Jó reggelt! That was my first morning in Hungary and it started with the view of the beautiful clear sky I saw through my hotel window. There is this sultry yet sensual element of carelessness to mornings spent at hotels as you expect to get things done rather than do them yourself as part of your daily morning ritual. As our TV was on to give us a quick update on the international news, before I put my contact lenses on, I had to squint my eyes to see a very tragic footage coming from the central Italy that had just been hit by a horrible earthquake that had left over two hundred people dead. The rescue operations were ongoing and it was really devastating to see those medieval streets, which would normally have this dolce feel about them beckoning you to come for sun-kissed skin, full of rubble instead. So many holidays have to have a flavor of Italy to them somehow, but that was one that wasn’t meant to be savoured at all. It was so bizarre to be leaving behind this bello country which is an epitomy of felicita and allegria, to enjoy this day in the sunny Budapest and being here in Europe made the news feel more acute and urgent. Down at the café where we were to have our breakfast, there were already people that seemed to come from all over the globe occasionally looking up from their plates to see the TV screen bringing the same news program. That was a nice substantial breakfast with a vague German feel to it as we were welcomed to treat ourselves to some sausages and eggs. Attempting to listen in on a conversation in German being had at the next table caused this flavor to be yet more pronounced.
That was going to be a day of exploring the city and we set out to get a comprehensive introduction to it by doing a free walking tour. It was getting really hot as we were making our way to St.Stephen’s Basilica picking up from the beautiful memories of sitting in front of it the night before. I love seeing major tourist sites transforming throughout the day and this place did seem to have a more brisk and vibrant feel to it as there were people crowding in front of the cathedral obviously for their tours as well. We weren’t the only having this day all to ourselves and not having to be suffocated by the same weight of the daily routine. We had some time to spare before our tour was scheduled to begin and to watch people creating a beautiful sense of the Italian “piazza” just basking in the sun and sitting on the stairs of St.Stephen’s Basilica. Our guide, an energetic young lady, introduced herself briefly telling about how the city that originally consisted of Buda and Pest and united in 1837. We were currently in the more modern Pest from where getting to Buda where this girl was working for an air company took her around 20 minutes. It is actually great to hear stories of ordinary locals to give you a quick reality check. I think being a tour guide is an amazing thing these people volunteer to do beyond their main jobs. Then we were asked to turn back to see the Fat Policeman Statue inspired by someone who was said to have had love for food and women (it’s a quite universal kind of love I think) and you need to rub his belly for luck in love and in finding hearty food to nourish your stomach with. None of us seemed to have any trouble with the latter as we were all in the city known for its hearty substantial food.
It wasn’t too long before we reached the spectacular Danube Promenade spanning from the Chain Bridge to Elizabeth Bridge offering views of Buda after we got some tips on the nicest bars to go to, things to try, etc. To me the view lent the city a subtle charm of a sea resort with lots of emerald green spaces dominated by the tall Liberty Statue on the Gellért Hill, the castle looming at the top and the Danube to match of course. Even with the Liberty Statue, an indication of the turbulent relationship between the Soviet Union and Hungary, in sight, there was no way a thought about the Soviet past we shared would have crossed my mind. A few luxurious hotels were lining up the embankment as well giving a perspective into the Budapest of the rich and famous who had stayed there at some point of their glorious careers. Now what I was mainly thinking of was soaking up in traditional baths, the smoldering hot heritage of the Ottoman rule, taking advantage of the city’s vivid and diverse history. Sitting on the railway here amidst all this royal-like beauty and splendour in the hot sun of Budapest was the Little Princess that is said to be one of the most photographed statues in the city. The sculptor got inspired by his daughter who used to love to dress up as a princess. That in a way summed up the way I for one felt walking here with the crown of knowledge and enlightenment that travelling gloriously poises on us leaving us with a dreamy-like sense of empowerment. The views of the Chain Bridge massaged my dreamy side with another gentle touch taking me to London for a tiny second. We were to cross it to get to Buda to see the castle.
