The glorious Danube (or Duna in these parts) looks less blue than a sort of grey. But its importance in connecting several countries over the centuries can’t be understated. It was first used by Celts, until they were chased out by the Romans in the first century AD – perhaps one reason why Budapest is littered with Italian restaurants and Irish bars in equal numbers.
So today it’s time to explore a little farther afield, more precisely to the town of Szentendre, 12 miles north of the capital and on a stretch known as the Danube bend. However, there’s only one boat a day covering the route, and frankly, I don’t fancy sharing the river with one of these beasts.
Friends tell me that cruising is just lovely. But the idea of spending a week aboard one of these monstrosities really doesn’t, well, float my boat.
That pause was for you to recover from laughing. So, the river is abandoned in favour of the HEV, which sounds like a medical procedure, but turns out to be the suburban train service. This is accessed via a short trip on Budapest’s metro system which, like many under grounds worldwide, has a mixture of modern day efficiency with 1960s decay. Including wooden escalators.
At Batthyany Ter, my onward carriage awaits. It’s painted in a military shade of green, has an interior upholstery similar to my parents’ sofa in the 1970s, and each time the doors close you could be forgiven for taking shelter, such is the noise of the electrics revving up enough power to move forward. But these commuter trains are the workhorses of the daily commute, passing through and stopping at some fairly small suburbs, each with it’s own ageing stations and ageing population.
Unfortunately, Szentendre falls outside the municipal boundary, which means I have to pay a supplementary fare on top of my Budapest Card. I’m slightly annoyed by this, since more than one member of staff had told me at the station I could use it for the whole route. That said, the ticket lady on board could have easily fined me (inspectors appear from nowhere, despite stations not having any barriers). The extra fare is an outrageous £1.
The town itself has a population of around 20,000, though it soon becomes clear that everyone here either commutes elsewhere to work, or makes a living from tourism. If you were to take the Edinburgh Woollen Mill, your least favourite seaside souvenir shop and Starbucks to the Hungarian countryside, this is what it would look like
This picture was taken just a few minutes before three large tour groups arrived, presumably from the tacky cruise boat. Each comes complete with a guide carrying a pole with a flag (this place is tiny but you never know when you’re going to lose your guide in the mad scramble for a traditional dress or fake leather bag). “They say Hungarians don’t have a sense of humour,” enthuses one of the guides, “But look! Here’s a t-shirt with a cat doing mad things!!!”
Somebody find me a telegram office.
Don’t get me wrong, Szentendre does have the obligatory collection of pretty buildings, churches and quaint squares (decked out, inexplicably, with lampshades – those crazy Hungarians!) – plus, some lovely gelato and chocolate shops. But it’s not my idea of a grand day out. So, it’s back to the city for some proper shopping.
The Market Hall is a feast for the eyes – and the stomach. On the ground floor are fresh fruit and veg stalls, fine cheeses, exquisite cakes and acres of fresh meat.. And it would seem that this is one of those places where the locals genuinely do come to shop, though it’s a mix of about 50/50 with tourists. The Upper Floor is where the real souvenir stuff happens. Bags, badges, toys, glassware – just about everything you could stamp the name Budapest on in here.
By contrast, you couldn’t get more high end than Balna. “The Whale” was opened in 2013, and is meant to be part shopping all, part art gallery. Unfortunately, it has everything but people. Many of the shop units are empty and its very survival is under question.