A BUDGET TRIP TO BUDAPEST


Anne C here.  I first visited Budapest nearly 35 years ago when it was still very much an Eastern bloc country with limited resources and little investment.  How times have changed!  Hungary's capital is now as vibrant a European city as many others in the West, though what sets it apart is the stunning architecture, its historical legacy and the majestic River Danube.

The visit was a Christmas gift from my bargain-hunting daughter, who manged to get us two return flights from the UK and four nights in a central hotel for under £200. She managed this by booking as soon as the budget easyJet flights were announced, and bagging a very cheap room at the Easy Hotel in the Oktogan.  I mention the latter specifically because although the hotel was about as basic as they come, it had everything we needed - a bed, a teeny bathroom and just about enough space for hanging clothes for four nights (no toiletries, breakfast, food, or room service, and cleaning was extra!) It was about the size of a ferry cabin, but since we spent all of our time sightseeing, it was perfect for our needs.



The first thing we normally do in a new city is find the hop-on-hop-off bus, which takes various routes until you get your bearings and a feel for the place.  Having been before, I wanted to check out the Matyas Church in the Buda part of the city, which dominates Budapest from the hill opposite Parliament.  I had previously been impressed by the stunning facade of the Holiday Inn next to the church, which had fabulous mirrored panels so the church was beautifully reflected.  Sadly it is no longer there - the hotel is now just rendered and very ordinary looking.

However that cannot be said for the rest of the cities of Buda and Pest.  The view from behind the church is stunning, looking down on the Danube and in particular, showing the Parliament building in all its glory (See close up first picture and looking down on the building from the castle area).


We visited in early May so the flowers were in bloom and the sun was shining, showing off the fabulous architecture to its best advantage.  We visited St Stephen's Basilica, which is absolutely stunning.  It took more than 50 years to build and represents the shape of the Greek cross, with the dome of the building matching the height of the nearby Parliament buildings. The Basilica houses the mummified right forearm of St Stephen, and bizarrely, on St Stephen's Day (August 20th), the arm is taken from its resting place and paraded around the streets.



No visit to Budapest would be complete without a riverboat trip on the Danube - and we managed to do this twice, once for an evening cruise, and another daytime trip.  Without doubt the evening cruise was stunning - we bought tickets from the hop-on-hop-off company - which also included dinner.  My gluten intolerant daughter was a little apprehensive about the food, but it was delicious, including both traditional Hungarian dishes of goulash soup and stuffed cabbage, to salads, chicken in paprika and a spicy pork dish, with three free drinks included.


There are plenty of places to eat and drink in the city, from international chains to local independent restaurants serving traditional Hungarian fare, though I particularly shunned the lamb's liver in its fat in favour of a delicious schnitzel!

The Hungarian Parliament building was the largest in the world when it was completed in 1902, and features a domed roof, beautiful frescoes and an impressive main staircase.  We visited both during the day and at night when it was beautifully lit - as was the rest of the city, giving it a magical feel.



However, Hungary does have a chequered history - much of which I will not have room to mention, but we did visit the poignant Shoes on the Danube memorial to the 20,000 Jewish men, women and children who were shot by the right wing fascist Arrow Cross Militiamen during WW11 and whose bodies were thrown into the Danube.  The memorial, featuring model shoes was unveiled in 2005 and was conceived by film director Can Togay and created by scupltor Gyula Pauer.


Since we were so close to Austria, we decided to jump on a train and visit Vienna for the day during our trip.  Budapest is as close to Vienna as we in Yorkshire are as close to London, so just a couple of hours on the train.  Rocking up to the ticket office on the day for us to visit London would normally incur a charge of around £150 each depending on the time of day, so we were pleasantly surprised to find it cost the equivalent of around £40 each.

The day however, was a bit of a disaster! It poured with rain so badly that we were completely soaked to the skin, so spent most of the day on the ever-popular hop-on-hop-off bus.  Actually, Austrian and Hungarian history is intrinsically linked through marriages, wars and conflicts, so we got to hear some of the history from the opposing side!

There are museums a-plenty in Vienna, from those specialising in art, to science and technology to military history. Since Mozart was Austrian, there are also museums and concerts dedicated to classical music.  We stopped off briefly at the Military Museum (I'm the daughter of a serviceman who died in the service of his country) where we saw the actual car in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian/Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie the Duchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated, which sparked a chain of events leading to WW1.

Mostly however, we just wanted a hot drink and to dry out!

It is worth noting that a form of bubonic plague decimated the population of Vienna in 1679 - part of the great plague which swept through Europe (including London) at the time. Memorials have also been erected to commemorate those who died, and which brought the city to its knees.


The photograph above is of St Charles' church, which was later commissioned by Emperor Karl VI and built in the 18th Century, dedicated to his namesake Karl Borromaus (Charles Borromeo), who was revered as a healer of plague victims.

Back in Budapest, we spent our last day on a daytime Danube cruise, a wander around the city centre, taking in the sights for the last time (and indulging in the ice cream cornets sculpted into the shape of a rose!)



There are so many statues in Buda and Pest that I lost count of who they all were!  This fellow Imre Kalman, was a famous Hungarian composer and could be found sitting outside the Operetta Theatre, so I had to stop and have a photo with him!

You will note from the background that the building opposite is currently under renovation, and this is true of a huge part of Pest.  There is a tremendous amount of building and also of renovating many of the old properties including a number of outdoor squares where history tells us of specific group gatherings, but most I think will end up being home to restaurants and alfresco dining.


I was particularly interested in seeing Heroes Square, which I remember I had visited previously on a very dark and miserable day back in the 1980s.  This time the sun was shining and the atmosphere seemed much lighter.


Budapest is famous for its healing thermal waters and spas. A visit to the citadel, or fortress, in Buda is the highest point of the city, but also is close to the water supply and thermal springs - the hottest of which can reach around 27 degrees centigrade.  Bathing in the waters is a legacy from the Turkish occupation, but is still popular today. Visitors interested in visiting one of the thermal springs may find this guide useful, although it wasn't on our agenda.

Gellert Hill, close to many of the spas, is names after Gellert, a holy martyr bishop who was put in a barrel and thrown down the hill in 1046 for trying to bring Christianity to the pagans.  Local superstition existed for many years that the hill was haunted. At the foot of the hill, however, is the traditional art deco Gellert Hotel which also houses on of the most famous of thermal spas.

Tourism is now huge in Budapest with tourists from around the globe - we heard and saw so many different nationalities while we were there - including a lovely couple from Tennessee we met on the little funicular railway up to the castle area, so a complete change from my previous visit when tourism was virtually non-existent. 

The currency is forints, but credit cards are widely taken, and some places also take euros.

It is impossible to relate all the history and things to do in one small blog, but if you're planning to go, do buy a good guide book as it is such a lovely city and well worth a visit!

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