Thursday, August 09, 2007

Budapest

Two weeks ago, Sean and I went to Budapest, Hungary for the weekend. Hungary is a recent EU member, which means they don't use the Euro sadly, but everywhere you look there are Hungary and EU flags (I never see either in Bonn). The flight from Cologne was 1.5 hours and from the moment you step out of the airport, you can tell that you're in a whole different world. It's a lot poorer than Germany. The public buses were loud, small, grey, and old, and seemed very Soviet era (I wish I'd taken a picture). The buildings tended to look rather ramshackle. Yet, they were also a lot more ornate than in Germany. For example, here's a couple pictures of buildings we saw:



My understanding is that the language is very difficult to learn (it doesn't resemble any other European languages except maybe Finnish). Thankfully, everywhere we went, people spoke at least a little English.

Budapest is two cities -- Buda and Pest -- on opposite sides of the Danube River. Our hotel was on the Buda side (the left side of this photo), right on the river with an excellent view of the Parliament (the red dome on the right) and a few blocks from the Chain bridge (in the foreground). In the middle of the river, there's a huge park on Margaret Island, which you can also see in the photo below:


We arrived in the morning and spent the day on the Buda side, going up Castle Hill. There's a funicular railway that takes you up the hillside to the top, but, frankly, it's not much of a walk. At the top of the hill is a whole neighborhood, ringed by medieval walls and containing Buda Castle (now containing the National Art Gallery, a history museum, some pretty grounds and excavations of older buildings), Mattias Church, and Fisherman's Bastion. You can see Buda Castle as the dome in the background of this photo:


We spent the afternoon in the National Gallery (which has free admission to the permanent exhibits but, oddly enough, they insist you stand in line to buy the free ticket). On the other side of the hill is Mattias Church (informally named after the greatest Hungarian king) covered in scaffolding in the picture below, with Fisherman's Bastion in front of it and the Hilton next to it:


Inside, I got the first taste of how different culturally and historically Hungary is compared to, say, Germany. Everything is decorated.



Inside the Church is St. Stephan Chapel, dedicated to the first king of Hungary (crowned in the year 1000, and canonized after his death) with a replica of the crown of St. Stephan (used to crown the kings of Hungary from the 13th century). The real crown is in the Parliament (which we never got to). His mummified right hand can be found in St. Stephen's Basilica (which I'll get to later). The text around the replica of the crown of St. Stephan tries to very carefully prove that the real crown can be dated back to St. Stephan and somehow divines that it was originally crafted on the shores of the Black Sea in the 3rd century. Outside the church is Fisherman's Bastion; it's pretty cool to look at.

We were exhausted by the end of the afternoon. Luckily, a quick dinner could be had on the Chain Bridge, shut to cars for the weekend, it was lined with stands for food and trinkets, with stages for music on either end, and tourists everywhere. Here's a picture of it all lit up.


On the second day, we went to Pest to the Jewish quarter and saw Dohány Street Synagogue, the second largest synagogue in the world. By the way, if you're looking for a bathroom in Budapest, you don't need to pay to use the bathroom in the synagogue (it's before the ticket-takers). Also, the Inter-continental Hotel near the Chain Bridge (on the Pest side) has a side door right next to its lobby bathrooms.


The inside was pretty amazing, but you need to buy a separate ticket to take pictures; there's a bunch on the Wikipedia page I linked above. After lunch, we went to St. Stephan's Basilica; the most ornate building in the world (okay, maybe not officially ...).



After a good look around and at St. Stephan's mummified hand, we went to the roof (not the to top of the dome but very high). That's where the fourth photo in this post was taken. After this, we walked along the river, past the Parliament to Margaret Island and relaxed for the rest of the day. A quick dinner in front of the Basilica was capped off with one of these tubes of grilled sweet bread (-like thing) coated in caramelized vanilla sugar bought from a stand on the Chain bridge. We ate it standing by one of the stages which featured some rather good music (I'm blanking on what kind of music it was (jazz?) and only remember that I liked it).


The last day was cold and rainy (it was hot the previous two days). We wandered up Andrássy út to City Park and went to the thermal baths there, Széchenyi Medicinal Bath. Budapest is known for it's thermal baths and we could have spent several more days just exploring all of them. After going through a rather complex procedure for paying, getting a locker, changing, and getting towels, we relaxed in their many outdoor thermal baths and indoor herbal baths. It was fantastic, especially after two and 1/2 days of nothing but walking. After a few hours of soaking, we got some afternoon cake (there's a lot of really good afternoon cake in Budapest) and wandered down Váci utca, the main touristy, pedestrian street, stumbled upon a great deal (and good food) for dinner and called it a day.

All in all, Budapest was pretty awesome. I definitely could have used several more days just to get to all the places I wanted to see and two or three history books to figure out what it was I saw.

3 comments:

Tim said...

Yay Budapest! I also really loved the city when I visited. I think I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn't the grey, soul-less Soviet barrack that I had pictured (although I hear that is what Bucharest is like).

Did you ride the subway while you were there? The one thing I remember was that the escalators down to the platform go about 50% faster than in the US and people openly stare across at each other while riding them.

We walked by the thermal baths, but didn't go in -- so now I'm jealous. But we did make it to Parliament and saw the famous flag with the hole cut out of it from the 1956 uprising.

Tim said...

Oh also, didn't you have plans to visit all the microstates of Europe? How's that going? Liechtenstein!

Jackie said...

Tim - We took the subway only once (from the thermal baths back toward the river) and all I really remember is how good I felt after soaking in 38 C water for 3 hours and how happy I was not to be walking. And we really did mean to go to the Parliament; it just somehow slipped away from us.

As for the microstates, it's not looking so good right now. Sean's visit is halfway over and our microstate count stands at zero. But don't worry about us: we drowned our sorrows in lots of Belgian beer.