I didn’t really know what to expect when I set off on my Eastern Europe adventure, and to be honest with the recent current events concerning passenger planes, I was a little nervous to be travelling full stop. But despite the very rainy start, Budapest was quite the welcome to the East.
My hostel was in the Jewish quarter, which was pretty much in the middle of everything. It was an incredibly vibrant part of town, full of restaurants, bars and clubs.
Like my recent destinations, I decided to take up the free walking tour of the city to properly get my bearings, and with the meeting spot at St Stephen’s Basilica, I took the opportunity to have a look around inside.
With so many Cathedrals/Churches/Basilicas around Europe I’ve been warned I’ll get to the point where I’ll never want to see another interior ever again. But it would seem I’m still yet to reach that point as St Stephens took my breath away.
Not only is it incredibly beautiful, it still houses St Stephen’s Holy right hand, which was the only part of his body to have miraculously mummified when they dug it up many years after his death. But it doesn’t just hold the miracle hand of the Saint, it also has the country’s holy left foot as well, with Hungarian football hero Ferenc Puskás buried there. I’m not sure how many football players get such a notable final resting place, but I guess in the eyes of Hungarians, he is also about as saintly as you can get!!!
As the clock struck 10, an incredibly energetic local guide Stefi took charge of our tour, and with that I got my first insight into Budapest and the Hungarian culture.
Interestingly after Denmark and the so called happiest people in the world, I found out Hungarian people are the most pessimistic. But who can blame them given their tumultuous history, there’s always been someone invading/taking over/splitting the country apart. In fact the Hungarian language is apparently the 2nd most difficult in the world to learn, and that’s mostly down to the fact that it has been influenced by so many other languages. According to Stefi if you’re serious about learning it, the fastest way is to take a Hungarian lover, as the best place to learn is in bed ……
For me it really has been fascinating to cross country borders and see how parts of history connect throughout Europe, it’s like a great big puzzle where certain places join up with others along the way. Here my education of the Austro Hungarian empire and the Hapsburg royal family continued, this time however from the Hungarian perspective. Here Princess Elizabeth was adored and loved so dearly, no one refers to her as Sissi, as the country and princesses’ mutual admiration means she’s far to revered to be referred to by her nickname. She did a lot of work pushing for Hungary’s independence, and actually spent a lot of time here during her life. Now many many parts of the city are named after her and she is still held in the highest regard. Princess Elizabeth also learned the Hungarian language, which the people here still appreciate very much. Although, so the story goes, she learnt it in just two years …. So rumour has it she must’ve been learning in someone’s bed!! I love that decades on the people here still relish in the scandal of it all!!
The whole bed activity subject seemed to be a bit of a running Hungarian theme, apparently rubbing the stomach of this little fellow ….
…. Uncle Charlie the jovial policeman, helps give you luck in the fertility department. And not only that, the healing powers of Budapest’s famous thermal baths are also said to make you ripe for the picking. Intrigued, I had to ask if there was any real proof to this claim, and was informed about the hippos at Budapest zoo. Whilst they’re one of the most popular attractions in the city, they weren’t very happy with the cold climate of their Budapest home. So the brains behind the city’s operation came up with a natural answer, with the city’s most popular hot thermal baths right next door, a little tinkering with pipes etc meant the hippos could enjoy a hot bath too! Anyway again, so the story goes, very soon the hippos started breeding at much faster rates, and now, while Hungary isn’t the richest of countries when it comes to exports, they do have the highest rates of hippo exports than any other European country.
With those details settled, our group crossed the river from Pest into Buda. Almost instantly there was quite a different feel between the two parts of the city, as if the pace of life slowed down just a little. Interestingly the attitudes of the populations on either side of the river are quite different to! Those living in Buda consider the Pest population to be uncultured and a little more on the wild side … Whilst those in Pest think inhabitants of Buda are rich snobs.
After exploring a little more of Buda and the breathtaking views from the Fisherman’s Bastion, I took myself off to the House of Terror, which, while not housing the happiest of materials (the name may have given that away …) it was an absolutely excellent museum. Located in the former headquarters of the gruesome Hungarian Arrow Cross Party and the Hungarian Nazis, post World War Two it was also where the notorious communist terror organisations took up residence. Inside lighting, music, and creative exhibition displays brought to life some of the most harrowing aspects of Budapest’s recent history.
After a busy day I was very much in need of sustenance in the form of a traditional Hungarian dinner of stuffed cabbage leaves with goose salami and sour cream at the beautiful restaurant Spinoza. Complete with a piano player, candle light, and a few wines, the experience cost me a grand total of about $14.
