Yet another wonderful flight with British Airways. I was only slightly embarrassed when the Head Stewardess called my name and said she’d a message from BA’s Executive Committee. Ahem… thank you for flying with us so often this year!
So I’ve made it to Budapest. First impressions as I make my way from the airport to the City and my hotel, it’s quiet. I mean it’s really quiet. Cities usually have a noise about them or at the very least a hum of busy-ness but it’s missing. Starkly to my ear it’s quiet. I’m also aware of the buildings. There are some of architectural note but many in disrepair and ‘grey’ in colouring. Obviously this changes as we reach the city centre and tourism land but I’m wondering if there is a great deal of poverty in Hungary and if I’m going to be confronted with lots of beggars whilst I’m here. It’s not in anything I’ve read nor any of my friends who’ve visited before me have mentioned it but I’m wondering…
This little break away in Budapest is courtesy of my Avios points and a very small amount of cash and once again I take no responsibility for my being here. They sent me a very kind email which asked if I’d thought about visiting Budapest. I replied (out loud!) that I had but had never been. Scrolling down the email it encouraged me to book it… so I did!
As you know I rarely venture overseas if I can’t also add in an opera or a concert. It’s always such a treat to be able to experience either of these things in a foreign country, often in their language and certainly in a new and exciting venue. Tonight was no different. I had been able to secure a ticket to see Madame Butterfly by Puccini at the incredible Hungarian State Opera House. The Opera House is quite an imposing building on Andrássy út
but even the ornate stonework on the outside doesn’t prepare you for the incredible detailed interior. I can’t do it justice in words so please look at my pictures. (As always, click on the images to see in fullscreen)
I even remembered to bring my opera glasses. They were my grandmothers and then Mum’s and I don’t think I’ve ever remembered to take them with me before today. What a splendid production. An incredible performance from Butterfly herself. The set design was cleverly simple as were the costumes. However each were striking and effective to the storyline too. Loved it.
During the intermissions I spoke with a lady sat to my right. She is German and told me that she had now been to Budapest for a week’s holiday for the past 8 years! I asked her why she kept returning. Her response ‘simple – opera, baths and coffee’. Her itinery is always similar – Buda’s best thermal spas during the day, opera in the evenings and often returning to the spa late at night too. She’s given me some tips for spas… so I’d best get some sleep now as I’m going to be visiting one tomorrow (I hope!).
After feasting on a wonderful breakfast in the hotel (Sofitel Budapest) , walking shoes on, water bottle in backpack and we’re off…
My walk took me first along the river and over the Chain Bridge. This bridge is one of the iconic pictures of Budapest but has another meaning for me. The designer of this bridge also designed Marlow bridge – a bridge I know well from my childhood.
I took the funicular train up to the Buda castle area. Only a few minutes of a trip but I absolutely adored the wooden carriage, the antiquated structure and, of course, the magnificent view back across the Chain Bridge. Well worth the price of a one-way ticket.
I spent several hours walked around the Castle District. I managed (unplanned) to also be there for the changing of the guards which is an incredibly regimented event with lots of high kicks from men in uniform! Heading right first I discovered the Fisherman’s Bastion which has conical towers and reminded me somewhat of a Disney story or two. The views back over the Danube are quite something from this vantage point too. Next to the Fisherman’s Bastion is Matyas Church, Gothic windows and roofs decorated with stunning multicoloured tiles. I was fortunate enough to be there in glorious Autumnal sunlight so the tiles shone.
There were many Squares, intriguing street ways, museums, fountains and official buildings to explore in the Castle District. I however was determined to find the Hospital in the Rocks. I was ignorant of the history of Hungary so the trip has been fascinating to find out about it. I didn’t know that they were under Communist occupation for many years (less didn’t know but perhaps didn’t have reason to consider). I didn’t know that one of the longest battles during World War 2 was centred around Budapest. Through an archway and down a stairway, I found the entrance to the Hospital and waited a short time until the next tour. I had heard about the hospital being made up of underground tunnels but didn’t fully know what to expect. If you’re in Budapest you HAVE to go. During WW1 many people from Budapest dug underground and created their own caves where they stored possessions and were safe. In WW2 the Government thought that they could use these caves by joining them together and creating an underground hospital over 1km in length, safe away from the bombing. It was only ever meant to hold up to 60 patients, as an overspill from the main Budapest hospital of St John’s. However when the main hospital was bombed it became the main resource and at one time there were over 200 patients in the cramped tunnel and caves. They put in ventilation system and a water filtration system also. There are now wax models of soldiers, doctors and nurses to show you how the space was utilised. It really is quite incredible and surely saved many many lives. What is also obvious from the models is that they were treating British and German alike. Far far into the maze of tunnels is also a ‘secret’ nuclear bunker!
After a wander round the Castle grounds, I headed down the hill. Views over Budapest were amazing in the afternoon light. I’d not walked enough so decided to cross the river at the next bridge, Margaret Bridge, about 1.5km further along. A lovely walk with amazing views across to Parliament. Over the bridge and headed toward Parliament. Sadly there’s a great deal of building work and resurfacing work being carried out in Budapest so for much of this walk I was directed between barriers and unable to get close to many buildings of note. The ‘building’ route also took me much further along the river frontage to be able to ‘touch’ the Jewish shoe memorial. I was able to see it but through wires so the pictures below are ‘borrowed’. However it in no way lessened the impact of this memorial.
Dobos Cake it had to be with a piping hot coffee (see photo below).
