Hungary and Serbia

Budapest has a comforting familiarity about it and is reminiscent of other eastern European cities such as Prague, Krakow and Llubjana.

As the former joint capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire it has a rich architectural heritage but it is also a busy working city.

It is actually two cities, Buda and Pest, which occupy opposite banks of the River Danube and are connected to one another by bridges. Hilly Buda is the more laid-back with a funicular railway bringing visitors to its castle and old-town streets.

The hills here give you fine views over both parts of the city. Pest, is a much more modern affair and while not as picturesque as Buda it is the more interesting twin.

The highlight was a visit to the Museum of Terror which was a former HQ of the Hungarian secret service.

It chronicled the secret police surveillance, interrogation, capture and often execution of those who the state deemed as subversives during the Second World War, when Hungary was allied to the Nazis, and then during the communist regime.

In a symbolically loaded gallery you can walk on an imaginative journey that thousands of political prisoners experienced in real life.

The black secret service car - decked out with communist insignia, in which the lights suddenly go out - the interrogation rooms, a maze of corridors (symbolising state bureaucracy?), and video footage carrying the testimonies of both captors and captives.

In the cellars of the museum are cells where captives were held - the ones with a rough wooden bench and a blanket, and the one with padded floor and walls were the most poignant.

In the central foyer of the Museum of Terror is a Soviet era tank surrounded by hundreds of mug shots - an uprising in 1956 was crushed by the USSR and thousands were executed, including Hungary’s reformist prime minister.

While Budapest had its dark days it is now a relaxed place and it is worth coming away from the main tourist attractions to its back streets and squares to sit and sip a beer or a coffee among its citizens.

The food was heavy and meaty, and usually seasoned with lots of paprika, with most restaurants serving up Hungary’s national dish, goulash.

A train journey from Budapest to Novi Sad in northern Serbia took more than seven hours and included an hour-long stop at the border.

The countryside between the two cities was flat agricultural land, stretching into the distance with few hedgerows and only an occasional clump of trees.

Novi Sad turned out to be a real surprise, juxtaposing, communist-era architecture with modern structures and a quaint historic, pedestrianised centre.

It is a student city and so there is young vibrant feel to Novi Sad with hundreds of bars and restaurants spilling on to the streets.

In Belfast such a scenario would probably end up causing a major security incident but while beer and cocktails were served most Serbian students seemed content to sip lemonade and coffee or eat a bowl of ice-cream and watch the world go by.

It was not unusual to see Eastern Orthodox priests walking along the main street wearing dark robes, their faces heavily bearded and long hair tied back into a pony tail.

Just off the main drag is an Eastern Orthodox church, with onion-shaped domes on the outside and internal iconography that is not dissimilar to that found in Catholic churches.

Over a bridge spanning the Danube - which replaced one bombed by Nato ten years ago - is a citadel complex set on a hill. Great fun climbing there in 30 degrees but with superb views over the city and a museum and art galleries within its grounds.

Once again Serbian food tended to heavy and meaty but in a little back street, running parallel to the pedestrianised centre there is a restaurant called Alhiv, located in a cellar where tradition and fusion mixed and where some very mellow Serbian red wines were on offer for a reasonable price.

After the laid-back studenty vibe of Novi Sad, Belgrade (a further two hours away by train) came as a bit of a shock to the system. The Serbian capital is a bustling metropolis where people work and go about their daily business rather than sit around in cafes all day.

Unlike other major cities there is only one tourist sightseeing bus each morning at 11am - rather than buses leaving every half hour or fifteen minutes - and it seemed a clear indication that Belgrade is not really the sort of place tourists come to.

The break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and the wars that broke out in subsequent years often left Serbians being portrayed as the bad guys and there is no doubt that the government and army under Slobodan Milosovich were responsible for some appalling crimes.

However, the Serbian people I met in Belgrade and Novi Sad were charming and keen to welcome visitors.

As well as the usual castle, cathedrals, churches, museums and parks the bus tour passed a couple of crumbling buildings, their blackened interiors hanging out from craters in their sides which the recorded commentary told us were the remains of former military buildings bombed by Nato.

It also passed a suburban building with long sweeping gardens where Marshal Josip Broz Tito, who ruled communist Yugoslavia for nearly 40 years, is buried.

The pedestrianised Knez Mihailova is the Belgrade equivalent of Grafton Street with designer shops, buskers and thousands of people just wandering about and taking it all in.

At the end of Knez Mihailova is an area known as Kalemegdan, a city centre park on the site of a former fort on the banks where the rivers Danube and Sava merge and with views over to the more modern parts of the city.

In a cobbled street called Sadrarska, the city’s former bohemian quarter diners are serenaded at night by a Balkan ensembles, of violin, clarinet, accordion, guitar and double bass. The music was combination of Gypsy dances, whimsical Jewish laments and Parisian cafe music.

When the musicians came to our table and asked us where we were from they went in to a quick confab and I squirmed at the thought of a Balkanised version of The Mountains of Mourne, however, what we got was Love Me Tender - Elvis and Ireland must somehow be linked in the eyes of Serbian buskers.