Fri 30th May
Time to go to church – Mátyás Church, to be specific. Like many of the major buildings around here, it has been built, destroyed, re-built, collapsed, re-built etc. more or less since the 13thC. In an effort (presumably) to stop this happening again, it is currently being extensively and meticulously restored. I know this because of the informative series of panels attached to the scaffolding (also a bit of clue) beneath which the church is lovingly cosseted.
Even lapped in scaff and missing most of its wonderful coloured ceramic roof-tiles it’s still an impressive structure. Inside it’s simply gorgeous. Perhaps on account of being a Brit (and therefore heir to a proud tradition of neo-gothic severity) I’m used to being boggled by the flamboyance of Baroque and Romanesque churches without necessarily being particularly moved. One appreciates the artistry, but it all seems a bit over-blown and florid.
I’ve never seen anything quite this, however, and I love it. Every inch of the interior is covered with a rich variety of painted patterns in a muted palette of (mainly) earth tones, red and blue. Figures here and there are picked out in gold, and there’s some great stained glass as well. I spot the raven again, tessellated all over one wall near the entrance, but most of the patterning is just that, patterns. The whole effect is like an explosion in a William Morris wall-paper book, although not so floral. Maybe it has something to do with the thread of the east that twines through so many things here. To me it gives a feeling of richness and warmth. It’s spectacular, but also subtle; quite apart from any intrinsic significance individual patterns may possess, this is a major achievement in a purely decorative, graphic sense.
It seems somehow more joyful than our sombre English stones. My enjoyment is only slightly marred by a number of people happily flashing away with their cameras. I’ve no doubt they got better pictures than me . I turned my flash off, feeling it overly intrusive in what is still very much a functioning place of worship.
Eventually re-emerging into the sun, no doubt with a fatuous expression of contentment and blinking like a mole, I am pounced upon by an extremely polite hare-krishna. Clearly more worldly than might be expected, he flatters me into listening by praising my dress sense and saying that I look too relaxed to be a Brit. Extracting myself costs a few euros, but I’m sure it’ll be spent in a good cause, so I can’t really begrudge it, as I say ‘gouranga’ with enough conviction to convince and saunter off in search of refreshment.
Temporarily cooled by ice-cream, I manage a bit more wandering in the old town…happily making small discoveries – a great sign for an antique shop, an interesting door, funky wrought-iron hedgehog (café/bar sign), a man with wings growing out of his head…and a small gallery full of modern paintings, etchings and sculpture, Koller Galéria. Through an archway, across a courtyard, ring the bell, then up a steep flight of stairs that doesn’t look promising at all. They manage to pack an astonishing amount of work into a little-jewel box of a place, two stories and a very secluded courtyard garden. It’s a pretty mixed bag, but it’s such a charming place that I don’t mind…besides, there are two works by a painter called Robert Csáki that are well worth the effort. Large oils, they depict strange child-like figures with oddly self-absorbed, almost death-mask like faces. They look like Odilon Redon portraits of David Lynch extras, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they crop up in dreams to come. Venturing back out into the sun feels slightly
unreal, and I’m resisting the temptation to look around to see if a small, serious looking figure is following me.
Right, now I definitely need something to drink. Choosing entirely on the basis of the name, I plonk myself down in a chair at the Café Miro. A happy accident, as not only does the place look great (very striking deep blue and orange walls, and amazing chairs with spidery wrought iron legs) but it also serves the best lemonade I’ve ever had, anywhere, anytime. Fresh lemon and lime juice, just enough sugar to take the edge off, lots of ice and great big chunks of orange and lime. Sensational.
Isn’t it great when a place looks good, feels comfortable and comes up with the goods? A fitting tribute to a great Catalonian artist, in its way; quite why it should be here (I don’t think there’s any particular link between Miro and Budapest) I don’t know, but I’m damm glad that it is.