After a hot bath and chill I was getting ready to go out to forage for dinner when I looked out of my hotel window and saw this.
I left the hotel and headed right toward the Jewish Quarter. Again lots of squares and buildings that once again were ornate with carvings and clever architecture but right next door to ramshackled shells of buildings that appear unloved and disused. There was also more building work being carried out and indeed the skyline of Budapest carries quite a few cranes. Once again I realised that the streets of Budapest are really very quiet. However at no time did I feel unsafe as I wandered aimlessly down interesting looking streets – no plan and no map! I spied the Synagogue on my travels and my intention is to revisit this during the day before I leave. After a few hours I found a small restaurant for dinner. Great food but not noteworthy enough to tell you where (despite their being in the ‘Best Places to Eat in Budapest’)!
This morning I woke up with one of my headaches/migraines from hell and stupid stars in my vision. So a leisurely breakfast and back to bed to get rid of my headache.
Several hours later I was up and out. Feet still ached from the day before but I headed back toward the Jewish Quarter in the daylight hours. My late start and a few wrong turns meant that I arrived at the Synagogue shortly before they stopped doing tours (which in the Winter is shortly after lunchtime!) However I was able to see quite a lot by walking down the side streets and looking through the gateways. Stunning once again. It was evident that the Jewish Quarter was probably better maintained than other areas of Budapest.
Next I walked the labyrinth of back streets and alleyways through to find cake! I’d been told of the Alexandra Bookshop. But first, I found another cafe that I’d also been told of – the Muvas Tearooms. This old-world tearooms is worth a visit. The sandwiches, drinks menu and, of course, cakes are plentiful and add to the ambiance of old-world charm, ornate ceilings and mirrors. The staff however are a little stuffy but hey! A sit down with a sandwich and iced tea was most welcome. As much as I was tempted by their selection of cake, I headed out again in search of the Alexandra Bookshop. I knew there was a sumptuous cafe behind a bookshop front but somehow I didn’t expect quite this. Truly incredible that you go through a ‘Waterstones-esque’ bookshop, up an escalator and see an archway. Through that is the most incredible tea room. It originally was the second floor of the former Paris Department Store and has chandeliers and fresco-style ceiling painted by Karoly Lotz – the same artist who painted rooms at the Parliament building. Talk about grandiose and renaissance. Hot chocolate and cake were also divine.
A short hour and a half to nip back to the hotel and get changed for tonight’s 160th anniversary of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra concert. It’s once again at the Opera House and a splendid affair. Whilst waiting to take our seats I got chatting to a lovely lady from Budapest. She’d travelled the world in her time and worked overseas including as a nurse at St Christopher’s Hospice in the UK. Amongst other topics I asked her why there was so much building work in Budapest. I was intrigued that so much was taking place at one time. It all became clear when she told me of the war when a lot of Budapest was bombed. Of the communist times in Budapest where nothing was done. Then sadly the last Mayor was in office for many years but refused to do any renovations or repairs. The locals watched as buildings that could have been saved crumbled away and with it pieces of history lost. She said how envious they had all been that in Prague renovations had been undertaken for years and that tourists travelled there in droves for years to see their beautifully restored city. However the new Mayor has instructed renovation and repair wherever possible. Everything is it to be done immediately and by craftspeople to try to retain/restore as much original feature as possible. The people of Budapest are very happy and she said also willing to be put out by all the building work for as long as it takes to restore the city to it’s former glory. I, for one, look forward to returning to it one day to see this.
After the concert I took my dinner at Callas a restaurant right next door to the Opera House but had been recommended to me. Great food, fabulous service and, once again, a building worth seeing.
My final day.
My wanderings this day took me along the Danube river front toward and over the Elizabeth Bridge. I visited the Gellert Spa to look at the art deco interior. I wasn’t brave enough to bare my scars to the world in the spa itself so didn’t get to see the whole space. For those more adventurous the Gellert Spa or the Szechenyi spas were both recommended as places to visit, relax and enjoy. Rudas baths were also recommended but apparently are a little more basic and have single sex days on certain days and times so check first.
Further along the riverside is the University. Around this part of the City I got the impression that it was very studenty and I guess would be more lively in the evenings(?). The University is huge in Budapest and I understand is quite something to be able to get a place here.
My journey then took me back across the river over, this time on a tram. After a very short trip I got out and walked back in the direction of my hotel. Stopping off for one ‘last’ teashop experience at Gerbeaud. Gerbeaud is said to have the best cakes in the city… there’s a LOT of competition!
Sadly my time in Budapest was so short. I certainly could have discovered more in a few more days and perhaps even plucked up the courage to visit one of the spas! One thing that I realised part way through my trip though was that the Hungarian identity seems to be quite confused. I think because of the war, of occupations, of communism etc, there have been hangovers from each of these eras and the true Hungarian identity has enveloped something from each of them. It’s magicial in some respects because there is so much diversity and culture but in others I wonder what a ‘true’ Hungarian city would be like. The opulence inside buildings isn’t reflected so much in the grey of the outside and streets. Again is that a bad thing? Each place holds a secret beauty inside. My comments about poverty too may have been misplaced. The local people I met and spoke with are happy. Happy with what they’ve got but don’t have longings for material things, labels and possessions. It’s probably quite refreshing. The shops are simply stocked (with the exception of the tourist thoroughfares). Pharmacies have everything behind wooden screens where you are required to speak with a pharmacist to ask for everything (even toothpaste I discovered)!
I’ll be back.