Alistair Cooke’s Letter from Budapest

Day 2: 19 July 2004

Monday. I sleep well, although daylight does come early through the big double windows. Even in the early hours of morning, after a refreshing shower in my en-suite, the simple act of getting dry makes me stickily aware of the heat. Today is going to be another scorcher of a Budapest day.


As part of my Explorer package I get a free city bus tour on an open top bus. When I stop by reception to grab my breakfast voucher from the tin, I arrange with Dorika to phone through and arrange my voucher. Forever helpful, she passes me my voucher along with instructions to go to St Steven’s Basilika (the one with the panoramic view) at 10 o’clock and look for the man under the big yellow umbrella.

With thoughts of seeking out big yellow umbrellas going through my mind I head down to the vaulted basement via the back stairs, to where breakfast is served. Cereal, slabs of bread, cheese and cold meat are arranged on a table buffet style. I gather what I want and head to one of the cubicled tables to eat.


After breakfast I re-sort my bag up, and layer up on suntan lotion. Finally ready, I head out, turning left and left again out of the hostel, just as I had done last night when I had made my way to the Kék Rósza. This time, I follow the road down, turning right at the big mosque (in a strange way, reminiscent of Keble College, Oxford in it’s architectural style), and onto Karoly Korút – one of the main roads and tram routes through the city. A little further on, and I arrive at Deák F. tér – a Picadilly Circus of Budapest where all tram and metro lines seem to converge. In the distance across multiple lanes of travel I see a yellow umbrella, and make for it via the underpass, guessing (correctly) which steps to ascend out of the labyrinth.

In the end I find men standing under at least three different Big yellow umbrellas, the last one actually at the south entrance of the Basilika itself. The tour is given from the open-top of a green Queenybus with faux leather seating. My guide tells us his name is Arthur and speaks in addition to his native Hungarian, speaks German, English, French, and Spanish (and maybe more…). However from his looks, style and delivery, I dispell these assertions as fabrications to hide his true identity. He is Alistair Cooke – of Letter to America fame – and I realise now how he must have got tired of the whole letter thing week in, week out, and the BBC wouldn’t let him retire, so he did the whole pretending to die thing whilst in real life he upped and moved to Hungary, supplementing his income with tours of the city… Well that’s my theory anyway!


The tour takes us to the Parliament – a thoroughly gothic looking building with the House of Commons on wing, and the House of Lords on the other, separated by one of the two great domes on the Pest side of the river. Despite the historical two houses, now there is just the one, and it is reported two many ministers for the population of Hungary. There is also an elected President, but he holds no power. From the Parliament we are driven along the Danube and down the length of Margit-sziget (Margaret) Island on the Pest bank before heading back across town to the Heroes Square (which I had passed across briefly yesterday afternoon on route to the City Parks – they start just t’other side of the statues), where we desembark for a short tour on foot the history of Hungary and the significance of the statues.


Running left to right round the semicircle at the back of the square – flanked by museums and now often used for rock concerts – are the statues of the leaders of Hungary. The first, haloed figure is King Stephen, a saint, and he of the Basilika. The second, another saint. There are only two figures here with halos for after that no more were sainted. Some are presented with books and documents depicting the laws that they passed whilst in office. Some are war like, some are at peace – and often these work in turn. After one period of war in Hungary’s history, a time of peace and prosperity follows, before another uprising or war. ‘Alistair’ tells us how Hungary’s borders used to be double what they are now, and he shows us the figures that show of it’s decline. Lastly he points out the stooping figure with the cloak and scythe, high above St Stephen on the forward edge of the colonade – not Death or the Grim Reaper we are told, but a symbol of the common man and the importance of agriculture in the lives and prosperity of Hungarians…


Back on the bus we are driven down the central, tree-lined Andrassy Street – beneath which the M1 metro runs (the oldest metro system on continental Europe, built in 1896). Once the preserve of the rich, the buildings on this street are now mostly embassies and governmental buildings. We cross the Oktogon and the Opera House, before stopping again at the Bazilika, regroup with another tour and see inside. It’s cool within and I hardly want to leave the marble-like adorned interior with it’s intricately decorated dome and liberal use of gold leaf.

