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Budapest - Paris of the East

Budapest is one of several cities known as Paris of the East - and for a reason. This city of about 1.7 million people straddles the Danube River which is crossed by artistic bridges and lined with impressive castles, palaces and government buildings (all an engineer’s dream), and it is a photographer’s and historian’s and prairie girl’s paradise. It looks like the postcards from our childhood. I have always said it is one of my favourite cities in the world not just for its appearance but also for its offerings and ease of travel.

Besides being known as Paris of the East, Budapest has several other nicknames - Heart of Europe, Queen of the Danube, Pearl of the Danube, Capital of Freedom, Capital of Spas and Thermal Baths, and Capital of Festivals - all of which tell you about the grandeur of the city.

Budapest is divided into two main sections, almost like different cities (not surprisingly, ‘Buda’ on the west side of the Danube and ‘Pest’ on the east side). Our hotel was located in what could be considered central Pest, easy walking distance to the sights, the Danube, and the metro. I’ll give it a shout-out for quality and affordability - Three Corners Lifestyle Hotel. For us, this was a perfect location. The city, despite having a large population, is most walkable, and the transit system is easy. The metro is the world’s oldest underground electric system but today the four colour-coded lines are modern, well-marked, and easy to navigate. The tram system is more popular, with over 30 lines. A good tip is to ride tram #2 along the Danube for stunning views, day or night. The ticket machines are easy to operate (be sure to click on the British flag for English first!)

Here are some pictures along the Danube in the evening from our recent visit and at night from our trip in 2017:

We arrived at the Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport from London, hopped on the airport shuttle 100E (about $8.00 a person) right outside the Departures door, and arrived at the Kalvin Ter station within blocks of our hotel in less than half an hour - so easy and so affordable.

Central Pest and the parliament area is known as the city centre, the most modern and commercial area of Budapest. It borders the Danube River and is a popular starting point and layover for river cruise ships. The luxurious Andrassy Ut (Street) winds through central Pest towards Heroes’ Square and the main City Park (Varosliget). Despite being the most modern area of the city, central Pest also includes historic churches, monuments, and buildings. Here are the main strolling streets (‘utcas’) lined with restaurants, high end stores, coffee shops, and bars, the magnificent parliament buildings (the largest we have ever seen), the majestic St. Stephen‘s Basilica, whimsical statues, a beautiful opera house, war memorials, and town squares (‘ters’). There is a large Jewish quarter with the Great Synagogue and what can only be described as a party street, Kazincy Ut, with the city’s main food truck park and many of what were once known as ‘ruin bars’. Ruin bars were traditionally cheap places for young men to drink alcohol in old, dilapidated, shabby buildings. Now, they are mostly open air drinking and eating areas and are not so cheap anymore. Here are some photos from Central Pest.

The parliament buildings:

The parliament buildings were under close scrutiny and the grounds were closed in preparation for the papal visit the weekend following our visit, but we managed to snap a few pictures.

The magnificent St. Stephen’s Basilica:

Budapest has monolithic churches in many styles, with Catholicism being the main denomination.

Here’s a street scene of us with St. Stephen’s in the background.

Jewish Shoe Memorial:

Hungary, as did many Eastern European countries, experienced some hard times. One of the most emotional ‘statues’ is the shoe exhibit along the Danube representing Jewish victims killed by fascist militiamen in 1944. Victims were ordered to remove their shoes and were then shot so that their bodies fell into the Danube, and their shoes could be sold.

