“…Budapest. My hidden treasure chest.” I wonder if George Ezra knew his song would be a smash when he wrote it on a back packing tour of Europe in 2013. The ironic thing was that he never even made it to Budapest after getting drunk at a Eurovision after party and missing a train from Sweden!
Budapest is an absolute delight. A “treasure chest” if you will, filled with glorious architecture, sublime examples of various eras and styles. At night when the Danube, which separated the towns of Buda and Pest until 1873, is dark and still, the buildings glow in a gallery of spotlit wonders. Parliament House, The Citadella, Fisherman’s Bastion, Budapest Castle, beaming along the river. Bronze statues greet you in the most surprising places right across the city. On our first night in town after training in from Bratislava we came across the river, and it was one of those “I can’t believe this is real, and I can’t believe we’re here” moments. SO beautiful.
A few bozos online claim that “2 days in Budapest would be enough”, so I had a list of out-of-town excursions to keep us busy over our 7 days in case interest waned. We didn’t leave town once. Even with temperatures peaking at just 5 degrees, Budapest was alive, day and night. It’s clearly a popular stop on the 20-something backpacking trail, with hostels brimming with Spanish, English and booming American travellers.
With 7 day local transport cards in hand (and boy, couldn’t the ticket inspectors sniff us out as tourists…they almost looked disappointed that we’d bought tickets) we managed to tram and train across both sides of the river, wander through markets and along the bustling Vaci Utca shopping esplanade, eat LOTS of Hungarian food, and had incredibly full dance cards each day.
And as an added bonus, at every turn were tastes of our family favourite film “The Grand Budapest Hotel”. While the film is not about Budapest, and wasn’t filmed in Budapest, there were constant hints of Wes Anderson’s fictional central European country of Zubrowka. The funicular, the luxe golden era hotels, and the thermal baths.
Great Market Hall
The Great Market Hall was built in 1897, and houses 3 levels of Hungarian deli foods, take away places and traditional costumes, crafts, trinkets and souvenirs. It gets a bit squeezy in some areas, but the food was fresh and delicious. Want paprika? This is the place!
Hungarian National Gallery
Attempting to get up to the Hungarian National Gallery, housed in Buda Castle on Castle Hill is one of those pain-in-the-arse tourist moments where you wish you’d packed pepper spray in your purse. No fewer than 8 different dudes approaching us with a “friendly” (read “pushy”) queeries on how we planned to get up the hill. Tour? Bus? Funicular? The funicular, or siklo, was the second in Europe built in 1870. We really wanted to go up, but to spite the harassers, and because we’re stubborn, we walked.
The gallery was an unexpected suprise, featuring a variety of artworks by Hungarian artists. There were incredible works that don’t have the same international recognition as Italian, French or Dutch masters. Most impressive is the gallery’s “Secessionist” paintings from the late 1890’s to early 1900’s, painted by modern artist groups who wanted to break free from traditional styles, and move from the commercialism of the art world. If Secessionist Gustav Klimt could see how many items “The Kiss” was printed on across Austria/Hungary/Slovenia/Croatia, he’d be mortified!
Here are some of our faves, from different artists, and different eras.
With enough wattage to power a small town lighting up the Fisherman’s Bastion lookout towers, the neighbouring Matthias church and the majestic statue of St.Stephen, it felt like the middle of the day, not 0 degrees in the middle of the night. The view across the Danube to Parliament is spectacular, and in winter climbing around the Bastion is free! My stomach was only just coping with the amount of people taking selfies standing along the walls however. I’m not scared of heights, but am very scared seeing OTHER people about to splat to their early graves from heights. GET DOWN. You’re killing me!
If you want a luxe Art Nouveau bath experience to take in some of Budapest’s thermal waters, the Gellert Baths at the stately Gellert Hotel are probably the city’s most popular (especially with tourists) and therefore the most expensive (and therefore not where we went!). We stuck our heads in for a few moments to catch a glimpse of where the girls’ pop queen Melanie Martinez filmed one of the clips for “K-12”, and to imagine how the wealthy in the 1910’s spent their trips to town.
We visited the Cave Church opposite, which was originally inhabited in the 9th century by St.Ivan, a hermit who used the thermal waters of the town to heal the sick. The cave is now a church built into the rocks of Gellert Hill, found in 1926, shut for a while by the communists in the 50’s and reopened to the public in 1989.
