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Budapest, Hungary

I was intrigued. How could it stay in place like that? It started from a single point just above and to the rear of the centre point of his left ear and radiated over the whole of his pate. There was a clear demarcation line between the slate grey covering and the white hair at the borders; the slate grey part was immaculately formed with not a hair out of place. This begged the question – is it an elaborate comb over or a poorly designed hairpiece? Whatever the answer led to a whole subsidiary set of questions that had occupied me over breakfast for the last couple of days. Like how did it stay in place, did he have to be careful about the direction of the wind and why didn't he colour all his hair the same colour, inter alia. There were a group of German guests at the hotel and this man was one of their number. I had noticed him (who wouldn't ) at breakfast a couple of days ago and was trying not to look too intrigued while searching for clues.
'So we'd better get to the parliament building quite early' Sue broke into my reveries, reminding me that we were due to spend the day in Pest and the questions never were answered. I'm sure that it was just a vicious and particularly poorly executed, desperate combover.
In the event, we discovered when we arrived at the parliament building that you can only buy tickets for that day and that by about 10, when we got there, they had all gone. It was not clear from the guide book that to stand any chance you had to be in the queue by 8am. Suddenly we had an extra hour to play with; it didn't take us long to re-think our day. The square outside parliament has a number of interesting memorials commemorating several events in the 20th C which are worth a tour before moving on. Next stop was at the touchingly eerie memorial to Jews murdered by the Arrow Cross as the Russians approached Budapest. Lined up by the Danube, they were told to take off their shoes and coats before they were shot and dumped in the river. The coats and shoes were distributed to German citizens. The memorial takes the form of apparently discarded shoes by the riverside, the shoes being made of iron. The memorial is just to the south of the parliament building and requires either a bit of a detour to cross a major road or taking your life in your hands. Perhaps unsurprisingly it didn't seem well visited when we were there.
The next stop was the beautiful, refurbished Gresham Palace. This exquisite art deco place was originally built as an up market building of shops, offices and apartments by Gresham Life, an English life assurance company. Neglected and falling into disrepair from the 40's to the millennium, it has been tastefully and lovingly restored using wherever possible using the original methods and workshops and reopened in 2004 as a Four Seasons Hotel.
Just around the corner is St Stefan's Basilica. The external architecture is impressive with its huge dome. This is the second dome, the first one crashed in while being built because someone got his sums wrong. Apparently, when the King visited for the first time, he was seen to glance nervously at the ceiling. Inside it is highly decorated and quite beautiful if somewhat OTT. Yet again I found myself thinking that the cost of all the decoration could perhaps have been better spent in a truly civilised society. But this is equally true of the cost of our travelling, so who am I to judge?
We stopped for a nice lunch at a cafe outside the Great Synagogue behind which there is a memorial garden to Raoul Wallenberg. The only entrance to the garden is through the synagogue and you had to pay to go in, so we didn't visit the garden. However, from the street we managed to see the steel weeping willow in the garden, each leaf of which is inscribed with the name of a holocaust victim.
Our next stop was the Opera House, which is yet another beautiful piece of architecture. We took the guided tour (only way to get in other than go to a performance). Our tour was for a large party of people who wanted to do it in English. There were 3 Italian women who didn't stop yabbering at the top of their voices to each other all the way round; I don't know what they understood or why they bothered. Try as I might none of Harry Potter's best spells seemed to work on them. Even my best Paddington Bear stare didn't slow them down! The tour was none-the-less very interesting and the guide very informative. At the top of the royal staircase, there is a huge mirror and the reason for it being there is apparently royal protocol meant that a royal personage could only look to their front; the mirror meant that they could observe the scene without turning their heads! The interior decoration is fabulous; apparently they used 3 kilos of gold leaf when restoring it. While it was being built, the Opera House in Vienna burned down killing 400. The lessons were incorporated into this building and it has a steel safety curtain, doors that open outwards and so on.
The final stop in Pest was at the vast under cover Market Hall. The lower level has all the usual fresh produce you could want and upstairs there are lots of boutique outlets and masses of souvenir stalls, most of which are pretty tasteful. It's certainly a good place to go for a wide range of souvenirs in one place. Competition from the many stallholders probably keeps the prices down.
After our shopping, it was a quick dash across Liberty Bridge on a tram to have a quick look at the Gellert Hotel & Baths – some more rather nice Art Deco architecture. The original plan had been to take in one of the baths at some point but we were running out of time. Road works meant that we had quite a walk to the next bus stop and make our way back to the hotel for a quick shower and change to get down to the theatre below Fishermen's Bastion where we had booked seats for an evening of Folk Dance & Song. It was a warm evening and we were sorry for the performers who must have sweated buckets as they stomped, stamped and twirled through an hour and a half of strenuous physical exercise. Think Riverdance meets barndance with a bit of clogdancing and lederhosen thigh slapping thrown in and you'll get the picture. I'm sure all the steps were authentic but I suspect the choreography was for dramatic effect rather than an expression of fun as originally intended; certainly the peasants from whom the culture evolved wouldn't have had the energy to deliver what these professionals managed.
When it finished there was a brief debate about where to go for dinner, it being 10pm. We decided to go to the nearest restaurant and were allowed in, although our waiter was not entirely happy about it. He certainly headed off a party of 6 that tried to get in shortly afterwards and sent them packing. The restaurant was called something like the Fisherman, surprisingly enough specialising in fish dishes which we thought would make a nice change. Our waiter was economically efficient and made no effort to make us feel welcome; our meal when it arrived was pleasant enough but not particularly memorable. If 10% service hadn't already been added to the bill, we wouldn't have added a tip. All that remained was for us to climb up the hill to the base of Fishermen's Bastion and then up the steps to the top. By the time we reached our room on the second floor we were certainly ready for bed.

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on June 6, 2011 from Budapest, Hungary
from the travel blog: Hungary anyone?
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