There are several other Jewish memorials in the city. Two of the others we saw were the Emmanuel Tree or Tree of Life behind the Great Synagogue which has the names of thousands of Holocaust victims on it’s weeping willow ‘leaves‘ and the memorial for Jewish victims of forced labour service, the stone walls depicting the workers’ fate:

We loved the whimsical statues in Pest that seemed to crop up randomly:

A tailor in the Jewish Quarter:

The food truck park on Kaczynski Ut:

The Opera House on Andrassy Ut was splendid:

Buda, on the west side of the Danube, has a completely different ‘vibe’. It is hilly, is more commonly known as the Castle District, and has famous architecture and even more famous views. Buda could be divided into three main sections: Gellert Hill, the castle district, and north of the castle. Gellert Hill and the castle area tend to be touristy. Gellert Hill is a steep climb with amazing views of the Danube and of Pest on the other side. Unfortunately the Citadel at the top with the Liberty or Freedom Statue commemorating lives sacrificed for Hungary’s freedom and independence was under restoration and closed - but we enjoyed the climb through forest and flowering trees and shrubs and took pictures looking over the Danube to Pest at different elevations. Likewise, the castle area was under construction, but we walked around the perimeter and on into the area north of the castle, through winding little streets, especially to find the old communist-era coffee shop, Bambi, that we had found a few years ago. I don’t think the tables or dishes have been changed since the 1950’s. The crowds thinned out immediately. There are several old churches, all of different design reflecting their denomination, as well as several of the most well-known spa/baths on the Buda side. The views across the Danube are superb. Here are some pictures of the Gellert Hill, castle, and churches on the Buda side:

Finally, the old communist-era cafe, Bambi. It may not have changed in 70 years, but the cream cake was delicious.

You know I am a believer in seeing what lies at the end of a metro line, and an interesting trip outside of Budapest is to Memento Park, reachable by a short green-line metro and bus ride. Memento Park contains exhibits and statues from Hungary’s communist regime (1949 to 1989). It is important to note that this site is not to honour communism and it is not at all commercial. As the builder, Akos Eleod, states, the park is about dictatorship and democracy because it is only with democracy that we can talk freely about dictatorship. I love that line. As was the communist style, the statues are immense and clearly tried to convince the public that everyone was happy with the status quo. It was a good reminder to us that we have to teach history because if we forget, history will be repeated. Here are just a few pictures of the propaganda:

On the outskirts of central Pest is the Heroes’ Square and City Park, Varosliget, at the end of Andrassy Ut. Heroes’ Square is a massive statue of former famous Hungarian leaders and the Memorial Stone of Heroes. It is flanked by the Museum of Fine Art and the Palace of Art. Major events - and protests - are held here. Varosliget park is known for much green space, flower gardens, playgrounds, sports fields, a castle, cafes, and a boating area (or skating area, depending on the season). Our favourite features were the new Museum of Ethnography and the Hungarian House of Music. The Museum of Ethnography is shaped like a giant skateboard park with gardens planted on top. The sides are made of half a million pixels that look like lace, There is a stairway on either side on which to climb way, way up to the rooftop gardens. The House of of Music was designed to look like a forest with holes for the sycamore trees to grow through and thousands of gold shapes to replicate leaves. Both buildings are architectural wonders.

Heroes‘ Square:

The Museum of Ethnography:

The Hungarian House of Music:

Another great day in Budapest that we chose not to do this trip but did in 2017 is to stroll around Margarit Island, right between Buda and Pest in the middle of the Danube. You can reach the island by walking or taking a tram. Margarit Island is a super respite with forest, paths, flowers, ruins, baths and pop-up bars and cafes. It’s a great place to spend some time. Here are some pictures from 2017:

I can’t end without talking about the quality of food in Budapest. In hard times, they learned to turn simple ingredients into delicacies. Some traditional food that we sampled was goulash (of course), beef stew, noodles, stuffed peppers, chimney cakes, and strudel (oh, the strudel - my choice was plum).

Finally, just a word about something known as Palinka. Palinka is an alcoholic liqueur fermented from fruits native to Hungary. The alcohol content is high - it has to have a minimum of about 35%. We had been encouraged to try it. We each had a different flavour - pear, apricot, cherry - but they all tasted the same to us. All were toxic. Three of us could not finish. To quote a travelling companion: “It’s like gasoline for your camp stove.”

That ends our week in Budapest. It is a liveable world class city that combines youthful energy with a sometimes sad history, and it’s well worth the visit. The architecture, atmosphere, and food will be unforgettable. But, suffice it to say, watch out for that Palinka.


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