What a difference a day makes. The 24 little hours just passed have seen us in Prague, Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest – a ludicrous catalogue of ambition, but we made it.
When I left you yesterday we were in the Black Ox in Prague, enjoying excellent Czech beer and awesome views. By the time we got onto the night train to Vienna we’d consumed an incredible meal in a restaurant under the Charles Bridge. We then followed the crowds over the bridge and through the back streets back to the station.
Incredible, excellent, awesome. It’s fair to say I fell a little bit in love with Prague. I knew its stellar reputation but even so it ticked a preposterous number of boxes. Beautiful, classy, cluttered and without the deadening sense of bureaucratic order that Paris can exude. Like Norway, I want to go back.
Now, we’re in Budapest, which has provided its own highlight. Our resident photographer Paul Clarke suggested we spend some time at the Szechenyi baths, and what a brilliant idea it turned out to be.
The baths are housed in a building from 1913 apparently inspired by a Venetian merchant’s palace and are all fed by the thermal springs upon which Budapest sits. A series of plunge pools and saunas fill the interior of the building, and the best thing about the place is its lack of exclusivity – young and old, rich and poor were steaming in the pools. A great place.
Bonus being, of course, that we’re all clean for the first time in days.
On the other hand, arriving in Budapest by train did give us our first real sense that the comfortable infrastructures of Western Europe are receding from us. Despite EU membership and investment, Budapest feels like a poorer place than Prague from the minute you step down from the platform and the taxi touts storm in. Everywhere you see the signs of development stalled: young women selling knives on the streets, an underground system straight out of Le Carr? central casting, lean and in some cases shockingly pinched faces.
For the next few days, we’re travelling through countries with rich heritages and yawning overdrafts. Train travel is morphing from the middle class touring plaything of the west into the necessity of the poor in the east. Tonight we travel from here to Brasov in Romania, and then to Bucharest. The Balkans are beckoning.