We were in the Hungarian capital of Budapest with a place to stay and with permits to move about (in a limited fashion). We had cash in our pockets, and food in our bellies. A tram ticket to anywhere cost only pennies. We were wide-eyed nineteen-year-olds in an Eastern bloc communist country and it was time to go out and see what the city had to offer.
Actually no. Andrew and David were keen to buy souvenirs, so we spent a goodly amount of the day wandering around the tourist shops until their lust for t-shirts and whips had been sated. I amused myself by looking at the architecture, which had been described as “the most picturesque of the eastern cities”, but which thus far had been largely brutalist and monolithic, immense sooty-walled five-story blocks sat upon street-level shops. I hoped that things would improve when we left the shopping district.
Citadella on Gellért Hill, Budapest
As usual, I wanted to climb to the highest point in the city, which in the case of Budapest is Gellért Hill on the Western banks of the Danube. We set off across the dirty waters of the river by means of a somewhat rickety suspension bridge. We marvelled at the way it bounced with the passage of each successive vehicle, and turned to watch the effect of a passing truck. As it passed us, one of the steel sheets that it was carrying fell off and skittered past, narrowly missing us on the pavement. We hurried on, and then began the long climb up the extensive and picturesque stairway to the Citadella.
This fortress was built by the Hapsburgs when they gained control of the country, and was supposed to be destroyed when there was later reconciliation with Austria, but somehow that never happened and it is now a tourist attraction on the basis of its views over Budapest, and the sculptures and monuments that have since been placed there.
The fortress was reasonably interesting and the views were nice enough, improving greatly once night fell. We had a beautiful purple sunset, and then the buildings in the old town came alive with light, especially the castle and parliament building which stare at each other across the water, so we headed down towards the old town to have a look.
On our way, we got distracted by the sound of dance music and, by following our ears, ended up at a bar with a large open-air dance floor. The dances were complex in their footwork but were performed by linking arms to form a scattered ring formation. We watched from a terrace, and Andrew and David practised the foot movements on the table before going down to join the fray. I elected to look after our cameras and bags, and anyway I was quite happy to sit quietly with my beer.
From my elevated position, I could just make out the fact that two of the bodies were moving contrary to the general flow, although occasionally I must admit that they did seem to be doing the right thing at the right time.
After leaving the dance venue, we scoured the streets for a restaurant, and eventually caught one that was just opening. There were white table cloths, chandeliers, a live band, and a dance floor, and we felt a little out of place in our t-shirts, shorts and hiking boots. However, the waiter welcomed us in and suggested the three-course speciality with wine. Since it was easily within our budget, we gratefully tucked in to stacks of meat and vegetables, washed down with Bulls Blood wine.
After a really enjoyable meal, we found a tram heading in the right direction and climbed aboard. We already had tickets, which was necessary because you couldn’t buy them from the driver, you had to get wads of them in advance from old men who lurked in the subways under the streets. On the tram, we stamped our ticket with the hole-punch provided, which allowed us to stay aboard for as long as we liked.
We were heading for the tram interchange at Keleti Station, and in that we were successful. However, the last connecting tram home to Rákospatak Park had long since gone, so we hailed a taxi. We were low on local currency, but the driver cheerfully accepted Sterling, so we were treated to an exhilarating high-speed ride in a little Russian car over twenty minutes of cobblestones and tram lines; it should have been quicker, but he got lost.
Dining on the Danube
We slept in fairly late, and then I went in search of a cafe that sold Hungarian Goulash (gulyás). It was more watery than I was expecting, but with a pleasant slightly spicy taste. A passing wasp touched my plate momentarily, and instantly died. Shortly after leaving the cafe, my stomach started to rumble alarmingly and I had to find a discreet place to squat.
During a day of wandering, I realised that the beauty of the city lies not in its architecture (although Buda has its nice touches), but in the atmosphere. We were already beginning to feel right at home, and the fact that the exchange rate made us relatively wealthy did not harm our view at all. Local goods were all marvellously cheap, although imported items were likely to command vastly inflated prices. All in all we did not see many overt signs of the police state, and found young Hungarians to be helpful and friendly, older people wary at first but thawing quickly, although curiously all seemed to regard England as the epitome of freedom.
In the late afternoon, we purchased tickets for a dinner cruise along the Danube. We got aboard and ordered the first course, and then stopped to consider the scene: Three penniless students on a bread-line European tour, cruising down the Danube over the beginning of a three-course meal, washed down with creamy mocha coffee and fiercely rough Bulls Blood wine. It was so silly that we got somebody to take a photograph.
