Budapest

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.

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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.

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Taking the sleeper from Budapest to Brasov

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.

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When I Grow Up I Shall Go There

    “It was in 1868, when nine years old or thereabouts, that while looking at a map of Africa of the time and putting my finger on the blank space then representing the unsolved mystery of that continent, I said to myself, with absolute assurance and an amazing audacity which are no longer in my character: “When I grow up I shall go there.”
        Joseph Conrad, “Heart of Darkness”
    As a child I longed to travel, but, as a rule, we didn’t. We had family in Guernsey, in itself a mystery to some, this relatively obscure island in the English Channel surrounded by green sea – I painted the sea that colour once in a painting at school entitled “My Holiday”, and was admonished and told that the sea was blue. I maintain that it isn’t.
    I remember watching repeats of “Around the World in 80 Days”, and Michael Palin saying that his aim was to “celebrate travel”. This is something we do less and less – travel is increasingly becoming a means of getting somewhere only, and life a constant rush from one place or one task to the next, and in this we have lost the art of travel itself, and this is a shame. In 2008 we took an overnight train from Paris down to Barcelona, a magical experience, awakening in the small hours in the Pyrenees, silent and sparkling as a filmset, by the strange sensation of the train being physically lifted up – it turned out the gauges are different in Spain to those in France. Sadly, that route no longer exists – the advent of a faster train meant there was no longer any demand where getting somewhere trumps the practice of travelling there.
    I am one of those strange people that likes long-haul flights. I am obsessed by the route map, which happily keeps me occupied for hours – the different places, the times there, the countries we have flown over and those that are to come. I like the fact that, whatever the goal upon arrival, long-haul flying is in effect enforced relaxation – hours where you simply cannot be somewhere else, so you might as well watch films, drink wine and be fed every now and then without having to get up. Put like that, isn’t that everyone’s perfect day?
    Anyway, this blog aims to celebrate travel – the places I’ve seen, from fleeting stopovers to elongated periods of work where my destinations have become, however temporarily, home, and the means of getting there. There are many, many places I still long to see, from Andorra to Zimbabwe – perhaps, when I grow up, I shall go there.