So, I am a bit behind in my blogging and photo-editing lately. Since Slovakia, I have been weaving my way through Eastern Europe, and I just spent the last few weeks absolutely loving and savoring the Balkans. In my latest update (sadly, it was quite a few weeks ago), I was leaving Bratislava. Thus, I will begin with a quick post about yet another European capital sprawling on the banks of the Danube, the lovely Budapest. (It was one of my very favorite European cities until I was introduced to the wonders of Sarajevo, Kotor, and Prizren…but those stories are for much later.) For now, I will try not to get ahead of myself.
Budapest is simply intoxicating.
First of all, I never knew that Budapest is actually a divided city where the Danube runs between the two halves. Did anyone else know this before actually visiting Budapest? Here’s how it works: Buda is on the west side, Pest, pronounced “Pesht,” is on the east side of the river. Apparently, there is also a third part too, called “Obuda,” to the north, but nobody actually confirmed this, and I never visited this part of the city so that stands to be reckoned.
Aaaahhh….Budapest. What can I say about this city that thousands of people haven’t already raved about? I honestly lagged on the many tourist to-dos, and except for logging about thirty miles of walking, gaping, and adoring the city, I did not enter one museum or join one city tour. But I think I sufficiently covered the ins and outs of Budapest. And I kind of got stuck here. “Kind of” in the sense that five days is an awfully long time for me to stay in one place, especially since I have ten more countries to explore before meeting my mom in Italy at the end of April. But, in Budapest, I unpacked my bag, introduced myself to the barista at the downstairs coffee shop, and made friends with the local running club that circumnavigated Margaret Island every morning at 9 a.m. It felt good to just hang out for a bit (and it felt really great to get an actual load of laundry completed in an actual washing machine…instead of the hostel sink…hello clean smelling clothes!)
So, just what did I do for five days in Budapest? Looking back, I have no idea where all of the time actually went. I spent evenings hanging out in the city’s many “ruin pubs”, afternoons soaking in the Szechenyi thermal baths, and hour after hour drinking in the nightlife and romance of Budapest. Trust me, it is easy for days to fly by while hanging out in this timeless city.
Wandering around Pest: If I took one photo of the Parliament, I probably took 500 more. This building is magnificent. Of course, I had to catch the Parliament with the fresh morning light, with the soft, fading glow of dusk, with pink and orange reflections at sunset, and, of course, at night when the building is ablaze with lights. It is even better to score a flock of pigeons flying in the foreground or a ferry creating ripples in the river below. It was impossible not to love this building topped with a soaring neo-renaissance dome and frilly spires. Gorgeous, eh? I think so too.
The two sides of the river, Buda and Pest, are well connected by a series of long and architecturally brilliant bridges. Margaret Bridge connects the two sides with Margaret Island, my running playground for the week, while the famous Chain Bridge spits out from the city center. Huge concrete lions guard the entrances on either side of this magnificent structure, and the pedestrian paths are often packed with locals, tourists, and the occasional beggar.
Until the mid-19th century, only pontoon barges spanned the Danube to connect the two sides, and when the river was frozen and the pontoons inoperable, locals walked across. This method worked well until they would get stuck on the “wrong side” during a thaw. Oops! When Count Istvan was stranded for a week trying to get to his fathers funeral, he ordered the bridge to be built immediately to save him from future inconveniences. I may have crossed the Chain Bridge about twenty times during my stay in Budapest, and it was always chockerblock with selfie-takers (my god, the ridiculous amount of selfie infatuated people), bicyclers, and snuggling couples. Plus, it was one of the best spots in the city to snap an ideal photo of the Parliament.
One of my favorite memorials, probably because it was out-of-the-ordinary and thought provoking, was the Holocaust Monument built along the Danube banks. I ran past the memorial every morning until I finally read up on its significance and took my camera down one afternoon. This particular monument consists of 50 pairs of bronze shoes that commemorate the Jews who were killed when the Arrow Cross came to power in Hungary in 1944. Though many Jews were sent to concentration camps, the Arrow Cross also killed hundreds right in Budapest by shooting them and letting their bodies fall into the Danube.
The gorgeous St. Stephens Basilica, Budapest’s biggest church, is indeed a stunner of a building. Located directly across from my hostel, the church square offered the perfect spot to sit and enjoy my morning coffee while trying to make a sensible plan for the day. Usually, I would get caught up in people watching or start chatting with a local, thus forgetting the day’s plan. It probably sounds like I am one lazy backpacker with all of my people watching and coffee drinking, but I really do get around and sight-see…usually two out of three days.
Crossing over to the Buda side: Across on the Buda side, I strolled around the steep hills of the ironically named Castle Hill for an entire afternoon, getting myself sunburnt and lost quite a few times. Later in the afternoon, I stumbled upon the grand Matthias Church, the prettiest church on this side of the Danube. As with all churches here in Budapest, it flaunted another frilly spire and a pretty yellow-orange tiled roof.
Next door to the Matthias Church- as if I had not taken enough photos already -sits the seven pointy domes and double-decker rampart of the Fisherman’s Bastion. This monument, built to evoke the original seven Magzar tribes, was one of my favorite landmarks in Budapest, mostly because I had a playful time catching the fading light among the Bastions graceful arches and pearl-colored surfaces. And I also caught this gypsy artist in action.
On the other side of the city, a far walk down Andrassy Ute, and miles away from Parliament, the Chain Bridge, and Castle Hill sits Heroes Square and the greenery of Budapest’s City Park. The monument in Heroes Square was built to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of the arrival of Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin, and the square and neighboring park was full of dog walkers and in-line skaters. I have seen a ton of in-line skates here in Eastern Europe, and I am convinced that when the in-line skating phase faded from the USA in 1999, Eastern Europe received all of our used and abused in-line skates.
I dabbled around the park for several hours, played a bit of paddle ball with the leagues of men waiting to win a game (they won when they played me), and completely forgot that when the sun sets in Budapest, the city is freezing….and it was a long walk home back to my hostel. Thank goodness for homey hostels and hot showers.
Finally, to escape the city fumes and hustle-bustle, I took a day trip to the Danube bend north of the city to Visegrad and Szentendre. Though many travel agencies offer such trips, I befriended a few guys at the Tourist Information Center, and they helped me plan the trains and buses so I could go alone. I took a train to Nagymaros and a ferry across the river to the quiet village of Visegrad. Really, really quiet. I only encountered a group of school children and a solo ma and pa on a grocery outing, all of whom seemed surprised to see me wandering through their streets. I found the path to the Salomon Tower and Citadel easily, and though it was a steep hike to the castle, the views were worth the effort and sweat. I spent an hour or so hanging out on the castle veranda eating lunch, sipping tea, and appreciating the views. It turns out that my 1 Euro thermos has been pretty much the best investment ever.
These two guys were waiting for a train back to Budapest and pulled out a chess board to help pass the time. I appreciate that when local transportation seems to be delayed (as it often is here in Eastern Europe), there is no fuss or commotion. They simply play another game of chess or drink another coffee.
Five days in Budapest were just perfect to fully enjoy the spirit and romance of the city. Now it is back to the grit and grind of backpacking as I move on south to Croatia, Slovenia, and the Balkans.