Budapest, 2007

Csila, who ran Hostel Ginkgo, was happy to learn that we were from Singapore. She had fallen in love with Asia when she first visited the region and as a result, had decided to spend a year as an exchange student at the National University of Singapore. She was trained as a lawyer, but her interest lay in property. Hostel Ginkgo was her way of showing investors that there was value in Hungarian property.

We were glad we met Csila too, as we were desperately in need of restaurant recommendations. She said that Cafe Alibi was nice so that's where we went.

In search of the thermal bath

It was a students' hangout. Every young lady who came in had a certain look about her. As I said to B, "You have to wear very little and your hair must fly just so, in a supermodel kind of way, to be permitted entry."

As we hadn't researched this trip properly, and had failed to bring along our bathing suits, we spent much of the first day shopping for suitable swimwear so we could visit the thermal baths. B found a swimsuit that I thought looked rather good but she said, "I can't justify spending £40 on that." Five rounds in the changing room and as many sets of bikinis later, she suddenly found it easier to justify the £40.

Before heading to the Szechenyi Bath, we visited St Stephen's Basilica, where we did not see St Stephen's famous right hand (as it was mummified and the place was very dark). From there we walked to the park where the Szechenyi Bath was supposed to be.

We had a hard time finding out if it was the right place as it said "Ferni Noi Gylibri" rather than Szechenyi, which was the name we were given. We went around to the front and B discovered that it was Szechenyi after all. We looked in and saw two swimming pools. I said, "If this is the bath, I'm not going in.

B: They close at seven. Do we want to go in?
Me: This place is so big, maybe the real baths are inside.
B: They close at seven. Go in now or come back tomorrow?
Me: What time is it?
B: 6pm.
Me: Go now - we have an hour.
B: 6.10pm.
Me: Let's go.
B: But then it won't be worth it. And we didn't bring our towels. So will need to pay extra.
Me: I don't mind just going inside to have a look around. If we come back tomorrow, we won't have time to do much else.

B didn't like this reasoning, but when we went in, we were told that it was closed anyway, so that settled it. An elderly couple from California had just come out. There were a great many things to do inside, they said. We went out into the park and sat by the pond and thought about what to do next: buy our train tickets for Friday's journey to Vienna, or go to the bridge for a nice evening view of the river. We went to the station and got our discounted train tickets.

Dinner was at Gratini on Raday Utca, another Csila recommendation. The place was established in 1970, she said. The food was excellent and came in huge portions. We found the waiter rude but B thought he was ruder to us than to the other tables. On the telly, Manchester United was two goals down to Milan. I - the wine in me - said, "Maybe he's a Man U fan."

Finally in the pool

The next day, we did some of the touristy things: crossed the Chain, Elizabeth and Liberty bridges and got confused as to which was which; visited the Fisherman's Bastion; ate salty goulash at the covered market; walked along the main streets. We did not have time to visit the Terror Museum, which was just as well. I remarked, to B, that Budapest was a yellow city. There were buildings in shades ranging from banana to pineapple to mustard.

Finally, we came to the thermal pools again, at Szechenyi. If you have never been there, here's a helpful tip: to use a locker, you need to ask an attendant. There's more... When I approached an attendant, he said, "Which locker?" I didn't get what he meant until I realised that he was hired to go around opening and closing lockers. You get a tag, but not a key.

The indoor pools looked pretty standard to me. Elderly men gathered in groups to hold what looked like their regular meetings. Young people waded around in pairs or singly. B kept wanting to go outside to the open-air pools. It was cold but we went out and then I realised what the fuss was about. It was splendid, with an air of extravagance from a time long forgotten. Here was a glimpse of the glory Budapest had once enjoyed. And it was all yellow.

For dinner, we had planned to go to the highly recommended Kisharang Etkezde, but unfortunately it was closed by the time we got there.

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