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Published: October 29th 2013
Szent Istvan KörútHungary for more...
looking to the train station from near our hotel.
After Kiev we had nothing to look forward to (in a travelling capacity anyway), however in September we found an awesome deal for 4 days in Budapest. Early flight out, 3 nights, late flight back for £160 in a fancy hotel. So without further ado we booked and began our research into things to do. I'm melting
I am definitely a Winter person. I wear shorts well into November and put them back on in January, so imagine my surprise when we landed and it was 23 degrees C. Bright sunshine, not a cloud in the sky, time to take that waterproof and hoody off. We caught the Airport bus to Kobanya Kispest and I was pleasantly surprised that this bus was not like the one in Kiev which was about 40 D/C and about as safe as a night out in Mogadishu. It was (relatively) clean and had a good circulation of air. However similarly to Kiev the bus just disgorged it's passengers in the middle of nowhere. A metro sign was the only indicator we were where we should be, I was still skeptical. Gemma however was positive we were in the right
Behind the Iron Curtain
this monument sits in front of the House of Terror.
place (nearly 4 years in and I haven't realised she is right... all the time!).
The metro took us from Kobanya Kispest, which I would see on the return is on the fringes of what looks like a slum, to Nyugati Pd. The underground station is a giant marketplace where all sorts of tat can be bought, including the pinnacle of Eastern European footwear: A knee high pink boot with heels made of what appeared to be lace doilies. We grabbed a couple of large pastries for less than a quid (roughly 330 ft. is £1). Beszél angolul?
We checked in at the Marmara Hotel and unpacked, grabbed the map and tried to locate stuff. We relaxed for a bit trying to plan our time and sort out what we were going to have for dinner. Come early evening we went out to explore and look for dinner. Down the road was an Italian restaurant and we thought we'd give it a go. We perused the menu then a waiter came over and began talking to us in Hungarian. Time to crack out the only Hungarian I had bothered to learn. "Beszél angolul?" I enquired.
I am very sorry, would you like some drinks?" the Waiter responded in near perfect English.
A moment later we were sipping a nice cold beer and waiting for our pizzas to come. The pizzas were huge, and only cost £5.50 each. So if you ever find yourself at Nyugati Pd. pop into Okay Italian, it is much better than it's name lets on.
After dinner we explored a bit more of the area and the vast underground market/metro station, popped into Spar to pick up some bottles of water and snacks then headed back for an early night. Behind the Iron Curtain
That morning after breakfast we headed out down to Andrassy Ut. Which is one of the most beautiful boulevards in the Pest side of the Danube. The House of Terror is down here at Number 60, situated in the old headquarters of both the Arrow Cross Party (Hungarian Nazis) and the AVH which was the Hungarian Communist secret police. We arrived and there was a large crowd outside the building. Sadly we weren't able to muscle in before them and had to queue behind them. The only downside to this museum was the
ban on photography inside the exhibitions.
We headed into the temporary Alexander Solzhenitsyn exhibition to start with and paid a double entry fee just for this. The exhibition was small and accompanied by an English Language handout. There were items from Solzhenitsyn's life, photos of him from childhood to imprisonment in the Gulag to his release and also footage of him and others giving interviews. Solzhenitsyn wrote the 3 part epic The Gulag Archipelago, which I am currently in the process of wading through, based on his experiences and the testimonies of others who were imprisoned in the Soviet Gulag system. We then went through to the first room of the main exhibition called Double Occupation. On one side was footage of from the Soviet occupation and of the Soviet leadership and on the other side of the Nazi occupation and it's leadership, including footage of mountains of corpses being bulldozed into mass graves at Bergen-Belsen.
The exhibition continues from the leadership of the Nazi Allied Hungarian Arrow Cross party, covering key points in their history through to the Soviet 'Liberation' of Hungary and then the subsequent installation of a Communist government as part of the wider USSR.
The pen is touched by Authors to prevent writers block... one day I will finish the book I am writing.
The exhibition contains video testimonies of those shipped off to the Gulags and their treatment. Some of the testimonies are appalling and heartbreaking. In the basement of the building is reconstructed holding cells and torture chambers where the AVH would break their victims and force false confessions from them. In one of the final rooms is a wall containing photos of all the perpetrators in the terrible crimes committed within the confines of 60 Andrassy Ut. Many of whom are still alive. Heroes Square and Varosliget, Wildlife watching.
From the House of Terror we meandered along Andrassy Ut. Taking in the beauty of the wide avenue and the buildings.
