J and I wound our way up to the top of Castle Hill along the cobblestone path, just as we had done the night of our arrival in Budapest. Then it had been dark, and some of the stones had been covered in a treacherously thin glaze of ice. But our empty stomachs and the nine hours of plane travel — plus six spent fitfully trying to sleep in Amsterdam’s airport — had urged us out into the fresh night air.
Now, six days later, it was a pleasantly cool and grey morning; there was a slight mist in the air that I had to continually wipe from my camera lens. Compared with our earlier night walks around the Royal Palace grounds, the place was thronging with tourists. But we muddled through them, past the bronze sculpture of the mythical yet menacing “turul” bird, and a field of ruins being slowly unearthed. From a platform raised above them, we caught our first view of west Buda in the full daylight; we had seen it once before on Christmas Eve in the drizzle and the dark, and the lights of the buildings then seemed to float disembodied in the inky fog. It was clearer now, and the whole panorama unfolded. It was a surprisingly hilly region, in stark contrast to the flatness of Pest, and dappling the landscape in the distance were haphazard clusters of houses. They looked as though they had been shaken out from a great cup, like sprinkles on a bundt cake.
While Pest and the Castle District of Buda where we stood were known to possess the architectural marvels of the city, this view was impressive in a special way. Below in those homes were the quiet and unknowable machinations of thousands of lives, linked to eras of both great human inspiration and destruction (a land impacted by Franz Liszt’s compositions and the shells of Soviet tanks), now appearing settled in a grey and calm moment. And beyond the mist, the whole stretching expanse of Western Europe.
We meandered the full length of Lovas út gazing at this scenery, occasionally turning our heads to look at the splendid old homes and down the alleyways. Invariably, J and I debated over which apartment we would want to live in, taking into account how the leaves of the trees — when they reappeared — would obscure the vista. There was one unit with a tiny deck and an appropriately small sitting hammock, which I liked. J picked out the deck two floors above where there was a small and simple table, just large enough, perhaps, for a couple of cups of coffee.
At the end of the street we turned toward Úri utca, Lords’ street, and a stunning view of the patchwork diamond roof of the National Archives building — looking like a shiny plate of ornamented clay, gold and turquoise scales. As we walked down the avenue, I found myself wondering where the British travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor (who I’d been reading during our trip) might have stayed when he visited Budapest. I imagined the street bustling with life and the clacking of carriages and pull carts, as must have passed often that April in 1934. We went up between the conical pylons of Fishermen’s Bastion, designed, according to my guidebook, to resemble the tents of the ancient Magyars. From here we could see the whole of Pest, no hills to hide any corner, and behind us the jagged, sawlike steeple of the Mátyás Church.
Before descending into our final afternoon — we planned to tour the Opera House, an amazing and ornate structure — we found our way to the green exterior walls of the Ruszwurm coffee house, the city’s oldest, and ducked inside. I had a slice of cake with raspberry merengue and gel, while J had a double chocolate cake named after the cafe. We both ordered cappuccinos, and as at every kávéház in Budapest, they came served with tiny shot-glass size cups of water — a detail I loved. I tried to imagine all the people — the writers, aristocrats and diplomats — that likely inhabited this cozy space for brief moments; or in successions of moments, writing, dawdling, meeting with friends, and then one day never returning. But it was difficult without a firmer grasp on the history of Hungary.
While I was thankful for many things we chanced upon during our trip, among them was a new spark of curiosity and a morsel of knowledge about this part of the world. I had a feeling that we would be returning — an urge, really, already developing. It would be warmer, I think, with foliage on the trees, and some time not too far away.