Making sense of life in an exotic setting
You have to pinch yourself. A 17-hour flight from Brisbane to Budapest and here we are walking through the streets of this city of mystery.
For many years hidden behind the Iron Curtain of Soviet occupation, this cross-roads of civilisations between East and West is more than that.
It dates back centuries and has hosted both the victors and the vanquished.
It’s a place of two cities – Buda and Pest.
The building of the Chain Bridge in 1849 did more than joining these two cities geographically, it joined them politically.
The suspension bridge, like the underground railway and even Hungary’s Parliament House, were inspired by what the civic leaders had seen in London.
The underground was second only to London in its inception in Europe.
When built, the Chain Bridge at 202m long was then amongst the largest in the world.
Parliament house has tremendous façade to the river … cathedral-like as opposed to London’s castle-like Westminster parliament.
Buda was the cultural and political centre – more relaxed while Pest was the commercial heart, more cosmopolitan.
Budapest is a very walkable city. Wide avenues and narrow streets, a spider’s web of laneways but so full of character.
You can smell the history and be absorbed by the old architecture.
There are concerts every night, from organ and trumpet recitals at the basilica to Bach at a cathedral or a strings concert at St Annes.
Budapest was the second capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a great city and railways played their part in its development.
We are booked into Radisson’s Hotel Beke in Pest. Not overlooking the Danube River like the more fashionable hotels but somewhere comfortable, full of character.
It’s like stepping into a movie, one set when train travel was at its height.
A place of home-made pastries at the buffet and a pianist playing in the lounge of an evening.
We are in Central Europe for a concert tour of four countries by the Sunshine Coast Oriana Choir from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.
A group of four of us set off to explore this city, so full of colour. Such a melting pot of cultures.
St Stephens Basilica stands out as a land mark. Seeing its dome makes me realise I am really here, in this place that is so full of history.
St Stephens was built on just enough of a rise to give sanctuary for people to gather during flood. Those who survived the floods willingly donated to build the basilica.
You can see its dome from many parts of the city. But as well as looking up you can look down.
The ravages of a broken and battered 20th century of war and uprisings shows on the faces of Budapest.
There are many faces. Buildings rotting in neglected disrepair, while others display all glitz and glamour.
A walk down Andrassy Boulevarde and you could be in Paris, Berlin, London or Rome.
Big brands, big prices. Yet just a few hundred metres up the road the desperate homeless claim their park benches for the night.
Faces of buildings, faces of people. Some faces are spectacularly beautiful while others sad, unhealthy.
Due to prosperity arriving from joining the European Union and abject poverty remaining, the contrasts created are strong and in-your-face.
The maintenance-deprived buildings are evident though, often just three storeys high with a basement.
And quite often it is downstairs where you will find the city’s ruin bars; grunge bars would be the easiest way to describe them.
They have been around since the early 2000s and form an important part of Budapest’s night life.
Created in run-down or abandoned buildings, they were left in a ramshackle state and filled with random furniture and fittings rather than redeveloping them.
Budapest had been occupied by the Ottoman Turks for 150 years and that is remembered in the foods at the Central Market which first opened in 1897.
Near the river, it is full of stalls filled with fresh fruit, cured meats, breads and pastries, all sorts of wines and liqueurs including the national drink, palinka.
Much like slivovitz, it is traditional fruit brandy generally made from plum, apricot or peach. Ideal for when visiting friends or relatives, a welcoming drink.
“Egeszsegedre!’’ That is the greeting you will often hear.
On this day we line up for langos, the traditional Hungarian bread filled with anything you like. It satisfies many tastes.
Yet I am told the simpler the better – cheese, sour cream and garlic and a hint of salt.
How do you eat it? The best way you can.
Across the Danube from the markets is the Gellert Baths, part of the Hotel Gellert built in 1912.
References to the healing waters of Budapest’s thermal springs date back to the 13th century.
Word of the therapeutic benefits of the magical spa waters have spread far and wide.
Today, they are particularly popular with those from the colder parts of Europe.
Yet a wave pool has been added so body surfing has been added to saunas and hot tubs as an attraction, especially for visiting Australians.
Not quite Bondi Beach but so welcome. And it’s good to talk with others from all parts of Europe, here for the healing qualities of the waters.
The only thing they cannot heal is a broken heart, I am told.
Yet then again, they can revive your outlook on life.
That is the thing about Budapest, such competing interests.
I could talk about tranquil walks across the Green Bridge … wines by the Danube … walking for miles across the city to reach the Astoria’s cafe with stunning musicians serenading our cup of tea.
Budapest is a city of domes and spires, bridges and ballrooms, goulash and beer.
And of course the many magical performance moments for the choir.
The first time we entered the back ‘secret’ spiral staircase down into the spiritual rooms of the Matthias Church.
That was exceptional. Here we were in the beating heart of the nation’s history.
The first church on the site was founded in 1015 by St Stephen, the King of Hungary.
It has been the scene of several coronations, weddings and burials.
It has seen a century and a half of Turkish occupation, was a base for German and Soviet occupation in World War Two as well as the Soviet occupation of Hungary.
Today it houses the Ecclesiastical Art Museum which starts in the medieval crypt and leads up to the St Stephen Chapel.
It contains a number of sacred relics and stone carvings, along with replicas of the Hungarian royal crown and coronation jewels.
With this sense of history and place, the first time three of us crept up the stairs to take a look at the logistics of fitting 45 people into a space they’d never seen before was spellbinding.
Evening mass was just starting and here was the music director, the choir president and photographer getting two minutes to understand the lay-out of this grand cathedral.
The first notes of the choir in such a space will stay with me forever. They resonated throughout the ages.
Then afterwards to take the coach across the river to the Karpatia restaurant with wood paneling and old fashioned lights.
A gypsy group of musicians in the corner. Such a night. One that you dream of.
So often in these circumstances the musicians go through the motions, the waiters simply do what is needed.
Yet when the choir stood and sang as one, Waltzing Matilda, the evening was turned on its head.
The waiters adopted a spring in their step and a flair when presenting the platters.
The musicians lifted their tempo, their enthusiasm, and choir members showed their dance steps as well as songs from the floor.
A night of so many good memories. And you realise the effect that respect and appreciation can have instead of entitlement and suspicion.