Stories and essays on food, travel, culture.
Ajay Devgn. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. His stark white suit. Her lusciously rich red sari. The earthy tones of the concrete and metal of Chain Bridge. A maudlin song wailing in the background. Their meeting on the deserted bridge. Her limpid eyes. His sad face. And…you know the rest.
The scene plays out in slow motion in my mind’s eye as we gaze at the majestic Chain Bridge from the low wall that separates a bustling promenade from the expanse of the Danube (known as the Duna in Hungary). The late afternoon breeze is soothing. We catch snippets of conversations in many tongues, familiar and unfamiliar. Buda’s Castle Hill rises on the left bank of the river on the far side. On the east bank where we stand, Pest sprawls as far as the eye can see.
We cross the bridge on foot over a Danube that looks powerful, the churning, choppy waters not a little menacing as the river races towards Croatia, the next country on its 10-nation European journey. At the base of Castle Hill our choice is between riding a funicular straight up the hill to the top and walking along a nicely laid path that rises gently up the slope and disappears into the trees around the corner. Fresh from a 4-hour train journey from Vienna, we choose to stretch our legs.
As we climb up the snaking path with our eight-year-old and our two-year-old whose stroller we’ve had to fold up because we encounter steps, we have second thoughts. But one look towards Pest from the first landing dissolves our trepidations. A now slimmer and longer river, a few more of the seven bridges that span it, the intricately designed edifice of Parliament House and the rest of Pest have come into view. At each successive landing we are presented with a wider angle and a deeper perspective.
As the city glints in the glow of the setting sun it is not difficult to succumb to Budapest’s charms. And it becomes clear why Budapest is a favourite destination for moviemakers.
As long as one stays away from the distinctively Budapestian parts of the city, it is easy to recreate in Budapest any large, more expensive city required by the plot. The big-city vibe that permeates its boulevards, stately buildings and bustling squares is palpable. In addition to Italy in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, we find that Budapest has stood in for Paris (Cyrano de Bergerac), London (Munich), Moscow (Red Heat), Buenos Aires (Evita) and Berlin (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas).
The next day, which happens to be a Sunday, we head to Hero’s Square. We start out east from our apartment, on foot again. Save for some bustle around restaurants and a weekend flea market, the streets are deserted until we come upon a movie crew shooting a scene, complete with New York cops, police cars, and actors carrying obviously American shopping bags. We stand and gawk for a while, trying to memorize the scene in case we chance upon it on screen.
A couple of blocks up Andrássy Avenue, a magnificent tree-lined boulevard, we see signs for the underground. Budapest boasts one of the oldest metro systems in the world and Line 1, the one we are about to get on, is a World Heritage Site, one among many in Budapest. The tiled walls, the graceful arches and polished wooden accents and doorways render it a subway station unlike any I’ve seen before. The train carriages seem just as ancient and we rattle our way down the tunnel at a disconcertingly high speed.
At Hero’s Square, we see more evidence of Budapest’s appeal as a staging ground. Workers are busy dismantling a stage from a Santana concert the night before and setting up for a classical music concert later that evening. The Millennium Memorial, with its soaring pillars set in a semi-circle, and statues of historical figures, makes for an alluring backdrop.
We’ve arrived at the farthest reaches of Pest that we want to see and decide to return to the endlessly fascinating Buda. We’re smarter this time, and we take a train and bus to the top of the hill.
The Castle quarter is a throwback to some long-forgotten era. The cobbled streets and the ancient homes have withstood the ravages of natural and man-made disasters. We meander around the village and find ourselves at the entrance to the Buda Castle Labyrinth. Sixteen metres deep inside the hill, the vast network of passages was built to serve as an escape route from the castle. The tunnels are dank and dark. Puddles dot the floor. There’s some weird music playing in the background. In the parts where we find ourselves alone, it is decidedly spooky. The labyrinth is so well preserved that the Germans used it as a staging area for 20,000 troops during World War II.
It is a relief to get out into the fresh air. We head for Fisherman’s Bastion overlooking the river and feast our eyes on the blue Danube and a panoramic view of Pest.
There’s only one more destination we want to tick off before we leave Budapest—Gellért Hill. We’ve seen the hill, and the striking Elizabeth Bridge we would have to traverse to get there, every day from our apartment. The quickest way, we are told, is to climb up the hill. The bus is not really convenient. We groan, but head out purposefully. The climb is a killer. But the reward once we get to the top, as always with Budapest, more than makes up for the hard work.
For the first time, we get a mesmerizing view of the city in its entirety—the hilly, old-world Buda; the flat, modern Pest; the river that separates them; the bridges that connect them; and the beautiful buildings that grace either side.
We desperately take pictures and try to freeze the memory forever. But how do you capture the joy in the eyes of an eight-year-old who makes a difficult climb and revels in the sight spreading out from his feet all the way to the horizon?