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.