Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Laura Bennett

Hundreds of us were huddled under the arches, shoulder to shoulder. Those nearest the edges were struggling to keep every inch of their bodies dry. I felt water drop off my neighbour’s bag and stream down my arm.

I was still waiting for my thoughts to catch up with my senses. Fighting off fear and exhilaration, more and more people were trying to jostle their way under our much coveted shelter. Everyone was dashing for cover outside, using whatever they were carrying as makeshift umbrellas – soggy newspapers and shiny handbags being the most popular choices. One rather ambitious father was attempting to shelter his young son under the fingers of his outstretched hand as they both jumped the overflowing roadside gutters, the child struggling to match his father’s strides. Still the rain was hammering down, turning into surging streams along the pavements right before our eyes. There was screaming from all directions and echoes of glass shattering and tiles smashing in the distance.

August 20th is always memorable in Budapest. Hungary’s day of national celebration, it commemorates the day on which the relics of the first king of Hungary, St. Stephen, were transferred to the city of Buda. Traditionally this public holiday culminates with a magnificent fireworks display at 9pm in the nation’s capital. 

It was only after my trip to Budapest had been organised that I realised it would coincide with this annual event. My flight left London on time but we were a little late arriving at Budapest’s Ferihegy airport due to some extreme turbulence caused, according to the pilot, by some particularly dense storms sitting over Eastern Europe. At the transfer shuttle desk I was told there would be a wait of “up to an hour” as they were short of drivers because of the public holiday. Certain areas of the city centre had been closed off to traffic due to the festivities, but they promised to get me as near to my hotel as possible.

As we drove through the suburbs I saw flashes of light in the sky and wondered whether the fireworks had started a little early, by now it was getting closer to 9pm. Through the tinted glass I could make out crowds of people hurrying in the same direction. Eventually, just before 9 o’clock, the driver motioned towards the only other remaining passenger and myself. I looked around for something that would trigger some kind of recognition, but could only see the flashing neon signs of hotels which were not mine and a large traffic intersection which was teeming with pedestrians, having been cordoned off to traffic.

I repeated the name of my hotel to the driver and he pointed in the direction of what I supposed to be the river. I set off, as an increasingly persistent wind seemed to blow up out of nowhere. Hurrying down what looked like a main street, with its shops safely locked up, I recognised the sound of the first firework explosion. The wind whistled up the broad street, fiercely insistent. At the very moment that I realised that the weather had taken a turn for the worst, the first heavy drops began to fall from the sky.

I ran to the nearest shelter, taking care not to slip on the already treacherous pavements. As more and more people joined me undercover I waited for what must have been at least an hour. The hammering sound of the rain and deafening claps of thunder mingled with the bangs and flashes of the firework display which was persisting stubbornly above us. There were occasional let-ups in the rain, but each time I began to consider trying to set out for the hotel the rain would lash down forcefully.

Eventually I sensed that it was beginning to ease, bravely put up my flimsy umbrella and tentatively stepped out. People were still running all around me, mostly in the opposite direction to mine: away from the river. Fighting my way through, on more than one occasion I tried to turn down a side-street only to find that it was blocked with impassable puddles of water several feet deep. There was nowhere else for the water to go as the drainage system was by now well filled to capacity. I wanted to stop and ask for directions but everyone was preoccupied with keeping dry and getting out of what was now beginning to feel like a war zone.

As I was contemplating what to do next I turned a corner and saw a shining red light illuminating the name of my hotel. As I walked into the lobby I was greeted with utter chaos – screaming children being enveloped in fluffy towels; spiky dislocated umbrellas cast aside in every corner, and sheer dismay on the faces of hundreds of people. Thanks to its position on the river the hotel had turned into a makeshift refuge for those caught up in the storm.

The following morning there was an eerie quiet about the city. Uprooted trees straddled the pavements and broken tiles littered the roads, some of which were still closed to traffic. The local English language newspaper, ironically named the Budapest Sun, was full of news of the event, accompanied by some fairly dramatic photos of the panic that had surrounded the sudden storm. I found out that three people had been killed, hit by flying debris, and a further two were reported missing feared drowned in the Danube after falling from bridges in the midst of the confusion. It was a sobering thought to realise that this was being dubbed the most momentous night in Budapest’s history since the revolution fifty years earlier.

I considered myself lucky to have emerged unscathed from the experience of my first night in Budapest. It gave me a real insight in to how it feels to be swept up by such an unexpected event, not quite feeling as if it’s real, yet somehow knowing that something very serious could be unfolding.