It is sometime after midnight and except for the ship's running lights and the sliver of a new moon I am surrounded by total darkness. I find a deck chair on the top deck of the Viking Spirit, have another sip of wine and wait.
At first it is just a distant glow in the darkness to my right but as we draw nearer the glow morphs into a cluster of magnificent buildings. A church with a tall slender spire and the sprawling ramparts of a medieval castle seem to hang in the night sky like a luminous mirage. On my left the vast neo-Gothic Parliament building casts a reflection of its ornate turrets onto the inky black surface of the water. Ahead, the Chain Bridge forms a necklace of lights across the river and beyond the bridge, high above the city, the towering statue of a woman with raised arms, the Statue of Liberty, seems to glow with an inner light against the blackness of the sky. Coming into Budapest at night is a magical experience and, as the Spirit slips into her berth, I savor the moment for a long while before returning to my bunk.
The next morning we begin our exploration of the city with a trip up Gellert Hill to the Citadel where the Statue of Liberty stands atop a massive stone pedestal. Even without the illusion created by the floodlights of the night the 14-metre tall bronze figure holding a palm branch above her head is an impressive monument. "It was placed here in 1947 to commemorate the liberation of Budapest from the Nazis by the Red Army," says Armin, our tour guide. "It was first named the Liberation Monument but when the Russian 'liberation' turned out to be an occupation people began to hate the statue. The figure of a Russian soldier waving a flag was removed from its base in 1990 and the monument was renamed the Statue of Liberty. Hungarian history is very complicated," Concludes Armin. "But now everybody is happy."
From the terrace of the Citadel we get a panoramic view of the city and the river that divides it. Far below us the Chain Bridge is buzzing with morning traffic and our boat, tied up on the far shore of the Danube, looks like a child's toy in the distance. Until the Chain Bridge was built in 1849 Buda, on the west bank of the Danube and Pest on the east, were separate cities, linked by a small unreliable ferry. The two were finally united under the name Budapest in 1873, but Buda and Pest still retain much of their original identity. Buda, built on a cluster of hills, is a warren of narrow streets, tunnels, and steep stairwells reminiscent of its medieval beginnings while Pest, the modern part of the city with its broad boulevards and numerous parks, sprawls across the flatlands east of the river.