To use the title of one of those melancholic torch songs in which Chet Baker specialised, ‘Whatever Possessed Me’?
Why should an otherwise sensible married couple choose to drive from south-west France to Budapest and back? Yes, it was the last chance to see an old friend before he moved back to Sheffield at the end of his tenure with the United Nations, but that hardly excuses such a rash and deluded undertaking. Public transport might have been expensive, but once you’ve paid for diesel and the incessant motorway tolls, it looks a much more competitive and certainly safer option.
I blame myself. The notion was mine, but as usual I failed to think through the details. Whether it’s Britain or France, travelling across a map always seems to be more difficult than travelling up or down it. The distance in this case was unspeakable. Even now, I refuse to clock up the kilometres. Add to the equation the motorways of Italy and Austria. We’re spoilt in France. Traffic is generally light and people, although I never thought I’d live to admit it, drive with a certain discipline and civility. The motorway that crosses the north Italian plain is like a combination M1/M6 hell-hole conceived by a Minister of Transport given to suck the blood of his victims. It’s wall-to-wall lorries, which render the inside lane – normally my refuge of choice – impenetrable.
It was the lorries that prompted us to take a northern spur to Austria by way of the Brenner Pass. The scenery was stunning, but no sooner had we crossed the frontier than the rain that washed out Europe descended like a curtain. The Austrians are a comparatively wealthy lot and there seems to be a surfeit of black Audis and BMWs, whose drivers want to kill themselves and as many others as they can take with them. During my white-knuckle stint, gripping the steering wheel as I tried to ignore the tiny demons whispering in my ear that we’d never make it to Vienna alive, cars flashed past at speeds that suggested they could see beyond the spray they kicked up.
Somewhere around Salzburg we ran into a traffic jam. After crawling nowhere for half an hour or so, we discovered that someone had smashed through a safety barrier and disappeared into the ravine below. The traffic police stood around figuratively scratching their heads. Electronic signs thereafter urged people to cut their speed, but no one seemed willing. Miraculously, the rain stopped and my co-pilot took us to Vienna, where – despite the absence of signs and guided entirely by E.S.P. – she steered us straight to our hotel opposite the West Banhof station. With five minutes to go before the garage was due to lock its doors, I tried out my ‘O’ level German on the woman behind the desk. Wir haben ein zimmer gereserviert… She smiled sympathetically and replied in perfect English to the effect that she would phone the garage and ask them to stay open for us. The line between triumph and disaster was fine enough to suggest that a guardian angel had helped us negotiate our road of trials.
Only a little more than 100 years ago, Vienna, I discovered, was the 5th largest city in the world. That its population at the time was around 2 million shows how far we’ve come in terms of global over-population. My father was disappointed to discover that the Danube only skirts rather than runs through the city. I know what he meant. There is something ultimately unsatisfactory about the place. If the architecture that marked the 19th century pomp of the Austro-Hungarian Empire appears initially rather grand, it soon turns sterile and pretentious. The boulevards are wide and graceful, but they weren’t designed for tourists like us on foot. Although armed with copious leaflets and maps, we both found it one of the most confusing cities to find your way around – perhaps because of the lack of a river as a reference point.
Our trip coincided with a major exhibition in the grandiose Belvedere Palace to mark 150 years since the birth of Gustav Klimt. Seeing his work in the flesh – and that of Egon Schiele, his younger and more radical contemporary –prompted the kind of emotions that pilgrims at Mecca or Jerusalem must experience. You realise that even the best reproductions in a book can never be more than a mere facsimile. Seeing them, too, in the context of all the pompous imperial showpieces also helped to explain what the Secessionist Movement at the turn of the 19th century was all about. The glorious Art Nouveau apartment buildings and other architectural gems of the era seem so much more modern and challenging when set beside the vestiges of the self-satisfied and stultifying old order.
