Ungarn – Budapest

This weekend I had the east in my sights. Budapest, capital of Hungary, is a lively city renowned for its architecture, nightlife, and natural beauty. Unfortunately I couldn’t devote more time than just a weekend here, but I took the opportunity to at least see some of the main highlights.

My journey began by train. I caught an inter-city express up to the Frankfurt airport where I made my own connection to a direct flight from Frankfurt to Budapest. The train ride was uneventful; I brought my laptop with me and took advantage of the free wifi offered on board the train. At the airport I grabbed a snack before the relatively short flight to land in Budapest. Upon arrival I went to the ATM to withdraw some local currency. By mistake, I requested 100,000 HUF instead of the 10,000 I had meant to start with (~350$ versus ~35). I paid a few dollars later to change some of the money back, but it was funny to have gotten out so much money. Hungary had one of the weakest currencies of anywhere I’d ever traveled, but that didn’t stop me from feeling like a big deal with 100,000 in my pocket.

I caught a bus and then the metro to get into town. Fortunately they make things pretty easy, and while Hungarian is completely incomprehensible to me, all the signage has English posted as a second language. The metro car I got on seemed straight out of the USSR; it was old, rickety, and had a very grungy industrial feel to it. I helped a stranger on the metro find where he was going. It turns out he had been on my flight from Frankfurt and coincidentally he was staying at an apartment with the same address as my hostel, so after saying goodbye to him on the train I bumped into him again as I found the building. Small world.

The hostel was a cozy little loft space up on the fourth floor. Although I arrived around midnight there were several backpackers up talking and playing with those little cast-iron 3D puzzles you fidget with. I joined them, we made introductions and discussed our background and recent travels. We stayed up later than I anticipated due to good conversations; I rolled into bed around 2AM.

I had a lot to see and not a whole lot of time to spend in the city, so I planned out a circular route to check out the highlights. My first stop was the central market. A very brief walk took me to the large re-purposed train station which houses the market stalls. Seeing endless rows of crowded shops reminded me a little of Marrakesh, although the scene here wasn’t quite as chaotic. Still, lots of locals and visitors choked he passageways checking out the wares. Spices, sausage, breads, and produce were all popular options. Upstairs, shops cater more to tourists’ wants, offering trinkets, clothing, and souvenirs. I also had my breakfast upstairs where there were a few options for prepared food. I had heard the food to try was Lángos, a deep-fried flatbread. I ordered mine with garlic and cheese topping. If deep-fried bread with garlic and cheese sounds appealing to you, I’m happy to report that it didn’t disappoint. I was served a full plate with a small mountain of cheese and had no trouble finishing the whole serving.

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The market building

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Mmm.. what’s not to like?

After my meal I stocked up on some water and left the market. My next stop was Sziklatemplom, a famous church and monastery carved into caves in a large hillside. My visit inside was fairly brief but I took the time to admire some intricate carvings as well as the dynamic between the natural and artificial. The monks had left some of the original cave features intact, including some stalagmites and stalactites. Only a few rooms of the main church and monastery were open to visitors, so I ran out of places to see before long and headed back outside.

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He doesn’t approve of my photography

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I left the church and began my climb up Gellért Hill towards the citadel which tops it. A few shady paths later I arrived at the top with an awesome view of the city laid out below me. I think the nicest views were of the river Danube and the Pest side, although it’s also possible to see the castle and other parts of the city fanning away from the river. The citadel itself is unoccupied and closed to visitors, although there is a famous Soviet statue dominating the skyline from the vantage point. The statue was erected following the WWII liberation from the fascist government, though the text has since been changed after the fall of the Soviet Union.

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View from the citadel

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I spent longer on the walk down than I had on the hike up, taking time to relax in the park and catch a bit more shade before my next climb. I was bound for the Castle Quarter atop a smaller hill on this side of the river. There, I circled Buda Castle and the Royal Palace. I opted not to go inside to save some time, though I enjoyed more nice city views and also overlooked the palace gardens.

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One unlucky visitor had the misfortune of watching her phone drop around 30 feet. She had been posing with a “selfie stick” holding it over a ledge to get a picture with the city in the background when the mechanism broke loose and let the phone fall. The phone fell onto stone but it was cushioned slightly by a small pile of leaves. I didn’t stick around to see if the phone survived the fall or not.

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Grand statues at the palace

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Near the Royal Palace was Alexander Palace, wish some impressive facades. They do not allow visitors as its the current president’s residence, although I got to admire the gardens, statues, and official-looking guards. Continuing on, I followed the street until reaching Matthias Church, a well known Gothic cathedral. While the architecture looks somewhat similar to other European churches, I enjoyed one aspect above all else: the roof. Decked out in bright colors, the patterned tiles offer a delightful contrast to the stark white stone walls.

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At least the guards don’t look so silly?
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Matthias Church

Near the church stands the Fisherman’s Bastion. The marble structure offered even better views of the city than I had previously seen. I didn’t linger, but as usual I made sure to take a little time to appreciate the view.

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Fisherman’s Bastion

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There was a movie being filmed in Budapest during my visit. I saw a bridge and tunnel closed for the filming as well as a few hundred people go by on motorcycles. I’m not sure what the film is about, but people have told me filming in Budapest is quite common due to lower costs than western Europe.

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I hope he was with the movie..

I crossed the Chain-Bridge, a well known landmark, to leave the Buda side of town and enter into Pest. There, I joined a guided tour to learn more about the impact communism had on Hungary in the 20th century. The tour was not fantastic as we didn’t actually see that many sights, but a few notable points were explained to me. There’s a controversial statue near the Parliament building which is touted as a Holocaust memorial, depicting a fearsome-looking Eagle (Nazi Germany) terrorizing an Angel (Hungary). This has been called-out as an attempt to white-wash history. Dissenters argue that the statue is misleading because it ignores the Hungarian government’s willingness to join the Axis and comply with the Germans prior to the brief occupation.

