As I struggled to take the right shot of the liberty bridge masts decorated with large bronze statues of the Turul on my iphone, a girl handed me an analog camera to take a picture of their group. They will all be moving away from the city next month, hence this attempt to capture the moment and immortalize it the old fashioned way. For me, this sums up Budapest where the old city ‘Buda’ seamlessly integrates with newer ‘Pest’ and happily co-exist.
Budapest, the capital of Hungary, is one of the most beautiful cities of Europe. The mighty Danube dissects the city flanked by the hilly Buda and the flat Pest, the ancient Buda and the modern Pest, the quieter Buda and the touristy Pest. Historically, Budapest was part of the Ottoman empire and culturally flourished under the Turks. Being in the thick of World War II the city had been destroyed to rubbles but has been restored again over the years. More recently it was part of the soviet rule and became independent only in the late 90s. As you walk through the city you can distinctly see newer structures along with the heritage old buildings.
I started my itinerary on the Buda side. It has a hilly landscape which rises just across the river Danube. Back in the day this must have been a vantage position to check on approaching enemies and hence strategically the Buda castle is built on top of the hill. The palace complex is beautiful. It houses the massive Baroque palace, the medieval Matthias church and the scenic terraces of the fisherman’s bastion. The bastion is where historically the fishermen used to sell their wares and hence the name. It has seven towers representing the seven Magyar tribes who founded the city. I had found my paradise. And immediately got busy capturing the sweeping ‘Instagram worthy’ views of the Pest side across the Danube river. A while later I realized I wasn’t alone. Other than the normal photography enthusiasts I also found a couple dressed in the wedding gown and tuxedo posing for a slightly finicky photographer looking for the perfect capture. A good tip is to take the 150-year-old funicular while going up to the castle, explore the area and then come down by foot or take the winding bus route.
Having visited vintage Buda I decide to cross the mighty Danube and explore the newer and busier Pest side of the city. Bear in mind this wasn’t always so easy. Its only in 1849 that the first permanent bridge – the Széchenyi Chain Bridge was built to connect the two cities. Bollywood lovers will identify this bridge with the scenes of Aishwarya running across the bridge in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. Named after István Széchenyi who is widely considered as the most famous Hungarian politician it is an iconic structure of the city. For us Indians though we relate more to “Indian Frida Kahlo” – the half Indian half Hungarian Amrita Shergil – who was born in this city. Other notable bridges include the Elizabeth hid, the Liberty hid, the Margaret hid. Hid being Hungarian for bridge. The Liberty bridge built of green metal is adorned with mythological sculptures and the country’s coat of arms. Its quite a hub for young crowd who tend to flock here, sitting on the bridge span to watch the sunset and party afterwards. I spent the golden hour of the sunset in the evening on this bridge enjoying the lively vibe.
After crossing the Chain bridge take a left towards the Hungarian Parliament and there comes the memorial “Shoes on the Danube banks”. It was created to honour the Jews who were asked to leave their shoes on the bank and then shot at the edge so that they will be carried away by the river as they fell. A solemn reminder of the horrors of holocaust, I spent some time around this monument and was surprised to find that not only tourists but quite a few locals in the crowd. They were here to pay their respects and left flowers bouquets.
Up next, is the Hungarian Parliament, a dominant gothic building right on the banks of the Danube. It is currently used as seat of the assembly but also serves as a huge tourist attraction. It also houses the crown jewels. An online booking can be done for a guided tour of the inside. They also have a “change of guards” ceremony which honestly was nothing spectacular compared to Buckingham palace or Copenhagen palace.
After a tiring day exploring the city it calls for a good meal. Hungarian cuisine, known for its flavourful spices and meats doesn’t disappoint. Cozy cafes, roadside restaurants or bustling market halls, take your pick to settle down for a sublime meal. Goulash – a broth with potatoes, carrots stewed with meat (beef/Pork) – is a must try. Nourishing and piquant it is exactly what you need to combat fatigue. Chicken Paprikás is another common dish with tender chicken pieces spiced with local flavors and served with short thick pasta. Hungarian sausages or Kolbasz are well known. Eaten as an accompaniment or on its own as the main dish they can be wholesome and tasty. Like most European cities Budapest has abundant cafes where indulging over a coffee, you can sit outside and watch the world go by.
The tale of two cities will be incomplete without mentioning the thriving night life of the city. The ruin bars lead in that aspect. Again since old and new live symbiotically, it only makes sense to spruce up dilapidated building with kitsch furniture, vintage décor and set up bars to offer local drinking options. Throw is some live performances by local bands and voila you have the party rolling.
I started the next day with breakfast at the New York café. It is voted as one of the most beautiful cafes of the world. The food is that great to write home about but the interiors are spectacular. Grand is an understatement for this palace like café.
Pest has some of the finest Neo classical architectural instances. One of the striking building is the Hungarian State Opera house which boasts of world class acoustics. Opulence at its best, the interiors are decorated with gilded framed pictures and massive mirrors to give a larger than life feel. The guided tour includes a short opera performance which gives you a flavour of the real thing. However, its recommended to watch a performance as it is said to be a unique experience. Another example is the St Stephens Basilica which is a Roman Cathedral of Neo Classical architecture. The insides have rich ornamental decorations and painting on the wall and ceilings. But the main attraction is the breath taking view of the city once you climb the dome at the top.
Budapest was founded by the Magyars tribe from Central Asia. In order to commemorate their 1000 year history, the Millennium monument was created in Heroes square. It has massive statues of the Magyars chieftains and other important figures. The Heroes Square also serves as the gateway to the City Park – a green space for the locals to lounge around and play speedy chess. It is flanked by the famous Széchenyi thermal bath. It is said the Romans colonized Budapest to enjoy the thermal springs of the region. The Szechenyi is by far the most famous, known for its outdoor, indoor swimming pools, spas and Jacuzzis. The Gellért hill’s mineral hot springs on the Buda side are also worth mentioning.
Getting by Budapest is really easy. With a wide network of Metro, Tram and Bus it is easy and cheap to navigate the city on public transport. I ,for one, loved the Tram#2 ride on the Pest side cutting across the city along the Danube with some of the best views of the Buda castle.