IN BUDAPEST, IT’S BEST TO DIVIDE THE DAY IN TWO; THE MORNING HOURS IN BUDA AND THE NIGHT IN PEST.
I am standing by the faux-Romanesque windows of the Fisherman’s Bastion on Buda’s Castle Hill staring down at the glorious spread of Pest. The spring sun behind me casts shadows on the sturdy iron beams of the Chain Bridge, which straddles a placid Danube, but intensifies the hues of the red pyrogranite tiles of the Calvinist church just below. Its needle spire matches the pinnacles of the Parliament Building on the opposite bank.
No matter how many times I come to this city, I never get tired of this sweeping riverside panorama. Behind me lies hilly Buda, with its monumental structures, and in front of me: flat, buzzing bourgeois Pest, its heart beating with Hungarian vigor. Still very different in vibe, the two halves were joined permanently only in 1873. “Budapest” rolls off the tongue so easily that it beggars belief that the tongue-twisting “Pestbuda” was at the time considered a serious alternative.
I turn around and walk into Trinity Square (Szentháromság), the focus of the old medieval town. Around me, gaggles of tourists armed with selfie sticks pose in front of the baroque Trinity Column, a memorial to the victims of a 17th-century plague epidemic. To my right, a busload of German tourists position themselves for a group photo in front of the bronze equestrian statue of King Stephen, the father of the Hungarian nation. He is staring at the diamond roof motifs of the medieval Matthias church, reconstructed during the outburst of Magyar national pride in the 19th century.
The sun is setting as I stroll into the Royal Palace complex, as colossal as anything found in Vienna, Budapest’s perennial rival city. A crowd stands in front of the Matthias fountain, which depicts the King’s hunting party in stone and bronze; they’re throwing ten-forint coins into the water while making wishes. Despite the scores of visitors, the caws of the Danube seagulls are the only sound I hear in the surprisingly silent Lion’s Courtyard, its beasts standing guard, roaring or ready to pounce. Everyone has been pummeled into submission by architectural bombast, for everything here is built on a vast scale. Even the quaint Sikló funicular that takes me down to the Viziváros district, at river level, is carved squarely into the rock.
Its twilight and Buda is going to sleep; now it's time for Pest to awaken.
On the other side of the Chain Bridge, the undulating vista of Buda as seen from the Pest embankment is staggering. The castle complex -all spires, domes and listed mansions- competes for my attention with the ramparts of the old fortress of the Citadella with its Soviet-era statue of Liberty: a woman holding a palm branch. After transition to democracy, other Communist monuments were banished to Memento Park, an open-air museum of Marxist-Leninist statuary propaganda, but Lady Liberty remained; only the inscription changed to honor Hungarian heroes rather than Russian troops.
Among the tourist throngs of Buda, I still felt alone –no such chance in Pest. Two American students immediately ask me for directions to Gerbaud’s, Budapest’s historic cafe; their smartphones have run out of power and my paper map is king. I walk them to the high temple of European patisserie on Vörösmarty Square and urge them to try the Dobos torte, a layered chocolate cake, one of the great Hungarian contributions to confectionery.
At Deák Square, I take metro Line M1, the first subway in the continent of Europe, dating from 1896. Although the cars have been modernized, waiting for the train still feels very 1900, as the restored stations sparkle with variegated tile decorations.
I get off at Octogon in the middle of Andrassy Boulevard, Budapest’s answer to the Champs-Élysées. Far from the tourist trail, this is as Hungarian as it gets. It is a balmy evening and every table on Liszt Square is full; even the statue of the great composer provides a climbing challenge for hyperactive teenagers. The smell of steaming goulash broth, paprika dishes and grilled meats hangs in the air.
Space is tight and chairs are shoulder-to-shoulder, so I’ve hardly sat down before I attract the attention of a group of thirty-somethings on the table next to me. Before long they’re swapping stories with me in broken English.
The night has just started in Pest, indeed. Everything I’ve seen during the day turns to gold under the illuminating city sky.