I have two conflicting images of Budapest: In 2012 I spent Christmas Day here as part of a longer trip along the Danube. It was bitterly cold and dark, and the imposing brown and grey buildings, in that light, seemed both menacing and hopeless. At the suggestion of a travel companion we visited the celebrated Cafe de Paris, a gleaming example of 1920s opulence, sparkling with the memories of better times and largely populated by wealthy tourists indulging themselves with the sumptuous cakes and pastries. I drank a much-needed, warming hot chocolate – the best I have ever tasted – before heading back into the icy gloom. On the way back, we saw a long queue of men, women and children of all ages stretching along the length of a street and around the corner. Intrigued, we walked for several minutes to find its source, presuming it to be something to do with the seasonal festivities. It was a soup kitchen.
This time the sun was shining, and the city seemed to bask self-confidently in the Spring light. Our hotel (Roombach – highly recommended!) was in a trendy, lively area packed with bars, clubs and restaurants frequented by the city’s bright young things – businessmen in suits, a smattering of arty types, some students. With no obvious evidence of the poverty we’d seen three years earlier, it was with no effort that I was able to view the city more positively – an optimistic, beautiful, thriving city with a proud history and a great future.
It was on a sleeper train that I first fell in love with the idea of travelling, trundling between Berlin and Krakow in Poland’s pre-EU days, 6 of us crammed into a couchette with a crate of beer and oodles of over-excitement. The “restaurant car” was empty and sold only two items – a brand of strong Polish lager that I have never seen since, and Ritter Sports bars, staffed by an old, hunched-over man in grey who chain-smoked and never smiled. At 2am an army of hefty border guards, accompanied by heftier and fierce-looking dogs, boarded, banged on the door and demanded our passports. By 6am the toilet had flooded and at 7 we rattled through the desolate outskirts of our destination, the landscape and weather the very definition of pathetic fallacy.
Over 15 years on, Poland has been in the EU for over 12 years, and even my destination country, a relative newcomer, has been in for 9. I’m travelling from Budapest to Brasov on a Romanian train which I am expecting to bring back memories of my first experience, but am pleasantly surprised: our comparatively spacious 3-person cabin has a washbasin (though I fear, from the smell, that previous passengers may have used it for other purposes) , hooks to hang your coats on, and complementary toilet kits complete with mini toothbrush and (disconcerting-tasting) toothpaste. The “restaurant car”, too, is more promising: there are, for a start, at least two types of beer on offer, and though on initial inspection it seems devoid of food, the staff (there are quite a few, falling over themselves to cater for us, the only three diners there) quickly offer to cook us an omelette, which arrives with much ceremony and accompanied by a “salad”, which is in fact 8 pickled gherkins and a single lettuce leaf. When the border guards arrive (Romania is not yet in Schengen) they are jovial and courteous. So, rocked by the train, I gradually fall into a sleep of delicious contentment, dreamily anticipating all the exploring ahead.