The final stop on my trip was Budapest, the capital city of Hungary. Cut down the middle by the Danube River, the city consists of hilly Buda on the west bank and flat Pest on the east, and is often described as “the Paris of the east.” The city has a unique atmosphere that’s the result of its own independent spirit plus the contributions from its Roman, Turkish, and Austrian-influenced past.
If I’m being honest, I have to say that, while I liked Budapest, I did find it to be the most unfriendly of the places I visited, but at least I managed to get through my visit without falling down (unless dropping your camera down a flight of concrete stairs counts). I should also note that the biggest tourist attraction in Budapest are its Turkish-style thermal baths, and (I am ashamed to say) I missed seeing them! Sometimes there’s just not enough time for it all.
After arriving and getting settled, we headed down to the Danube for an evening dinner cruise. At night, the bridges over the river and the glorious Hungarian Parliament building (inspired by the Houses of Parliament in London) positively glowed.
After the cruise (which included a lot of flowing wine) we went to one of Budapest’s crowded “ruin pubs” (where I was told “no photos”). Ruin pubs are basically unrenovated old buildings that have been sparingly decorated with 70s-style kitsch, and turned into bars. They’re popular, crowded, and fun for a night out.
The next morning began with a walking tour of the city led by a very friendly local guide. Starting in Pest on the right bank of the Danube, we first passed by St. Stephen’s Basilica — the main church of Budapest with a dome that can be seen from anywhere in the city.
Next came the mandatory “statue rubbed for good luck” (this one was of… a fat policeman?)
And what would a visit to anywhere in the world be today without some (more) love locks? In Budapest, the locks are on a gate surrounding a tiny tree in Elisabeth square. Charming, right? No!
Next we crossed the Danube into Buda over Chain Bridge. Dating back to 1849 (the four stone lions were added in 1852), it’s the oldest and loveliest of Budapest’s bridges, and the first permanent bridge across the Danube. At the time of its construction it was actually the second-largest suspension bridge in the world. Chain Bridge was severely damaged during World War II, but was rebuilt and reopened 1949.
In Buda we took a quick break before hoofing it up to the castle. Here I am with some of the loveliest Aussie ladies in our group — Hana, Charlotte, and Briony. It was really nice at this point in the trip to feel like I’d made a few friends. I very much enjoy traveling alone (clearly) but if you can make a few friends in the process, it’s extra nice.
Buda is home to the historic Buda Castle District, the oldest part of the city containing the castle and some of Budapest’s best-known attractions like Fisherman’s Bastion and Mathias Church. The hilly landscape also affords the city’s best views. Here’s one from the castle, overlooking the Danube, Chain Bridge, and Pest beyond.
Nearby is Matthias Church, known for its colorful tiled roof. The current building was constructed in the second half of the 14th century, but there have (naturally) been many renovations over the years. The church was also badly damaged during World War II, when it was used as a camp by the Germans, and later, the Soviets, but it’s looking terrific today.
A bronze statue of Stephen I of Hungary can be seen between Matthias Church and another popular Buda tourist spot, the terraces of Fisherman’s Bastion. Designed and built between 1895 and 1902 in neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque style with 7 towers representing the 7 Magyar tribes, it offers magnificent panoramic view of the Danube and Pest. It’s named for the guild of fishermen that was responsible for defending this stretch of the city walls in the Middle Ages.
And here’s a quick panoramic view from the same spot.
After drinking it in, I made my way down the hill and over the river back to Pest to visit Budapest’s Central Market Hall. Built at the end of the 19th century, it’s the largest indoor market in Budapest, and a fun place to visit for souvenirs and a quick meal.
Right through the door, you’re immediately in the thick of things. The first floor seemed to be mostly “groceries” — vegetables, fruit, meat, cheese, bread, paprika, etc.
On the second floor was a maze of souvenir stalls (where I was told “no touching”), and a food court. I might have missed Budapest’s baths, but I was not about to miss its langos. A popular street food-style snack, langos is (to my American eye and palate) fried dough topped with sour cream and cheese, plus any number of toppings. I opted for mushrooms. It was predictably good and filling, but the cheese and mushrooms were cold, which didn’t seem as good as if they’d been hot. Still — when in Rome!
On my last day in Budapest I decided to tour the Parliament building and the Opera House, starting with the latter. Built in the 19th century and considered one of the most beautiful opera houses in the world, it’s located on the elegant Andrassy Avenue — Budapest’s Champs Élysées. This was my favorite tour in Budapest. The guide was fantastic, and, more than anywhere else, the opera house gave me a real sense of the Austria-Hungary era in Budapest’s history, when a friendly (or not) rivalry between the two capitals (VIenna and Budapest) was at its peak.