It was getting scorching hot and we knew that might not be the most comfortable time to visit but as the summer was about to bid its farewell, being here amidst that Hungarian heat won us some more time before we eventually said our goodbyes to this season that invariably has a dreamy-like feel to it. We found ourselves at the other side of the Danube watching funiculars taking people all the way up to the castle hill. No thoughts of the Soviet past yet again… The sun was beating down as we were standing in front of the Sándor Palace, the official residence of the President. The Buda Castle with its amazing reconstructed dome matching the emerald shade gloriously painted by the Danube wasn’t given much attention to as it now merely housed the Hungarian National Gallery and Budapest History Museum. I thought the castle wasn’t much part of the national pride or that was me who expected it would be as I’m hugely drawn to castles in general for this sentimental yet grand feel of the past they provide. We could enjoy a majestic view of the symbol of the country, which is the Turul, a large bird of prey, spreading its wings against the capital’s clearest sky. A legend has it that this bird came to a woman in her dream and made her pregnant with a baby that went on to lead the Hungarian tribes to their new home. This having been said right here at this moment did seem a bit funny as “making love” to this bird was a bit too much even for a dream…
Anyway, I believe that the postcard views of the Parliament from up here made all of us stop questioning the credibility of the legend and let what we saw in front of us flirt and eventually seduce our vision to make us succumb to its charms. You want to take a while enjoying moments like this one when all the illuminating rays of knowledge and your expectations of it come together making it a moment to last in your memory.
But as we were in a group, we didn’t get a proper chance to as it was time to make our way further up to the Fisherman’s Bastion. Before we reached the snow white neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque beauty that I was sure had to do with the Ottoman rule here in Hungary, after enjoying some views from more angles and walking an array of houses that rendered Budapest a bit different feel, we made a quick stop in front of the Statue of Andras Hadik, Hungary’s most famous hussar. They believe you have to climb up to rub the testicles of his horse for good luck and according to the guide, this is what a lot of students come here to do. This is truly what we need to grab our chances by indeed. The guide seemed a bit ashamed to be showing us how it is normally done and looked around her to make sure no one was trying to take a picture, but I can’t see why she had to.
We found the area to be home to a few lovely cafes and restaurants that seemed to offer a retreat from the more touristy part of the city. I felt part of something quintessentially international when I saw an Italian restaurant owned by Jamie Oliver, a famous British chef that I happened to see during another session of watching the British TV channels while embracing my innermost passion for media and journalism. I assumed that place would be a bit too “posh” and expensive to visit but it was nice to see it up and running here in Budapest. Another thing the city takes pride in is its confectionery traditions owing to the Habsburg rule. We were said that the cake that we saw displayed at the Ruszwurm pastry shop offering a new form of seduction to sweet tooths was the winner of “Cake of Hungary” competition that annually takes place on the state’s birthday on August 20 (just a few days before we arrived). That was a beautiful sweet representation of the national flag that we thought we might want to savour after our tour was over.
Straight up in front of us our eyes were treated to a marvelous view of the Matthias Church that seemed to have a bit of paprika sprinkled on its imposing Gothic façade. There are things we think we might get desensitized to while travelling and being repeatedly exposed to but churches will hardly ever make it to this list even for someone non-religious as myself. I love seeing the decorative representation of religion as an integral part of culture displayed to generate feelings and sensations of a varying nature. Some atoms and molecules were working their magic at that moment for me as well.
I could still feel them in progress as we made it further to get a closer look at the Fisherman’s Bastion that to me seemed to have a distinctive Turkish flavour to it even though in fact it didn’t. It’s a good thing I had no idea about that at the time because who knows if there had been magic happening otherwise… I felt as if I was a part of some Eastern fairytale invited to join the action climbing up and down to get the views of the city from different angles as were hundreds of other visitors. That was where our tour was to come to an end and that had been a really enjoyable one with a reasonable amount of walking and talking and there’s not much to satisfy a traveler. Well done to our guide!
As it was getting increasingly hot, we thought we might want to take a seat in the shade to take in the view of the Parliament that we were in a way becoming desensitized to. Or maybe we weren’t. That had to be part of the magic anyway. I remember getting a bit manic with my camera zooming in and out trying to find that perfect angle for my touristic lens. The views in front of my eyes and my camera were colliding into what would inadvertently be a beautiful and endearing memory of Budapest’s most iconic view. As we were enjoying our break, we got saluted by a cute fellow traveler who had just been on the walking tour with us.
We thought it was now time to recharge our batteries and get some lunch at one of the cafes where we could get a view of the Matthias Church as going all the way down to the Danube would take a while. We had a beautiful chicken and vermicelli served with the traditional Hungarian pickled cucumbers but the most incredible thing about that lunch was the famous Tokaji wine. I was getting increasingly aware and accepting of the preoccupation with this drink in some of the countries I had visited but none of the wines I’d had and was learning to keep a palate memory of would compare to what I was sipping on that sunny clear late afternoon taking in the view of the Matthias Church and people coming and going on my right. Here is a sweet toast to a lot more memories to make and treasure and to my new favourite! Having a favourite wine brand even if not being able to get hold of it at any time is comforting and anchoring against stress. A perfect meal has to finish with a dessert and for that we headed back to that pastry shop that had the nation’s best cake. Well, it was challenging and not really of any luck trying to explain what exactly we were after but I think we got something that looked like it after all. The Austrian feel was in the air and well steaming in our elegant coffee cups. Owned by a famous Hungarian confectionery dynasty, that place was very authentic and old in an endearing and romantic sense. I was definitely in need of more of that in my life. That’s one of these subtle little things that keeps me falling in love with Europe over and over again.
