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Nick Jenkins : The Opinionated Traveller

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Budapest pics

Budapest and a Tale of Three Cities

Wednesday 13th Mar 2006

They say that the three Imperial capitals of Budapest, Prague and Vienna are like three sisters, joined in birth but separated by history. We've been to Vienna, we live in Prague and so we took a five day trip to the twin cities of Buda and Pest to see what charms they hold.

From Prague it was easy to jump on Cesky Drahy's "Pannonia", which runs overnight to Budapest. The trip was comfortable, the sleep easy and the ride much more pleasant than a trip to the airport. We arrived early on a beautiful spring day and walked through the city with our bags, snagging breakfast in the form of a fresh-baked vanilla croissant from a curb-side bakery.

We stayed in the Boulevard Pension, just south of the heart of east-side Pest. Run by the friendly Mariana, it's on the eighth floor of a newish apartment block and from our room we could just catch a glimpse of the Duna, the Danube, rolling by. It cost about 40EUR/night, which seems to be a reasonable rate for Budapest. 100EUR would get you a room in a swish hotel like the Gellert or the Hilton and for less you might find a bed in a hostel.

In brilliant sunshine, we walked from through the commercial centre of Pest, around Deak Ter (the main square) and across the Szecheny Lanchid (Chain Bridge). We climbed up the castle hill which dominates the west-side Buda bank of the Duna and sat in the sun and drank in the view over the city.

Strolling off the back of the hill brought us to Moskva Ter (Moscow Place), the Buda transport hub, where we jumped on a tram to Margrit Island, the city's recreational island. A two hour romantic stroll through the park capped off the day and we caught a tram home through the drab suburban periphery of Pest.

We dined that night in "Pascal", an upmarket French restaurant which served excellent, but mouth puckeringly salty food. I had a traditional dish of pork and bacon in mustard and Veronika had chicken with liver and parmesan-mash. Both were so salty that we still wince at the memory. Czech food is saline enough, but Hungarian food exceeds this with life-threatening amounts of seasoning.

The next day was more interactive, starting with a visit to the open-air Szechenyi Gyog Furdo (Szechenyi Geothermal Baths). The air temperature was sub-zero but sitting in the 38C water of the bath, with steam rising from your head, was comfortable enough.

During our visit, we also dropped into the Szent Istavan Bazilika (Saint Stephen's Basilica) a magnificent 19th century cathedral near Deak Ter, the Orszaghaz (Houses of Parliament) and the Magyar Nemzeti Muzeum (Hungarian National Museum). The best exhibits were the World War II and Soviet displays, the older stuff seemed a little thin.

One of the better sights in Budapest was the Nagy Vasarcsarnok (Central Market). We went there in search of csabai - an air cured Hungarian salami - for Veronika's dad, a sausage connoisseur.

So how does Budapest compare with her maidenly rivals of Prague and Vienna?

All three are pretty. They all feature grandiose architecture from the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Triumphal arches, bridges, castles, churches and grand palaces adorn their high places and you can't stroll the streets without tripping over statues of dukes, kings and saints.

Prague is, in my humble opinion, the prettiest of the lot. The old town is compact and well preserved and still charming. The Petrin and Letna parks provide an elegant counterpoint to the bustle of the Old Town and from either you get grand views of the whole city. The Vltava, while modest in comparison to the Danube is lively and more of a human scale. The only downside is that Prague doesn't really have the grand boulevards of Vienna and Budapest and you just don't get as much 'sky' in the narrow streets.

In contrast, Budapest benefits from the broad banks of the Danube but has spoiled its advantage by lining both of them with motorways. Its old buildings are more spread out than Prague, diluted among the rest of the city. It does have the best open space and the best range of parks, largely due to the presence of the river and the islands. It also has the finest set of viewpoints in the towering Citadella hill and the Halaszbasta (Fisherman's Bastion) on the castle hill.

Vienna seems more businesslike, more western and in an indefinable way, more Austrian. The streets seem more formal, the culture more restrained, the people more refined. The city is bulky and filled with heavy modern buildings and a ruthlessly efficient grid of streets. Vienna also lacks the positive influence of a river that both Budapest and Prague share. The Danube here is too far away from the centre of the city to contribute much to city life.

Development in all three is going at a cracking pace with Prague leading the way closely followed by Budapest and Vienna a distant third due to its established growth. One can only hope that local authorities will not be too tempted by the lure of an easy buck to jeopardise the respective charms of their cities.

The people of each town are an interesting study.

The Czechs I'm sad to say are a dour lot. In public, smiles rarely, if ever, grace their faces and cheerful conversation with tourists is non-existent. The Viennese are welcoming and well spokenbut sometimes you get the faintest whiff of condescension. The Hungarians however seem to be positive, open and friendly. They look forward to meeting people and happily pass the time chatting with you. This might change as the volume of tourist traffic increases however.

Like all of Europe, the tourist culture here is openly exploitative, but the former-Communist countries suffer an excess of rip-offs. In Prague you resign yourself to being gouged by greedy taxi drivers and in Budapest we had a beaming bath attendant who cheerfully helped himself to a tip he neither earned nor deserved. It rankled after an otherwise delightful experience. (The Austrians are too honest or to proud to resort to fraud but then, with their prices, they don't need to).

Vienna is a refined, modern European grand dame. Budapest is a friendly, up-and-coming debutante which is sure to be a future belle of the European Union. And Prague is a beautiful, but slightly tired, stately matron with subtle charms.

If I had to choose a favourite, it would be Prague, but then it's hardly surprising since I live here.