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Europe » Hungary » Central Hungary » Budapest » Buda
August 18th 2009
Published: July 14th 2010
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Our alarm goes off before dawn and it is not long before Kristen, Gabe, and I are riding the metro back to the Széchenyi Medicinal Baths in City Park. We arrive shortly after they open and change in the locker room before dipping in the indoor marble, Turkish-style thermal baths. This facility is a favorite of both tourists and locals, and was the first to be built on the Pest side. It is difficult to imagine the enormity of this neo-Baroque complex, built in 1913 and one of the biggest in Europe. The outdoor pools of varying temperatures are truly palatial. It is easy to lose oneself in the grandeur of the fountain statues and marble columns, as it brings the bather back to times of exuberant splendor, real or imagined. There is a hot bath, a lap pool, and one which spins people around in its currents. We are not the first to arrive at the baths, but we are clearly the youngest. There is no other bather here under sixty, and some look quite older. The medicinal nature of the waters no doubt attributes to this, and though this is hardly a Fountain of Youth, it may appropriately be called “Pools of Longevity.” For the most part, however, we have the baths to ourselves. For over an hour we switch between the various pools, at times spinning in the whirlpool or being massaged by streams of water, until the sun rises above the walls and begins to spill its rays onto us.

We head back towards the apartment and search for breakfast, but can find no one open this early except for a McDonald’s. We wash up at the apartment and then strike out again, this time making our way to St. Stephen’s Basilica. This neoclassical structure is a massive splendor to behold. Completed in 1905 after over fifty years of construction, it stands with the Parliament as one of tallest buildings in Budapest. The basilica is named after King Stephen, the first Christian king of Hungary, and whose mummified right hand is housed in its reliquary. Two days from now, on St. Stephen’s Day, the hand will be paraded around the city in an annual celebration. Unfortunately, perhaps for this reason, we are unable to view the relic - this seems to be a running theme throughout the city, as many stores remain unopened in anticipation of the event. Nevertheless, we explore the high vaulted aisles adorned with gold and marble, in awe of the cavernous interior.

We head to Roosevelt tér (the name of which is another clear indication to how much has changed in this country) to the Széchenyi Chain Bridge to cross the Danube and take the Funicular to the top of Buda Hill. Until the 19th Century, Budapest was two different cities: the ancient and mountainous Buda on one side of the Danube, and the flat and relatively younger Pest on the other. The story goes that Count Istvan Szechenyi tried to cross the river to see his dying father but was unable to due to treacherous conditions. He resolved to have a bridge built and when it was completed in 1849, the Chain Bridge was considered one of the wonders of the modern world. Thereafter the united Budapest was born.

However, when we arrive we find the bridge is closed. The Red Bull Air Race is taking place in time with St. Stephen’s Day, and the small planes have the run of the river as they zip and spiral under the bridge and around floating, inflatable obstacles. Though this is only the practice session, the spectacle is still truly impressive. The planes turn on a dime and zigzag beside us, their engines buzzing, while we walk towards the Parliament building in search of a metro to take us across the river.

Finding a station, we descend a seemingly bottomless escalator to the platform and ride the metro just one stop. It is another twenty or so minute walk to reach the Castle Hill Funicular and the sun is once again baking the top of my head. I am not one to normally wear hats, but the prospect of having a sun scorched scalp makes me thankful I thought to pack a cap I had bought a few weeks back on our cruise. After taking a short break from the heat in a Parisian-style café, we finally reach the Funicular in Adam Clark ter, on the other side of the Chain Bridge (and named after the bridge’s Scottish engineer). A short line awaits us as we climb into the narrow railcars and are pulled up to Castle Hill. The Funicular was in use beginning in 1870 but was destroyed during World War II, and was subsequently restored in 1986. Two pedestrian bridges cross over us and curious onlookers watch as we ascend. A young boy, who I assume fears the ride will finish in a terrifying drop to the bottom, is crying beside me and being consoled by his amused father.

When we reach the top of the mountain we are amazed at the beauty of the city and river below us. The views are superb and a breeze is thankfully ever-blowing across our skin. The towers and dome of St. Stephen’s basilica stretch above Pest’s rooftops and Parliament, majestic and reflective beside the Danube, dares one not to stare. Beside us is the largest bird statue in Europe of the mythological Turul. Beneath our feet are a miles of tunnels, both natural and manmade, that have been used as storehouses for medieval residents, hospitals for Nazi sympathizers, and secret areas for oppressive Soviets. The hill itself is a record of the highs and lows of Hungarian history.

Though still referred to as Buda Castle and Castle Hill, very little of the castle remains. First built by Hungarian kings on the southern end of the hill in 1265, the castle was destroyed and replaced by several palaces, each meeting a violent end. The last was reduced to rubble during the 1944 siege of Budapest, where the last of the Axis powers in the city held out within the hill. Where the castle once stood, and where little evidence of it can be found other than some reconstructed portions, is now occupied by the Neo-Baroque palace which is home to the Hungarian National Gallery, the Budapest History Museum, and Hungary’s national archives. The area has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We examine the various fountains and sculptures, including an amazingly imposing hunting scene lead by King Matthias Corvinus, as we make our way to the entrance of the Budapest History Museum. Typically, we find a sign saying that it is closed “Due to technical problems.” Once again, we are frustrated by the lack of dependability on the part of Hungarian institutions. I had read that museums in the city would often close at random; saying only that it was due to unspecified “technical” reasons. Keeping our fingers crossed that the Museum of Military History will be open, we begin to make our trek to the other side of the hill.