The then Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph approved (and partially paid for) the construction of the opera house, but on the condition that it could not be bigger than the one in Vienna. The Hungarians complied, but compensated for it by making theirs far more opulent, which the emperor did not appreciate. He barely visited, but his wife, the popular Elisabeth (Queen Sisi) often did, softening the relationship between the two countries.
Even if you can’t take in a performance, go on the tour if you can!
When the tour was over, I headed to the subway to make my way to the Parliament building, and thus began the most unfriendly chapter of my entire trip.
Long story short — I like riding the subway in new cities, and made a point to do it wherever there was one. I’d been warned that Budapest hands out strict fines to riders without tickets, so I made sure to buy one (they use paper tickets) at the window. Then the train came, and I got on it and rode a few stops. There was no turnstile or agent punching anything on the platform, so I assumed that part happened at the end of the journey. I had my ticket that I had purchased — what could go wrong?
What really happens is that you get off the train, take an escalator to the exit, and a very grumpy woman in a uniform (think Communist-era central casting) is waiting to inspect tickets at the top. Apparently, I was supposed to have my ticket “validated” at some point on my journey, and since I hadn’t, I was the equivalent of someone riding without any ticket at all. She interrupted me with “I AM IN CHARGE HERE, NOT YOU” and “IT IS NOT OUR JOB TO TEACH YOU THE RULES” as I tried to figure out what step I’d missed, and then wrote me a ticket for a fine (like a meter maid, from a pad) for the equivalent of $30 for a fare that had cost $1.30. It had to be paid on the spot — no questions asked. I felt I had no choice so I paid it, but the experience was so unpleasant and aggressive and embarrassing that I felt on the verge of tears.
To be fair, the back of the paper ticket (in about 2 point font) had some instructions in English under the Hungarian on the rules of riding the subway, and I should have taken the time to buy a magnifying glass and read it, but regardless, the experience did not need to be so nasty. For fear of it happening again, I did not ride the train (or any other mode of public transport) for the remainder of my time in Budapest. Tourists take note, get your ticket validated first or be treated like a thief and pay a hefty fine.
Back outside, I quickly realized that there’s nothing like yet another European Jewish memorial to put a failed subway ride into perspective.
“Shoes on the Danube Bank” is a memorial honoring the Hungarian Jews that were killed during World War II in a particularly horrible way — meaning being brought to the river’s edge, ordered to take off their shoes, and shot so they fell into the water below. The 60 pairs of cast iron period-appropriate shoes (spanning all ages and levels of elegance) were made in by sculptor Gyula Pauer in 2005, and are very moving.
The Parliament tour itself was interesting, but (for me) perhaps not worth the wait (tours in English sell out quickly, so I bought an advance ticket the day before) and cost, which was about $15. Lasting a half hour, we saw a few lovely rooms and one of the assembly halls, plus the Hungarian Crown Jewels, which are guarded by a few handsome and stern young Hungarians and cannot be photographed.
In my opinion, the best thing about the Parliament building is the outside view — which is free and without photographic or time constraints.
Of course, that doesn’t mean what’s inside isn’t beautiful. Construction of the building began in 1885, just shy of Hungary’s 1,000th birthday, and was completed in 1904. Inside the building there are 10 courtyards, 29 staircases, and 691 rooms. It’s an ornate display.
The Assembly hall of the House of Magnates was in use during my tour (it is a working government building, after all), so we saw the assembly hall of the House of Representatives instead.
Just outside the hall, I especially enjoyed seeing the built-in cigar holders/ashtrays. Members of the House would leave their lit cigars in the holder while inside the chamber — so polite!
For my final night in Budapest, I had a choice between visiting one of the city’s baths or returning to St. Stephen’s Basilica for an evening organ concert. It was a tough call, because I really did want to experience the baths, but not wanting to deal with getting there safely at night (meaning take the subway), I opted for the latter, and I’m glad I did.
Inside the church glowed with candlelight and smelled of warm incense, and I settled in to enjoy a program that included Mozart, Vivaldi, Schubert, and Bach (among others). It was the perfect peaceful ending to my time in Budapest, and trip in general.
So there you have it! The final stop on my Eastern European Adventure. I had a wonderful time and enjoyed every minute. Thanks for traveling along with me while I took a break from my usual broadcasting!
Actually, on that note, maybe some of you have noticed that The Apron Archives has a new look with this post. Taking my professional writing and blogging into consideration, I’d like for my future posts here to include a nice mix of food, history, New England, photography, and anything else that strikes my fancy. We’ll see what emerges, shall we?
I can say, though, that I’ve already got a food post in the works that features a popular ingredient from my trip, so stay tuned for that. Happy President’s Day, friends!