Last Easter, Rowan Atkinson stepped into the shoes and heavy coat of Jules Maigret for the first time.
Like creator Georges Simenon’s books, the ITV adaptations plunge viewers into 1950s Paris. You can almost smell the puffs of smoke from the inspector’s trademark pipe. And yet Atkinson barely sets foot in France’s capital: they’re mostly filmed in the “Paris of the East”, Budapest, and the Hungarian countryside.
“Paris isn’t much like it was in 1955,” Atkinson explained. “Budapest is much more like it was in 1955, where you can actually find grass growing up between the cobbles in the streets. There’s an awful lot of street furniture in Western Europe that you don’t find in Eastern Europe. And the good thing about Budapest is it’s definitely European architecture so that is true and consistent with Paris.”
Indeed, Hungary’s capital has broad, tree-lined boulevards, Haussmann-like apartment blocks, art nouveau edifices and magnificent bridges. The similarities to its Western cousin don’t end there: coffee houses, elegant patisseries and restaurants serving fine Hungarian wine abound.
The view of Pest from leafy Buda
Maigret would’ve been most at home in Pest (pronounced “Pesh-t”), which is divided from hilly Buda by the mighty Danube. They joined names and forces in 1873 yet still feel very different. Back then, Pest enjoyed the fruits of the Austro- Hungarian Empire and remains the city’s commercial centre. For a taste of those golden years, you need only stroll down Andrassy Avenue, which could hold its own in Paris, Prague or Vienna: neo-Renaissance townhouses, luxury boutiques and grand civic buildings including the Hungarian University of Fine Arts and State Opera House (impressive on the outside, dazzling within).
The Parisian metro stop in the opening scene was mocked up in Liberty Square. One of Pest’s largest and leafiest, it boasts both a statue of Ronald Reagan and the city’s last Soviet monument – a Second World War army memorial.
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Historic Buda does have a cameo. Instead of Montmartre’s famous steps, Maigret’s officers were actually climbing those leading to Buda Castle. The more conventional way to see Castle Hill – a Unesco world heritage site – is to hop aboard the 1870 funicular railway. Towering 170 metres above the Danube, it was constructed in the 13th century to defend the burgeoning city from Mongol invasion. As well as the Royal Palace, its walls contain the Old Town where the commoners lived, the Gothic church where the last two Hapsburg kings were crowned, and the Fisherman’s Bastion with fairy-tale towers and superb views of the river.
For the winding lanes in the upper reaches of Montmartre, Atkinson and his officers decamped to the riverside town of Szentendre – an easy 12-mile train ride from Budapest. It is a favourite with day-trippers, thanks to its Baroque streets, artistic heritage and abundance of museums and churches.
Radio Times Travel holiday: Budapest and Danube Christmas markets from £359pp
5 BUDAPEST MUST-SEES
This open-air museum on the outskirts of the city is the resting place for Communist statues that were torn down after the fall of the regime in 1989.
Buda Castle at night
The imposing royal residence has been rebuilt many times over the past 800 years. It’s home to the vast Hungarian National Gallery and the Castle Museum.
HUNGARIAN STATE OPERA HOUSE
Even philistines should be impressed by the gilted, vaulted ceilings, marble columns dazzling chandeliers — and bargain tickets.
Budapest boasts more than a hundred thermal springs and residents have been “taking the waters” since Roman times. Gellert Baths has stunning art nouveau pools.
Over the past decade, dozens of derelict buildings in downtown Pest have been turned into hipster hangouts. Stop by Szimpla Kert on Kazinczy Street, where you can sip a beer in an old Trabant car or a bathtub.
Radio Times Travel holidays
Second passenger goes FREE on Delights of the Danube cruise from £999pp. Join Sound of Music to cruise one of the world’s most iconic rivers and call at some of Europe’s most beautiful cities. Visit Vienna, see the beautiful Wachau Valley and head downstream to Budapest and Bratislava on this classic river cruise. Click here for the full itinerary and to book
Budapest and Danube Christmas markets from £359pp. The stunning, romantic ‘Pearl of the Danube’ is a festive delight. Browse its traditional markets, the largest and oldest of which takes place in Pest’s central Vorosmarty ter, and the latest of which incorporates an ice rink and a dazzling laser show. Click here for the full itinerary and to book