A slick Eurolines bus deposited me at Budapest’s Nepliget station from where I caught a connecting metro to Lehel tér station in town. The metro train rattled like an old tin can for the duration of my connection, which given that Budapest’s metro is the second oldest in the world (the London underground pre-dates it) is forgivable. Plans to revitalise and expand the system are on-going.
A brisk walk from Lehel tér brought me to my simple lodgings located just one street away from the Danube River. Accustomed to the opulence and refined nature of Prague and Vienna I was slightly underwhelmed by what I had seen of Budapest up to that point and was a little concerned by the number of beggars I’d already encountered. Admittedly I hadn’t seen much of the city and so I settled in for the night, determined to give Budapest a fair chance the next day.
The next day dawned bright, hot and clear. Perfect conditions for a walk into town alongside the Danube I thought. I had brushed up on my background of Budapest the night before and was reminded that Budapest actually comprises two cities: Buda and Pest (three if you want to get really technical and include the town of Óbuda). Buda hugs the hilly west bank of the Danube and Pest lies on the eastern bank. For many years the Danube served as something of a border between the two cities and it was only in 1872 that Buda and Pest were officially amalgamated into one.
![danube](/ftpupload/UserImages/images/Shoes on the Danube.JPG "")
The area that Budapest occupies has long since attracted settlers, rulers and invaders alike. Indeed, evidence of human settlement dating back to the Stone Age has been discovered in both Buda and Pest. Over the centuries Buda and Pest’s fortunes waxed and waned with the arrival of the Celts, the Romans, the Huns, the Magyars, the Mongols, the Turks, the Ottomans and the Habsburgs to name but a few.
In more recent times the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party terrorised the people until 1945. Matters did not improve much after WWII when Budapest – by then devastated by the war -fell under the control of the Soviet Union which ruled it with an iron fist until 1991.
It quickly became apparent to me that all the conflict, prestige, devastation, re-building and repression has moulded Budapest into a veritable melting pot of architectural styles, cultures, attitudes and beliefs. Everywhere I looked on my walk I spotted notable landmarks, people of all creeds and entire sections of the city which had been built anew, had been salvaged and refurbished or smacked of dull communist uniformity. Some buildings still sport bullet holes and scars wrought by bombs.
I passed the Margaret Bridge (which was blown up during WWII and later rebuilt) and arrived at Budapest’s magnificent parliament building which, from a distance, resembles a frothy wedding cake thanks to the Gothic Revival style employed. Up close it’s possible to make out some of the statues of Hungarian rulers, numerous gargoyles and gothic ornaments which festoon the façade. Today, in addition to its parliamentary role, the building houses Hungary’s old coronation regalia as well as national hero Saint Stephen’s crown, sceptre and orb.
After a brief look at the impressive 19th century Chain Bridge - Budapest’s first permanent bridge - I decided to act the cliché tourist and catch a ‘hop on, hop off’ bus tour of the city in the hope of covering more ground. Unfortunately while the tour did just that, the actual buses left a lot to be desired and broke down more than once.
Drawbacks aside I managed to take in most of Budapest’s major sights via the tour, the first of which was the Dohány Street Synagogue. For a fee it’s possible to enter the complex which in addition to the Byzantine-Moorish styled synagogue features the Hero’s Temple, a graveyard, a Holocaust memorial in the shape of a beautiful silver tree and the Jewish Museum. Just behind the synagogue lies Budapest’s old Jewish Quarter which is punctuated by trendy cafes and shops.
The synagogue ticked off, the tour bus drove past Hosök tere (Hero’s Square). Built to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of the Magyar conquest in 1896, the square features a bombastic statue complex. Also situated at Hero’s Square is Budapest’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Budapest Zoo and neo-baroque Széchenyi Baths which features 21 pools. Just behind the square lies the city park which features a slightly kitsch, yet seemingly popular 19th century imitation Transylvanian castle incorporating 21 Hungarian architectural styles. If that sort of thing appeals to you, it is perhaps worth noting that it can be viewed for free.
The tour continued with a drive over the Elizabeth Bridge up Gellért Hill which occupies a sizeable portion of the Buda embankment. According to Budapest’s history, the hill was named after Saint Gerard, a devout bishop killed by pagans around the 11th century. Legend has it the unfortunate bishop was placed in a barrel filled with nails and rolled down the hill. Not the nicest way to die by anyone’s standards. The city’s most famous baths, the Gellért Baths, the Liberation Monument and the Citadella, a mock medieval fortress built by the Habsburgs are also located in the area. If you can get past the gimmicky tourist stalls, the Citadella offers some magnificent views over the city.
Not far from Gellért Hill is Castle Hill, a mile long plateau topped by the Buda Palace, Mátyás Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion. The palace fortifications and interior have been remodelled time and again since the 13th century thanks to the destruction wrought by Budapest’s various conflicts. The current palace was rebuilt after suffering heavy damage in WWII and while appealing in its modern form, lacked the old-world appeal I had come to associate with such monuments. A museum, a cave system and the wartime ‘Hospital in the Rock’ also form part of the castle hill complex.
![Fishermans](/ftpupload/UserImages/images/The Fisherman's Bastion.JPG "")
An easy stroll brought me to the beautiful Mátyás Church. At the time of my visit, the church was undergoing extensive renovations, which, disappointingly, covered up large sections of the interior. What little I could see of the exuberant romantic nationalistic interior was at least memorable. Just behind the church is the Fisherman’s Bastion which was constructed in 1902 on the spot supposedly defended by the Guild of Fisherman against invaders. Oddly enough I couldn’t shake off the impression that the bastion looked like an artificial movie set.
I decided at that point to take advantage of the short river cruise which came part and parcel with the bus tour. The cruise was pleasant enough and gave visitors the option of disembarking at Margaret Island which features Franciscan and Dominican ruins as well as some recreational attractions aimed mainly at families.
Cruise at an end, I made my way to the Great Market Hall, Budapest’s largest indoor market made all the more unique for its distinctive Zsolnay tiled roof. The hall’s stalls offer all manner of delicious products including local meats, pastries, sweets, spices and spirits. If edible specialities aren’t your thing, nearby Váci utca, Budapest’s popular shopping street should do the trick.
![great market hall](/ftpupload/UserImages/images/Grand Market Hall.JPG "")
Tired from a full day, I made tracks to Andrássy út, one of Budapest’s most famous avenues which is lined with numerous restaurants and grand, shabby chic buildings. One of the local pavement café’s proved the perfect spot to enjoy a meal and watch the world go by.
On my way back to my lodgings I made a point of stopping to view the ‘Shoes on the Danube’ memorial. Strikingly simple yet hauntingly poignant it takes the form of bronze shoes scattered on the Pest side of the Danube. The shoes represent those left behind by Jews who were shot at the edge of the water by Arrow Cross militiamen. This memorial is a must for anyone visiting Budapest.
Other worthwhile attractions include Budapest’s Opera House, the heavily ornamented Saint Stephen’s Basilica, the Memento Park which contains old communist statues, the fascinating ‘House of Terror’ (once the headquarters of the Arrow Cross and communist secret police) and Vörösmarty tér, home of the deservedly famous Gerbaud patisserie. Of course a visit to Budapest wouldn’t be complete without trying out one of the city’s many famous mineral baths which can’t be beaten after a long day’s walking.
Compared to cities such as Prague and Vienna I felt that Budapest was gritty around the edges but fascinating in its own right. The people are proud and the sights are diverse which overall made for a fitting end to my travels through Europe.