Having had our confectionery cravings gratified in that very refined manner, we started our way down to the Danube through rather deserted streets. The views of the Chain Bridge we had as we descended were the ones to let linger in our vision so we took a seat on a bench facing all the touristy action and guarded by two majestic lions peering in front of them at both ends of the bridge, I was having a refreshing drink. “Can I be in London just like that?” That thought was nothing of a surprise as this first permanent bridge across the Danube was designed by a group of British engineers. I had my travelling dream and ambition replicated for me and that was heavenly in all ways!
The walk across the bridge was yet even more impressive as we had the majestic views of the Buda Castle and its gorgeous dome on the right and the Parliament on the left. The Pest side was just as we left it a few hours ago bustling with people and a few luxurious hotel building lining the Danube embankment.
We walked left to get a closer look at the Parliament and soon found the Shoes on the Danube, a memorial paying a touching tribute to the Jews who were made to take off their shoes before they were shot and eventually fell into the Danube… That was a moment of grim silence and that was that tiny little bit we could do to stay connected with the past we weren’t in control of…
It was now time to take countless photos of the Parliament while properly marveling at its grandeur and beauty. The building designed to mark the 1000th anniversary of Hungary in 1896 was splendid and arrested our views for impressively long. A talented architect does have some superpowers to enchant, mesmerize and fascinate. I was held in sheer awe trying to compare what I had gorgeously spreading in front of me and those pictures I’d seen of it. Some cars driving by seemed a bit out of place amidst this glorious piece of architecture that appeared like one from all different angles. On our left we had something no less mesmerizing to watch – the sunset over the Danube, a subtly romantic and charming scene.
It would have been even more so if we hadn’t had a pushy senior gentleman following us and saying something obviously incomprehensible to us. I had to have a little thought of the Soviet past we had to share somehow and I guess that only had to do with his age as he seemed someone who had had a fair share of communism in his life. Anyway, I thought right there in this spot with the lovely sunset and the side of the Parliament in front of us was the right place to call home and speak a bit in another language incomprehensible to some strangers here. For some reason we had the same nasty man approaching us again after it had been a while since our first encounter. That really agitated my sister and we crossed into the square in front of the Parliament happily with no sight of this horrible man. As perfect as the place seemed to be, our judgments of people can’t be so clear-cut at all. I tried to focus more on this beautiful area surrounding the Parliament with large flowerbeds. I couldn’t help noticing a couple walking by and a man cheekily picking up one of the flowers and presenting it to his female companion. I had no idea why but I thought about Italy the second time round that day… For all I know, he might have been Italian for bringing this charming bit of romance and spontaneity to this evening in Budapest. Transformations, manipulations in our minds and hearts – that is where they are sure to originate…
As if I hadn’t had enough, I had a few more photos in front of the Parliament to round off my time with it for that day because I felt a sinister Parliament overdose was impending!
We had a familiar walk through semi-deserted streets towards St. Stephen’s Cathedral and thought we might want to grab our drinks at one of the places recommended by the tour guide earlier today but the area was really bustling with people having fun as opposed to the one surrounding the Parliament.
That’s really the case with Budapest where you would find streets going from slightly uncomfortably deserted to incredibly and perhaps annoyingly bustling. My sister insisted we found somewhere quieter for our late dinner and that is how we ended up at a lovely place where we thought we could be offered a selection of local dishes. We just had to keep a bit off Váci utca, one of the main tourist streets in the city that we assumed would be overpriced. There weren’t too many people here and neither was the place empty. Looking for a place to eat has to be a bit intuitive after all. The famous Hungarian goulash soup had to be tried along with a shot of pálinka, a fruit brandy. It was amazing that we had our goulash served in a large paprika-red pan that was designed to look slightly overused. Some group of men having reasonably loud conversations and not worthy of giving any extra attention to while enjoying our unreasonably nourishing dinner matched the ambiance of this night filled with the juicy smell of paprika-rich goulash and the drink leaving the burning sensation in my stomach. That summed up my current feel of the country – a bit rough, spicy and conspicuous (inspired by the location of the eating place). We had a bit of a melting pot feel as well as we saw a man working at a currency exchange place putting a sign that read something like “It’s time for a prayer, I’ll be back soon”. Happily filled with food, we walked slowly back to our hotel where we took very little time to fall asleep after the wonderful substantial meal. There had been so much we’d done and as much as we are craving for more magic to unravel, sleep is an essential element to help it along. Jó éjszakát.