Thursday, 29 May 2014

A Danube Journey Day 2: Budapest and setting sail

We are taken in buses round the sights of Budapest. Originally two cities like Manchester and Salford or Newcastle and Gateshead, I am having trouble remembering which one I am in. I decide that 'Pest is not West but is best' will do as a mnemonic.

But we must begin with the river itself. First, its colour. If ever there was an epithet based on wishful thinking, it is that the Danube is 'blue'. 'Beautiful', yes, but the colour is a consistent milk-chocolate, like a tidal estuary. This is always the case, it seems, but especially at this time of year when it is swollen by snowmelt. Someone tells us that Don-au is etymologically related to 'dun', as in cow, which says it all. Then there is its flow. It is nearly 200 yards wide at Budapest, yet this river does not drift languidly through the city like the London Thames. It is astonishingly fast, beating energetically against the boats and the landing stage. The Danube has spirit, more like a huge mountain torrent than a stately river that takes its time to travel. It does not intend to linger anywhere for long, not even in its greatest cities.

Our tour guide enthuses about the city. We are bombarded with facts about its history and monuments, too much to take in as the bus does its circuit. We get out at the Place of Heroes, a monumental piazza full of equine sculpture that celebrates Hungary's warriors. The bronzes are very fine and make a magnificent group. One of our group wanders off and there is worry about what has happened to him. A few telephone calls, and a couple of circuits of the piazza and he is reunited with us. Couriers must be used to this sort of thing, but when their charges include elderly people with minds of their own, it must make escorting a school group seem like child's play (as it were). 

We glimpse baroque facades, serious 19th century civic buildings, and a fascinating profusion of Art Nouveau and Déco. Structures from the Victorian age include Eiffel's characterful railway station and his elephant house at the zoo. There is too much 20th century socialist realism, much of it already looking the worse for wear. Yet the eclectic ensemble works, produces its own aesthetic of monumental buildings that create a largely harmonious whole. The next stop is the Fishermen's Bastion with its famed vista of the city. Like Montmartre, it shares the acropolis with a great church, St Matthias. Dedicated to Our Lady, it is named after one of Budapest's warriors who restrained the Ottomans from invading the city. When Hungary finally succumbed, it served for a while as one of the city's mosques; inevitably, it was drastically restored when it reverted to Christianity. Nevertheless (and despite the entrance fee) it is a noble building with a triforium successfully converted to a treasury museum full of beautiful things. 
From this summit, we can appreciate why Budapest is called the 'pearl of the Danube'. The panorama of the great river and its architecture is magnificent, with the Parliament building, directly inspired by the Palace of Westminster, resplendent. We pass an icon shop where we buy Hungarian crosses for the children. We wonder what to do with the our remaining 2000 Hungarian Forints. It sounds a lot but only amounts to a few pounds. If we ever come back to Budapest, they will no doubt have joined the euro by then. The charity box it will be then, or tips for the crew on board ship.

At lunch time we weigh anchor. Though we didn't arrive here by river as you are supposed to, at least we leave it that way. The bridges, churches and Parliament building are in a perfectly judged relationship with the river, as noble as London and Paris and perhaps better as the river has the width to set off monumental architecture to real effect; and also because there seems to have been some coherence in planning the development of the river frontages. They didn't just happen.

Upstream, we are back among the suburbs with rows of unlovely high-rise Soviet apartment blocks softened by shrubs on the river bank. Then it is forests, interspersed with the occasional dacha and its jetty, lost among a million trees. How empty this country must be. After lunch, people arrange themselves on deck to enjoy the sunshine. Paperback novels, magazines, and yesterday's papers are brought out. The afternoon settles into summer torpor, the gentle bass drone of the ship's engines offset by the trebles of bird song and the water lapping against the bows. We sense that it's the enjoyably lazy, sunny, life on board, rather than visiting interesting places, that is the real object of cruising. 

At Vac, the river has split into two for a while. A rusting car-ferry waits by the landing stage for passengers to carry to the other side. Baroque towers jostle for position on the skyline over the coloured frontages and red roofs of pretty houses. Only the prison jars with its uncompromising walls, barbed wire and observation towers. It was once an elite boarding school for girls founded by Empress Maria Theresa. In the Nazi and Cold War periods it earned an unenvied reputation as being one of the most dreaded places in Hungary. It is still a state penitentiary. Beyond, the river enters the Danube Bend that we saw from the aeroplane. This is a beautiful stretch of water where wooded hills force the river into a defile. The highlight is the ecclesiastical city of Esztergom, seat of the archbishopric of Hungary. The neo-classical cathedral sits on an acropolis directly above the river. It makes a fine sight that gets cameras clicking; whether it is more mausoleum than place of mystical wonder divides the travel writers. Perhaps it's one of those buildings you admire rather than love. 

As we go to bed, we see lights and towering cranes and the silhouettes of warehouses and industrial plants and docks. It must be the rust belt of Komárno. It looks faintly sinister by night, and possibly no better by daylight. On a river journey, you both see and don't see what you are passing by. You are close enough and move sufficiently slowly to take in a good deal more than, say, a passing motorist can do. But unless you actually stop, there is the odd feeling of glimpsing a chimera that comes and goes, emerges out of the future and recedes into the past. And afterwards, the chain of dream-like memories coalesces, melts into an impression of forests and hills and sky, and of course the river, this ceaseless traveller called the Danube that is like my own consciousness, and like time itself, an ever-flowing stream.

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