After I arrived at my hostel in Budapest after a freezing cold, sleepless night on the train from Belgrade, I dropped off my backpack in the luggage closet and was out on the streets beginning my day of sightseeing. I discovered a free city walking tour and soon found myself among like-minded foreigners exploring the city. The Danube river flows through the city separating Buda, the hilly, greener, more expensive residential area, from Pest, pronounced “Pesht” by the locals, which is the downtown, traffic filled city center. I stayed in Pest in a perfect location for walking the city. We crossed the Danube on the famous Chain Bridge, which was the only bridge rebuilt to its original Grandeur after destruction. We climbed up the many steps to the Castle, the former royal palace, now empty, to take in the picturesque view, the massive parliament building dominating the landscape. We also saw the gorgeous Mathias church and the FIsherman’s Bastion “castle” before returning to Pesht to learn about the city parks, monuments, and our guides very honest opinion about Hungarian politics and life in a post-communist society. A few of my favorite lines from the guide include: “The government pretends to take care of us, and we pretend to work for the government.” And also, “Tax evasion is a national sport”. At one point we saw a park fence covered in locks with lovers initials written on them, locked on as a symbol of their commitment to each other. During the tour, I quickly made a few friends from Australia that were working in London and taking a weekend break to Budapest. After a much-needed hot chocolate, we all headed to the Jewish Quarter for some traditional Hungarian Goulash, which was probably the best meal I’ve had since coming to Eastern Europe. The rest of the afternoon was spent strolling Andrasy Avenue, the Champs Elysees of Budapest, and also visiting the Opera House, Hero’s Square, The Museum of Fine Arts, and finally, the most famed Turkish Thermal Bath in the City: “Szechenyi”, by the Vajdahunyad CAstle. The bath was an open air complex of warm steaming pools surrounded by ancient domed architecture. Old men were playing chess in the water. This certainly gives the impression of experiencing a foreign city, however if you’re a borderline germaphob such as myself, I’d advise you to arrive prepared. I’d recommend bringing flip-flops, a towel, and perhaps a bar of soap for the shower, and oh yeah, a bathing suit comes in handy as well. Seeing as though I had none of these items, I had to improvise, but still enjoyed myself nonetheless.
I returned to my hostel to see the owner giving the guests a sampling of Palinka, which is sort of a Hungarian version of Slivovitza. I passed on this in favor of his homemade beer which was fantastic. A nice end to the day.
The next day I attended a church service at the Magnificent Istvan Basillica Church. This was probably the most interesting part of my cold, wet, weekend in Budapest. The intricately carved candle holders, the ornate paintings depicting biblical scenes, the gorgeous domed ceilings, the ancient stained glass, the marble statues of saints, the incense, the “Holy” water, the lit candles….and the Choir! Wow.
The choir was angelic, and perfectly completed the service, which was full of tradition, ritual, history, and art. Whatever your faith or lack thereof, I highly recommend taking a peek inside Basillica if you’re ever in Budapest, especially on a Sunday morning. It’s a spiritual experience.
On Sunday, I decided to forgo the night train, not being able to bear another cold sleepless night in an empty compartment. The trip back, though 2 hours later, was a completely different ride, the train was warm, cozy, with time tables on each seat and even a dining car. This train was light years ahead of the night train I had taken the day before. I spent the 8 hour journey napping, reviewing my Serbian vocabulary, and finishing this piece. Overall, Budapest was what I expected from a European City: basically a living museum with numerous Cathedrals, Monuments, Castles, and beautiful ancient architecture. Budapest is bigger than Belgrade, had a better organized city transport system, less graffiti and less smoking, but for some reason, I just couldn’t wait to get back “home” to Belgrade.
Thanks for Reading!