Budapest: a melting pot of cultures

BEING in the centre of Europe brings its problems. You are the meat in the sandwich.

Not only are you at the crossroads of trade routes, you are in the centre of wars and religious upheaval.

That is Hungary's situation today, just as it has been for centuries.

It has been both victor and vanquished, all the time trying to cast its national identity.

Now it finds itself at the frontline of another invasion, this time from thousands of refugees as they flee the Middle East, western Asia and Africa.

They are looking for a new life in Europe, coming ashore after perilous boat journeys to Greece and neighbouring Mediterranean countries. Then it is a matter of making their way towards Germany, France, the UK and Scandinavian countries such as Denmark and Sweden.

Hungary just happens to be in the way.

Approaching immigration at the airport was quite intimidating, knowing how hard it was for so many Hungarians to escape the harsh conditions during Soviet rule.

The passport control was at first glance a throw-back to those times. Secure, authoritative ... immigration officers standing in booths behind bullet-proof glass.

Yet the welcome could not have been more professional. Passport stamped, luggage collected.

Getting into the city is relatively easy, bearing in mind you are in a country whose language is like no other. Not French, not German, not Latin, not Turkish.

The building of the Chain Bridge in 1849 did more than joining two cities geographically, it joined them politically.

The suspension bridge, like the underground railway and even Hungary's Parliament House, were inspired by what the civic leaders had seen in London. When built, the bridge at 202 metres long was then among the largest in the world. The underground was second only to London in its inception in Europe.

Budapest is quite compact and easy to get around but road traffic can be quite heavy in the city centre. So don't be afraid to explore on foot, on bicycle or public transport, either independently or as part of a guided tour.

Parliament house has a tremendous facade to the river ... cathedral-like as opposed to London's castle-like Westminster Parliament.

Some people do understand English ... but few of them are bus, tram or train drivers.

You can get cheap public transport but it involves understanding the ticketing, which involves validating the ticket at the start of the journey. There are transit shuttle buses and those arranged by hotels.

Then there are taxis. Don't under-estimate them as there are ticketed cabs arranged by a central booth at the airport that will take you to your destination at an agreed price.

And there is the Budapest Card that provides visitors access to a set of services free of charge or at a reduced price, including the public transport system, entry to museums and the thermal baths.

As a word of warning, the euro is not the preferred unit of currency here, even though it is a European Union member. Instead, there is the Hungarian forint.

Arrive with some in your pocket to get you into the city.

Budapest is a city of domes and spires, bridges and ballrooms, goulash and beer.

A melting pot of cultures. A country that sits at the crossroads of Europe and central Asia. Torn this way and that, with a fiery past and uncertain future.

Battered and bruised by the past yet determined to rebuild as a vibrant country that is very much a part of Europe.

As you drive through the outskirts of the city the communist era is still reflected in old buildings.

Yet a pride is returning to Hungary despite financial constraints. Beautiful historic buildings are being restored - sandblasted to bring them back to their former magnificence.

There are main thoroughfares but the side streets are narrow, cobbled, making it easier to walk around the inner city or catch public transport.

There are so many themes running through Budapest ... grand buildings and narrow shopfronts, gypsies and street people, labourers and entrepreneurs, hustlers and city chic.

The writer travelled at his own expense.

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