I started this post at an airport, continued on a plane and then finished at my apartment during a day of intermittent sun and hail – ah yes, springtime in Germany! Hope you enjoy this stroll through Budapest. I had more words on the place then I expected.
Now I find myself, as I often do, awaiting a flight departure at the airport. Makes for a nice time to write about my adventure in Budapest – this time an adventure with a friend, Tilghman – fellow Bayer expat from the US who I often travel with on weekend adventures. A few months back we looked at the calendar for the year and realized we had a four day weekend for Easter. Seemed like a nice time to explore a European city that would require a trip by air. First we considered southern Spain – the city of Seville well know for its Easter traditions. Alas, the flights were pricey! Since we still tend to travel like college students (yes, you’re noticing a trend here) we quickly ruled out this option. We popped in to the eurowings website and searched for direct, cheap flights and found one that departed after work from Cologne airport.
We considered Prague, Dublin, Venice and then settled on Budapest. Budapest has been on my bucket list since I was a kid and found out my great grandparents were Hungarian. The rumor is that they immigrated to the US from Budapest. Exact family history isn’t know, but I was attracted to the idea of reconnecting to my roots. On top of the family connection, I have a lovely friend from Hungary so I always had a warm feeling about the country. Spoiler alert: this country lived up to my expectations and then some!
My travel buddy had success renting a VRBO in Italy once so we decided to give it a shot. We rented a lovely old apartment in a building with lofty ceilings, colonial style architecture and a generous courtyard with a garden.
Here’s the link in case you’d like to check it out. I highly recommend the place. A taxi driver by the name of Atilla (as in the Hun, yes, I’m not kidding), picked us up at the airport. (Traveler tip: I believe it would have been easy to take a train. Will probably do this on a return tip.) Although, I have to say that riding with Atilla was both entertaining and educational.
As we exited the airport we were mildly surprised to see a tank, yes a military tank, stationed at the airport entrance on the main road. Atilla commented on the tank and said basically it was the president making a show. I quickly learned, and experienced this again later…that Hungarians love to talk politics. Not surprising when you learn Hungary’s long and tumultuous political history. On the flight I read a print out of a Wikipedia post about the Buda castle. Here’s the link where you can learn quite a bit about the history of this fascinating city.
During the relatively quick ride from the airport to the apartment, Atilla pointed out some sites along the way and discussed with us the relative merit of different modes of transport around the city. Our initial intention was to walk and we debated the merits of a Budapest card which would provide reasonably priced access to all forms of public transportation. In the end we stuck with walking and it was lovely. It’s a very walkable city and for the most part the weather cooperated.
We dropped our bags at the apartment and headed up in search of a dinner, although it was late, we found it wasn’t too hard to find a place. I had a traditional Hungarian dish with a main course that featured curly haired pork. Somewhat of a local speciality and I was not disappointed. After dinner we felt invigorated and wanted to begin exploring what appeared to be a very interesting city.
During my research for the trip, which pretty much was completed the evening before we flew out, I had read some blog posts about ruin pubs. These can probably be most closely compared to pop up shops – people have co-opted old build is, often those that were partly ruined, into pubs. We headed out on foot to the oldest, most famous ruin pub in the city. This took us from our sleepy neighborhood to a part of town that became progressively more lively with an assortment of bars and restaurants and shops. We turned our second to last corner and looked up to find a beautiful Jewish synagogue with Art Deco design.
Around every corner I was more and more pleased with the architecture of this city, which has been rebuilt countless times over its’ long and storied history.
As we approached the ruin pub it wasn’t hard to tell we were at the right place as we saw a small crowd near the door. We went through the id check and then entered a dark, graffitied foyer. One of the first things I found was a map of the pub – indicating it was large in size, sure enough it seemed to go on for ever. We found a bar on the ground floor and waited to order behind a large crowd of Americans. After a long wait – boy they were taking their time – we found the stairway to the second level to try a different bar. This was a shorter wait and gave us a chance to check out the many art pieces and oddities decorating the bar. It was a very interesting place. I tried their local brew and it was a nice light bier. Our rambling journey through the ruin pub continued and we turned a corner to find a courtyard area where they were projecting old silent films, from the 20’s, on a wall. We paused along a hallway and sank into old movie theatre seats to watch the show which featured men’s fashion in the 1920s. It was a little hard to pull myself away. But finally the excitement of our flight and first experiences in the city began to wear on us and we walked back to the apartment.
For all my desires to sleep in when I’m traveling, I always seem to wake up around dawn. I keep a pretty regular schedule at home. Hitting the sack around 10 and waking up no later than 6 am. This means that wherever I am, in whatever time-zone, I’m waking up no later than 6 am German time. Can be helpful but can also be difficult. This trip was no different. I found myself wide awake at 5 am and pulled up google maps to locate a cafe. The earliest place I could find would open at 7 am, so I managed to get a few more winks. The sky was as blue as I have ever seen since I left North Carolina – boding a lovely day ahead. I strolled to a coffee shop around the corner called the Embassy Cafe. This would become our coffee shop. The older I get, the more I enjoy routines and well-cultivated habits in life. There’s a small comfort in going to a place where you’re known and recognized as a regular. This would become our small harbor in this city.
