After two lengthy flights (eight hours and just over three, respectively) on somewhat spartan planes devoid of any inflight entertainment save for the airline magazine and emergency protocol pamphlet, we touched down at Budapest’s Ferenc Liszt international airport in the Central European nation’s capital.
By this time, my excitement at finally getting to experience Europe – the place of my ancestors – had swelled to the point where I was pushing myself up on my seat and craning my neck like a toddler getting to see the ocean for the first time.
When we disembarked after what felt like an eternity but was probably around 3 minutes, I felt the need to test whether this place was truly as progressive and “first world” as people said by checking whether there was free Wi-Fi at the airport. There was. Well-played, Europe, well-played.
Since we had no idea of how to get from the airport to our apartment in the city center, we entrusted our lives to the first taxi driver to accost us at the exit, despite the fact that he looked like a villain from one of the Taken movies. He did end up robbing us, but only in the sense that he grossly overcharged us for what turned out to be a journey of around 12 miles (20km).
While my wife and I spent most of the journey discussing in Afrikaans how worried we were about getting murdered by our taxi driver, we did take a break from our fretting to appreciate the gloriously gritty scenery of downtown Budapest.
In the vicinity of the airport – named after Hungary’s most famous son, composer Franz (Ferenc in Hungarian) Liszt – Budapest is very much an industrial beast. Somber grey buildings, painted ever bleaker by the winter gloom, stand leering over lifeless stockyards and parking garages, their crumbling walls tattooed with cryptic graffiti. One gets the distinct feeling of being in an Eastern Bloc country during the Cold War period.
But then, as one approaches the city center, something remarkable happens: Budapest blossoms into a fairytale landscape with streets watched over by the most breathtaking examples of medieaval architecture. Vast, imposing Gothic structures guarded by grotesques (not gargoyles, mind) and trendy shops stand side-by-side, with every bustling street offering a selection of cozy restaurants serving traditional Hungarian cuisine (mainly a delicious and hearty meat soup known as goulash).
Upon arriving at the Ho-Bi Oktagon apartment, which was to be our home and main base of operations for the next 10 days, we are greeted by our gracious host, Joe, an incredibly friendly, helpful and well-spoken gentleman who looks exactly like Gary Oldman. We take an instant liking to him.
No words, no pictures, no exquisite verse of lyrical tribute – no matter how rich in vocabulary and how jam-packed with adjectives and beautifully descriptive language – could ever truly do justice to the architecture of Budapest. The mind boggles to think that millions of people live their daily lives amid such man-made splendor, in the shadow of resplendent cathedrals and buildings bewitching in their bewildering beauty.
It hardly seems fair!
A short bus ride (approximately 15 minutes) over the famous Chain Bridge takes one to the city’s Castle District, where one is exposed to an experience so magical that the mind threatens to simply give way under the weight of such otherworldly beauty.
On the banks of the mighty Danube lies a medieaval paradise, complete with cobblestone streets, quaint, candlelit pubs and, of course, the magnificent castles and fortresses.
With it being deep winter in the northern hemisphere, the already surreal landscape is bathed in an eerie half-light that adds to the utter mystique of the place. The ancient steps leading up to Buda Castle are lined on either side by trees – stripped bare by the season – and, in the ominous twilight, the scene strikes me as perfect for a black metal album cover.
As if to complete this beautifully macabre tableau, a pitch-black crow establishes itself on a skeletal branch overhead.
Were it not for the presence of a Starbucks and countless selfie sticks in the courtyard, one might easily have imagined that one had entered some sort of time portal and had been transported back to the Middle Ages. One half expects to hear the thunder of hooves on stone and the musical clang of armor as a company of gallant knights returns from a bloody day on the battlefields of medieaval Europe.
On one of the final days of our holiday, my wife catches a nasty cold and decides to spend the day in bed while I take a train to the nearby town of Szentendre, a must-see location according to our host, Joe.
Again, it is only the presence of the odd traffic light and motorcar that betrays the fact that I have not somehow landed up in the 16th Century.
This quaint little village in Pest County – the name of which translates into Saint Andrew – is a favorite among tourists owing mostly to its diverse cultural influences and historic architecture stemming from early Hungarian, German, Croatian and Serbian settlement. Charming cobblestone streets meander between houses, restaurants and an assortment of curio shops, eventually bringing one to a magnificent vantage point overlooking the lake, in gentle slumber beneath its blanket of thick fog.
If you do ever get the opportunity to visit the absolute gem of a city that is Budapest – the Paris of the East, as it is often called – I strongly suggest you do so around Christmas time. The delightful Yuletide markets that can be found on virtually every avenue, alone make the trip worthwhile.
When the sun goes down (which, during wintertime, is around 4pm), the city is transformed into a magical festive wonderland, with Christmas lights and the delectable scent of mulled wine and roasted chestnuts creating a veritable feast for the senses.
If you are wondering where you should travel to next, the answer is very simple: it’s Budapest.