This fine dining experience followed a breakfast of some kind of sweet pastry concoction filled with apple and berries at the steep price of 50 cents, and lunch of a traditional wood fire oven cooked pizza bread topped with Hungarian sausage, a feast which set me back about a staggering $4.
Not all of my culinary adventures were good experiences however. Some Aussie backpackers thought they’d keep up the Anzac spirit and share what looked like an absolutely delicious kind of cinnamon scroll with me. It turned out to be, well I don’t know what actually, but it was quite possibly the most disgusting thing I’ve ever eaten. I couldn’t even place the taste, but it was very strange and lingered long after the disastrous mouthful. I’ve been googling and googling but am still yet to work out exactly what the culprit was!
With so much food as delicious and cheap as all of this, I figured another decent walk was in order, so I decided to climb up to the the city’s citadella and Budapest’s very own Lady Liberty. The citadella was ordered by Austrian King Franz Joseph in 1853, completed in 7 years, it was actually hated by the Hungarian population as the people regarded it as a threatening symbol of Austrian power. Used extensively throughout the war, now it offers a complete panoramic view of the city, and gave me my first opportunity to really take in the magnificent might of the great Danube river. Flowing through four capital cities, the river passes through or touches the borders of ten countries: Romania, Hungary, Serbia, Austria, Germany, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Croatia, Ukraine, and Moldova. Standing from the height I was at was quite the sight, each way you looked it stretched so far into the distance it melted into the horizon.
Since walking over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco I’ve become a tiny bit obsessed with bridges, so Budapest couldn’t have been more perfect for me!!! While the Chain Bridge was the first one to connect Buda and Pest, there are now also seven others, and I absolutely loved how beautiful and intricate each one was.
With the sun beating down, it was time to take a break from the city and head to Margaret Island between Buda and Pest, where I hired a bike and enjoyed the beautiful gardens and green space. It’s always such a relief to be able to find a bit of an escape from busy cities, and Margaret Island provided just that.
The walk back from there to my hostel also gave me the chance to check out the stunning Parliament buildings, as well as the incredibly moving Jewish shoe monument, commemorating the Hungarian Jewish victims, killed by the Arrow Cross militiamen. The killings usually took place en masse – the victims were lined up at the embankment, and shot into the Danube, execution-style.
After a day of some serious walking and very little to eat but ice cream, the body was in need of more Hungarian food. Having had Frici Papa recommended to me by several locals I took myself off in search of some more local cuisine. While not quite the atmospheric experience of the night before, (the wait staff were very dead pan, and the decor quite strange), it was, I’m told, a far more authentic Hungarian experience. So I ordered up the very traditional chicken paprikash (Hungarian stew), and it was delicious!
With their love of soups and goulash the Hungarian cuisine is definitely more suited to a colder climate, but even temperatures of around 29 degrees couldn’t stop me once again devouring every morsel I could get my hands on!!!
Discovering a fellow kiwi in my hostel room, we decided check out one of Budapest’s most popular ruin pubs, and what a crazy trippy place it was. As the name suggests, ruin pubs are found in the most unlikely places, damaged and dilapidated buildings that remain in the state they were left in following the war. Post communism these buildings were snapped up at cheap prices, and rather than being repaired, owners had artists come and decorate the spaces in crazy creative ways, turning them into the bars and clubs that are now an integral part Budapest’s crazy night life, identity and culture. It’s hard for photos to really capture the uniqueness of these places, which are often several stories tall, you really have to see it to understand it.
In need of a little R&R, my last day consisted of a walk through Heroes Square, onto the healing relaxing waters of the Széchenyi thermal baths. Again, probably an activity better suited to a colder time of year, but with one pool luckily kept at a cooler temperature, it was nice to finally be able to relax by a bit of water!! I’ve been spoiled by the fact that you’re never very far away from some kind of swim-able water source in New Zealand, so summer in land locked countries is definitely requiring some acclimatising!
While it was a pretty ideal way to spend the day, I definitely have come to love this city the most by night – not just because of the epic night life that’s on offer here, but because the city comes to life in a whole new way once the sun goes down. Buildings and bridges that stunned me by day, had me swooning even more under the night sky.
As always my time in Hungary came and went too fast, and I was left with a lingering wishful feeling that I’d stayed longer and explored some more of the country side. I had intended to do some day trips to get out of the city, but with so much to see and explore, time once again got the better of me … But luckily the Eastern Europe experience was only just beginning.