Magnificent Budapest: A weekend break in Hungary's beautiful capital city
After an uneventful day at work on a fine Thursday, late April I promptly switching off all systems (that is my desktop and putting away my pens and calculator in my drawer), headed off to Victoria Station to make my way towards London Heathrow, enjoying the crushing confinements and involuntary intimacy of London Underground, a journey that took approximately an hour and a quarter. My challenge this time was to discover Budapest’s secrets and offerings in a long weekend.
Arrived at London Heathrow T5 in one piece with same amount of bones I had when I left work. Without having to check in any baggage, whisking through security was a breeze. Pull back was slightly delayed, eventually taking off at 20.45 instead of the scheduled 20.10. The flight was pretty smooth bar a few bumpy minutes while flying over France but in two hours and ten minutes we safely landed at Budapest Ferihegy airport. Despite the late takeoff from LHR, we arrived at 23.55, only ten minutes after schedule.
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In the dead of night
Airport transfer was previously arranged online via one of Ferihegy’s approved Airport Shuttle companies which just eased the pain and agro of getting to a hotel at late o’clock at night in an unknown city and at around £7.00, you can’t get better value. After a ten minute wait at the departure area the weary-eyed driver appeared and barked out the hotel name which was my cue and in about 40 minutes I was dropped at what was to be my residence in Budapest for the next three days, the Délibab City hotel; a three star property located in the Centre of the city, overlooking The Heroes Square, one of Budapest’s main symbols and close to Andrássy Ut, one of the smartest addresses in Budapest. Due to the late hours there were no scenic views to enjoy en route.
Booked online through its own website about three months before travel and got a bargain on the room rates; a very reasonable €45 per night double/twin room, B&B basis.
Reception area is quite sparse, but the night porter checked me in efficiently and in close to no time. My room was on the third floor with no lift, so I thanked my lucky scars I had packed relatively lightly!
The only downside in my opinion was the fact that twin rooms mean two single beds. And believe me; they don’t come more single than this! But then again, for the price of the hotel one can hardly criticize this minor detail.
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A Grand old city
After a five o’clock rise, having only slept four hour and spending almost two hours deciding what to do with my life while unable to knock off again, I showered and headed downstairs for breakfast. Fortunately, apart from the bed issue, the room and en-suite were more than adequate. Although sparsely decorated, it was very clean and functional. Bathroom also basically appointed but in good working order.
Breakfast was a buffet with a staple of charcuterie, cheese selection, sausages and scrambled egg with the usual assortment of fruit, cereal and bread and drinks (coffee, tea, juices, etc).
By the time I finished, still had a few hours to kill before my travel companion, travelling from Paris turned up. With a scheduled arrival at about 10.00 am, I was expecting him at around 11.00 am.
With lovely weather outside, I checked out the Heroes Square at the end of Andrássi Ut, where communist demonstrations once took place. Completed in typical grand imperial European fashion it’s flanked by the Museum of Fine Arts on one side and the Palace of Arts to the other. Standing at the heart of the square is the impressive Millennium Monument, erected to commemorate the 1000 year anniversary of the conquest of the Carpathian Basin by the Magyars.
Strolled through some of the side streets around near my hotel, where I discovered some pleasant leafy residential streets.
His minibus arrived just before midday, after a small delay in his arrival so after the usual greetings, introduced him to our weekend residence with the twin ‘single’ bedded room.
After a few minutes to refresh and leave his stuff in the room, we headed for the Metro station of Hősök tere (Heroes Sq.) on Line 3 of the Metro system. An old yet very well maintained station, it’s like a trip down memory lane. Most stations on this line maintain their original features of when they were built more than a century back. Budapest metro is the second oldest underground system in Europe, having opened in 1896. Service is reasonable, a single fare taking you back HUF290 (Hungarian Forint). Changing at Deak Ferenc tér station for the more contemporary but less glamorous Line 2 Metro, we travel one more stop and exit at Kossuth tér Stationfor our first photo stop, the magnificent Hungarian Parliament building. One of the finest Neo-Gothic buildings in Europe, completed and opened in 1902 it was at the time the largest Parliament building in the world. Time challenged as we were, we only managed to admire this beautiful structure from the outside while taking in the surrounding sights of the Ethnographical Museum opposite Parliament across Kossuth Lajos Square.
After a brief walk around the Parliament and its surrounding, we strolled towards one of the most iconic rivers in the world; the River Danube (Duna in Hungarian), which divides this city, separating the hilly Buda from the more flat Pést, which together with the old hamlet of Obud, were united by the Chain Bridge (Szechenyi Ianchid) back in 1849 to give birth to what we know today as Budapest. We walked along this magnificent river admiring the hilly sights of Buda until we reached the famous Chain Bridge where after the usual photo stop we decided to cross in order to reach the Buda side.
