Halls of legislation: The Hungarian Houses of Parliament in Budapest is the third-largest parliamentary building in the world. Picture: REUTERS
Halls of legislation: The Hungarian Houses of Parliament in Budapest is the third-largest parliamentary building in the world. Picture: REUTERS

On the banks of the River Danube is a sign with the letter D in a wavy logo, signalling a boat stop. The Blue Danube is an unromantic greenish-brown much of the time, but just as pretty as when the composer Johann Strauss immortalised it.

The Hungarian language seems unfathomable for anyone not born to it – it is one of the most difficult in the world to learn, a guide boasted – but figures are figures, and I figured out that a boat would chug along in 13 minutes.

There was just enough time to photograph the spectacular Houses of Parliament (the world’s third-largest) and its guards, who would look more fierce if they ditched the sexy sunglasses.

I enjoyed the famous Danube for free when the boat set off 13 minutes later, because of an all-encompassing ticket that let me hop between underground trains, trams, buses and boats for a week-long bargain of R242.

For many years, Hungary was a place nobody wanted to visit. The Soviet Union, which "liberated it" after World War 2, imposed a brutal and sterile communist regime.

Bullet holes still scar some buildings, but Budapest surged into democracy and capitalism to become as colourful and lively as the paprika that warms its food. It’s a city that ignites the joy of travel, enhanced by a grittiness and texture that isn’t found in uberpristine Vienna or too-touristy Prague.

CENTURIES AGO IT WAS ALL THE RAGE WITH PILLAGERS AND INVADERS WHO LEFT A MEDLEY OF LINGERING INFLUENCES.

The city is best explored on foot. Every street tempts visitors to gawk at mighty Renaissance, Baroque or Gothic beauty, interspersed with a few dreary communist-era buildings erected to fill the gaps created by wartime bombs. It had been two separate cities: Buda, built above a crazy-paving of hot thermal springs and gentle slopes; and Pest, across the river on flat plains.

The two are now intertwined by bridges and tunnels, with each side delivering fabulous views of the other.

In tourist terms it’s largely undiscovered, although visitors have risen dramatically in the past three years. However, centuries ago the place was all the rage with pillagers and invaders who left a medley of lingering influences. Such as the numerous Turkish baths for you to wallow in hot springs. I first dipped into Kiraly Baths, an unglamorous, octagonal thermal pool with hot and cold baths and a steam room around it. I paid extra for a massage, and an old Hungarian giant pummelled my back.

I paid double the entry fee for four times the fun at Gellért Spa, a bewildering maze of art nouveau over-the-topness with four thermal pools, steam rooms and saunas, hot and cold plunge pools, a colonnaded swimming pool and a fabulous outdoor pool. I was diligently swimming when a snippet of music from West Side Story filled the air and the lifeguard rang a bell. The water heaved beneath me as a wave machine kicked in.

I reached Budapest on Busabout, a brilliant hop-on, hop-off bus service that makes exploring Europe easy. You disembark right outside a recommended hostel in every city and a bus swings by every two days. It also offers discounts on sightseeing excursions.

On the way from Krakow to Budapest the Busabout guide Susie Byrd raved about the city and its "ruin bars", originally set up in bombed-out buildings and now so hip that venues are deliberately being downgraded to look shabbier. The price of drinks can ruin you, if you hook up with one of the pretty girls who beguile, then scam tourists.

There’s a gruffness to the locals that can be mistaken for rudeness, but it’s more likely the practicality of having survived tremendous hardship and knowing that the concept of "have a nice day" is too precious to cheerfully throw away on irrelevant strangers.

Budapest was my final stop, and I’d rented an apartment on Andrássy Avenue, Hungary’s version of the Champs-Elysees. I strolled into a fuggy evening, passing swish stores selling Gucci and Chanel, kebab counters and ice cream stands. The vibe was friendly, the smells enticing, and a giant Ferris wheel festooned in silver lights twinkled above.

The next day, a free walking tour guide delivered a potted history and factual gems such as Hungary’s gifts to the world including the Rubik’s Cube, Biro pens, roll-on deodorant and escape artist Harry Houdini. She left us three hours later in the castle, a magnificent monument in a city bristling with neck-straining splendours.

Culture abounds too. I took myself to Erkel Theatre to see the musical Billy Elliot sung in Hungarian with English subtitles. I read later that there was a kerfuffle in the conservative press with demands that the show be cancelled because its gay elements could turn young boys’ heads, which explained the 10 minutes of defiant applause at curtain call.

A bike ride the next day was equally entertaining. The guide set a cracking pace as I wobbled down cycle lanes painted ominous blood red. However, soon I was laughing and cycling beside the Danube.

Budapest wasn’t too badly scarred during World War 2. The most moving memorial is Shoes on the Danube Bank.

It consists of 60 pairs of old-fashioned shoes cast in iron by Gyula Pauer, lined up in remembrance of thousands of people who were ordered to strip on the river bank and shot so that their bodies fell into the water.

Now long cruise boats line the Danube, bringing in tourists or offering dinner cruises as the sun drops behind the castle. The boat-bus is a squat, hard-working little vessel with wooden benches and an engine belching out black smoke. No finesse, but my favourite.

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