Budapest is a city of immense visual charm, poised culturally and geographically between East and West, reflecting both the exotic beauty of its past and the fast-forward pulse of today. With its grand Austro-Hungarian boulevards, Art Nouveau architecture and fin-de-siècle air, Budapest is one of the great cities of Central Europe. It is beautifully defined by the Danube, which runs through its heart, neatly dividing urban Pest from the more rarefied hills of Buda.
It is a city of grand boulevards and architectural flights of fancy. It is a city of curious statues and engrossing gargoyles. It is a city of facades and brightly coloured roof mosaics - a few of which look as though they have been garlanded with medals and colourful ribbon. It is a city whose small size yet wide streets make it easy to stroll around. It is a city which wears night's cloak with great elegance: the castle is illuminated, lights adorn the riverbank.
Yet there is more to this city than its buildings. In search of its people I sought the life-affirming energy of the Great Market Hall. Here in one of the grandest indoor food markets I have seen, I drink in the colours of the stalls containing chillis and packets of paprika and huge slabs of Hungarian salami. It is a great place to stroll through and watch the Budapesters working their way through their shopping list, stopping at their usual stall. There is a sense of community and atmosphere which our sanitised supermarkets so sadly lack - and that is maybe why the modern supermarket on the lower ground floor of the market is empty.
That is not to say that Budapest is not a modern city. Its billboards and shop hoardings are emblazoned with all the trappings of the modern consumer world, all the brand names that you would expect. The long arm of globalisation has not spared Budapest, so much so that I idly commented that, "Hungarians like McDonald's."
"Hungarians are like the rest of the world," countered my guide Zolt. "They don't like McDonald's but they use it."
Hungary may have one eye on the west and the future but not at the Gellert Baths. A relic of the past, to the employees of the Baths service is an alien concept, to its visitors, patience is the currency. Bemused tourists wander aimlessly through uncertain what to do or where to go. A chosen few, looking smug in white robes suggest that I am in the right place but aren't able to help me with theta I am to do next. Arches and stained glass windows light up the hall but are unable to dispel my sense of frustration and the air of hopelessness and inertia that seems to permeate.
Having eventually patiently negotiated the process of buying a ticket I entered the male section of the baths to be confronted by less than clear signs and instructions:
'In case of several guests every guests make the mapping with the operator separately.'
The next line was similarly confusing: 'If our guest reads his her PROXY watch at the terminal the next booking data that is known are displayed.'
'The guest can read the data of the proxy watch,' did nothing to enlighten me.
Uncertain and frustrated I ask an official looking man sat behind a desk for help. His stony silence was indicative of my guide book's comment that Hungarians 'are more Eeyore than Tigger'. He pointed upstairs.
Upstairs I was none the wiser. I was faced by a sea of wooden booths curtained off by a white sheet; a surreal cross between a boarding school dormitory and a mental institution. The asylum analogy gained worrying possibilities as a walrus of a man dressed in white orderlies, rocked from side to side towards me, keys clinking on a string. He whisked open a sheet curtain and pointed me inside. I gulped. Thankfully he did not follow.
From the frying pan into the fire. I entered the baths and sought solace in the soothing warm of the large 38 C pool/bath. I gazed up at the pastel coloured mosaics that brightened up the arched ceiling. Lower down caressing cherubs adorned plinths and created a less than savoury image not least given the sight of the elderly gentlemen wandering around. Flimsy white aprons barely spared their blushes and certainly not their bare buttocks and the all to cruel ravages of time on the male body. A young boy comes in with his father - surely it is unfair to expose him at such a tender age as to what lies ahead.
Thankfully the restorative qualities of the pools and the steam baths began to take effect. I started to enjoy the baths for what they are - an experience - even managing to smile wryly at two young Italians enter the baths in their bright bathing trunks, take one look at the soggy white aprons, turn around and emerge a few minutes later this time sporting white aprons. When in Rome.