Heading to Hungary was the next step and although the first idea had been to enjoy what I envisaged would be a romantic train, trip from Vienna to Budapest, we found other options. A weekend special offer of only 5 euros per person for the three hour bus trip was just too good to turn down. From Nepliget station we jumped on the underground, that in itself was an experience. But Rita, our Airbnb host had given us good directions so it was all pretty plain sailing although as you come up from the underground into the bright sunlight the city is never as you’d imagined it would be. All those glossy images we’ve poured over on the net are a far cry from the real urban areas that we find ourselves staying in. No sign of the awe-inspiring historic structures that dot the skyline or the romantic Danube that flows right through the city.
Instead we find ourselves on a grubby, busy, noisey street with a lot of rather serious plainly dressed locals. Going back under a tunnel, with a couple of dodgy looking homeless people, we soon emerge on the other side of the road outside this very odd looking animal like building. From there we were almost welcomed by the local winos in the park, who’d felt the warm weather was a good excuse to start early. But the next block things improved a little, we found our accommodation and our delightful host Rita, a PHD student with a passion for Budapest and all it offered.
But as in 99% of the time, it turned out to be a great spot and we soon found our way around the city and especially our local sites and services. That ugly old building was the best find. A fabulous fresh market, noisey, smelly and at times chaotic but full of locals picking up their daily necessities and catching up on the local news. Its so simple its refreshing, anything but a tourist market. Open every day with a great selection of produce and unbelievably cheap especially the strawberries.
The Danube was only five minutes walk away so we enjoyed strolling down there in the evenings. We somehow picked a bit of a heatwave, unexpected and we weren’t appropriately attired, so found ourselves scurrying out the door at daylight to see and do as much as we could before flagging in the heat. Our usual four or five hours walking needed many a coffee and shade stop and even cover from deluge of rain on our last day. Five minutes later it was dry and the steam was rising off the pavement - not exactly what we’d expected here, more like Asia.
But Budapest surely delivered - the architecture (especially Art Nouveau), romance ( views from the bridges and the glorious Danube) the faded grandeur, the elegant boulevards, the cafes, and vibrant social life (that we didn’t really partake in but were privy to the results the following day!!! ) the rickety trolly buses, museums, concert halls, and parks. Its full of surprises and contrasts but with a reputation as being on our Europe's most beautiful cities with an extensive World Hertitage site and over 4.4milion visitors a year we knew it must be pretty special.
Budapest is the capital of Hungary and has a population of approximately 2 million people. The city spans over both sides of the Danube with magnificent views from both sides. Once two separate cities, Buda on the east and Pest on the West, they were unified in 1873. The second half of the 1800’s saw the city become the home of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and during this time a there was a tremendous amount of growth in both industrialisation and a capitalistic society.
But as the second world war world closed in the city was in the hands of the Germans and a deadly dictatorship involved in the Arrowcross party. From then on the Hungarians endured almost 50 years of Communist rule during which the bloody revolution in 1956 saw over 2000 countrymen killed over the two week uprising. But by 1989 the country made a peaceful transition away from the Communist lead party and the city soon changed in both appearance and atmosphere, and 2004 became part of the European Union.
Our early morning walks took us through some magical parts of the city, along the Danube and past the very impressive Parliament building over the magnificent Chain Bridge dodging some fierce looking bikers on their way to work. More aggressive and dangerous than the drivers!! This was the first permanent bridge to connect Buda and Pest, built in 1849 it was considered to be one of the wonders of the world. Funny to read that it was designed by an Englishman and built by a Scotsman!! And legend has it that this Scotsman was so proud of his work that he challenged anyone to find fault in it. When someone discovered that the lions at either end of the bridge didn't have a tongue he committed suicide. What is it with these Scotsmen and their pride????
The Parliament building is huge, infact its the third largest Parliament building in the world and has something like 691 rooms and 20kms of stairs!!!! It is 100 years old and now houses the Hungarian Crown Jewels, but because of its size it really is best admired from the other side of the river.
Wandered up the hill, even though the Castle Hill Funicular was beckoning, through the cobblestone streets admiring the Gothic arches and Baroque houses. Luckily we were early enough that not many of the dreaded Tour Buses were out and about so could enjoy the atmosphere although by the time we headed down Buda Castle Hill it was a different story. It would have to be the first time the aircon and shade of one of those buses seemed to attractive to su!!! At the top is the majestic Budapest Castle which now houses the Public Library, National Museum and National Art Galleries. It was originally built as a Royal Palace in the 13th century and by the 14th had become probably the largest Gothic Palace of the Middle Ages. But sadly totally destroyed in the 15th and rebuilt over the years finally finishing in the early 1900’s. I don’t think there’s anywhere in the city that this Castle is not visible and in turn provides some stunning views over everything.
Described by some was Paris of the East, or the Pearl of the Danube, the city really is known for its beautiful architecture and you can find everything from Roman ruins, to Gothic arches and turkish bathhouses to late 19th century mansions.
One moment you are walking quickly through dodgy looking tunnels then appearing amongst stunning wide treelined streets with huge houses, that opens up into the well known Hero’s Sq, flanked by the Museum of Fine Arts and the Hall of Art. Just behind is City Park, the largest in Budapest and housing amongst other things then Vajdahunyad Castle with is a replica of a Transylvanian castle of the same name. It’s surrounded by a large artificial lake which is used as a skating rink in the winter and boating in the summer but today it was empty and looked like it was being set up for a huge outdoor concert. Then around the back past a magnificent building that turned out to be an Agriculture University, sadly closed while we are there.
Strolling down Andrassy Avenue towards the city centre is an absolute delight. Referred to as Budapest's Champs-Elyseesits it is also called the cultural avenue, as the Opera House, many of the city’s best theatres, museums (such as the horrific House of Terror Museum of which David toured) and grand private mansions were built here. Infact after it was first designed even public transport was prohibited to preserve its character and this initiated the idea of an underground railway system. Which we now know is the oldest electrified underground railway system on the European continent, built in 1896, second only to London and it sounded like it.
The Nyugati Train Station built in 1877 - a superb piece of architecture built by the Eiffel company of Paris.
The Shoes on the Danube memorial is among some of the more sobering reminders of the effects of the Holocaust here in Hungary. The Jewish victims were lined up and shot into the river but had to remove their shoes as these were of value. The 60 pairs of iron shoes represent the thousands that were killed by the Arrowcross members from 1944 to 1945.
The cafe culture is competing with that of Vienna, great coffee and service, and we found some wonderful spots. Prices here are cheaper for tourists than most European countries as they still have their own currency. But the salaries in Hungary are low, unemployment is quite high and in general the cost of living is relatively high for the locals.
Budapest was recently described as the most welcoming European city, not sure if I agree totally with this one. But it certainly is a wonderfully welcoming, affordable city of contrasts with some dark history but a culture and confidence that soon won us over.