With the Funicular that takes you up to the top of Castle Hill closed down for maintenance we walked up to the summit choosing fortunately the path that offered the best chances of admiring Budapest in all its splendour. Once at the summit, with Pést at our feet, we decided to try our first goulash, accompanied with a teeth-gnashing cold beer. Top marks for the beer, one of the many good local brands, not so for the goulash which tasted like an overpriced washed down excuse for a soup, edible nevertheless. With no real damage done to wallet, tummy and pride, we headed off to explore the beauties of the top of Castle Hill, walking through old restored cobbled back streets off Uri utca (Lords’ street) visiting Matthias Church (Mátyás templon) and the monument to the Fisherman’s Bastion in Budvár district. Also, while browsing inside a liquor store, we learned a thing or two about Hungarian spirits (Palinka, vilmos) and their renowned Tokaji wine and its two variants; aperitif and desert wine.
After the usual photo takings of Parliament and other sites of the Pést side of the city we descended towards Elizabeth Bridge (Erzsébet hid) walking through Budai aliso. Our walk finally took us to Váci utca, one of Pést’s oldest street, once synonymous with traders and swindlers, who many moons ago when the street was the road that led to the town of Vác, clustered around Vác gate at Váci utca 3. As Pést prospered, so did the street, becoming a favourite amongst Budapest’s wealthy. Exclusive stores and boutiques soon camped here and today it is the city’s most popular shopping venue. Most retail businesses occupy the northern end of the street which is conveniently pedestrianized, whilst the southern end is home to many bars and smart cafés. For just a brief moment, I tried to travel back in time to imagine what it would have been like sitting in this same café or whatever watering hole was in its place 25 years ago during the dying days of Hungary’s Communist regime. Armani, Nike, Zara, M & S all replaced by billboards praising our Soviet brothers, signs urging to keep up the struggle of the working class and guides extorting the benefits of food rationing. Just watching the buzz and noise before me made it hard to believe such an era had taken place in this city. It seems as if Budapest had always been a bastion of Western joie de vivre.
Back in 2009 and liquid intake duly satisfied, we headed north of Váci utca towards Vörösmarty Square, a splendid plaza named after the poet Mihály Vörösmarty, whose statue graces the centre of the square. Again, the Metro station which bears the same name as the Square (also part of Line 3) and built way back in 1903 is well worth the visit if only to admire its classic tiled walls and wooden booths, a reminder of why Budapest’s metro stations were considered so glamorous. By strolling up or down the length of Váci utca, one definitely gets a real feel for this city. Main sight on this street are Klotild Palace, completed in 1902 and home to many shops and offices, Gerbeaud Cukrászda, one of the main coffee shops since 1858 and Central Market Hall on the southern end of the street.
That night we dined at the Kárpátia Restaurant, a typical Hungarian dinner place located on Ferenciak tere. A very classy looking place, it was pleasantly filled with what seemed like local patrons which is always a good sign in a restaurant. I opted for a veal steak in an unpronounceable but heavenly sauce with glazed potatoes, washed down with two glasses of Köbányai beer, one of the many local pilsners I had the pleasure to sample on this trip. With such a hearty dinner, I wisely decided to forgo the desert, as failure to do so would have meant being embarrassingly rolled out of the restaurant with all its unpleasant consequences. My friend’s choice was also a top winner with him. This place is definitely a must for anyone visiting Budapest.
On our way out, again having gone through the guide of what to do, where to eat, drink, erm yes, drink, we decided to give a curious and lethally named bar-bistro a try. Its name is Abszint, located in Andraassy ut and named after the infamous Absinthe, that enticing and lethal green drink that fuelled the imagination of many a philosopher and artist during the 19th century. The drink still survives, not in its lethal original form but in a much more drink-friendly version with a few variants as we discovered after ordering our rounds. We drank and observed how the hip and trendy enjoyed a Friday night in Budapest. At the same time, I was curious to find out whether my imbibing of this notorious spirit would entice me to write the mother of all novels, or compose the next hit to storm the top 20 or maybe concoct some mind enhancing thinking that would change the way humans view themselves for the next 100 years. Alas, yours truly and my friend were still engaged in a coherent conversation updating our lives as we hadn’t seen for almost four years. Yet, despite its trendy, arty surroundings, we didn’t have to re-mortgage our souls when the bill arrived, again what one likes to feel when in foreign lands. And we walked out as straight as we had walked in; couldn’t really say whether I was relieved or disappointed.
We walked back to our hotel from the bar, a 25 minute stroll up Andrassy ut, soaking up the grand, glamorous and opulent surroundings of this imposing boulevard. Again went back to our single rack beds, but not sure whether the post dinner absinthe infused drinks or the marathon walk throughout the day bore any influence, but sleep happened almost instantaneously.
As agreed with my travel partner in crime, we actually managed the early rise and after an empowering and rejuvenating shower, rendezvoused downstairs at the breakfast room for our staple of warm buffet. After two cups of semi-decent coffee and a more than adequate breakfast, we set off for our next excursion into this magnificent city.
