The nearest Metro station to Castle Hill is Moskva tér, which turned out to be the least salubrious part of the city I’d seen so far. A piece of rutted tarmac interwoven by tram tacks, some of them disused, its lack of charm is only enhanced by the ugly structures set up within it, and by the hawkers selling random stuff—umbrellas, lace, lottery tickets.
Escaping the few blocks’ walk up to Castle Hill is like travelling to another country. It’s peaceful, tidy—and expensive. Even coming from London prices, I balked at the price one place wanted for a bowl of soup. (Round a corner, I found a tiny pub where far more reasonably-priced fare was available.)
Castle Hill is so touristy that they don’t even bother to write the signs in Hungarian! I must admit that there weren’t too many tourists there today, but a wet Thursday in November isn’t exactly peak time.
If you like Tower Bridge in London, you’ll love Budapest. If, like me, you’re less of a fan, your appreciation might be more nuanced. That’s not to say that I don’t like Budapest, just that there’s a lot of the faux, ersatz, and reproduction in the city.
In the Fine Arts Museum, there are a number of copies and imitations. Although they’re marked as such in bright red, I can’t help but question what they’re actually doing there in the first place. For example, what relevance does a 19th century lawn ornament, made ‘in the style of’ ancient Roman statuary, actually have in an exhibition of bits that actually came from the Roman Empire?
In Városliget, the big park on the East side of Pest, there’s a fake castle, built in 1896, that’s reminiscent of Disneyland more than anything else. Not content simply with being anachronistic and out of place, it compounds the crime by exhibiting three separate and clashing architectural styles: Romanesque, Baroque and Gothic. From a distance, it looks absurd. Closer up, it looks little better, while the fact that it hosts an agricultural museum is an unexpected quirk.
On Castle Hill, the Fisherman’s Bastion is an attractive structure in a mediaeval style, but looks suspiciously new. That’s because it is: it was built between 1890 and 1905. The Royal Palace nearby is more egregious. Unlike the Városliget edifice, which at least acknowledges its deception, the palace has a history—one that isn’t respected by the garish façade added around the turn of the century. That in turn pales into insignificance next to the awful bronze-effect reflective glass used in big panes in the windows, and which would be more fitting in the uglier kind of 1980s office block than a soi-disant castle.
Never mind the outside, though: there’s a lot to see inside in the permanent collection of the National Gallery. This ranges from the predictable large-format chauvinism of the 18th and 19th centuries to expressionist and abstract art from the last century by Hungarian artists I’ve never heard of—but whom, on the evidence shown, I should have.
Many of Budapest’s museums and galleries offer free entrance to to permanent collections, with a fee only necessary for temporary exhibitions. This is exactly the same as many places in London. What seems to be a unique Hungarian invention, however, is requiring a free ticket to get in. And they check you’ve got one! No doubt there’s some reason behind the charade, but I don’t know what it is.