The road leads up to Heroes Square which is a large open square flanked by two art museums (I'm not big on art so we didn't go in). The centre statue was built to celebrate the the 1000 year anniversary of Hungary as a nation, begun on the year of the anniversary, 1896 it was finished 4 years later. Around the monument are statues of important figures in the History of Hungary including the Magyar Chieftains who were the first to settle in the Carpathian basin in 895
Behind the square lies Varosliget. The city park, which is home to a castle, zoo and Szechenyi Baths, among other attractions. Inside the grounds of the castle is the Unknown Statue which we went to see. Having read trip advisor many reviews said there was an angry violinist who would take a photo of you at the monument and play you a song and if you refused to let him take a photo or didn't pay him an adequate fee he would chase you down and argue with you. We never saw him, much to my relief I didn't fancy having an angry violinist trying to fleece me for a couple of Forint while slapping me upside the head with his violin stick.
We relaxed in the park and took in some of the sights. There was a large gathering of Hooded Crows, now to a midlander such as myself these are interesting looking birds, being grey and black. Closely related to the Carrion Crow which is what we have in the midlands of England (Hooded Crow occur further north).
Being a keen wildlife watcher I spent some time watching the birds interact with each other
and the other locals such as sparrow, pigeon and tits. They were definitely at the top of the pecking order though, and interesting to watch. Few people realise and appreciate how intelligent the Corvid (Crow) family of birds are. In areas of Japan, crows have developed a taste for a nut protected by a hard shell. The crows have learned the timing of traffic lights and drop the nuts into the path of oncoming traffic, retreat when the green light displays then swoop in and pick up their easily gotten gains when the red light comes back on and the cars have crushed the nuts. That's innovation and evolution even some humans fail to display.
Anyway, I digress, Varosliget is a beautiful park and the jewel in it's crown is certainly Szechenyi bath house. But more about that later. Cruising the Danube
Later that day we made our way down toward the Danube via Liberty Park, where the US Embassy is and the memorial to Major General Harry Hill Bandholtz, who in 1919 prevented Romanian soldiers from looting treasures from the Hungarian National Museum. We passed by Szent Istvan Bazilika as well on the way which is
an impressive and imposing Catholic church in a square next to a restaurant called Negros Restaurant.
We got to the pick up point of the Danube for the cruise paid our fee then waited for departure. The tour was accompanied by an audioguide and the fee included a free alcoholic drink. So there I sat, sunset on the Danube with a beer in my hand. This is the life. No wonder Pirates are so romanticised. Drinking rum, pillaging for doubloons and sailing the seven seas. I could get used to that.
The audioguide was in two parts, a kind of love story told by two starcrossed lovers. Buda and Pest (pronounced Pesht, probably to not sound like a cohort of Jimmy Saville). Notable sections of the two cities history were described and landmarks of interest explained. The tour lasted around an hour passing by the Liberation Monument atop Gellert Hill and going back up and around Margitsziget (Margit Island). The real treat for me was passing the Parliament building all lit up.
After the cruise we slowly made our way back to the hotel via Mardini Bar and Grill. The polo shirted Doner Jockey assured me he
served the best kebab in all of Hungary so we opted for a Lamb and a chicken skewer which was served with rice, salad and some fresh Hungarian bread. He wasn't far off the money to be honest, only being trumped by my local Kebab house with whom I am a frequent, and valued customer... Shoes of the Condemned
One of the most striking monuments I was desperate to see was the Shoes on the Danube monument. We knew they were between the Parliament building and the Chain Link Bridge, what we didn't bank on was how much of a hassle to find it would be. We set out to walk by the Parliament building cross the road and have a goosey gander. No such luck, construction works around the Parliament building meant a nearly 20 minute detour where we had to walk away from the monument then double back to get to it.
Standing in amongst those shoes with no one else around you can really feel the emotions the monument evokes. For many people the Danube was the last thing they saw as Arrow Cross thugs shot them after ordering the removal of their shoes.
The Funicular Train
Chain Link Bridge, the Danube and Pest are all part of the breathtaking views from Castle Hill.
Again like so many of these monuments it is a sobering experience and is a reminder of the perils of ignorance and hatred. Into Buda
Buda was named after the brother of Atilla the Hun, Bleda. He and his Huns ruled the area for 11 years until his death, widely speculated, at the hands of his brother Atilla.