Whilst I’m sitting scribbling (and demolishing a tasty, citrus laden salad) a falconer wonders around the corner. You can tell, ‘cos he’s got a huge great hawk of some kind, hooded and jess’d, on one hand. For one glorious moment it seems like he’s heading straight for the café, but then he veers off and disappears around another corner. Too bad, I’d been looking forward to hearing someone order, ‘a cold beer, and something small and squeaky for my friend here’…in Hungarian, of course. A near miss, but deeply satisfying, none the less…of such small moments of strangeness…
A siesta would be good round about now. I wonder if there’s anywhere I can lie and snooze, without attracting unwelcome attention?
Eventually decide to venture a little river cruising, and set off to find the Danube, by the simple expedient of heading down hill. Perhaps unwisely, I pay for this treat in Euros, and thus get slightly done (relative exchange rates being poor just now) but it’s too hot for complicated maths. Serve me (and my local post-office) right for not laying my hands on enough Forints in the first place.
The cruise is pleasant enough – the commentary doesn’t tell me much more than I’ve already gleaned from random forays into my guidebook, but it’s good to be on the river. Seems almost obligatory, having come all this way. Besides, the management has sensibly crewed the boat with attractive young women (‘twould be idle of me to pretend not to notice) two of whom impress me no end by passing a microphone back and forth between them, rendering announcements in 9 or 10 languages between them. Including, I think, Japanese.
Even more sensibly, the price of the trip includes a couple of complimentary drinks. Cold beer in hand, enjoying the fine views of the city, I find myself grinning widely with pure pleasure. An expression so vapid
that it would, I suspect, in normal circumstances get me looked at askance, if not actually arrested.
The cruise pauses at Margaret Island, where we have the option of an hour or so’s wandering about. Another boat will come and take us back later. Despite the obvious romantic/historical associations it has for the locals, I’m not that struck. Whatever it has been in the past, now it doesn’t seem like very much more than a large (it’s over 3km long) civic park. Nice enough, with well manicured grass and lots of mature trees, concrete paths and concessions stands (mainly ice-cream and bike hire) dotted about. It could be anywhere, really.
I’m briefly diverted by the appearance of a red squirrel, darting out of the bushes to skitter up a rubbish bin and have a good rummage. Behaviour which makes me wonder whether it’s only their relative rarity that makes them seem so special back home. The island is obviously a favoured spot for joggers. An amazing number of whom (both sexes and all ages/degrees of fitness) variously speed, pant and patter past whilst we’re waiting for the boat to take us back. Rather unkindly, the proprietor of the small café here has set his tables up either side of the path, forcing the joggers to run right through them, within arm’s reach of all manner of cooling refreshments.
Back on dry land, I decide to try and find the Gresham Palace. Partly as it’s supposed to be one of the sights of the city, but mainly in order to take some pictures to send to my friend Xanthe Gresham. In many respects this turns out to be a mistake as a) it involves wondering around Pest which is a very different proposition to Buda (of which, more later) and b) it’s got dark by the time I do eventually find the place, and the photographs prove disappointing. The building, however, is sensational (I resolve to come back again tomorrow, in daylight.) Originally commissioned by an English financier, Thomas Gresham, it was designed by the splendidly named Zsigmond Quittner and finished in 1907. It’s been lovingly (and, one enses, very expensively) restored, and is now an up-market hotel, and it must be one of the most perfect secessionist interiors in the world. The attention to detail, in both design and restoration, is impressive; everything is right, and the whole effect very much more than the sum of its parts. So lovely I’m almost dribbling with delight, and immediately conceive a deep-seated ambition to stay here. Better start saving now. I’m actually astonished they let me into the place at all – perhaps it’s not wearing jeans (linen makes a lot more sense when it’s as hot as this). It’ll be interesting to see whether I can get away with it in daylight.
I’m now betwixt and between, wandering around Pest trying to decide whether to have anything else to eat. Not quite hungry enough. It’s all very busy, full of people and stuff going on, skateboarders and cyclists zipping everywhere, shops, bars…a vibrant city night-life, even I can see that. Unfortunately, having spent the last couple of days in quiet contemplation of this and that, mostly in old Buda, I’m
not really ready for this.Being accosted twice within an hour (maybe it’s the purple shirt) by the same pair of heavily made-up small town girls (from Lake Balaton, I discover) in search of a night on the town is a bit too much and I decide to call it a night and head for my bed.