We were almost immediately seduced by Budapest. The last capital we had visited was Belgrade in Serbia over two months before. We had deliberately avoided the capitals of both Bulgaria and Romania because we were simply more interested in what was in the countryside, and felt as though capital cities had become somewhat predictable. So the arrival in Budapest had been anticipated rather excitedly for awhile.
Budapest is really two cities in one, with Buda on one side of a surprisingly swift Danube River, and Pest on the other. The view at the top of this posting is from the end of the Chain Bridge, the most famous of the many bridges over the Danube. It looks up towards Buda and Castle Hill, and gives some sense of its splendor.
Likewise this view below from the other high point called The Citadel looking up the Danube catches the consistent Baroque stature of the buildings. Castle Hill is on the left in Buda and the larger city of Pest stretches out across the plain to the right, and both are devoid of skyscrapers.
The view from the Old Town of Buda to the Parliament Building majestically fronting the Danube on the Pest side also gives some sense of its magnitude.
But lets have a look at things a little more closely and I think you will see why we were so taken with Budapest. We will start with the Buda side, at the Royal Palace and the Old Town which, as is usual, share the high ground. The Royal Palace, formally the royal seat of the Hungarian monarchy, had been built and rebuilt innumerable times over its seven hundred years, and is simply endless and immense. The only way to capture it is to photograph it from afar, but here is one of its gates, whimsical and almost comical with a touch of the art nouveau.
We loved the black bird with a ring in its beak perched atop the long sweeping arch that somehow is never completed. We assumed that the sculpture was of the common blackbird, but further research revealed it to be the Turul, a mythical bird that is the national bird of Hungary and is frequently found on crests and shields as well. As you can see, the Palace seems to stretch on forever.
Sharing Castle Hill is the Old Town of Buda which features most importantly the Matthias Church, so named because King Matthias Corvinus was married in it twice. Like many historical buildings in Hungary, its roof is of glazed ceramic tiles and is aflame in the sunshine.
But its interior is truly aflame. While parts of the church date back to as early as 1260, when this capital, for instance, was carved and installed,
almost all of what makes it so dramatic are the patterns that cover the entire interior.
Most of these were much earlier patterns that derived from the broad reach of Hungary as a country between East and West in earlier ages, and were rediscovered in the 19th century through historical studies. At the end of that century the church was restored and the walls covered with those earlier patterns by the leading artist of Hungary at the time, Bertalan Szekely. They are just stunning and amplify the effect the church has on one’s experience much more intensely than the gilt and gold that adorns many of the grand churches of Europe.
We were bedazzled and spent hours inside.
Also sharing the Buda side of the city are the Gellert Baths, part of the grand and historic Gellert Hotel, built in the late 19th century. These baths are open to the public and include a labrynthian set of passageways, both vertical and horizontal, to navigate to and from the locker and dressing rooms. But when one finally comes out into the baths themselves, they are spectacular—often compared to bathing in a cathedral.
There are eight pools in total, both outside and in, and the detailing, particularly in the grand indoor pool, is wonderfully art nouveau.
But it was on the Pest side of the city where we spent most of our time, and we were immediately impressed with the wonderful public transportation facilities the city offers. Our campground was on the eastern outskirts of Pest, but with a five-minute bus ride we were delivered to a fabulous metro system which, through four main lines, reaches almost every conceivable corner of the city. Here is one of the more recent metro stations, deep in the ground and accessed through escalators which seem to stretch forever. The tiled, curved walls were quite amazing.
Once into Pest itself, it is crisscrossed with very modern trams, which we used repeatedly to move across the city.
But as much as anything, it was the sense of neighborhood one felt in Pest. There were few if any of the monstrous Soviet era apartment buildings which mar so many of Eastern Europe’s cities, and what one was more likely to encounter were small stands like this bookstore in a cart
or the many streets closed to vehicles and now broad pedestrian walkways, such as this one.
Across a broad plaza lined with coffee shops at the end of the street above is the Basilica of St. Stephen. This rather mammoth church, finished in only 1905, honors King St. Stephen, who was crowned in the year 1000, spread Christianity throughout Eastern Europe, and was canonized after his death in 1038 when a number of miracles resulted from prayer to him. He spread the Hungarian Empire to include all of the Carpathian Basin and thus is honored in much of Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania as the first great unifier and proselytizer of Christianity. His worshipers formed a cult that was powerful in the region for centuries, and relics of St. Stephen are found in churches as far from Hungary as Namur in Belgium, Aachen and Cologne in Germany, and the monastery at Montecassino in Italy.
And in fact, such a relic is present in the Basilica in Pest. Witness St. Stephen’s mummified right hand.
Another treat to be found in Pest is the huge and historic Great Market Hall.