For Gemma and I, we entered Buda across the Chain Link Bridge after walking along the banks of the Danube. The bridge is one of Budapest's most beloved tourist attractions and is constantly busy with throngs of people and traffic crossing the bridge. On the far side of the bridge is Castle Hill. There are two ways to ascend the hill, by foot or by the Funicular Train. We opted for the train as again it was over 21 degrees and getting hotter.
The train ascends at a steep incline and the carriage has 3 compartments, we were in the lower third with an elderly American couple. The views are monumental and in clear weather (which we had) you can see all over Pest.
We disembarked at the top of Castle Hill and explored the Castle and
Hospital in the Rock
Propaganda photo by Illustrious Soviet Tour Guide
the ruins, remnants from the bombing campaigns and the Siege of Budapest of the Second World War. Buda Castle, interestingly, has been besieged 31 times throughout history.
We passed through an archway onto the other side of the Castle and made our way toward St. Matthias church. At the church there were hundreds of people all over the square and a steady procession of people moving around Fisherman's Bastion. We decided to head for the Hospital in the Rock and come back in a bit. Underground Hospital
Again, like the House of Terror, no photography was allowed inside. I wasn't able to sneak out some clandestine photography either because our tour guide was with us the whole way.
The Hospital began during the Second World War giving emergency treatment to injured civilians but as the Siege of Budapest continued the Hospital treated Hungarian and German soldiers against the invading Red Army. It was interesting to be in a place that seemed to be told from an angle that was almost sympathetic toward the Fascist fighting forces of Arrow Cross Hungary and Nazi Germany. Hungarian people, I was learning, are extremely angry about the last 4 decades
of Communist occupation of their country, and few nice things are said about it. I guess because like the Ukraine, Stalin liked to make an example of his "Pariah States".
The Hospital is filled with original equipment from the era and wax statues depicting typical scenes in the hospital. One of the machines was even used in the film Evita.
Following the War and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution the Hospital was used as an underground secret nuclear bunker. Equipped with all the necessities to sustain life following a devastating Nuclear attack, or as is the style of the Soviets a monumental Nuclear accident. Massive sections of the Hospital that were actually in use are off limits due to the unstable nature of the underground cave system in which it was built. Buda sits on an extensive network of Caves and thermal springs. Right that's lunch
After the tour and the purchase of a book about the Hospital's history we headed back up the hill to a restaurant serving fresh Soup and a main meal. I opted for Bakonyi Baked Pork, with a liberal amount of sour cream, which the Hungarians slather on almost anything! It was
incredible. I was in food heaven! Budapest really is a Foodie's paradise everywhere you look there is something being cooked, you can't go down a side street without passing some form of food stall. The Bastion
We walked along Fisherman's Bastion which overlooks the Danube and Pest. The weather was clear (as you can see from the photo) and you could see all the way past Margitsziget over the furthest reaches of Pest and way past the Liberation Monument and Gellert Hill. The view is simply breathtaking. The Bastion has 7 towers to represent the 7 Magyar tribes that settled in the region and was used by the Guild of Fishermen to defend the city walls in the middle ages.
From there we wondered down into Buda and back toward the Danube, following it back up to Margitsziget. We caught a tram back into Pest for much needed showers. Saunas, thermal pools and squealing macho-men.
That evening we headed up to Szechenyi Bath house. The bath house is fed by a thermal spring and is purported to have medicinal properties (over prolonged use) for a multitude of problems. To be honest I felt suitably more
refreshed and human after a long soak in the 38 degree thermal pool. Then it was time to sample the wet sauna. Christ on a bike it was horrendous. Not in the fact that it was a horrible, unsanitary room or anything. It was like being water boarded with Sulphuric Acid. My eyes burnt, my skin burnt, breathing was painful and my lungs were screaming for oxygen at room temperature. I stuck it out for a few minutes breathing through cupped hands and with my eyes screwed shut. Occasionally 55 degree water would drip down onto my back from the ceiling making me move, then the pain would start over. I threw the towel in and ran out of there gasping for air. I jumped under a cold shower and regained my composure. Whoever invented that microcosm of hell is a sadist of epic proportion!
Following that I made for the 18 degree plunge pool and jumped straight in. Gemma joined me briefly but got back out shivering. I was happy to stay there, as I said, I'm a winter baby. We alternated between the dry sauna (which was hotter but much more bearable than the wet sauna) and
The White Tailed Sea-Eagle
Europe's answer to the Bald Eagle (They can be found in Scotland in the Inner Hebrides)
the plunge pool. Occasionally perfectly chiseled macho men would climb in with their trophy wags trying to tough it out but all squealed and climbed back out. Which I found hilarious every time as they walked away trying to look tough in their speedos... One guy very nearly pushed his girlfriend over in the pool to climb out of the water. Who said Romance is dead?! The last day
The following morning we were due to check out, we even left the room in a tidy state and Gemma made the bed, the cleaners will sing songs of our good deeds to their kinsmen!
