At the turn of the year, it dawned on me how many trips I’d made to Europe yet, how little I had seen of the Eastern countries. In an attempt to correct that geographical imbalance, I decided in mid-February to make a trip EAST. I opted for what I considered to be one of the more interesting and beautiful Eastern European destinations, the Hungarian capital of Budapest.
For me, Budapest has always conjured up a certain exoticism. Partly attributable, no doubt, to the account my father told me when I was little and he returned from the country on a work trip back during the Communist era. A biochemist by profession, he’d spent his days viewing equipment in local hospitals. Tales of waiting four hours for a meal in a barely-lit restaurant on an evening and doing the rounds in freezing cold hospitals where, if you didn’t die from your illness, the cold would finish you off first, made Hungry seem other worldly, a land of another era. Coupled with its enviable position on the River Danube and its fine selection of pretty bridges, Budapest had left me with a certain intrigue, even if it had taken me a long time to finally schedule in that visit.
Budapest is a city of two parts (Buda and Pest), having originally consisted of two separate towns on either side of the Danube until they joined together in 1873. Buda is a hilly neighbourhood with the picturesque castle hill and charming old town, whereas Pest is flat and bustling with cafes, restaurants, shops and bars. The country has a fascinating, if gloomy, history, having been on the losing side in both World Wars, and occupied briefly by the Nazis in the 1940s before Communism moved in and dominated the country for over four decades. The Hungarians are a people who have endured and I did wonder what effect that might have had on the nation’s psyche.
Travelling with a friend, we managed to cram, in four days, more sights than I’d cover in six months back in my home city of London. The greatest allure of the city for me was, by far, the architecture along the city’s streets. Elegance personified and every bit the match of its Western European counterparts, this is a beautifully crafted city filled with sophisticated tree-lined boulevards and opulent grand cafes of yesteryear where you can happily while away the hours, occasionally with the musical backdrop of a violin-playing quartet if you get lucky. The city’s famous thermal baths come a close second, however – a much needed stop off when you visit in mid-February.
Gone are the days when you can grab a bargain in Budapest. We stayed in a 4-star boutique hotel housed in a breathtaking former-embassy Art Nouveau style building which was quite reasonably priced (it was out of season after all) but not that far off what you’d pay in most large European cities that time of year. The cost of visiting the city’s attractions was not particularly cheap and all in all I clocked up a fair pretty penny by end of the trip (unfavourable exchange rate thanks to Brex-shit didn’t help either). If you stay in budget accommodation and don’t visit so many attractions it would be possible to do it on much lower budget – probably a more enticing option during the warmer months.
A curiousity was the character of the local people – a reserved and rather distant population, one was left with the impression that Hungarians were not the easiest of people to befriend. Still, four days isn’t enough to judge, and a nation’s capital isn’t always the best place to experience a friendly encounter. English isn’t as widely spoken as other European cities but people are generally polite and usually happy to talk a little once you “warm them up” a bit.
So, without further ado, here it is – the beautiful enchanting city of Budapest:
St Stephen’s Basilica – a truly impressive cathedral with more than its fair share of gold ornamentation and colourful frescos with a twisty spiral staircase leading up to the roof
The stunning frescoed dome
Views from the rooftop
The River Danube looking bleak yet beautiful on a mid-February morning
The vintage-style yellow trams and a fantastic way of orientating yourself around the city
The lovely green Liberty Bridge – one of the city’s many bridges joining Buda with Pest
The Old Town of Buda – Castle Hill
Al fresco ice skating in City Park – opened in 1870, this is the largest outdoor ice rink in Europe. Takes about 3 times longer to complete a lap than your average rink.
Sights around town
Dohány Street Synagogue – Hungary’s Jewish population of over 400,000 was decimated during WW2 after the Nazis occupied the country in 1944 and they were forced to hand their jews over to an uncertain and deadly fate. Today the Great Synagogue is one of the city’s most eminent buildings and the largest functioning synagogue in Europe to boot.
The city’s buildings are full of Art Nouveau splendour, like the lampost below outside the Royal Opera House
Art Nouveau features on the ceilings at the Gellért Baths and Spa – Budapest is full of public baths – we chose to visit this one for its architecture, which didn’t disappoint.
Great Market Hall
The Hungarian State Opera House – we took a tour of the building which gave an interesting insight into the times in which the opera house was built and told us an interesting anecdote. When the council proposed building the opera house, the monarch of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time, Franz-Joseph, granted his permission for construction to go ahead on the condition that the building should not be larger than its counterpart in Vienna. Upon seeing the finished result during the opening night of the new building years later, he is said to have proclaimed, “I said that the opera house must not be larger than the one in Vienna, what I should have said is that it should not be more beautiful!” He never returned.
As much as I enjoyed Budapest, our frenetic four days made me realise how exhausting city breaks can be. Still, it’s a telling testament to a city with so much art, culture and quality sights to offer that we barely had a minute to stop and relax (bar the thermal bath of course 😉 !