Pest in Show!

Feature, Hungary, Travelogue — By on March 5, 2012 at 11:35 am

Arriving in Budapest is like arriving at any other airport after a long international flight.  We were feeling tired, smelly, and excited, trying to keep our wits about us while at the same time crossing all available fingers that our bags arrive.  Well, they didn’t.  Tired, smelly, and in need of an espresso, we made our luggage-less selves to our hostel.  We chose to stay at Lavender Circus, which (although we have nothing to compare it to in Budapest) we would recommend completely.  The price and the location were prefect.  It was clean, quiet, and the staff was great – very welcoming and helpful.

No bags, no change of clothes – no matter – we had no time to waste!  Off we went to explore.  We first walked to the river and made our way towards a small art installation piece called “Shoes on the Danube.”  This was the first of many heartbreaking WWII stories we would learn about on our journey.  It is a memorial to the Jews that were killed by the Arrow Cross militia in 1944-45.  They were made to walk to the bank of the Danube and take their shoes off before being shot into the river.

We then walked back toward the impressive Chain Bridge (the original would have been more impressive had the retreating Nazis not blown it up).  Over the bridge is the Buda side where the area known as the Castle Hill District lies.  Here, we took the rickety old cable car up to lay our eyes on the nearly thousand-year old Matthias Church.  The current building which stands is unfortunately not that old.  Even with large-scale restorations over the years it is still an impressive sight to behold.  This has been the sight of many royal gatherings including coronations and weddings.

Within eyeshot is the Fishermen’s Bastion. It too is restored as it was almost completely destroyed during the war.  Also nearby is the Royal Palace, A.K.A. Buda Castle, which was destroyed (this time, not the fault of the Nazis, although it was the sight of their last stand in Budapest in 1945) and rebuilt through the years since its construction in 13th century.  It was damaged or destroyed by the Turks, the Habsburgs and again in the war of Independence in the mid-1800’s.  The castle has a secret (well, not anymore) bunker hospital under and within its walls.  So secret that the public wasn’t made aware of its existence until 2002.  It is now a museum with wax figures depicting scenes from what life was like within this fortified hospital.

The next day we hopped a train to the nearby sleepy town of Szentendre.  Being so close to Budapest, the town has grown considerably in popularity in recent years but worth it if you have the time.  I have found through my travels that my favorite part of a trip is often the mini ventures away from the endless buses of picture takers.  I love the castles and bridges and museums and the history, but sometimes sitting in a pub in a real working-class town, sitting next to real folks taking some time for a pint and a bowl of Goulash away from their real lives gives me a better feel for a place as opposed to standing in line in Starbucks in the middle of the main square (which we did also).  The town is blessed with beauty and old world charm.  It has a very bohemian feel to it so if you’re looking for hand-made crafts and things of that nature, it can be found here.  We were lucky enough to be there on a Sunday morning when church was in.  For about an hour before service was over we had the town and all its beauty to ourselves.  When church did let out, shutters and wrought iron doors were cranked open, displays rolled out, the smell of coffee and fresh pastries floated out into the air and the streets were alive.

Heading back to Budapest we got off the train and found ourselves once again in the Castle Hill district.  This time we found the Golden Eagle Pharmacy Museum.  This is the sight of Budapest’s very first pharmacy (1681).  It sure makes one awestruck and a bit thankful for what mankind has accomplished over the centuries.  You’ll be amazed at what would have been prescribed for a bit of indigestion back then!

Next, we headed over the river from Buda to Pest, and on to the House of Terror Museum, checking out the abounding Opera House, which opened in 1884, on the way.  The House of Terror Museum is an aggressive, contemporary museum full of multi-media and interactive displays describing what life was like during two periods when Hungarians were subjected to coercion, corruption, deceit and outright murder en masse.  Directly up the street from the Museum is Heroes Square.  Heroes Square was erected in 1896 to mark 1000 years of Hungarians in the area. This is the largest square in the city and is decorated with statues of important figures in Hungarian history.

Not far from here it was easy to take a peek at the Szechenyi Baths.  Tired and achy as we were, we watched in jealousy as bathers rested in the soothing hot pools widely known in the region for their natural healing powers.  We had left our bathing suits in the hostel so this would have to wait until the next day.   The water for the thermal baths comes from deep natural mineral water ; it’s embedded in the culture that many Hungarians will go to the baths for the same ailments that we westerners would just go the doctor for.  It is a part of a regular healthcare regime for many locals.

A trip to Budapest isn’t complete until you’ve had an evening walk along the Danube to feast your eyes on the wonderfully lit parliament building on the east bank of the river.  This is a true landmark; built with precious stones, gold and 40 million bricks it is a sight to behold.  If you have time to go in you will have an opportunity to see the crown jewels.  The crown has had a busy past: it’s been stolen, buried and hidden from tyrants.  It was returned to Hungary from the USA in 1978 and has been on display since 2000.  It was recovered in Austria and given to the US Army so it would be safe from the Russians.

The next morning we visited the Gellert Baths at the base of Gellert Hill.  The name reportedly refers to St. Gerard, who was put to death by the pagans by being placed in a barrel and rolled down the hill.  The hill has been an important vantage point in many conflicts dating back to the Middle Ages.  Today the hill boasts a museum, some cave tours — the caves formed from the thermal springs many hundreds of thousands of years ago — and spectacular views.  On this day we were there to enjoy the baths.  The Gellert bathhouse is gorgeous; it was built in the early 1900s, but the healing powers of the waters have been revered for centuries.  It was even the sight of a hospital during the Middle Ages.  A couple hours in these waters help the tension and aches from all the walking melt away.  But it was short lived.  Our time in Budapest and its surrounding area was almost up.

A short walk from the Gellert Hill area is the Central Market Hall.  A wonderful old building with market stalls selling mostly meats and vegetables and about a thousand variations of Hungarian Paprika make up the ground floor, and the upper floor is mostly comprised of souvenir vendors.

Farewell Budapest, you will be missed.  The splendor, the people and the history made for an enjoyable experience.  We have a train at noon to Bratislava, Slovakia.

Matthias Church, Budapest Hungary

Cable Car up to Castle Hill, Budapest Hungary

Central Market Hall, Budapest Hungary

Parliament building by day, Budapest, Hungary

Parliament building by night, Budapest, Hungary

Fishermen's Bastion, Budapest, Hungary

Chain Bridge by night, Budapest, Hungary

House of Terror Museum, Budapest, Hungary

Szentendre town square when church is in, Szentendre, Hungary

"Shoes on the Danube" Budapest, Hungary

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