Reboarding the tour, ‘Alistair’ repeats himself a bit, as we head back to the Parliament, but this time we turn left, round a green, and cross the Danube to Buda by way of the Scottish designed chain bridge. Up to the castle district, and the white towers of fisherman’s bastian we stand between three eras of architecture. On our left Matthias Church – not St Matthias for he had three wives and was forbidden that honour – formerly Catholic, now Protestant it has in it’s time also been a mosque, the church has never before looked so good, we are told. Added to over years, the multicoloured roof patterns date only since the end of World War II when it was rebuilt.


To our right, is the Fisherman’s bastion – there used to be a fish market at the foot of the hill, on the banks of the Danube – a series of colonades and towers that look to be medieval but are in fact only 100 year old follies. And then in front of us, sandwiched between the two, the stark soviet-era façade of the Hotel Hilton, built on the site of, and incorporating the ruins of, an old monastery, there is beauty in the reflections of the old in the sharp lines of modern, bronze coloured windows.


Next on the tour is Gellért Hill and the Citadel. This is another hill on the Buda side of town, south of the palace, and afforded of fine views over the whole of Budapest. An ice cream later, and we are back on the bus, and back over the Danube via the Elisabeth Bridge. On the far side, I disembark from my tour, say my thanks (in Hungarian) to ‘Alistair’, and head back into the pedestrian streets to find lunch.

I emerge from the sidestreets next to McDonald’s but this is also opposite the terrace-street restaurant I saw last night with its Greek salads. I stop here and enjoy a simple salad with a glass of local beer – after that is a bottle of water which I down in one.


After lunch, and the heat of the day has passed, I wander through downtown Pest, past a soviet styled Aeroflot office and the Hungarian branch of Marks & Spencer (interestingly next door do one another), before making back to Karoly Korút. From here I walk back along the street that runs broadly parallel with the Danube (if a few streets back), before cutting off the corner that would take me back to Astoria onto Dohány ut to return to the bookshop that I identified last night as being a possibility for maps.

Downstairs, I find some maps. I also find a shop assistant who speaks no English, which although, understandable, makes it a bit of a problem for me when attempting to ask if they have larger scale maps than these…

A ‘basket boy’ – not an insult, he was moving seven feet of stacked shopping baskets from end of the store to the other – intercepts with a little English, telling me that I should find what I’m after upstairs … which indeed I do – eventually. After due consideration I leave with two maps where the sustainable village of Gömörszőlős are marked, and one which shows it as more than just a single dot, but a whole cluster of little dots!

I return mid-afternoon to Marco Polo to shower, relax and make my first meeting with Judy – another of the volunteers on the holiday that will follow these three days in Budapest. A little after six-thirty we meet with tentative approaches in the reception hallway of the hostel. I also meet up with Steven, a volunteer from last year in Estonia who will also be joining us. Together we head out into town to find a traditional Hungarian dinner.


Our restaurant of choice is Aranyszarvas, found at I Szvars tér 1, at the foot of Castle Hill on the Buda side of town, and an old 18th-century inn serving game terraces. We settle down to enjoy Wild Boar goulash in Serbian sauces on the outside terrace, with views across the Danube. Over dinner we find out what drew us each to this holiday, and make plans as to what to do with the day tomorrow – having had my tour this morning with ‘Alistair’ I am considered the ‘expert’ on Budapest by my compatriots and my research into possible activities is greatly received.

After dinner, we walk back along the Danube at night, remarking on the flickering of lights on the chain bridge, and later finding the flickering light itself as we cross via that same bridge, and head back up to the Marco Polo. I have walked many of these streets now, and the sprawling city begins to make sense to me…

Day Three: Metros, trams and funicular railways, Hungarian art and waiting for Zoë…