We made our way along Szent Istvan Korut toward Margitsziget and rented out a Tricycle with a a fibreglass shell and shoddy paintwork then toured the Island at our leisure while acting like idiots. I saw my first ever (live) red squirrel on the island and just as I was lining up a photo some bumbling tourist scared it off. I say live because there were plenty of dead ones splatted on the country roads in Wells-Next-the-Sea which I went to earlier in the year. We peddled along the paths through the park
past the ruins, the water tower and the miniature zoo.
The zoo. I was conflicted by the zoo. I've never seen a live White Tailed Sea-Eagle however they had 4 in an aviary along with a few Buzzards. While it was nice to see one, it wasn't in these conditions. One of the birds was nearly fully grown. White Tailed Sea-Eagles have an 8 foot wingspan when they are fully grown and have a massive hunting range that covers both land and sea. The bird that captured my attention was sat on the floor in a rock pool occasionally splashing the water. The aviary was just feet from the path and the bird was clearly terrified of all the children and gawping tourists (myself included I am ashamed to admit). The bird was hiding it's head in it's wing and then splashing. It's difficult to see something that represents the most wild aspect of our world caged in a cell that is smaller than my lounge! Now if this had been a falconry centre I wouldn't be so het up about this but I have a hard time believing this bird has ever been out of that cage.
Aside from my moral problem with the Zoo the rest of the island was beautiful and we took great leisure exploring around on our tricycle, trying to run down other tourists and racing with kids on bikes... oh to be young again! I even let Gemma take control. That was a mistake, and I soon put her back in the passenger seat.
We took the bike back and headed for an ice cream then sat on the steps at the side of the Island watching the Danube flow by, again it was another cloudless day and it couldn't have been more picturesque. We then popped by the Szamos mazipan shop where they have a massive marzipan sculpture of the Parliament building. I just wanted to jump onto it mouth first. It looked delicious! Little Israel
No trip is complete without a visit to the Jewish quarter. Like much of Europe Hungary has a rich history of Jewish people as part of the community, and the current centre of Pest overlaps into the Jewish quarter. We explored the side streets looking for the famed Ruin Pubs. Watering holes set up in abandoned buildings furnished with reclaimed furniture. Sadly
though it was a Sunday and they were all shut.
Interestingly, from the Jewish quarter you could see the Liberation monument that was erected in '47 to remind the Hungarian people of the "debt" they owed to their "liberators". I saw this as interesting as it almost felt like it was specifically placed over the Danube from the Jewish quarter as a reminder to them that they owed the heroic Soviet Union their eternal gratitude. One of the original statues under the monument of a Red Army soldier has been removed and relocated to Memento Park (which we didn't get to sadly). Memento Park is where all the old Soviet statues have been moved to, including the famous Stalin's Boots monument.
Through the backstreets we stumbled across the Holocaust Memorial behind the Great Synagogue. The Memorial is in the style of a weeping willow, each of the metal leaves contains the names of Hungarian Jews who died as a result of the persecution they suffered. We sat in front of the Synagogue and had some lunch, a man was feeding the pigeons which he had individually named. Jude
The last things we did was to have
a look at the city hall which was a disappointing and nondescript building in a side street then head back over to Chain Link Bridge for a photo of ourselves on it. Sadly the only one taken is blurry.
We passed by the Bazilika one last time and headed back to the hotel to pick up our bags. Caught the Metro back to Kobanya Kispest and then our bus to the airport. The last few days we had caught snippets on CNN about a massive weather system, St Jude, brewing over England. A flight to Gatwick was delayed and one to Prague cancelled (probably nothing to do with Jude). I posted a black humour status to Facebook asking colleagues to inform work that we'd probably gone down somewhere over Europe if they didn't hear from me again (As it happened I didn't inform any of them of my tale of extreme survival until late the following morning, I also almost forgot to tell my mother, who I think was going a bit mental as I had a text saying "Joe, have you landed?!" when we got back to England).
We relaxed with a bowl of Goulash and a beer it was just after 5 in the evening, we wouldn't arrive home until 2 in the morning. Time to catch up on some Hunt For Red October.
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