I brought coffees back for myself and my travel buddy. Then we sat down at the beautiful dining room table in the living room and began to compose a list of things we wanted to see. In times past, I much more deliberative and exacting with travel itineraries, but lately I have really given myself the freedom to stroll. This time I was traveling with a friend so we mapped out a plan together. A few must-dos on the list: dinner cruise on the Danube, Buda castle, and few relaxing hours in one of Budapest’s many Turkish spas.
The first question was which part of the city to explore first. Budapest is composed of two main regions: Buda and Pest. Within these cities there are many unique neighborhoods, memorials and cafes to explore. Buda is dominated by the castle district where you can explore the Buda castle and also reach the highest peak of the city – the Citadel. Pest has many shopping regions, the Parliament building, Heroes Square and the Great Market Hall. A slight complication in our plans was the weather which promised to be unpredictable and it was.
We managed to squeeze quite a bit into our three days. One of the highlights was a Danube river cruise, but if I had it to do again, I would recommend just to go on a cruise at night with no dinner. The dinner felt like a distraction from the sites – which were beautiful! This has been on my bucket list since I was a kid, so it was exciting for me.
My travel buddy and I really enjoying hiking and walking through cities, so one morning we struck out to walk up the hill to the Citadel. This is no small feat, I tell ya. It’s a long walk to the top. It was very worth it as we took in the sites along the way and then admired the many city views from the top of the Buda side of the city.
One of the most fascinating places we visited was the cave church. My grandmother was a devout Catholic and for some reason, roaming around this hallowed place, I felt very connected to her. I also sat for a while and watched a woman preparing flower arrangements for the alter. It was beautiful to watch her lovingly gather and arrange the flowers with a spirit of peace and contentment.
Another day we began by tending our weary feet (we walked up to 25 kilometers a day!) at the Gelliert spa and famous Turkish bath house. Now, the upside to this bathhouse is that clothing is required, including swim caps in the pool. This is in contrast to German baths which are au natural (if you catch my drift). It was a bit pricey and I have to say I prefer the German baths, nevertheless it was a great way to refresh ourselves for a long day of roaming the streets.
We took off from the spa and headed across the river toward Heroes Square. Along the way we stopped for a coffee at the Book Cafe, but the place was so lovely we decided to make it a longer break with a glass of Hungarian wine and lunch. Just as a pointer, this place is a little hard to find as it’s located inside another building, so be careful you don’t walk by it on accident. The road to Heroes Square is lined with historical sites including a moving memorial to the Boys of Pest who began the rebellion against communism in Hungary. We paused for a long while to read the many historical plaques and study pictures of the boys, they were teenagers, who successful overthrew the communists. A very inspiring and heartbreaking exhibit. This was placed in front of the museum of terror and we decided against going inside. Recently we’d visited a medieval torture museum in Bavaria and it was a more than a little disturbing.
We roamed through Heroes Square and then on to the large city park behind the square. Luckily, there was a market and festival underway which included, yes, I couldn’t believe this was true, CRAFT BEER! I love many things about Germany, but one thing I really miss from the US is beer variety. I was very pleased with the beers in Budapest. These included what I’d consider truly hoppy IPAs. I talked with a Brewer who told me that the industry has blossomed in the last five years with dozens of breweries in the region. We also found them all over in downtown Pest, making for nice places to stop and refuel between tourist stops.
I’m leaving out a lot of detail here, because we really did see a lot in Budapest – including a walk through the Castle, the Matthias Cathedral (truly remarkable art) and the cave hospital. If I don’t finish this post I’ll never have the energy to write about all the other places I’ve visited in Europe, so ask me for more details over a beer sometime…ok.
Perhaps the most moving and memorable moment of our trip was a diversion on the way back to the apartment one evening. We stopped to see the “Shoes on the Danube” memorial.
This memorial was installed about 10 years ago in memory of the Jews who were lined up, told to remove their shoes and then executed on this very spot along the Danube. Their bodies then floated down the river. This is very difficult for me to write, yet, I believe it is critical that we remember the past and the evil that can enter society. Especially now, as we are driven by fear and hatred to increasing self-protection and separation along religious and cultural lines. We certainly must maintain our society, our freedoms and fight the evil that is growing in power. At the same time I earnestly hope we will remember what we have in common as human beings, we are all people seeking a better life, freedom and the opportunity to live in peace with our loved ones.
Budapest left me with an overwhelming sense of peace and hope rooted in the knowledge that out of centuries of change and strife this lovely city, populated with wonderful, hospitable people has emerged victorious. I hope all of you have a chance to visit this lovely place, which made me even more proud of my Hungarian ancestry.