Gellert Hill was sprinkled white with some overnight snow, and visibility very low with a thick fog, but we climbed up to the Citadella on top of the Hill, a fortress built by the Habsburgs in 1854 to show Hungarians who’s boss. The views from the top are supposed to be some of the best in Budapest, but we were basically sitting in a cloud, and could only see about 3 metres ahead of us. The 14 metre tall Liberty Statue holding aloft a palm leaf, commemorating those who sacrified their lives for the freedom of Hungary looked stunning up there regardless.
We also came across the hill’s namesake, St.Gellert, who was tossed off the hill by pagans in 1046. He was actually thrown into a barrell and rolled down, but that wouldn’t make for an epic holy statue now, would it!
At around a quarter of the price of Gellert, the Kiraly Baths were an amazing option, and to be honest, had the kind of authentic semi-run down air I prefer. These Turkish baths were built in 1565, the main octagonal pool covered in a stained stone dome, with little windows letting rays of the outside light peak through. The water is hot (36-40 degrees) and heavy with sodium, calcium and magnesium. There are smaller pools at varying temperatures flanking the main pool, a steamy sauna with Turkish mosaics, and a revamp in 1950 after it was damaged in WW2 has the change rooms retro-dipped in aqua. SO Grand Budapest Hotel. “It was an enchanting old ruin”
Well we’d seen most of the main attractions ABOVE the ground, so we figured we may as well explore BELOW ground for a bit too. When I first looked into Caving under Budapest and saw that it was for people 10-55, I figured it might be pretty lightweight…a few tight spaces, but probably steps, handrails, and people oohing over stalactites.
Incorrect. It was 2.5 hours of crawling, sliding. climbing, and shimmying into and out of a massive cave system. In some sections, I was sure my hips wouldn’t squeeze through the narrow entrances. Our guide Laszlo has been spelunking here for 17 years, and was so fast at scooting through and helping the 13 of us out. He also spoke VERY quickly with a strong Hungarian accent, so most of the group (us, an American mother and adult daughter, 3 British lads, 2 guys from China and a couple from Ireland) had no idea what he was saying, and his jokes about us all dying down there fell a little flat! He WAS great at chatting to us about our lives at home as we made our way through the cave system to take our minds off the fact that “argh, we’re all gonna die down here!”
Basilica of St Stephen
We have had a fairly church-heavy trip so far, and have been avoiding popping in to any churches in Budapest, but who wouldn’t want to see the hand of the city’s hero and saint, King St.Stephen in its own glass case at the city’s gold-leafed-lined basilica!? The statues we’ve seen of St.Stephen are unlike most saint statues which show gentle folk with soft eyes and their hands in delicate liturgical gestures. Stephen looks like a rock star with a fixed gaze, flowing hair and sword, ready to vanquish foes and bang out a Metallica riff. He was the first king of Hungary 1000-1038 and on his feast day each year, August 20, his incorruptible hand, aka the “Holy Dexter” is paraded around town.
When the king died in 1038 someone who believed his right hand held “miraculous properties” lopped it off. The guard who was supposed to be protecting it instead stole away in the night with the Holy Dexter, and took it to Romania. It’s been on a world tour…moved to Dubrovnic, Vienna, and landed back in Budapest in 1771. Proof of its miraculous powers were even in evidence on our visit. You had to pay 200 forint to light up the reliquary case, and we’d just spent our change in the holy medallion machine out front. Then from nowhere came a Chinese tour group with an abundance of iPads, and thankyou Holy Dexter, forints! If you can make out a hand, your eyes are much better than mine.
Yes! We ate goulash (gulyas), which is actually a beef soup. The stew type goulash you might expect is actually called “porkolt”, and yes, we ate that too. Paprika chicken, paprika potatoes, big servings of everything. Langos, deep fried pastry covered in garlic, sour cream and cheese. Cinnamon-covered chimney cakes from street stalls. The best places for food were upstairs at the Market Hall (SO cheap!), and from a tiny place called Tunkolo Bufe with 4 standing tables for two crammed in front of a tuck-shop style counter, where meals were carefully scooped onto plastic plates. We were lucky to get a standing-only table on rainy night.
We also tried the most popular drink in town, Unicum. Tastes like your school sick bay used to smell. Remember Mercurochrome? That.
Budapest, you are a true beauty, and we hope to visit again! From random characters ripping out piano accordions on the tram, to the lady in the markets who screamed like a whale to get people to move out of her way, and the motorbike dude who had his gloves sticky taped to his handle bars so he could slip in and drive, your people are as eclectic as your architecture. That’s our final stop on the St.Clair Eastern Europe holiday extravaganza. I MIGHT do a thought-provoking final post in a few days…or I might not. Loved every moment!