Friday, January 4, 2008

Grand Budapest

We left for Budapest at noon on Christmas Day and rode a train through southern Poland and eastern Slovakia before arriving in Budapest, Hungary around 9:00 p.m. I knew it was risky arriving in a new country on a holiday night, but had good directions on how to use the Metro to get from the train station to the hotel and the tour book said there were several ATMs in the train station. What I didn't count on was that much of the train station was under construction (though the section where we arrived was an absolutely beautiful 19th-century building that reminded us of Paris' Orsay train station-turned museum), the area where all the services were supposed to be was closed off with wood boards). There was only one accessible ATM and of course it was out of service (probably out of money). The ticket machines for the Metro (subway) didn't take credit cards, so we all went on a search for a near-by hotel where we could change some dollars into Hungarian Forints. After three tries we found a desk clerk at a Best Western who was very helpful, got our Forints, went back to the Metro and easily found our hotel, the Victoria. What a wonderful surprise when we finally checked into our rooms and looked out the window for what has to be the most fantastic view around. Our hotel was in "Buda" looking across the Danube to "Pest" and the Parliament building and other grand structures. Built as a capital of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, the word that kept coming to mind when touring Budapest was "grand." The buildings are all HUGE and the streets broad. For example, the Parliament Building (one of several built in 1896 for the city's millennial celebration) is enormous, with literally miles of stairs. (We didn't get to tour it because we didn't realize you needed your passport with you to get a ticket.) Today, Hungary's legislature only uses one-eighth of the building.

The Budapest Parliament (Orszaghaz) is really much more impressive than these pictures indicate.
During our time in Budapest, we toured the castle hill (in Buda) with its Matthias Church founded 800 years ago, walked the two grand streets of Pest (Vaci Utca - the shopping and "promenade" street - and Andrassy Ut - a boulevard with theatres and cafes often compared to the Champs-Elysees in Paris), shopped at the Great Market Hall (another grand building from 1896), visited St. Istvan's (Stephen's) Basilica, went to Heroes' Square (Hosok tere) with all the statues of famous Hungarians, walked the Chain Bridge (the first bridge to connect Buda and Pest, built 1842-1849), and rode the first subway built in continental Europe. (You guessed it - built in 1896 for the millenial celebration - every construction worker in Hungary must have been working in Budapest that year.) It was grand and it was cold. But our hotel, besides having a great view and wonderful breakfasts, had a sauna!

John in Heroes' Square, with a statue of Arpad, the grand-daddy of all Magyars (MUD-jars, the Asian ancestors of today's Hungarians). Do you see any family resemblance? John's grandfather (Martin Balo) listed his race as "Magyar" on his immigration documents to the U.S. The Hungarian language isn't related to any European language (except Finnish and Estonian) - it isn't even Indo-European in origin, which would make it very difficult to communicate if so many people didn't speak English or German.

Exterior of the Market Hall

Budapest Market Hall, an early shopping mall built in 1896, is still filled with produce stands, bakeries, meat markets and other produce on the main floor and Hungarian-style fast food and traditional Hungarian crafts (and souvenirs) on the second floor.
My favorite part of the Buda Castle Hill was the "fishermen's bastion" - a structure built with cone-topped towers to represent the tents of the nomadic Magyar tribes. (The fish market was just below this hill on the banks of the Danube, so this part of the castle was supposedly guarded by the fishermen, thus the name...)

There are 7 cone-topped towers in all, to represent the 7 Magyar tribes.

St. Stephen's Basilica

The Chain Bridge at night

And, yes, we ate goulash and meat with paprika sauce. Here the paprika shaker replaced the pepper at the table. There was also a lot of fish on the menus - such as "pike perch" from Lake Balaton, the large fresh-water lake in western Hungary.

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