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The chain bridge!
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Controversy in marble and bronze

Our guide also explained the current political climate in the country which was interesting to hear. The country is now democratic, but many voters do not exercise voting rights due to the long Soviet occupation, according to her point of view. For many years, the communists held “elections” with only one party being allowed to run. So many feel jaded about the electoral process and therefore don’t believe their voice has any real influence.

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A car from communist Hungary. Fits a family of four!

The tour ended at the square around the massive house of Parliament I’d been photographing all day. I thanked the guide and took the opportunity to walk around and see some of the nearby statues and memorials in the late afternoon sun. There were memorials for the 1956 revolution (an attempt to overthrow the communists), for the Holocaust victims, and another Soviet statue honoring the fallen soldiers of the Red Army in WWII.

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Parliament
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The Soviet WWII memorial, just outside the US embassy

After checking out the buildings nearby and the monuments, I completed my city-loop back to the hostel via the promenade along the Danube. With the sun setting over the mountains to the West, I followed the river back until turning off at the hostel near the main market.

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Back at the hostel shortly before dinner time, I met up with some of the backpackers at the hostel to go eat. Before dinner, we went and checked out a small festival going on on the far side of the river. We thought it was some celebration regarding a crew race which had taken place earlier in the day. There was a free concert; lots of people were just hanging out sipping on drinks and enjoying the atmosphere.

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We went to a nearby restaurant our hosts at the hostel had recommended. For around 10$ I had a beer, some goulash (naturally), and a tasty steak dinner with a heap of fried potato wedges. All things considered it was a pretty good meal, and having the company was a nice change from travelling alone.

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I joined the group for a few drinks after dinner. We started at a place nearby which had a special on some kind of local liquor, though I skipped it and just had a beer. We talked for awhile longer before deciding to check out the famous nightlife in Budapest, Ruin Bars. These bars exist in alleys, abandoned apartments, and other odd places in the former Jewish quarter. We went to the most well-known bar, Szimpla Kert (Simple Garden). There, odd and seemingly out-of-place items decorated the walls and ceilings, giving the place a junkyard vibe. A few side-rooms offered a unique selection at the different bars, and a large open area towards the back actually opened up into an old alley. It was a pretty unique bar experience; I liked that it wasn’t a club with dancing, although it was pretty crowded with loud music unless you dipped into one of the side rooms. I would have preferred somewhere a little less crowded, but it was definitely more to my liking than most places.

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In “the bar” AKA an alleyway

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Two German guys I had eaten dinner with from the hostel were ready to leave after a few drinks. I joined them and they made a pit-stop for a Kebab right near the bar. I didn’t partake although they said it was tasty. We got home around 2:00 and I slept pretty quickly afterwards.

The next day I had a a few more sights to see before heading back to Germany. I woke up a little late, checked out and hopped on the metro towards my first destination: Hero’s Square. The monument was built for the 1000th anniversary of the settlement of the area in 1896. The monument features a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the 7 Magyar Chieftains, and historic leaders in Hungary’s more recent past. The square was a little crowded with visitors and there was a bit of rain, so I didn’t spend much time dipping into the park which branches off from the square, although it looked nice.

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To get out of the rain I took the metro back towards downtown, bound for the Dohány Street Synagogue. The temple is the largest in Europe and the second-largest in the world, boasting an impressive interior and interesting Moorish style exterior. The interior of the temple is quite interesting as it looks more like a church in many ways. For example, lots of colors decorate the roof, and pulpits line the sides of the pews, which are also unusual. 3 rows of benches are divided by two aisles, similar to the layout of many Christian churches.

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The temple also had a sad aspect: during WWII the Jewish population was confined to a run-down ghetto adjacent to the synagogue. Thousands died of starvation and disease. Without permission or the area to give them a proper burial, people began piling bodies up in a small courtyard next to the synagogue. After the war, many victims were identified and given proper burials in a separate cemetery. However, many could not be identified, leading to the creation of a mass grave, holding about 7,000 dead.

For lunch, the German guys had recommended I try a place nearby, “The Hummus Bar”. I am a sucker for chickpeas, and this place did not disappoint. I ordered a big plate with hummus and chicken (served with pitas) and was very happy with the meal.

My last to-do in Budapest was revisiting the basilica to see the impressive interior, catch tower views, and check out “the Holy Right”. The tower experience was similar to many I had had elsewhere. The dome was high, but not so high as to offer a significantly better view than I had had across the river. The interior of the church was more striking, combining elements of eastern and western churches. Rather than feeling pointy, narrow, and Gothic, the interior was wide and boxy, more like an Orthodox church. However it was certainly decked out like you’d expect a Catholic church to be, with gold, high sweeping arches, and stained glass alongside fine artwork.

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The view from the dome

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View inside the dome from below

Inside the church there was a relic – a mummified hand of a St. Stephen, a Hungarian monarch. Housed in a golden chamber, it was strange seeing human remains venerated like that. At least the display looked nice I suppose.

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Can I get a hand?

With my tour of the basilica complete, I made my way to the airport and eventually home. On the flight I had starting writing this post but noticed the man sitting next to me struggling with some basic C code. I helped him out slightly – it was a unique experience to be able to help a foreign stranger with something I was familiar with.

I got home around 11, unpacked, and went to bed. Budapest was beautiful with so much to see I unfortunately had to rush through many of the sites and skip several others. The city is definitely work a re-visit sometime in the future when I have a little more time to dive in and see what else the city has to offer. Communist statues, thermal baths, and more stunning architecture await me back in Budapest. For now though, I have other places to explore.

Best wishes and safe travels everyone

– Ben