Budapest has a new and distinctively odd landmark.
I am peering down from a window of the presidential suite on the ninth floor of the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus in Pest. Across the road, in Erzsebet Ter (Elizabeth Square), there is a tree that appears to be bandaged in paper.
There is a rational explanation for this. The hotel management has granted me privileged access to the inner sanctum of a temple. This suite was Michael Jackson's residence whenever he was in town. Though it has been redecorated since his final visit, the Versace-influenced furnishings and the whole 189sqm extravaganza is every bit as blingy as one would hope.
It has yet to become a major draw but, as Budapest's sites go, it has the benefit of novelty. Most of the others have become so familiar to me over the years that I tend to underestimate their impact on first-time visitors. Being part Hungarian, I feel at home here, but maybe I take my birthright slightly for granted. A part of me envies the first timer. Like them, I want the thrill of discovery. I want to feel Budapest emerge afresh in my imagination as one of the great cities of modern Europe. I want to be a born-again tourist.
I resolve to do as the best tourists do in a new city: walk. Most of the big hotels are concentrated in a small area of central Pest known as Belvaros (the Inner City; municipally, the Fifth District) and most of the principle landmarks are within strolling distance.
Exploring at street level reveals many small surprises. It hadn't occurred to me before, but as I walk past the ornate secessionist gates of the Gresham Palace (now the Four Seasons Hotel), I realise there is a British axle at the hub of Budapest.
The palace, one of the most graceful Art Nouveau buildings in the city, was commissioned by the London-based Gresham Life Assurance Company. It occupies a prime location in the square on the Pest side of the famous Lanchid (Chain Bridge).
This, too, has a British provenance. The first permanent stone bridge in the city was designed by an Englishman, William Tierney Clark, and is a grander version of one he built earlier in Marlow, Buckinghamshire.
Moreover, the square on the Buda side of the bridge is named after the Scottish engineer Adam Clark (no relation), who oversaw its construction.
Walking across, you notice the scale of Budapest. This is no twee medieval museum town in east-central Europe. It has ambition. Perhaps that is hardly surprising from a former capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is, in fact, bigger than the other capital, Vienna, and marginally more populous.
This morning, the river is more the Grey Danube than the summery blue of Strauss's corny old tune, but, even in winter, under a sky leached of colour, you cannot fail to appreciate the beauty of the topography. The scenic Buda hills on my left descend in a series of humps and escarpments to the drifting north-south line of the river and, on the opposite east bank, lies the commercial and administrative heart of the country in Pest — with a crowded skyline all the way to the flat horizon. The Castle district offers some of the city's most pompous architecture — a procession of palaces, churches and monuments — and is a must for any Budapest neophyte. The changing of the guard I witness is a rather homespun affair, with strutting soldiers struggling to hang on to some sense of decorum amid the camera-clicking hordes.
The area took a terrible beating during the siege of Budapest, a vicious street fight that lasted six weeks and which has been compared in its intensity with Stalingrad. The Germans (aided by Hungarian fascist allies) made their last stand against the Red Army here. Much of the architecture has a recently restored feel: the edges seem sharper, the colours brighter and the façades smoother than one might expect.
The makeover is so convincing that, when I round the corner into Disz Ter, the sight of the shattered former Ministry of Defence, which has been left as it was at