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Budapest: Roamin’ Ruins

On the inside it feels surprisingly modern.

Not ruined, but Roman.

Okay, so it’s a misleading title. But I can’t resist the occasional bit of wordplay. Travel broadens the mind, after all, and many different kinds of whimsy can creep in there. 

Budpaest is an old city – or at least parts of it are. Most famously, it’s the combination of two cities, lying on either side of the Danube: sleepy Buda and buzzing Pest. So when my train finally pulled into Budapest-Keleti train station, it should come as no surprise that I opted to head to neither, instead aiming for the even older Obuda, north of Buda, built around the old Roman settlement of Aquincum.

So there you have ruins, along with the roamin’/Roman to justify the headline. For Aquincum is well worth a visit to anyone with an interest in Eternal Rome. It may not offer the snapshot of life as it was that Pompeii does, but a lot of effort has been made to depict the way of life in this Roman frontier town, just across the Danube from the seemingly endless stream of “barbarian” peoples whom Rome first absorbed and then gave way to.

Mostly worth a visit because it's clear you're not meant to.

Dank, unlit and smelling strongly of wee.

Buda has its own sights, of course, though I wouldn’t call either of the two main ones ruins. Castle Hill, occupied by Budapest Castle and the Matthias Church (named after the original Raven King) is worth exploring, though in the latter case at least, heavy reconstruction and redecoration work has left the place looking a little too fresh and tourist friendly. As always, it pays to poke around and explore every corner, to turn up surprised like an unlit corridor leading to a seemingly forgotten chamber beneath the earth.

South of Castle Hill stands Gellert Hill, a steeper and more taxing climb, albeit very much still worth it. For atop the hill stands the Citadella, an Austro-Hungarian fortification that was obsolete before it was finished, and the Liberty Monument, which stands as it did in Soviet times, albeit with all specific references to the Soviets removed. Brutally putting down rebellions wins few friends. The Citadella was closed by the time I got there, but that wasn’t much of a loss – the hill commands a view of the entire sweep of the Danube, laying all of Buda and Pest out before you.

One suspects Hungary of holding a grudge.

An Iron Curtain. Metaphors are for wusses.

If Buda and Obuda have laid claim to most of the history, Pest is left with the lion’s share of the life. History here is of the more recent type, and the life that’s to be found is of the natural-, human- and night- types. Natural life in the various parks and green spaces in Pest and neighbouring Margaret Island, human life on every street and especially in the huge Szechenyi Thermal Baths, which weren’t short of both tourist and local bodies on an otherwise quiet Monday. As for night life, I was usually too tired to check, but the activity around my hostel suggested there was plenty of it.

For all its divisions, Budapest seems to be a pretty unified city. It’s interesting to compare it to Vienna and Bratislava on the theme of identity: in comparison to the former’s comfort and the latter’s questing, Budapest was stuffed with reminders of a shared Magyar heritage, separate from influences both East and West. It felt a little like an effort from above to set the cultural narrative, which is always a tricky thing to do. And, as could be seen in the refugee tents still visible at Budapest-Keleti, of little benefit to anyone not fortunate enough to fall into the cultural group in question.

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