I lived in Bath for ten years, so I know a bit about what the Romans did for us and, better still, I know what they buggered off and left behind them. The Roman Baths are one of my favourite places and – as is usual with any of our national heritage – they are meticulously maintained, thoughtfully laid out, and cost a pretty penny to visit.
So when we read about all the Roman ruins in Budapest, we were quite excited – a town at Aquincum, and an Amphitheatre in Buda. Well, alrighty.
And the first place we discovered was the Roman baths. Notice I have not used a capital letter on baths this time. That is because they are not given quite the same level of reverence in these parts.
Well, when I say, not given quite the same level, what I mean is they are treated like old bus stops. Open to the public. Totally unmanaged. And under a flyover.
I’m not even joking.
But to be fair, they took out the good stuff – you know, plaques to the Emperor Claudius, and interesting tombstones, etc. – and put them on display elsewhere.
Well, when I say elsewhere, I mean they stuck them on the walls of the underpass.
And I’m still not kidding.
Slightly appalled, we went in search of the Amphitheatre.
And found it – fenced off, used as a roundabout, and overlooked by crappy flats. Sigh.
BUT TO BE FAIR…
A few weeks later we visited Croatia, where they also have some Roman ruins; a massive complex at Solin, comprising baths, theatre, forum, amphitheatre, the lot. But, unlike the Hungarians (who I suspect they consider rank amateurs), their disregard for ancient monuments was at a whole new level. How? Oh, they build houses on it.
I am utterly serious, look – a natty little semi-detached perched neatly on the West Gate.
And if they can’t build on it, they build into it. The centre of nearby Split uses the leftovers of the Diocletian Palace as its foundation. Whole houses have odd windows, arches and decorative stonework sticking out their sides. Shops, restaurants, churches and public buildings – all half Roman and half every age since, with no clear lines in-between. I have to say, I think it works in Split but, to a Brit, it is still very strange; a bit like using Stonehenge as the base for a new roller-disco.
BUT BACK TO HUNGARY
Thankfully, at Aquincum – the Roman town just to the north of Budapest – they have got it right. We spent a happy afternoon just wandering around, watching lithe, green, lizards darting under the cobbles, and studying the artistry of the stonework. Yes, it’s right next to the main road, but that means everyone gets a free look as they drive into town.
Our actual campsite was at Domos, to the north of Budapest, and somewhere between Esztergom and Visegrad. We both needed to get our hair cut, so we pottered into Esztergom looking for someone with scissors and a modicum of skill.
Now, Esztergom has been inhabited for 20,000 years, and there is evidence of a very early Celt settlement. It was also the capital of Hungary until that upstart Buda got all above itself in the middle ages. And our old friend King St. Stephen was crowned there.
So although we couldn’t find a barbershop or hairdresser’s (they all shut at noon, apparently), we did find a rather nice castle and a basilica.
The next day, we left a little earlier, and tried Visegrad. You could say we struck lucky, in that we found one that was open. However, she did cut our hair as if she had a train to catch, and Steve ended up still fairly shaggy, whilst I was lop-sided. Ah well, at least my hair was short enough to stop bitch-slapping me in the face every time I drove along with the windows open. And she did have a rather interesting tiled sink/channel thing.
I’d spotted a nice looking restaurant there, so we popped back later for dinner and found out that, although the Hungarians are a bit blasé about the Romans, they take the Renaissance very seriously indeed. Visegrad had once been the royal seat of King Matthias, and Visegrad wasn’t about to let you forget it.
We walked into the restaurant expecting the usual incomprehensible menu, plastic flowers, and a TV screen What we found was this – a full medieval banqueting hall!
The waiters were in full costume, but so were the diners! Steve took one look at the thrones and said, ‘I want to sit there.’ We ordered some medieval platter – we’d no idea what to expect – and then went with the waiter to get kitted out in full medieval clobber. We both had crowns, and Steve had a choice of swords and other weaponry.
The food was fab. Goose liver, and roast goose, and braised red cabbage, and a nice chestnut puree thing for pud. Plenty of leftovers to take home. Happy me.
And that was the end of our time in Budapest, and we were ready to move on down to Lake Balaton. Next time, I’ll tell you about vintage cars, coaches and sleighs, how to mime to a dentist, and what happened when someone backed their caravan into Georgie.