It is more than the size of a typical city block, all enclosed in brick, steel and glass, and while focused on food, is also home to stalls selling Hungarian folk clothing and even home furnishings.
But it is the food stalls which are the most colorful, particularly those selling chilies and appearing to be more Mexican than Hungarian.
Besides the Hungarian obsession with paprika, they also have an endless craving for almost anything pickled, so that one can find almost any vegetable in glass and pickled, sometimes even decorated with cartoon bodies and faces.
We decided finally that we just had to get out of Budapest or we would never leave, so we headed north to a section of the Danube call the Big Bend where there are a number of pretty and historic towns. The area also provided the chance to do some bike riding, a welcome change since we had spent our time in Budapest walking until we both limped. The first thing we did was to take off on a ride that involved two ferries since we had to cross the eight kilometer length of an island in the middle of the Danube to reach the town of Vac where we were headed.
Here is one of the ferries, the most primitive as it is nothing but a platform for vehicles and a boat that tugs it across the river.
The town of Vac, across the river from the more famous towns in the Big Bend, turned out to be a charming surprise, even if one of its main attractions is a little bit spooky. While doing a restoration on the Dominican Church in the center of town in 1994, workers found a crypt that had been sealed for over two hundred years. Inside they found 265 coffins, most beautifully painted and decorated and stacked one atop another, according to size.
Because of the perfect temperature and lack of humidity, the bodies inside the coffins were immaculately mummified. Their clothes, jewelry and other artifacts were also present and preserved, so that they offered a window into the life of the citizens of this community two hundred years ago.
The coffins themselves are beautifully decorated, each different and unique, though certain themes associated with death–flowers, wreaths, extinguished candles, skull and crossbones–are repeated.
What they seem to indicate is that death to these people was a time of celebration for an event they had prepared for all their lives. While loss is evident, stronger is the sense of life accomplishment and celebration of both the life finished and the afterlife to come. We were both touched and moved by this wonderfully executed Momento Mori Museum.
Our return bike ride, much of it through woods that bordered the Danube, was green and cool after the heat of the day. When almost back to the campground, we encountered a couple of young ladies who had set up a stand along the bike trail and were offering refreshing glasses of lemonade for a most reasonable price.
So we each had about four glasses and managed to capture their joy at such an enormous sale to complete strangers, clearly not native Hungarians.
Our last day in the Big Bend area was spent at the Hungarian Open-Air Ethnological Museum, just north of the town of Szentendre where we were camped. It was much like the ethnological museum we visited in Sibiu, Romania, but somehow better organized into the ten ethnic districts of Hungary, and the buildings set more into ‘village’ clusters.
Most of the homes were fully furnished in artifacts from the 19th century, and we had a strong sense of what rural living quarters were really like in that period.
Dave was particularly interested in the construction of their buildings. Here is an example of a roof and wall of a primitive farm outbuilding.
Notice that the thatch which makes up the roof is of hollow reed, and the wall is a weave of branches and vines into which clay soil has been packed. It is the same technique we saw widely used in Africa, and is effective as long as it is maintained and replenished.
The joinery of the outbuildings was particularly beautiful. Here is an example.
Note the way the arched supports are mortised (cut into) the larger beams, and each mortised joint has a wooden peg through it to secure it so that it will not come apart or move.
We went intending to stay just a couple of hours, but ended up spending most of the day, and this in temperatures in the mid ‘90s.
Finally, we spent about five days in the area around Lake Balaton, in the southwest of Hungary. It is the largest freshwater lake in Central Europe and a favorite of Austrians as their border is so close. We ended up not spending any time swimming in the lake as the weather was a bit cloudy and cold. But since there are more than 200 kilometers (125 miles) of bike trails around the lake, it gave us lots of chances to get the exercise we love.
Like much of Hungary, the Lake Balaton area is also famous for its thermal baths. The best and most famous in the area is the Heviz Thermal Lake, a strenuous uphill bike ride from our campground. It is a good sized lake, covered in part with lotuses, and amazingly developed with restaurants, indoor enclosed thermal areas, and a lush park surrounding most of it. We rented rubber rings and spent the morning floating around in the lush warm water.
When riding back to the campground, we decided to have a look at Keszthely, the area’s main town and lovely with its grand townhouses and pedestrian streets. It has long been the center of fashionable life at the lake, and just above the center of town is what proved to be a palace.
Begun by Kristof Festetics in 1745 and enlarged many times over proceeding centuries, it is now one of the three largest palaces in Hungary and contains one hundred rooms. It remained in the possession of the Festetics family through most of its history and is most famous for its magnificent library of over 100,000 books and exquisitely carved furnishings.
That finished Hungary for us, and we headed north for a quick two days across Slovenia and into Poland and the wonders of Krakow.
We invite you to view more of Bonnie’s photographs from Hungary at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/10627404@N00/28331083231/in/album-72157670548441871/