On to Budapest. An eight-hour journey brought us back to the Western world, and what a huge contrast it makes after Mumbai. Unlike Thailand and India, Budapest is most definitely not the land of smiles. In fact, locals here seem to have perfected the art of frowning. But make no mistake, Budapest is beautiful. Especially beautiful. And incredibly quiet and clean. I was here 10 years ago, two years before Hungary entered the EU in 2004, and it was distinctly scruffier then. Budapest washes up well. And when I say “washes up,” I don’t mean “gentrifies.” This is a city that’s done a great job of maintaining its unique identity with coffee shops, ruin bars, ornate Ottoman-era thermal baths, palatial hotels and sweeping views of the Danube.
Walking Budapest is a sublime way to experience it. During my own exploratory stroll, I was surprised by how many tourists there were. I was equally surprised by where they went: Heroes’ Square, lined with statues and not much else, was packed, while gorgeous, lesser-seen, tree-lined areas went largely unnoticed. One such site was Tóth Árpád Sétány (Árpád Tóth Promenade) a quiet, overlooked slice of Castle Hill. Lined with autumnal, golden-tinged chestnut trees and largely tourist-free, this cobblestone promenade in hilly Buda begins at the Museum of Military History and passes intricate wrought-iron gates guarding more intricate Baroque homes, fountains, sculptures and shade-covered benches. It’s not only a tranquil antidote to Mumbai’s honking chaos, but the kind of promenade that clears a heavy mind. Or perhaps helps to organise it in way that might allow one to invent ballpoint pens, Dobos torte, or the Rubik’s cube (all Hungarian inventions).
Many travellers still think of Budapest as a cold war Communist city. And what a mistake. Sure, it’s punctuated with Brutalist architecture and heroic Modernist statues, but, at its core, it’s a classic European city with all the architectural grandiosity of Munich, Paris and Rome, but half the crowds. Budapest is a city to return to again and again.