You walk a little way along the valley through the moors – the landscape is coarse and somehow ancient, guarded but not unfriendly. The little valley is carved out through rolling hills, which are yellowish with scrub and grasses and the dark-and-yellow dots of heather. Through it the river sparkles, mirror-black and musical.
About half an hour and over the stye, and you come to a small copse of twisted dwarf oaks. With their gnarled trunks and wyrd, splayed out branches these trees look unusual, though not out of place on these moors. Rightly they seem odd – this kind of stunted oak grows in only three places on Dartmoor and in the world.
The forest floor is a rough sea of granite boulders, which the trees grow amongst: lichens and mosses cover every surface, every rock and trunk, hanging from branches in great cumulus veils. Wistman’s Wood is nimbly navigated, ducking through the dwarf oaks and over rocks and the odd, spidery shadows.
Amidst these eerie trees and the strange luminosity of the mosses, it’s easy to see why oaks were sacred to our druid past. Sacred doesn’t have to be cherubs and sweetness: earth and mystery are sublime, profound in their silence. Wistman’s Wood is suffused with its great age: you feel only a footstep away from those celts who called this enchanting place holy.
The city is crazy in many ways. The first fact is that everyone on the road acts like a caffiene-addict schizophrenic. Black smoke billows out of rickety matatus, and people transport anything up to and including sofas on the back of a motorbike. Nature is everywhere, underfoot, overhead; ibis, gangly storks, pretty purple trees, forested skylines, all meandering inbetween concrete and roadways. The beer is great.
People are friendly, I thought there was a real deep goodness and positivity. Counterintuitively, you drive past swathes of the city that are shanty town – wooden lean-tos covered with plastic and corrugated iron. You have a real laugh – and also cause for a sad pause, too: nightmare stories about children unable to scrape together pitifully small school fees, rampant poverty and rampaging corruption. Everyone wants to get on, do well, get along. I hope that they do.
Half of the city owes itself to the absurd grandeur of imperial Europe, and the other half is a clod of bitter Soviet concrete. You gasp down Andrassy boulevard to the Heroes’ Square, which reminds you that Magyars were raiders with horses, furs, clubs and an expression of noble and lung-bursting rage. In front of you is a castle, a replica from one of those crenellated Transylvanian jobs you imagine sprouting like weeds over central Europe. People are kind, the Advent markets are built out of tinsel and look like a Christmas cake, the food warms you through quite. The best inheritance from its Turkish days are the wonderful bath houses, which leave you feeling boneless and amphibian.
The twin city leaves you with an aftertaste of snow, ballrooms, and goulash. From above, on Buda-side, it’s a confectionary spun with golden lights and filigree architecture.
Below, we waltzed quite literally by the blue Danube – there, the city looks a blur of grander days.