Having ordered our hors d’oeuvre (a Hungarian omelette in a spicy sauce), we ordered an inter-course second coffee, only to find that we had taken too long to order the second course because the kitchen was closing. Not to be dismayed, we decided to board the next cruise and finish the meal, if only to see the reaction of the rather pretty but confused Hungarian waitress.
Unfortunately the next sailing was already fully booked, so we decided to continue our meal in a restaurant ashore. We found one complete with a local band and wandering violin soloist, and did our best to continue our interrupted meal. Shortly after beginning my main course, the waiter smashed a glass next to my plate, covering both myself and my food in glass splinters. By the time I had removed all the shards from my bleeding knuckles, he had escaped and seemed unlikely to return to replace my meal, so I strode through the now quite crowded restaurant with my plate and buttonholed him at another table.
He eventually snatched it out of my hands and scuttled away, returning with a replacement and a nasty sneer. Thenceforth his behaviour degenerated to the downright rude, culminating in an overcharged bill, so we left with a somewhat sour taste in our mouths.
Three Men in a Sauna
It was our last day in Budapest, so we said goodbye to our landlord and shouldered our packs for the first time in three days. We were intending to leave from the impressive Nyugati station, and we’d heard that there was a sauna nearby. None of us had ever been to a sauna, and the thought of a relaxing bath was very attractive after a week on the road, so we bought some food for the evening and went to rent a station left-luggage locker.
Unfortunately all the lockers were in use, so we re-shouldered both the packs and the shopping, and headed for the sauna. The sauna was closed.
According to our Interrail Bible, there was another one at the Hotel Gellért, back up the highest hill again. Our route took us through the Budapest Forest, a fairly attractive space in the middle of town, but to our mind nowhere near as nice as the well-planted Margit (Margaret) Island which is reached by means of a pair of curious T-shaped bridges.
By the time we got to the hotel, it was already half past three, but we bought tickets anyway for a sauna and massage. We were handed three small squares of cloth and were directed to the luggage store and changing rooms.
Once stripped down, we carefully examined the handkerchief-sized cloths, each of which had long tapes at two of the corners. After some puzzled discussion, we eventually decided that the best use was to tie it around the waist so that the tiny square hung down in front. Thus equipped, we boldly entered the sauna.
Once through the showers, a doorway led through a foot bath and into a large vault supported by stone columns and containing a shallow pool, a little over a metre deep, which was signposted as 36℃ at one end, and 38℃ at the other. A hurried glance at a couple of lounging gentlemen revealed that our handkerchiefs were being correctly worn, so after a brief swim we moved on through to the sauna proper.
The first room said 35-50℃ and held four wooden chairs. The second room said 50-60℃ and the smell of ammonia was more noticeable than the heat. I walked into the third and last room (60-70℃) and plonked myself down on a seat. It was only a little later that I noticed that other guests were tiptoeing around as if the tiles were hot coals, scrabbling for rubber foot mats, and perching gingerly on the arms and backs of the chairs. Actually it was pleasantly comfortable, and I sat back and relaxed. After a while I realised that there were two gentlemen seated at the back of the room, apparently reading newspapers. Closer investigation revealed that all the newsprint had run illegibly down the page, but I gave them ten out of ten for style.
We had been given numbered tickets for our massage, and every fifteen minutes or so the burly bald gentleman by the slab in the corner shouted out a number, and a customer made their way over. The only problem was that we didn’t understand Hungarian, so every time he called out, we had to check to see if anybody else was moving. Eventually there was a lull where he repeated a number several times, so figuring that it was probably our turn, we made our way over.
After a gentle, relaxing, soapy massage which took all the ache out of back-pack weary shoulders, we discovered the cold pool and the steam room. The cold pool was more of a circular well, and I dove straight in before realising just how cold it was. Frozen in shock, I forgot all about coming out of the dive until I hit the bottom hard enough to graze my knuckles. Lying on the bottom of the pool, I turned slowly onto my back and peered up at the faraway circle of light, before eventually getting enough sense together to start stroking for the surface.
After that, it was a case of alternating the steam room and sauna with the cold well and bath-temperature pool until we sadly had to drag ourselves away. It was a wonderful, unforgettable experience, and I have been a confirmed lover of sauna ever since.
Back on the Rails
We’d run out of tram tickets, so we had to run for the station, where we discovered that the train timetabled for Greece was only going as far as Jugoslavia, a communist country that we knew to be completely closed to us. Never mind, we clambered aboard, and by using our usual tactics managed to commandeer a compartment to ourselves. To mark our departure from slightly wealthy to more normal Interrail living, we dined on bread and sausage, albeit washed down with a little locally-brewed cherry brandy.
We had heard rumours about the trip ahead of us, and needed to be prepared.