Wednesday, 28 May 2014

A Danube Journey Day 1: arriving at Budapest

I hope I don't regret this. I am posting a day by day blog of our recent cruise through Central Europe up the River Danube. We began in Budapest and ended in Nuremberg from where we travelled overland to Prague. This was a long-planned holiday organised by a well-known touring company. I wrote this blog as we travelled, without checking facts or sources. It is pure stream-of-consciousness. If you have done a similar journey and visited the places I describe, you may like to compare notes. I've tried to reflect as well as describe, for travel has a wonderful way of raising questions; but inevitably it will feel rough-hewn and perhaps a bit hasty. So much for the health warning. Here goes with Day 1. 


We can see the Danube as the plane comes in to land at Budapest. It swings round to the south in a great loop, the Danube Bend, having travelled from west to east since its birth in the Black Forest many hundreds of miles from here.

First impressions of a strange country begin at the airport. For the nation's capital, Budapest airport is surprisingly intimate: more like Newcastle than Birmingham or Manchester, let alone Heathrow. I notice the signs - bilingual of course, but what a language Hungarian is: all those consonants, and accents in strange places. There are no etymological landmarks, no familiar roots by which to triangulate and work out meanings. They say it's one of the most difficult languages in the world, like Basque, Turkish, or Finnish (to which it is related). By contrast, in downstream Romania, they speak the debased Latin of a former Roman province - easy enough to get by, they say, if you have a smattering of French or Italian.

We are rounded up and shepherded into a couple of buses. The drive into the city centre takes us  through the kind of colourless suburbs you come to expect in post-Soviet bloc countries. It reminds me of Moscow, whose vast banlieue seemed twenty years ago to be leached of vitality, where it was hard not to think that daily life was unremittingly hard work. 

Our courier gives us an informative whistle-stop tour of the history and culture of Hungary. The thrust of it is the extent to which these lands have been subject to the domination of others - centuries of Mongol, Ottoman and Hapsburg rule. There was a brief taste of freedom following the end of the Great War, but then the regime unwisely allied itself with the Axis powers and found itself under the the jackboot of the Third Reich. The Nazis invaded in 1944. Budapest suffered badly, especially its Jewish population. The Soviet era and the Cold War followed, and only in 1990 did Hungary once again become its own nation, a modern democratic republic and, since 2004, a member of the EU. Somehow, the suburbs wear this sense of exhaustion after a long, depressing history. 

Yet the centre comes as a beautiful surprise. Here there is liveliness, a sense of history, a palpable  intellectual and cultural presence, noble buildings (on a truly grand scale) and above all the river itself. I've read that of all the cities on the Danube, Budapest is the one that most takes the river to its heart and has organised its life around it. That feels like a good reason for starting our journey here. 

So we embark on the Regina Rheni II. (I almost said Regina Coeli - after all it is Eastertide.) She is tethered alongside a boulevard where there are trams, and a park, and what looks like a contemporary arts centre that reminds us of the Sage in Gateshead, and people out running and strolling and playing with their children in the evening sunshine. These river cruise ships are not huge compared with the immense vessels that ply the seas carrying upwards of a thousand passengers - we are only 150 so it is all quite intimate by comparison - but she is still a long ship, 110 metres, low-slung and sleek. Why the 'Queen of the Rhine' rather than the Danube? Because she was built and is registered in Holland, and works the entire length of the journey across the watershed of Europe from here to the North Sea via the Main Canal and the Rhine.
We find we have been upgraded to a cabin on the top deck. Such things rarely happen to us, so it is a nice surprise. Can they have known that we are celebrating our ruby wedding? It seems not: there has simply been some problem with a damp carpet in the cabin we were allocated. At dinner, there is the usual awkwardness of introductions: who we are, where we come from etc., all carefully establishing the rules of engagement of this new-formed floating community. We discuss the routines and rituals of shipboard life. Some cognoscenti do this kind of thing regularly and know the ins and outs of cruising etiquette. They compare travellers' tales about the Rhine, the Rhone, the Volga and the Nile. No one on our table has done the Danube before, so we cruising virgins are on the same deck as our fellow-travellers as far as the river itself is concerned. 

As we gather in the lounge for the introductory briefing, there is an excited babble of conversation. The meeting strikes an upbeat note, because it is obviously required that holidaymakers be cheerful, but with overtones of the school trip thrown in. Are there hints that managing a crowd of more mature adults with differing levels of physical ability can have its challenges? We are promised partying the next day. My introvert side starts protesting. I wonder how I shall cope with the bonhomie of it all. 

We are assigned to a table where we shall have our main meals with the same companions throughout the week's voyage. This is where the hazards of cruising are greatest, where real trepidation is felt. No planning goes into the lottery of table allocation, no checking of compatibility. How do you know if you can sustain polite, let alone interesting or stimulating, conversation at lunch and dinner day after day with people you have never met, with whom you are randomly thrown together at the whim of the restaurant floor manager? Time alone will tell. 

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