Mirrors, running and posters in Budapest

I’m spending four days in Budapest attending concerts in the Cafe Budapest Festival 2017. This post, the second of four, takes me on an extended walking trip to the Vigado Concert Hall, Budapest’s sumptuous Gellert Baths and a much-anticipated concert of music by Steve Reich. Read the other posts in the series here

First full day in Budapest and I feel like I’ve been here for ages. I think I might possibly be going a little stir crazy, I don’t know. Send help.

I’ve done more exercise here in 24 hours than I’d ever do in London. That’s partly to do with not realising Budapest has a metro system and because I’m a twat.

I’ve walked a total of 4 miles and, I think, actually run one or one and a half. Considering how daunting I thought running would be, it was relatively straightforward to get underway. I enjoyed the process too. It felt like a tangible achievement. I just wish I’d had the presence of mind to have done some stretching before I set out this morning. My groin has been agony all day. Rookie error, no doubt.

After the running, shower and a longer-than-planned breakfast during which I asked the two American gentlemen sat next to me who they thought would win the Presidential election (one supported Clinton; the other saw value in the anti-establishment vote Trump was courting), there was only a short amount of time to get across the river to the Vigado Concert Hall for the Danubia Orchestra’s children’s concert. So, another walk.


The Danube is a deceptive thing – much wider than the Thames. It hadn’t even dawned on me that I could use the Metro to get there, so I walked at speed – considerable speed – and arrived in my very comfortable seat with sweat pouring down my face. Not a great look. I looked better when I’d finished my run and come out of the shower. 

The Tale of Bela concert given by the Danubia Orchestras was an ingenious and charming affair attended by well-to-do families who’s sense of occasion about the affair was reflected in the outfits they’d kitted their offspring out in. I can’t remember a children’s concert I’ve attended when there have been less disturbances in the audience. Quite remarkable.

danubia orchestra

I didn’t necessarily understand a word of what was going on but suspect it was an allegory about the Hungarian Uprising. 

The Vigado Concert Hall sits majestically on the edge of the Danube, but its lavish interior is almost too perfect. The decor is beautiful, lining a grand space, but the building is devoid of personality. Grandeur over spirit. It’s also a bugger to photograph – so many pillars.

The afternoon saw another walk to Gellert Baths. Built in 1927, bombed during the second World War and only ever closed to the public for one day since, the Gellert Baths are a lavish Art Deco affair with a hint of Hungary’s utilitarian past thrown in. It is the ultimate in spas offering thermal pools, a swimming pool, saunas, steam rooms and a whole variety of massages. I arrived a little stressed, unable to fathom out whether I needed a swimming cap and ‘slippers’ or not.


The Hungarians like their signs. The multitude of fonts, italicisation and unneccessary emboldening nearly brought me out in a rash. But the signage is at a cost, taking the customer on a long journey from entrance to changing rooms, up stairs, down stairs and up again. It’s counter-intuitive. Arrows show direction of travel with good intent, but if arrows aren’t used sparingly all sorts of confusion can arise as I learnt to my cost when I momentarily discovered myself in the women’s showers.  

I realised when I got dressed to go for dinner that I seem to spend a tremendous amount of time staring at myself in a mirror when I’m on trips like this. What I realise on this trip is that when I see myself in the mirror I don’t especially like what I see – a podgy, rough, tired old queen who doesn’t especially miss his youth but wouldn’t mind feeling slightly more alive when he sees himself. Surprisingly however, I didn’t self-conscious about my appearance at the Gellert Baths where all manner of body shapes are on display – a refreshingly normalising experience.  

That excitement I’m craving is as it happens what experience more and more I see an unfamiliar font. This trip to Budapest have been a Aladdin’s Cave of discoveries, first at the Baths and, when I found it and realised my Budapest Card gave me free access to it, the Metro system as well. 

The fonts used on public transport are a particular favourite (top right, above). I’ve got a book at home that details lots of new European fonts. A modest coffee table publication which I have, for some reason, chosen to store on the new bookshelves in the recently reconfigured study. Time to retrieve it and put it on permanent display I think.

I’ve struggled to find anything that can sum up the Hungarian Uprising. It feels like a complex subject with multiple angles and viewpoints – a world away from the 20th century history I studied for GCSE History exam. But there’s a pressure too, a sense of responsibility that if you’re present in a city with a turbulent past then as a visitor you should pay your respects to that history. That doesn’t mean hearing someone tell you about, but searching for the tangible evidence in a bid to try and get under the skin of it.

I wander past buildings with pockmarks, others either have render which has dropped away or it’s stained dark grey. Either way it’s in need of attention. When I see it I project my own assumed narrative of what happened 60 years ago. I’ve no idea what the history of particular buildings is, what part those buildings played in the history of the country’s struggle against fascism and communism, but when I see buildings in a state of disrepair I wonder whether they’ve deliberately been left like that as a potent reminder of the past.

Elsewhere – the Parliament Building or the Vigado Concert Hall for example – the architecture is so clean it pops in the sunlight. It seems incredible that for all the struggling against oppression that is rooted in Hungary’s recent past, that buildings of such lavish and opulent beauty have survived. That, I think, says more about my assumptions about communism and fascism perhaps than anything else.

The Uprising Commeroration Adverts speak to me in a different way today. Yesterday, the images of the young children with weaponry slung around their necks was a heartbreaking sight. Today, the image of Pongratz Gergely with a gun in his hand, a tagline scrawled across each print “Pay attention to the home of Hungarian Freedom”. There’s determination in the eyes of the adults pictured which makes me want understand better what happened back then and what narrative is being told about the past now.

Most chilling are those featuring Sponga Julianna who, despite repeated searches on the internet I can find almost nothing about. She has a haunting look about her that demands further investigation. 


Dinner was at the marvellous First Strudel House of Pest. Two minutes walk from Freedom Square in Pest I almost missed it strolling down Október 6 street. My tenacity paid off however. The welcome was warm, the service attentive (without being insincere) and the strudel was out of this world. And after dinner, a stroll onto the Steve Reich concert at the Lizst Academy where the seating is plush.

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