For day two, the plan was to pay a visit to Margitsziget (Margaret Island), a tranquil, peaceful and green oasis perched in the middle of the Danube and named after Princess Margit (Margaret), daughter of King Béla IV, who spent most of her life in the island’s former convent in the 13th century. According to History, after the horrors of the Mongol invasion and later destruction of Budapest from 1241 to 1242, a desperate King Béla IV offered to give his daughter to God if in return He would ensure the Mongols never returned. In 1251, Béla sent his daughter Margit to the island’s convent where she stayed for the rest of her life. The Mongols never ever returned.
We covered most of the main sights such as the Centenary Monument walking the fringes of the island, the ruins of the Franciscan church, the impressive Water Tower, a UNESCO protected tower built in 1911, St Michael’s church, the Bodor Wells, the beautiful Japanese Garden as well as simply watching locals and tourists alike winding down in this most beautiful sanctuary.
We spent around two hours in the island before heading off to terra firma to finish exploring the rest of Budapest.
We took the length of Szt. István korut on our way back and discovered a cosy, little corner bar with tables outside, Bar Vig. Again a glass of cold, teeth gnashing local pilsner did the trick, but then we decided to have lunch in this same joint and we were not disappointed! I went again for the goulash, but as main course this time, and compared to the oily warm watered excuse for a goulash I sampled the day before at the castle, this was complete cholesterol enhancing bliss! Topped it off with a palinka, the Hungarian equivalent of schnapps, good for digesting these hearty dishes! In the meantime, while savouring this succulent meal, we just enjoyed people watching.
A wallet friendly equivalent of £9.00 later for the above privilege and we headed off towards the metro station we got off, not without searching for a hole in the wall as friend needed to buy some local cash. We discovered that for a big capital city, ATMs are not that readily available. We finally found one, and one that did accept foreign debit cards, much to his relief. Private coffers replenished we headed off towards the Great Synagogue, the largest in Europe and home to the Jewish Museum since 1931. After the usual photo shoots, we headed off towards the beautiful Hungarian National Museum (Magyar Nemzeti Muzeum), took our share of pictures and then made our way to Ráday utca crossing Kálvin tér (square). Here are most of the trendy bars and nightclubs where both locals and tourists alike party the night away. We headed into Paris, Texas where we had a round of cocktails, my poison being an average mojito. Chilled out in the semi deserted bar – just us two plus the two waitresses who made it feel as if they were rehearsing their waiting skills with us before the rush commenced, which normally is from 9 pm onwards. In fact, come to think of it, I am surprised the bar was even open at all.
After seeing most of the major sights in Budapest, but failing to find the time to actually go inside the Opera, or any of the many museums and more importantly, visit and experience one of the famous thermal baths (which gives me another excuse to visit Budapest again) we decided to crown our last night with a grand dinner. After returning to the hotel and going through a catalogue of different options we decided for one that served typical Hungarian and Gypsy fare. After last night’s experience our expectations were high; unfortunately the restaurant did not live up to our expectations and dinner was a disappointing affair in all aspects. Then, to top it up, the final coup in the shape of the bill which quite honestly did no justice to the dining experience. Well, you can’t always win, can you?
Not wanting to dwell on this negative experience we decided to play it safe and end the night at the gem we discovered the night before; Abszint bar. And there we went, watched away what was left of the night imbibing a concoction of different absinthe drinks. Again, didn’t experience the mind blowing effect it once had on such famous artists at the end of the XIX century and which gave it its infamous reputation.
With no mental damage we bid farewell to Abszint and walked back to our hotel via the elegant Andrassy ut.
For our last few hours in Budapest we stayed more locally to our hotel, opting for our first and only entry to a museum; the infamous 60 Andrassy ut. This building used to be the headquarters of the AVO, the Hungarian Communist secret police, who used the building from 1945 till 1956. It also served as the headquarters for the pro Nazi Hungarian Arrow Cross Party from the late 1930s until 1944. Nowadays, it is aptly called the ‘House of Terror’ and it commemorates the victims of both the Pro-Nazi and Communist regimes, but also serves as a reminder of the dreadful acts of terrorist dictatorships. In all honesty, after visiting chamber after chamber, room after room with all the audio visual recounts of all that happened during this sad period of Hungarian, and why not, human history as well, I couldn’t but feel grateful to have lived grown up where I did, with all the imperfections my countries may have. What struck me most were the hundreds of porcelain photos of victims who were incarcerated and then executed in this building. It wasn’t so much seeing those faces, but more the fact that many were teenagers or some who barely reached their 22nd birthday! Definitely puts life into perspective.
After that gruesome yet most educating visit we headed back to the hotel to await our transfer car which arrived on the dot. About 20 minutes and after a non scenic ride we were dropped off at Ferihegy Airport. Here at this point, my travel partner in crime and I bid farewell with the usual promise of a not too distant re-encounter.
Without a shadow of doubt, Budapest proved to be a definite hit for a long weekend away, and most certainly a city I must return to if only to sample their famous thermal baths!
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