I have two choices for exploring Budapest: use the efficient public transport system or ride my bicycle. I opt for the latter because Budapest is not so big and it gives me total freedom of choice about where I want to go.
Setting off from the camping ground to ride to Varosliget Park I am taken by just how green this city is. There are 1.8 million people living here and yet there are lots of trees and open parkland areas. They are not the ‘jungle encroaching on the city’ trees that I saw in Bangkok but rather a landscaped and intentional growth of greenery. Many homes have gardens, even the apartment blocks seem to have some sort of garden attached to them. The long unmown grass of early summer adds to the feeling of green space.
The other thing I am loving here is that there are lots of people cycling. They are riding everything from folding bikes to old clunkers, single speed fixies to carbon racing bikes. There’s a simplicity to being able to just jump on your bike and go about your business that is similar to what I experienced in Japan. Bikes and cycling are just a normal part of the landscape instead of a contested cultural space.
Varosliget Park is an interesting place. The Vajdahunyad Castle takes pride of place on the banks of what is in winter an ice skating rink. The castle is constructed in a variety of styles and was intended not as a castle but as a public attraction. Visually it’s spectacular. I don’t bother with the museum because the whole precinct is overrun with tour groups but I do enjoy cycling through the park past the castle.
The impressive Heroes’ Square stands in pride of place near the park. As I approach from behind the square I think that no trip to Europe is complete without seeing this type of square displaying a proud heritage. The Heroes’ Square was built in the late nineteenth century to commemorate the thousandth anniversary of the Magyars (Hungarians). It stands as a reminder of Budapest’s golden era and a draw card for tourists today.
I continue cycling into the city centre taking in yet more of Budapest’s grandeur. St Stephens Basilica is everything a grand basilica should be: calm yet imposing. Tourists congregate in the square in front of it. Most are well and truly past retirement age wearing khaki shorts and sunburned shoulders. Two couples with different English-language accents greet each other warmly. It appears from their loud words that they have been bumping into each other all around Europe. They compare notes about their hotels, which sound like they are priced well into the 200 Euro range. I am not actually listening in. I learn this all as I cycle past on my way through the square.
But Budapest is not all grandeur. The city has experienced a turbulent history. The Museum of Terrors is a bilingual open-air reminder of the effects of communism on this country. Over 700,000 Hungarians were taken away to the gulags and 300,000 never made it back. It’s a sobering thought. The museum includes a section of the Berlin Wall and an iron chain sculpture that represents the Iron Curtain. It holds little back in expressing the horrors of the train rides, prison camps and lack of food that prisoners of war were subjected to.
Down on the banks of the Danube the Shoes by the Danube installation shows the story of the 45 Jews who were murdered here during WWII. They were told to remove their shoes and were then shot, their bodies falling into the Danube to make washing the sins of war away easier. There were people standing there wearing those shoes and the way they are displayed makes it impossible to ignore the cold realities of war. Cold realities that we in Australia have been protected from. And I think about all the people in the world who are currently suffering through the many wars that go on and I wonder why some leaders today must focus on battle, terror and aggression rather than fostering a global culture of peace, harmony and understanding.
But let us return to Budapest’s grandeur. Because this is the overwhelming sense I have here. Of a city that is architecturally stunning and easy on the eye.
A city with a motley collection of architectural styles blended together harmoniously through time.
My ride takes me along a short section of the Euro Velo 6 and out of Budapest’s downtown towards Memento Park. The urban landscape quickly disappears and gravel trails run alongside small farms and large gardens. I am not even 10km (6 miles) from the city center yet it almost feels rural. There are orchards and vegetable patches, horses and guard dogs. Two old men talk to each other as they stand at their respective gates on either side of the road. I’m sure the conversation has been going on like this for decades. I am taken aback that one of the men is wearing nothing but a skimpy pair of speedos and farm boots. In Australia men won’t even wear speedos to the beach, let alone while standing at their farm gate talking with their neighbour on a public road.
I make it to Memento Park. This is the largest collection of communist-era statues because most were destroyed or melted for copper. Being a big fan of spy movies and books, it is only natural I should want to come here. After-all, no spy story is complete without three stanzas: the glamorous European chateaux or castle party, the narrow cobble stoned European street car chase and the communist baddies with the thick accents. I have been visiting the glamorous European chateaux and castles here in Budapest, cycled along cobble stoned streets so now I need to meet those who inspired the communist baddies.
The statues in the park share a powerful story. It’s easy to see why they would have caused terror to those who did not agree with the regime and emboldened those who did. As a form of persuasive communication they are impossible to ignore. Me … I am glad I didn’t live in that time because I would have lived in fear. Especially with such powerful statues dominating cities and villages everywhere.
On a lighter note, there is a Trabant car at the park. The coolest thing about it is that you are allowed to sit in it. Now I feel like I am properly on the set of a spy movie ready for that car chase down cobble stoned streets.
The afternoon sun is beating down on me by the time I leave Memento Park headed back towards Budapest and the camping ground. I am grateful that the first part of the ride takes me downhill so the air rushing past me can act as a cool fan. As I roll I take in the views over the Danube where the city meets the farmland. I let out a “whoop” as I realise I am actually here. I keep saying it but I kind of can’t believe how fortunate I am to be living this lifestyle.
Down in the city I meander through small streets and lanes zig-zagging my way back to the camping ground instead of taking a direct route. I stop for gelati and sit on a chair outside the shop watching the people passing by. There are terraces everywhere and people sipping coffees or beers lost in conversation. Trams rattle by and I even see a trolley bus. The sun warms the render on the sides of the buildings while the trees shade the streets. It’s been a very fine day indeed.