Budapest is lovelyby day, romantic in the twilight and glorious by night, writes LIZA KAPPELLE
I ’M still in bed when I get my first glimpse of Budapest, across a stretch of the Danube to the liberty statue on Gellert Hill on the Buda side of the city.
Who hasn’t fantasised about such an immediate introduction to an exotic part of the planet, bypassing airports and cabs or buses?
It finally happened to me in Budapest (or Budapesht, as the locals pronounce the name of the Hungarian capital) in the heart of central Europe.
From my stateroom on river cruiser MSPoetry, I can see Budapest’s colourful buildings jutting like ancient bones from the hillsides of the city, with evidence of influence from Romans and Turks during its rich and sometimes tragic past.
It is the final day of my 11-day bus and boat trip from the Czech Republic.
I head off to catch some local colour at Market Hall, near our mooring by the Szabadsag Bridge on the Pest side of the Danube.
There is a throng of locals and tourists in the Nagyvasar Csarnok markets but it is easy to manoeuvre around the ground floor where vegetable and smallgoods stalls, with their inevitable scarlet strings of paprika, straddle the wide walkways.
It is more crowded upstairs where tantalising smells and a crush of locals hint at tasty things on offer.
I press through a cheerful beerswilling mob — it is after all a Saturday and almost noon — to try Langos, a circle of fried potato bread smothered with sour cream and cheese.
It is utterly delicious and I wish I had room for the undoubtedly heart-stopping version slathered with salami and peppers.
Still upstairs I wander past stalls filled with silk pashminas, lace, toys and exotic clothing before heading back to take a bus tour of Budapest which is included in my Danube trip.
Guide Judit Deak takes us down stately streets lined with buildings decorated with such detailed painting it appears they have been wallpapered.
She takes us to Heroes Square where she points out a statue of Hungary’s former King Matthias while urging us not to cling to false impressions about Dracula being Hungarian despite his connection with the king.
Dracula, or Vlad the Impaler, did spend time in Hungary and was imprisoned by King Matthias, in 1462, for nailing ‘hats’ to the heads of Turks, she says.
‘‘But he was Transylvanian, not Hungarian, and he was not a vampire, he was crazy man who liked killing people,’’ she tells her fascinated tour group.
Next stop is the fishermen’s bastion across the river to Buda, the part of their city most prized by Hungarians.
To reach it we have to drive past the Terror Museum in Peste, which Judit says has been very popular since it was created recently out of onetime Nazi and Russian KGB headquarters.
The fishermen’s bastion lies high above the river in the castle district, a medieval part of old Buda, from where you can gaze down across the Danube.
Across the river, in Pest, lies Hungary’s ornately spired Parliament House which Judit says remains the most expensive building ever erected in this country.
The tour leaves us some free time to spend in this medieval quarter so I stroll past pastelcoloured houses, watching light spill on to cobbles from corner food stores as the day darkens.
Budapest is lovely by day, romantic in the twilight and I am soon to discover the city is glorious by night.
Lights burned dimly here during the communist time so locals have celebrated the era’s ending by turning the spotlight on more than 30 sights in Budapest at night.
It is freezing outside at 9pm in November but I can’t resist another bus tour, this one to Vajdahunyad Castle, behind Heroes Square.
A massive Gothic gate gives entry to a courtyard where I first get a good look at the light-bathed castle which was built between 1896 and 1908 to showcase different styles of Hungarian architecture.
There are buildings to suit every taste — from Romanesque and Baroque buildings, imitations of a castle-wall and a feudal castle, and Renaissance twirls.
There is even a sinister looking statue of Anonymous, his face hidden in his monk’s hood, in the garden facing the castle.
The castle was special but my best memory of Budapest by night is from our first stop, a hilltop in Buda where we brave icy rain to gaze with awe down upon the three bridges spanning the lit-up city.
A day isn’t enough to spend in Budapest, but the Legendary Danube trip I take from Prague to Budapest is a taster tour, allowing passengers a luxurious trip down the river with bus tours and walks in every port.
Many of my fellow passengers will stay on in Budapest after leaving the boat but I am to fly out of the city without visiting Margaret Island or the famous Turkish baths in this city renowned for its thermal springs. IF YOU GO........................... Price for Avalon Waterways’ 11-day LegendaryDanube cruises start at $2326pp excluding air fares. Avalon Waterways can arrange packages including flights: visit www.avalonwaterways.com.au. Cities visited on the cruise‘include Regensburg, Passau, Melk, Vienna and Budapest. Emirates (www.emirates.com/au/) flies between Australia and Vienna connecting with Austrian Airlines (www.aua.com.au/ eng) to Prague; after three days there, passengers travel bybus to join the cruise in Nuremberg, Germany.
Budapest’s Heroes Square and, top, the city straddles the Danube River