For three glorious days in late August we were treated to the wonders of a city that has seen many rulers come and go since establishing itself way back in first century BC, beautiful Budapest.
We were based near St Stephen’s Cathedral which made for a handy landmark to find our way back after the full days exploring. As we’d arrived early we stashed our luggage with the kindly man on reception and headed out to meet up with Peta for lunch. She was in town about to embark on a tour and coincidence is a wonderful thing. I took the smiling waiter’s advice and tried the local sausages, pickles, mustard and what I remember to be something akin to circles of rubbery fried batter and all together it was very tasty, washed down by delicious Hungarian beer.
A great catch up with a good friend, we then set off over the Széchenyi Chain Bridge and up Castle Hill armed with self-guided walking tour maps I’d found online.
We took the 1870-built Castle Hill Funicular uphill to take in the broad views across the river towards the grand Parliament building and up and down the not-so-blue Danube. As we arrived we were treated to a changing of the guard at the doors of the President’s Office. With only three soldiers to swap it was perhaps a little less grandiose than Buckingham Palace, but they practically walked among the public to and from their station and office, which I think is perfectly endearing. Even if they didn’t crack a smile.
The whole Castle Hill area is a World Heritage Site and evidence of human settlement has been found dating back 500,000 years. The major buildings date from 13-14th centuries and the cobblestone roads follow the medieval paths. We spent several hours strolling the circuit around the summit taking in the immense Fisherman’s Bastion, stunning 700-year old Matthias Church with its brightly coloured roof tiles, stopped for ice cream at one of the city’s oldest cafe’s and watched as a bride and her father went into the gleaming church and in no time at all emerged to the cheers of well-wisher’s on the arm of her grinning husband. Even though I’m not religious, I think it’s pretty cool that the city’s resident’s may be married if they wish in an historic church used for the coronation of kings in past eras.
After roaming the ruins and Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene at the far end of Castle Hill we looped back towards Buda Castle, or Royal Palace, and saw lovely fountains, the former royal stables, and views over the city sprawl as it drops away down from the hill. As we returned to the top station of the funicular, we found a festival market with stalls and music cranking outside the massive Palace. Here we enjoyed a chance to sit down, plastic cups of local and cheap beer and our first langos cooked by kindly ladies in aprons and piled with sour cream and sprinkled with paprika. It was a real buzz.
Another reason we both learned to love Budapest is the hot springs and public baths. Next time we visit we would easily spend all day at one of these complexes. We made the most of the time we had in Rudas Baths one of the oldest baths in Budapest, built in 1550 and decorated in the Ottoman style dipping from one to the other, skin changing colour from rosy pink to lobster red with the rise and fall of water temperatures. After the thermal baths closed we moved upstairs to the swimming pool for some laps, a few more modern plunge pools set at either steaming or sub-arctic temperatures, all designed for therapeutic purposes and to get your circulation humming. Finally we went upstairs, past a private party up to the rooftop pool. It’s open air, overlooks the city and was a superb place to while away some hours soothing our aching legs. The full moon gleamed off the river, the Chain Bridge and Castle Hill were glowing in warm light and the convivial atmosphere made it all very hard to leave.
We finally changed into dry clothes around 9:30pm and headed back to check into the hotel. Along the way we saw the city lit up like a Christmas tree. At Sas One Hotel, our room was simply massive, high ceilings, big bed, lovely bathroom and a huge picture window looking out onto a park and ferris wheel. We were very glad to be utterly exhausted as we were treated to a stretched Hummer directly under our window blaring bad modern music from its idiotic speakers, hoons on motorbikes and general Saturday night shenanigans.
We joined a Yellow Zebra bike tour out of the city past several interesting sights to the town of Szentendre. Our guide Bogota was very knowledgeable and took good care to make sure we enjoyed our ride. I only came off once so that’s a bonus. Of particular note was passing the Parliament up close – it really is stunning architecture – remnants and memories of the city’s violent chapters like the 1956 uprising against communism kept alive with black iron balls filling the holes left by bullets.
Before we left the city behind, we passed through the oldest part of Budapest – Obuda or Old Buda. A pretty square is overlooked by old Baroque buildings and excellent art and sculpture, including a group of bronze ladies holding parasols by Imre Varga.
As we continued out of town past well-known walls dedicated to continuing application of creative graffiti and crossed the river we came to the lovely Margaret Island. A leafy park with wellness resorts, ruins of a Franciscan Priory, 13th century convent, pools and spas, extensive parkland, theatre and the musical fountain, plus much more. We stopped at a cafe housed in a colourful caravan and enjoyed a beer and views over the river. It’s a very popular place for locals on the weekends and I can see why. A truly charming place and yet quite close to the city action.
We continued through forest and past fields, following the Danube down to Szentendre, an enchanting artist’s haunt. After parking our bikes and walking through the town we were led up a narrow old set of steps to a tiny hut that served delicious langos with a variety of toppings. Further up we came to an old church and were handed golden shawls to cover our shoulders before stepping into the cool inside to admire the artworks. We enjoyed views over the town, down to the river and with green forests all around before being left to our own devices. Charming little bars and cafes, souvenir and jewelry shops, lavender ice cream and an old public fountain with pure fresh drinking water to fill our bottles. Julie and I found an artistic cafe with outdoor garden for a beer bearing the name ‘Ogre’ – as you do.
We met the group back at the central square and headed back down to the river it was a job to get us and our bikes onto the boats puttering back to Budapest. We passed people bathing on the pebbly beaches, enjoyed the breeze and eventually saw the buildings of Budapest glide into view. The Parliament bathed in late afternoon light was gorgeous and the city had a different feeling from the calm water. It was a lovely way to see the city from yet another angle.
We peddled back to the Yellow Zebra offices and didn’t feel unsafe as perhaps we did in Rome. Maybe because it was a weekend, people really did seem to relax a lot more. We wandered back to the hotel past a little hut housing the Captain Cook Pub, which was unfortunately closed and so we couldn’t enjoy a hard-earned Fosters (!) on tap. The Cathedral was shining in the fading afternoon light and we slept very, very well.
Setting out on foot the next day we took another self-guided walking tour of the local area past the synagogues, several pieces of sculpture, giant wall murals, and a tiny vintage car exhibition. The laid-back feeling and bright sunshine, pleasant buildings and surroundings, a giant stein of local beer and lunch overlooking the park rounded out the day before we had to head back to take our transfer to the airport.
Julie’s put Budapest among her top favourite cities and I sincerely hope we can make another visit soon. She’s a stoic city with friendly people and lots to offer, one would never be bored in beautiful Budapest.