We pass medieval remains, including the foundations of a chapel, the President’s house, and a building riddled with bullet holes which has apparently been left unrepaired as a reminder of the violence of World War II. Families of cats live within the building’s basement, and locals leave saucers of milk and food for them for when they are brave enough to venture out. We step into a walled courtyard that advertises itself as a Hungarian Cultural Fair, but really it is a collection of tents with the same shitty souvenirs that can be found in pretty much every major European city.

We take a break and try to eat as cheaply as possible, which is difficult because Buda Hill has some of the highest prices I have yet seen in this country, and settle on a restaurant with simple sandwiches and outdoor seating. The quiet streets along the hill are narrow and cobble-stoned and peaceful to stroll. Perhaps it is because Budapest is still an emerging European destination that the neighborhood feels like a tranquil retreat from the city, as even on a summer day in what is easily the city’s largest tourist area we find street after street to ourselves, lined with historic, picturesque buildings with colorful roofs.

We explore the outside of the Halászbástya, or Fisherman’s Bastion, which overlooks the Danube and is so whitewashed that it appears to be carved from the finest alabaster. It was built at the turn of the 20th century and then rebuilt again after the bombings of WWII. Beside the neo-Romanesque faux-fortification is the famous Matthias Church, originally founded by King Béla IV in the 13th century and restored/remodeled many times since, which we find to unfortunately be almost completely covered by scaffolding due to renovation work that is estimated to take several years. From the street our view of the iconic church is entirely obscured. It is for this reason that we decide to forgo the fee for entrance and continue on to the other side of Castle Hill.

We pass the remains of the Church of Mary Magdalene, whose lone tower stands in a quiet, open square. The church was originally built in the 13th century, and was the location of the coronation of Emperor Francis I in 1792, but, as is so common in Budapest, it sustained devastating damage during WWII and only its tower was restored as a sentinel reminder.

The Museum of Military History is thankfully open, and though the amount of medieval arms is unfortunately limited, Gabe and I eagerly explore the exhibitions of the 1956 Revolution, WWI and WWII while Kristen takes the time to relax and go through digital photos. While the museum is informative for military buffs, the alliance of Hungary with Nazi Germany is conspicuously downplayed, as I would expect from a nation trying to reinvent itself in a positive light.

As we head back to the Chain Bridge a woman wearing shorts and a tank-top approaches Gabe, asking, “Hey mister, what time? I ask and nobody tell me. What time?” Gabe, assuming the woman is waiting for a ride, looks at his watch and tells her the time. “No, no,” she says, taking a drag from her cigarette, “what time we meet? I am prostitute.” He merely shakes his head and we continue on, walking back towards the Fisherman’s Bastion and winding the littered trails down the hill to the bridge.

Széchenyi Chain Bridge is now open and we stream across it with hundreds of other pedestrians and the frequent cyclist who squeezes through the tide. The sun dances beautifully across the Danube as a breeze sweeps along our skin. We take the metro back to our apartment and find a cheap Chinese food restaurant where I get a full meal and a Coke for about $5 US.

As the evening descends Kristen and I decide to explore the southern half of Andrássy út, stopping for drinks at outdoor cafés to people-watch and being sure to see the strikingly opulent neo-Renaissance Opera House, built in 1884. Whereas most of Budapest seems to go black and sleep once the summer sun disappears, Andrássy below the Oktogon stays alive with youthful energy well into the night. This is where people of numerous ethnicities and even sexual orientations can be found mingling, both variations of which are noticeably absent throughout the Hungarian countryside. Likewise, youth culture persists in the city, the result of a generational diaspora - fueled in part by jobs - which has left places like Kengyel populated mainly by middle-aged and elderly cyclists carrying fishing poles. There is a generational and cultural divide within Hungary that is never more apparent than in the contrast of Budapest to the rest of the country. This is not so unique compared to what has happened repeatedly in the U.S., and I would predict that, as the economy improves, those young people will return to gentrify their old villages and make of them quiet respites from the busy city life.

As we pass a group of girls one of them stumbles over to us, nearly tripping over her high heels, and peers at us with one drunken eye, the other too inebriated to open. A cigarette hangs precariously from her lower lip. “Mister, hey mister,” she slurs, “you have fire?” “No, nem,” I say, trying not to laugh, “I don’t smoke.” Kristen and I look at each other and silently agree that now is a good time to turn in for the night to rest up for another day of exploring.

Note: Some photos were taken by Gabor J. Szabo

Additional photos below
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St. Stephen’s BasilicaSt. Stephen’s Basilica
St. Stephen’s Basilica

Kristen and I are those two dots on the steps beneath the right tower.

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