I wake early after my first night sleeping in a bivy bag feeling refreshed and rested. Instead of the grey nylon of my tent, the first thing I see is the sky through the windows created by tree leaves above my head. It’s invigorating to be outdoors already the moment I wake.
The area around the camp ground is gorgeous. Flower boxes brighten drab walls and old trees accent yellowing homes. Windows come in a range of shapes, not just square. And the security bars on the windows are ornately designed making homes look more homely than prison block. My eyes drink in this new landscape that is as unfamiliar now as Asia was when I first arrived there last September. I know this sense of newness will evaporate as I spend more time here on this grand continent of Europe so I want to make the most of the sensation.
I wander down to the Penny Market to buy some supplies for breakfast. As happens in each new country, the supermarket shelves are a mystery and wonder all at once. I cannot read the labels on most of the products and Google translate doesn’t always recognise words because I don’t know how to make the dots and commas appear above the letters I type. But at least there is plenty of familiar fresh produce. Fresh fruit and vegetables are piled high in displays near the supermarket entrance. Ripe bananas, oranges, apples, tomatoes, cabbages, potatoes and melons are just some of the many offerings. Signs show their countries of origin with many coming from further to the west. But my favourite section is the bakery aisle. All sorts of delicious fresh bread products are stacked high and priced to sell. A bread roll costs HUF14 (4.5 euro cent or 6.5 Australian cents), a croissant is about HUF90 (30 euro cent or 41 Australian cents) and a sweet pastry is about the same price. I’ll have to be careful not to pack on the calories here with the temptation to indulge being so high. Fruit and vegetables are also amazingly cheap compared to Australia. I pay about 10c for a banana, which would set me back about a dollar at home and a head of garlic costs me about twenty cents, which is one tenth the price at home. Eating well will be easy here and that excites me.
Stocked up with a bread roll, sachet of hot chocolate and banana I wander the local streets again. A moggy (cat) begs for a pat and I can’t help but oblige. It’s pretty, friendly and the colour looks amazing against the dark stonework of the house it is “guarding”.
Peter arrives at around 10am to take me into Budapest. Peter is a local who I met through an Australian cycling forum. He is organising a group tour of Lake Balaton next week that looks amazing. We drive into Budapest city and I am immediately taken by the grandeur of this capital. I have seen Budapest represented in movies (just last week I saw Spy) but didn’t expect it to be quite so impressive. The Parliament rises majestically from the Danube. Peter tells me that it was built at a time when Budapest was the centre of the Austro-Hungarian empire. There is a hint of sadness in his voice as he recounts how those were wealthier times for his home city.
We scramble up steep streets and lanes until we reach the tomb of Gul Baba. Peter explains that this is the northern most point of pilgrimage for Muslims and that many Turkish people come here to pray. The story of Gul Baba is written in English near the tomb but, as usual, I haven’t read it properly. I am too busy taking in the visual surrounds like the colours and shapes of the buildings in the view below.
Naturally, we go to Budapest Castle. I instantly recognise the main quadrangle as the scene or many movies. And Peter’s Hungarian accent accentuates my sense of being in a spy movie (no direct reference to the movie of the same name that was filmed in this city). I feel a wave of “wow I am really here” wash over me as I take in my surrounds.
Peter tells me that the Fishermen’s Towers part of the castle was built many years ago to attract tourists to the city and it certainly has worked. It’s only shoulder season and already the tourist trade is booming. Little flags and signs bob in the thin crowd as obedient guests follow along, pretending to be interested in the lengthy explanations of the guides while really just wanting to take selfies with the monuments. Or at least, that’s what the comedic side of my mind likes to imagine they are doing.
Not only are the towers picturesque but the view from here is amazing. I look down on the Chain Bridge, Parliament and Budapest’s big square riverside mansions. The city’s history is apparent in its architecture. There are styles dating back centuries, even though many of those old buildings have been rebuilt in that style. And then there are the odd communist-era structures that are so ugly and functional but form part of the city’s story.
Back down on the Danube we walk along the waterfront back to Peter’s car passing the cruise boats from which the tourists following flagged guides came. These large low boats will make their way from here to Western European capitals in Germany and Holland over the course of the next 12 to 15 days. I can see into the rooms in one of the ships and it looks clean, plush and luxurious with river views from the bed and seating areas. It’s not for me but I can see why wealthy (or indebted) retirees select this option as a means of seeing Europe’s grand river capitals.
Back at camp Peter helps me mark up some interesting places on my maps of Hungary and Slovakia. He has a keen local knowledge and I am grateful for his help. I totally change my route plans and get excited about the coming weeks. We make an arrangement to meet up on Lake Balaton next week when his tour is going to be there and then he drops me at a nearby shopping mall because I need to buy a European charger for my phone and laptop (I brought an American one with me by mistake). On my walk back to camp I take in more of the flaking paint, flower boxes and decorative doorways that make up this part of Budapest.
I settle in for a few hours of work before going out for a walk in nearby Nepliget Park in the cool evening air. It’s light from 5am to 9pm so there is no need to rush through the day. In the park children kick around on scooters, young men use the gym equipment to do body weight training, teenagers run under the watchful eye and stopwatch of their coach, people walk their dogs and couples cuddle on benches. Not a bad way to conclude the day.