Hungary, In The Footsteps of Michael Palin

Budapest Knight

It was a late afternoon flight to Budapest and as the plane was only about two thirds full we considered ourselves rather unfortunate not to get a row of seats entirely to ourselves.  This disappointment actually turned out to be a stroke of luck however because our temporary travelling companion was flying out on business and as he was staying at the same hotel he generously offered a ride in his taxi paid for on company expenses.   I plan to look out for that sort of money saving opportunity again in the future.  Some of this financial benefit was unfortunately eroded away by the poor exchange rate at the airport where swapping pounds for Hufs was about ten percent more expensive than at the banks in the city as I found out later.

Budapest is the capital city of Hungary and the country’s principal political, cultural, commercial and industrial centre and is one of a number of European destinations that have been on my to-visit list for some time not least because the country is in the top fifteen visitor destinations in the world, which by my logic means that there must be something there worth seeing.

I knew this but what I didn’t know was that the valuable list of Hungarian contributions to the world and human advancement include most importantly the ballpoint pen that was invented by László Bíró, the Rubik Cube, invented by Ernő Rubik, the theory of the hydrogen bomb (perhaps, not such a good thing)and the BASIC computer programming language. A Hungarian chemist János Irinyi also developed the noiseless match, which is essentially one that doesn’t detonate with a bang when ignited.  This may not sound especially important but before this invention striking a match could be disconcertingly violent, a bit like firing a musket, and due to a dangerous composition of chemicals the thing was liable to go off with a loud explosion and a shower of sparks with the potentially unfortunate side effect of setting light to people’s clothes.

One of the finest ever footballers in the world was the Hungarian Ferenc Puskás who in the 1950s scored eighty-four goals in eighty-five international appearances for Hungary, which is a very impressive strike rate indeed especially when you consider that England’s top goal scorer, Bobby Charlton, only scored forty-nine goals in one hundred and six games and even Pelé, who is generally reckoned to be the greatest footballer ever, couldn’t match this level of performance with seventy-seven goals in ninety-two games for Brazil.  A bit of a shame that he didn’t get one more goal for a 100% record and at 98.8% I suppose that is very similar to Don Bradman, the Australian cricketer who retired with an international batting average of 99.94%.  Now that, it seems to me, is just about as close to perfection as it is possible to get.

The taxi dropped us off at the hotel and it was everything that I had been expecting.  We had been tempted to stay at the famous spa hotel the Gellért after watching Michael Palin’s ‘New Europe’ when he featured the hotel on his programme.  This is a four star hotel and ordinarily a bit beyond my budget (actually quite a lot beyond my budget) but with a bargain flight at only £11.34 return I considered the additional cost of a superior room with a view over the Danube to be justified.

The hotel is a reminder of those powerful days of Empire with a towering façade, in need of a bit of restoration, and an entrance lobby of huge dimensions and acres of wasted space.  After check in a bell hop tried to wrestle my bag from me but I held on to it and explained that I thought we would be able to find the room unaccompanied.  I don’t mind someone carrying my bag for me it’s just that I am never sure how much to tip for the service.  They haven’t done a great deal of work so I am not minded to tip generously but a couple of old coins also seems embarrassingly miserly to me.

The second floor room was excellent, well decorated with substantial furniture, a mini bar with only slightly above prices (a big bonus) and a balcony with a view of the Liberty Bridge crossing the Danube with Pest sprawling away on the other side of the river.

It was quite late by now so there was only time for a short walk, first across the Elizabeth Bridge further upstream and then along the Pest side of the River Danube before crossing back over the river using the Chain Bridge, which is an impressive structure that was designed by the English engineer William Tierney-Clark, and constructed by Scottish engineer Adam Clark (no relation) and is a larger scale version of Tierney-Clark’s earlier Bridge, across the River Thames in Marlow, in Buckinghamshire.  It was opened in 1849 and was the first permanent bridge between the two separate cities of Buda and Pest, which had previously relied on pontoon bridges or barges and ferries for getting from one side to the other.  Actually it wasn’t the original bridge I walked across because (surprise, surprise) the Nazis blew that up in 1945 when they retreated from the city just before the Russians arrived but it was replaced along with all of the other bridges that were destroyed at the same time in the 1950s.

Along the Pest side of the river, which is rather flat, there were some good views of the Buda on the west which is much more hilly and intrudes into the river forcing it to flow in an sweeping arc through the city and on the hills behind the Liberation Monument and the Imperial Castle were impressively illuminated against the ink black sky.  There were some modern western hotels overlooking the river and outside the call girls promenaded looking for customers.  On a scale of 1 to 10 for attractiveness they were all about 13 and judging by their looks they were going to be hanging around for some time yet or at least until someone became too intoxicated for it to matter.  Further down the road we looked out for a man selling brown paper bags!

Trams ran adjacent to the river and every so often one would rattle by and ring a bell to warn pedestrians to move aside out of the way.  I like to see trams as they are one of the distinctive and romantic images of eastern European cities and seem to me to be a symbolic reminder of the pre-war and the soviet eras.

Back at the hotel the restaurant staff were a bit reluctant to serve dinner on account of the lateness of the hour but we persuaded them to serve a bowl of soup and a beer, which they did but it was obvious service was over and that they were impatient to close so we finished it as quickly as we could and then retired to bed.


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