‘Hungary’ For More

‘Hungary’ For More

To say I’m a huge Robbie Williams fan would be an understatement. Some would call it an obsession but I wouldn’t go quite that far. Even in my early twenties, when he first hit the big time with Take That, I drew the line at loitering outside hotels hoping to catch a glimpse of my favourite boy band heart throb. I left that to the younger, somewhat hysterical teenagers. Having said that, I will admit to seeing him perform live on seven separate occasions in five different countries (excluding the various Take That concerts I should probably also admit to). So, when an opportunity presented itself to see him in Budapest, I didn’t need asking twice. Witness my favourite singer performing live in a country on my wish list? Yes please!

I’d never been to Hungary before and I was looking forward to seeing what Budapest had to offer. From what I understood, it was steeped in history and, sitting on the banks of the Danube, was a beautiful city to boot.

I had two full days to occupy myself before the main event so, map at the ready, I set out to explore. My hotel was situated on Margaret Island, a tranquil setting in the middle of the Danube, connected to the mainland by bridge. With medieval ruins, dancing fountains, a Japanese garden and huge outdoor swimming pools, it was an ideal base for my four day trip.
A leisurely stroll from the island, across Margaret Bridge, led me to the Hungarian Parliament. This magnificent building stands proud on the bank of the Danube and is breathtaking in both size and beauty. Understandably, it’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in Budapest and being the tallest building in the city, dominates the skyline.

A short walk along the river brought me to a curious ground level monument. Sixty pairs of shoes, sculptured from iron, decorate the embankment. They are accompanied by a plaque with the words ‘To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross Militiamen in 1944-45’. Candles and flowers had been laid between the shoes in a poignant tribute to those who lost their lives during World War II. It is probably one of the most moving tributes I have ever seen.

Continuing my journey into Central Pest, my eyes were immediately drawn to St. Stephen’s Basilica. Two large bell towers guard the giant, central dome of this grand structure, the most important church building in Hungary. The views from the circular viewing platform surrounding the dome were nothing short of spectacular and provided photo opportunities galore. Inside the church itself a more reverent mood ensued as visitors admired the statues, sculptures, paintings and, arguably the most impressive of all, the dome itself.

A more recent addition to the city’s skyline is the Budapest Eye. Europe’s largest Ferris wheel has 42 gondolas each offering glorious views and the chance to see the city from a new and different perspective. It was a fun way to spend ten minutes and ideal for a selfie or two!

The following day, I took a boat taxi to the Castle District. It was my intention to ride the funicular to the top of Castle Hill but seeing the queue, I decided to take the steps; not the easiest of climbs on a hot day but I was rewarded with refreshments at the top. A giant ornamental gateway leads through to the Royal Palace, also known as Buda Castle. Those fortunate enough to time their trip correctly can witness the Changing of the Guards but even without this ceremony, there’s plenty to see. The Palace is home to the National Gallery and Budapest History Museum although I suspect most visitors, myself included, are more interested in the view. The viewing terrace of Fishermen’s Bastion is nothing short of spectacular. Under the shadow of Matthias Church, another stunning Roman Catholic Church, the Bastion’s seven towers and countless arches afford panoramic views across the Danube towards Pest, Margaret Island and Gellért Hill. If you can tear your eyes away from the vista, the towering sight of Matthias Church from street level is just as impressive. With light reflecting from the stained-glass windows and beautiful multicoloured glazed roof tiles it’s certainly a vision to behold.

Conscious of the time, I made my way back to the hotel. It was time for Robbie! He was performing at the Groupama Arena, an outdoor stadium and the home of Ferencvárosi Torna Club. It was a short taxi ride from the hotel but traffic was understandably busy. The driver kept me (and himself) amused with various Robbie Williams music videos. Personally, I would have preferred that he kept his eyes on the road! My eyes, upon arrival at the venue, were immediately drawn to the impressive stage set; the perfect backdrop for what promised to be a memorable show.
The support act was Erasure, a British pop duo who first found fame in the mid eighties. As support acts go they were pretty good, particularly as I was able to remember, and sing along to, most of their hits. As the 9pm show time edged closer, the stadium began to fill and the crowd impatiently waited for their hero. The show opened with his own personal anthem ‘God Bless our Robbie’, a self-mocking script earning him applause and respect in equal measure. When he finally graced the stage (in a skirt!) he launched into the title track of the tour, ‘The Heavy Entertainment Show’ before following up with his customary ‘Let Me Entertain You’. For the next ninety minutes, he did just that. From old favourites to popular cover songs, to early Take That chart toppers, he treated his audience to a range of hits designed to please all – not an easy task considering the diversity of the crowd. He also dedicated his version of ‘Freedom’ to the late, great George Michael.
It’s not easy to pick one specific highlight from the show. Certainly, seeing him sitting on a giant boxing glove which then hovered above the crowd was pretty memorable; as was the duet with a very lucky lady who was invited to join him on stage and sing along to ‘Somethin’ Stupid’, albeit wearing a voice distorting and face obscuring mask. But probably the unexpected duet with his father was my own personal favourite. He told the story of how, from a young age, he watched and admired his dad as he entertained people with his singing. One specific song, Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’ was particularly inspiring and it was this song he chose to sing with his father whilst sitting beside him on a sofa in the middle of the stage. It was quite an emotional spectacle.
His encore consisted of two of his most successful hits – ‘She’s The One’ and ‘Angels’ – as well as the old Sinatra favourite ‘My Way’. Not many pop icons could get away with wearing a skirt, riding atop a giant boxing glove and crooning along with their father. Robbie, however, didn’t just get away with it; he nailed it!

I woke the next morning with aching feet and a hoarse voice; all that singing and dancing had taken its toll. However, there was still more to explore so after a hearty breakfast, I once more headed off with my map. I hoped to find my way to Gellért Hill, the spectacular backdrop to both Liberty and Elizabeth Bridge. The Liberation Monument stands proud at the top of Gellért Hill. It was set up to commemorate the liberation of Budapest by the Russian Army in 1945 and was later altered to recognise Communism’s fall. The monument is visible from miles around along with the Statue of St. Gellért. Sadly, I didn’t get to see either. Well, not close up anyway. In need of retail therapy – and a compulsory souvenir of my visit – I opted to browse the many shops in Central Pest instead. I was working on the theory that it’s always a good idea to leave something for a later date. Knowing that there’s an area left undiscovered gives me the perfect excuse for a return visit.
My final evening in Budapest was spent back in the Castle District. As the sun begins to fade the city literally lights up and those breathtaking daytime sights become even more magical after dark. Churches glow orange, the Ferris wheel twinkles white and the Parliament Building is reflected perfectly in the Danube. I enjoyed dinner under the stars followed by a stroll through the quaint, hidden streets; a taste of local life in the depths of a tourist haven. It was pleasantly peaceful, quite a surprise considering Budapest is one of the most densely populated cities in Europe. This particular area is home to a Starbucks, Jamie’s Italian and Hilton Hotel. These commercial enterprises are not for everyone but if you’re not a fan of Hungarian Goulash, at least there’s a predictable alternative.

The one thing that struck me about Budapest was its cleanliness. Compared to other major European cities there was a distinct lack of litter and general grime; a pleasant, if unexpected, surprise. There was also little evidence of beggars and nuisance street entertainers. Coupled with the glorious weather, efficient public transport system (I recommend the no. 2 tram) and endless photo opportunities, a trip to Budapest is certainly a trip worth making. Robbie Williams, of course, was just the icing on a very delicious cake!

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