There wasn’t time to visit the eccentric creations of the architect and painter, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, and I would have liked to travel on the big wheel in which Orson Welles delivered his famous cuckoo-clock speech to Joseph Cotton in The Third Man, but I couldn’t leave Vienna without sampling some apple strudel. We treated ourselves to afternoon tea in the elegant Central Café, where an ageing jazz pianist ran through his repertoire as if practising scales. Verily I can now say unto thee that I understand the Germanic obsession with strudel.
After a Duel-like incident with a menacing lorry on the M1 from Vienna to Budapest and our first mystifying encounter with the Hungarian language and currency when trying to buy the obligatory vignette that entitles you to drive on Magyar motorways, we arrived in Budapest with just enough daylight to appreciate why the city is spoken of in reverential tones. Our friend Bryan found himself an apartment on the 5th floor of a block that looks as if it was designed by a disciple of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, with one of those wonderful cage-lifts that you tend to see these days only in French films of the 1950s. Some might die for the view we had from our bedroom window: over the wide Danube to the stately floodlit buildings of Buda on the other side.
The block is in what was once the rich Jewish sector of Pest. Not any more. I had forgotten that more Hungarian Jews died at Auschwitz than any others and Bryan began our bicycle tour of the city the following morning down by the Danube to see a chilling monument to an infamous massacre. The sculpted boots and shoes on the quayside represent the victims of the Hungarian Nazis who were bundled together with barbed wire and chucked into the river.
It’s all the historical, political and social contradictions that make the city such an alluring and fascinating place. Wealth and fairly severe poverty sit side by side. Many of the elegant public buildings, which sprung up after the Compromise of 1867 gave Hungary more of a dual role in the management of the Hapsburg Empire, lie empty today. The monumental Soviet statues – including Stalin’s boots, which steadfastly remained once the body had been toppled – have been shifted to Memento Park on the outskirts of Buda, but the hated Soviet war memorial still sits in the centre of Liberation Square on a plot of Russian-owned land forever fenced off from vandals by railings. Not far from this, there is a bronze statue to the man who supposedly liberated the Hungarians from the yoke of communism. No, not Mikhail Gorbachev, but er… Ronald Reagan. And not too far from the life-size replica of Mr. Ray-Gun you can see the bullet holes, now plugged with black metal rivets, that commemorate the 1956 October uprising.
There is a thriving counter-culture despite the current right-wing regime and the Bohemian young have converted some of the more dilapidated apartment buildings into ‘ruin bars’. They look like glorified squats and the number of bicycles parked outside tends to denote the coolest establishments. On the Saturday night, we went to one such bar to watch a Roma band play a kind of thrash-gypsy version of their traditional music. We travelled back home on a trolley bus, one facet of the plentiful and regular public transport in Budapest. A favourite occupation is fare-avoidance: a throwback to a practical form of civil disobedience during the Soviet dictatorship.
Sunday morning we spent in the lap of luxury at the famous Széchenyi spa baths. It would have been nice to capture such an extraordinary place on film, but the last thing you want to take with you to public baths is a digital camera. As I sat with Bryan outside in the crowded circular pool, not far from a group of elderly men playing chess on a plastic board up to their tattooed biceps in hot spring water, while my aquatic wife did her lengths in an adjacent pool for serious swimmers, my friend told me how in winter you can come here and not see beyond your nose for the steam rising off the surface of the water. We decamped to the labyrinthine network of plunge pools within the palatial buildings and sampled a range of temperatures and degrees of sulphur. In the murkiest and most eggy one of all, we watched a corpulent gentleman opposite us fall gradually asleep.
Because of the impending journey home, we sacrificed another night in Budapest to the further joys of road travel. This time we went via Slovenia, where they also demand a vignette for the car. As we crossed into Italy not too far from Venice, we ran into an electrical storm of Wagnerian proportions. Faced with the prospect of Monday-morning lorries, I preferred to drive on while the roads were empty and, much to my poor wife’s chagrin and for want of a convenient staging post, we ended up driving through the night.