I met a lovely woman in Milan who originally hails from Budapest, Hungary. She also happens to own a flat in the historic Vth District of Budapest (the “Pest” side), on the very desirable pedestrian street of Vaci Utca. Venturing beyond the safe confines of the European Union border, my wish for our mother-daughter trip was to get out of our comfort zone and experience an area neither Mom nor I had visited before. What better place to visit than Budapest?
History. The history of Budapest is complicated and violent, likely owing to its strategic location on the Danube River and its proximity to wealthy monarchies over the centuries.
Without writing a book on its history, let me provide some brief facts:
- Buda and Pest, two distinct towns on opposite sides of the Danube River, were united in 1873 to create the city of Budapest following the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867.
- After World War I, the monarchy fell and Hungary lost two thirds of its land.
- The desire to regain lost territory supposedly contributed to Hungary’s support of Germany in World War II. Read some of the incredible stories about the Nazi occupation of Budapest as the Soviet forces were bearing down on the region, when orders from the Nazi leaders (who were safely outside of Budapest) directed that the Nazi army in Budapest and the Nazi-directed Hungarian military were to hold Budapest and not surrender under any circumstances until there was no man left standing. The Nazis blew up all the bridges crossing the Danube to slow down the Soviet march and people were left on the ‘wrong’ side of the river to starve when the Soviets surrounded and blockaded the city (the folks on the other side didn’t fare much better, though).
- Budapest was taken over by Soviet troops in 1945 following the end of World War II and became a territory within the Soviet sphere of interest.
- Under the subsequent Communist rule, a popular uprising in 1956 was ruthlessly suppressed by Soviet tanks. Watch YouTube videos of this!
- In 1989, the Soviet-controlled Communists were removed and Hungary held free elections in 1990, regaining control of their own affairs.
Sights. Mom and I used the hop-on, hop-off bus system to get oriented to the city and were joined by Kevin for the weekend.
- We walked around the Castle District on the “Buda” side which provides a panoramic view of the Danube and sights on both sides of the river.
- The Hungarian National Gallery in the Castle District holds late Renaissance and Baroque works which we enjoyed. Buda’s old town was lovely to observe, and with sunnier skies and more time, we would have walked its narrow and beautiful cobbled streets and squares.
- On another day, Mom and I visited the baths at the foot of Gellert Hill. http://www.gellertbath.hu. An early reference to the existence of these healing baths dates from the 13th century. The Gellert baths were built by the Ottomans, originally with separate baths for men and women. The therapeutic benefits of these baths throughout Budapest are so well-established that the health-care system in Budapest provides for several visits a year to the healing waters of the hot baths.
- On the Pest side, we visited St. Stephen’s Basilica and Heroes’ Square.
- We were in Budapest for four full days and could have stayed for more. The weather was cold and very rainy, hampering our ability to walk the streets as we had hoped. We did explore the Central Market Hall, with its numerous farm stalls of meat, sausage, fruit, vegetables, spices and pickled and stuffed vegetables in jars of all sizes.
Food. The food far exceeded my expectations.
- We tried the delicious goulash soup several places, as well as the foie gras and a pork dish made from a pig unique to the region. My friend recommended several restaurants near our flat, among them the Apostolok Etterem restaurant http://www.apostoloketterem.hu and the 100 Year Restaurant http://www.szazevesetterem.hu. We also found Cyrano Etterem to be good. http://www.cyrano.hu
- One word of warning from my own restaurant experience in Budapest! Pay attention to the prices! I misunderstood the price of a bottle of wine and we were treated to the most expensive wine the 100 Year Restaurant had to offer, thanks to my ineptitude converting Hungarian Florints to Euros! It was good, but I’m not qualified to say it was the best bottle ever. How embarrassing!
- One evening we tried the upscale Gundel Restaurant http://www.gundel.hu near Heroes’ Square and we weren’t disappointed. The atmosphere was elegant, with crisp white tablecloths, waiters well-dressed, and a four piece musical ensemble to enjoy while dining.
I have heard that the Christmas market is wonderful- perhaps we will try to get back during that time. There is clearly much more to see, and I would also love to see the Budapest orchestra as well. The visit to Budapest was the highlight of my trip!