I drove to the airport. The Ryanair flight was on time and soon we were reunited in the centre of Budapest. It was there she told me the apartment, which looked so good on the website, wasn’t available.
My first impression of the apartment we were allocated instead was of Soviet era architecture. It was basic, but had hot and cold running water, a small kitchen and a couple of pieces of furniture pushed together to make a double bed.
We decided just to make do. After all, we only needed somewhere to sleep for a couple of nights and store our luggage during the day. The front door had no lock, but there was a grill that did lock. Hardly ideal, but not the worst thing that could happen.
And so we ventured out into the night in search of a cold beer and food. The apartment was near Váci street, one of central Budapest’s most famous streets and packed with tourist restaurants and big brand shops.
We found a restaurant with a mix of locals and foreigners, the Anker Klub. She’d visited before, but this was my first experience of Hungarian food and drink.
Sitting outside, I wasn’t disappointed. Here I had a local beer to wash down chicken with sour cream, while she went for salmon cooked with paprika. We also sampled a local wine, which was good too.
After dinner we headed down to the banks of the Danube for a stroll. There we saw many youngsters swigging from bottles, while on the Chain Bridge, dating from 1849, a film crew were shooting a car crash scene. It was warm and the atmosphere relaxed.
Walking back along the Danube we came to some gardens where a dance class took place. We watched 8 or 10 couples demonstrate the tango to varying degrees of proficiency. When the class was over we made our way back to the apartment and, despite the weird bed, slept soundly.
We awoke to sunlight filtering through the heavy velvet curtains and soon stepped out onto the street in search of breakfast. After a few minutes we found Anna Café where I had a coffee and Budapest Breakfast (scrambled eggs with red pepper and onions). We decided to walk to the parliament building and cross the river by metro to explore the Castle District.
Although very touristy, this area is a must see for its cobbled streets and mixture of architectural styles. It was also here that we got our first real impression of how badly Budapest had suffered, first under the Nazis and then the Soviet Union.
The city was flattened by aerial bombardment by the allies then laid siege by the USSR. The spectacular city that exists today is largely due to massive reconstruction, mostly from the 1960s onwards. Like many cities in Europe, many of its treasures were completely destroyed.
Even the spectacular palace that dominates the hill of the Castle District is a reconstruction. Sadly, much of the interior that remained intact was bulldozed in the 1950s by the communist regime. The stables, main entrance and other external areas also suffered the same fate.
Although we didn’t have time to explore the palace fully and didn’t really feel like elbowing through the crowds there for the chocolate festival, we did have time to explore the exterior walls and gardens. Probably the Castle District in its entirety needs a full day or more to do it justice.
After getting back to ground level again we walked along the river towards the Gellért Hotel, famous for its spa. Near here we found a tram stop that would take us back to Deák Ferenc square, a short walk to the apartment.
That evening we headed for the “ruin bars” in the old Jewish quarter. Here you find a number of pubs that opened in the ruins of abandoned buildings around the start of the 21st century. After a detour to see St Stephen’s Basilica at night we found ourselves in one such ruin bar, the Yellow Zebra.
The bar was welcoming and had live music but, bizarrely, also hires out bikes. With a local beer and a sample of cold meat and veg, the evening was relaxed, the staff friendly and helpful, and the food and drink cheap. After a couple of hours here we headed back to the Danube to see if anything was going on (it wasn’t) and then to bed.
The following day we had limited time as we were flying back to Barcelona early evening. Anyway, we were both pretty exhausted from all the walking the previous day.
The weather wasn’t so kind to us on this Sunday morning though as we set out in search of breakfast, but it soon cleared up. After somehow heading in the wrong direction we grabbed coffee and a croissant at Véndiák Étterem, by which time we could sit outside and contemplate our morning.
In the end our plan was simple. We’d head towards Heroes’ Square, City Park and the famous Széchenyi Thermal Baths via the synagogue, opera house and the “House of Terror”.
The latter is a museum devoted to the period under which Hungary was occupied first by Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union.
In some ways it is difficult to reconcile Budapest’s bloody history with today. We felt safe wherever we went and people were unfailingly friendly and helpful. Compare that with other tourist cities, such as London or Barcelona. And (shamefully) we couldn’t speak a single work of Hungarian.
Outside the museum you can also read about the conditions endured in the concentration camps and see examples of tools and clothing. You can also learn about some of the people who died when the Soviets sent in tanks and troops to suppress the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.
Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to visit the museum but did spend twenty minutes or so reading the information boards outside before we moving on.
It was fairly long walk to the park and we were disappointed to find Heroes’ Square taken over by a horse racing event. Instead we took a look at the spa and then took the metro back towards the city centre. Here we saw St Stephen’s Basilica during daylight – this time we went inside – and did some quick souvenir shopping.
After grabbing our cases and handing back the keys the next job was lunch!
Weighed down by our luggage we didn’t want to go far. Okay, so they’ve got wheels, but it’s still a pain to travel around a city loaded down by baggage. Luckily we found Parisi6 Ètterem where we ordered a delicious beef stew made with paprika washed down with a couple of glasses of a local beer. It was probably the best meal we had in Budapest and, like them all, ridiculously cheap.
We drowsily made our way to where we’d arranged airport pickup and soon we were on our way home. We were happy, tired and already wanting to go back to Budapest.