Budapest lives up to its excellent reputation, but still shows some scars from communism


Budapest’s parliament building faces the Danube River and is a spectacular sight

BUDAPEST, Hungary – We had heard many times that Budapest was one of the world’s most beautiful cities and now we understand. It is, indeed.

We entered the city midday on the River Duchess in grand manner. Capt. van Meerveld sailed us all the way through downtown on the Danube and our cruise manager Bart Roelofs narrated, explaining all the sites such as the spectacular Parliament Building and St. Stephen’s Basilica.

We easily grasped the main fact of Budapest– that everyone who has been here knows – that it is, in fact, two cities  — with historic Buda to the east and Pest (pronounced “Pesch”) on the west.

After passing under four of Budapest’s main bridges, our vessel turned around and sailed north again to dock with two other Uniworld river ships, the River Empress and River Beatriceon the Buda side of the river. Fortunately, right next to our pier is a small shuttle boat that runs passengers over to Pest every hour for free.

Hungarian handcrafts

Not to waste a moment, as soon as the gangplank was secured we boarded buses for a three-hour city tour. This included tour (there are also optional tours for a fee) first took us over to Pest where we drove around the Parliament Building – certainly the most beautiful I have ever seen – and then to such key places as the National Opera House and Heroes’ Square.

While on this ride, our guide Maria Gabriella impressed on us that almost every significant building or monument in the city (particularly on the Pest side) was built for the Millennium celebration in 1896, which commemorated the year 896 when the leaders of the seven Hungarian tribes left China (where they were a minority) and came to this area to join together and form this country. (We were to learn that almost all Hungarian,  folklore programs focus on the seven tribes theme so it is best to grasp it early.)

The we crossed over to the Buda side where the really, really old buildings are. The dominant feature on this side is the Buda castle where the Hapsburgs (notably Queen Maria Theresa) ruled Hungary for over 400 years. There is also the beautiful St. Matthias Church and a feature added much later called the Fisherman’s Bastion for which you pay a fee to get some great city views.

This morning our cruise manager took us on another of his adventures. We boarded the shuttle boat and went over to Pestto visit the Grand Market. This is a lovely historic building that contains an excellent market, one of the prettiest in Europe. Then we split off  to walk down Vaci Utca, a lovely pedestrian street that runs from in front of the Market toVorosmarty Square. The were many small shopping streets running off this that I would love to have explored had we had more time,.

Although Budapest is lovely, it is not prosperous and still suffers the effects of being occupied by Nazis and then living under communism from after the first world war until 1989. You can observe this in the many historic buildings that need restoration but lack for funds. You can also get a very close look at these periods at the House of Terror. This “museum” documents the atrocities afflicted by the Nazis and later the communists on the citizens of this city.

St. Matthias Church on the Buda side

Definitely worth a look is a poignant memorial called “Shoes on the Danube” which is dedicated to the Budapest Jews who were shot by Arrow Cross militiamen between 1944 and 1945. The victims were lined up and shot into the Danube River. They had to take their shoes off, since shoes were valuable belongings at the time. The memorial was created by Gyula Pauer, Hungarian sculptor, and his friend Can Togay in 2005. It contains 60 pairs of iron shoes, forming a row along the Danube. Each pair of shoes was modeled after an original 1940’s pair.

Outside of the city (and we did not get there) is Momento Park which is publicized as “The Biggest Statues of the Darkest Dictatorship” and contains a collection of huge statues erected by the communists.

On a happier note, there are also a number of historic bath houses that still offer the opportunity for guests to enjoy the city’s many hot springs. I will definitely try to do this on my next visit.

Budapest has so much to offer and is definitely worth a visit of several days. It is rich in museums, shopping and attractions. There are all kinds of tours offered, by foot, bus or boat. There are dozens are websites devoted to guiding you around and they sell a Budapest Card which offers you entry to many tours and attractions.

Hungarian is an impossible language to read or understand and many Hungarians speak only rudimentary English. However, there are many tourism information centers and they can usually guide you to where you need to go.

We are also now out of the euro zone and the currency here is forints (huf): 225 forints = 1 US dollar. However, most places will accept euros and we are relying on those.

We sail toward a more rural part of Hungary and we look forward to seeing more of the countryside.

July 3, 2012

Photos by Chet Janssens

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