Fin de siecle, fine style - Travel - The Independent

Fin de siecle, fine style

Budapest, one of the glories of Eastern Europe, offers a crash course in faded grandeur.

My free map of Budapest was dotted conspicuously with outposts from home, the ubiquitous Burger Kings. But, happily, as I drank my third Hanky-Panky in the Pardon! Bar in downtown Pest, all reminders of such Western consumerism faded into the background.

Not that my long weekend in Budapest was really a cafe crawl, you understand - although I did get moody in the darkness of the Underground (situated under an arts cinema showing The Pillow Book, Fargo and something Hungarian intriguingly called Titkok), felt elegant in the fin-de-siecle opulence of the New York, and squirmed uncomfortably in the metal-sculpture chairs of the Miro cafe, served by a female, Hungarian Basil Fawlty.

No, what I wanted was some Eastern European educational enlightenment, and at the Museum of Electrotechnology I got rather more than I bargained for.

Not only were my companion and I shown one of the most comprehensive collections ever of light bulbs and electrical switches, we were privileged to be shown a film about the multiple electrical and barbed-wire fencing system (the S100) that lined the Austrian-Hungarian border, part of the Iron Curtain until it was dismantled in 1989, when the People's Republic became the Republic of Hungary. More treats followed: cut-away displays of water heaters, a patent tie-iron, do-it-yourself electrical shock treatment kits (for those boring afternoons) and various early home-cleaning gadgets. Alas, we didn't have time to see the world-famous electric meter collection.

At last our host, a white-coated professor with a goatee who looked as if he had stepped out of a Tintin frame, noticed that I was looking a little dazed. He suddenly produced some coloured photos of Hungarian wedding couples and storks and, consulting a battered notebook, proceeded to tell an extremely unfunny "wife" joke in English which caused great amusement to both the professor and my male friend, whose romance-rating (temporarily) sank considerably.

There were too many things I didn't do in Budapest. I didn't make it to the Turkish Baths ("Ladies, please wear an apron"), didn't get wild at the Tanchaz (dance house), didn't eat at the Fatal Restaurant or chat at the Talk-Talk bar. But I did stay high up in the Buda Hills in a comfortable room with a view, amongst shabby post-war houses sagging under the weight of their TV satellite dishes.

What I took to be local car-dumping on a massive scale is only ordinary, everyday parking. Rusty, crumple-edged cars coughed into life every morning and accompanied us on our journey when we took the number 8 bus (which always ran on time) down to the Erszebet Bridge.

Budapest is full of gracious old houses that are decaying in the most delightfully elegant but dangerous way (look out for falling masonry) as well as multiple high-rises on the flat, Pest side of the Danube. You suddenly realise that ancient buildings which you thought were abandoned, aren't, when you glance up to see wooden shutters that have been propped open to emit streamers of washing and Beach Boys' songs.

One of our walks was below the Rozsadom area (which is supposed to be very posh). We climbed up steep cobbled streets to find the tomb of the Whirling Dervish Gul Baba, who took part in the capture of Buda four centuries ago. We eventually found the 16th-century tomb in the process of construction, its famous rose garden little in evidence among pre-formed pillars.

Buttercup-yellow trams take you gently along the banks of the Danube to unpronounceable destinations. Hungarian sounds beautiful, and totally unlike anything I'd heard before - it belongs to the Finnish Ugric language group. Only a few words stuck in my memory. My guide book warned me not to pronounce busz (bus) as I would do in English - since it means sex in Hungarian, which could have led to some awkward moments, I suppose. Comb means leg, bejarat and kijaret mean entrance and exit- or is it the other way round? Well, I was only there for four days, and, as I said before, those Hanky-Panky cocktails made me feel pretty relaxed about life.

I came back from Budapest with tins of paprika (Pride of Szeged - Exquisite 100 per cent Sweet Delicacy) and a wonderful moon rocket with self-erecting flywheel mechanism. The latter caused great interest to a group of bored security staff at Ferihegy airport. They spotted it on their X-ray machine with cries of delight and rapidly surrounded me and my suitcase, only to be disappointed by my toy rocket's somewhat low-tech reality. But they approved of it really - it had MADE IN HUNGARY printed proudly on the siden

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