The D&O Diary is on assignment in Eastern Europe this week, with multiple destinations on the itinerary, starting with a weekend stop in Hungary’s capital city of Budapest. With a city population of 1.7 million and an urban population over 3 million, Budapest is a large, sprawling place. The taxi ride from the airport into the central city cuts through some pretty scruffy parts of town, so it was startling to arrive at the river and encounter the Danube’s sweeping beauty as it rolled through the city’s central district.
Budapest completely confounded my expectations. I expected to see a lot of crumbling fragments of the Soviet era, along the lines of present day Warsaw, and I also expected to see remnants of Hungary’s long history, comparable to the many monuments and castles from the Middle Ages in central Prague. As it turned out, at least in the center of Budapest, there are relatively few Soviet era vestiges, and most of the historic buildings in central Budapest date only from the 19th century (and most of those now are post-World War II reconstructions).
What Budapest has is the river, the beautiful Danube (or, as it is known locally, the Duna), the second-longest river in Europe. In his book, The Danube, a Cultural History, Andrew Beattie called Budapest “the loveliest and most elegant city on the Danube.” Budapest, Beattie writes, “takes the Danube to its heart.” By contrast to Vienna, a flat city that has turned its back on the river and where the river is heavily channelized and controlled, in Budapest, the steep hills along the city’s west side “allow an appreciation of just how much the river seems to be cradled by the city.” It is as if the Danube is “flowing, steady and implacable, through a cupped hand.”
Along with the river, the city also has Old World European elegance. Buda, on the city’s Western hilly side, and Pest, on the level eastern side, were for most of their history separate cities. They were not combined into a single city (along with the separate community of Óbuda) until 1873, after the first permanent bridge, the Chain Bridge, joined the river’s two sides. The Chain Bridge (reconstructed after World War II) is now one of several beautiful bridges that join the two sides (as reflected in the picture above). In Pest, along the river north of the Chain Bridge, is the dramatic Hungarian Parliament building (as reflected at the top of the post), possibly the most beautiful building on the entire river.
The two most distinctive features on the Buda side are the historic Castle Hill, crowned by a reconstructed Habsburg era castle (now the national art gallery), and the taller, more rugged Gellért Hill, which affords a great view across to Pest. as well as to the south toward the vast Hungarian central plain. Along the crest of Castle Hill just below the Mátyás-templom (Matthias Church) is the 19th century whimsy, the Fisherman’s Bastion, with viewpoints allowing great views up and down the river.
Across the river in Pest, the many beautiful pedestrianized streets in the central district are lined with cafes and restaurants, as well as innumerable souvenir shops selling stacking dolls and intricately embroidered lace tablecloths. Our hotel was on a quiet side street in Pest a block away from the famous central pedestrian boulevard, Vaci Utca. On our first night in Budapest, overwhelmed with jet lag fatigue, we stumbled into a terrifically atmospheric old Budapest restaurant along the Vaci Utca called Rustico, with live “gypsy music” and serving excellent traditional Hungarian food and Hungarian wines.
On Saturday, we had excellent weather in the morning as we strolled along the city’s most famous boulevard, Andrassy út, to the City Park, a beautiful green space where Hungary hosted its millennial celebration in 1896. (The millennium festival celebrated the 1,000 years of Hungary since the Magyars conquered and settled the Carpathian Basin.) One of the remnants from the millennial festival is the delightfully campy Transylvanian castle replica, the Vajdahunyad Castle. There was a street festival in progress in the castle’s shadow, as well as a number of other interesting displays.
In the afternoon, we explored a number of the city’s other tourist destinations, eventually making our way toward Margaret Island, in the center of the Danube upstream from the Parliament building. Up until that point, we had been remarkably fortunate with the weather. But as we were crossing the bridge from the Pest side of the river to the island, our weather luck changed dramatically.
Within the space of less than five minutes, the wind picked up, whipping up swirls of leaves and grit. The temperature dropped ten degrees in the blink of an eye and rain drops started to fall. We ran to the shelter of an umbrella at an outdoor beer garden, along with a host of others with the same idea. Just after we made it under cover, the skies opened up and torrents of rain came down. Huddled under the umbrella with us were two married couples with two babies in strollers, and a youthful couple who basically couldn’t keep their hands off each other. Everybody did their best to keep things as comfortable as could be in the close quarters under the umbrella, but it was pretty unpleasant as we all got soaked by the splattering rain shower.
Just at the point where everybody was feeling pretty miserable and thinking that things couldn’t be much worse, a very drunk young man with a large beer in his hand and who had not bathed in a very long time came under the umbrella and greeted us all energetically in Hungarian. He was sure that what the situation required was a little music, so he began loudly singing Hungarian folk songs, undoubtedly about the beauty of the rain and the delight of human companionship. He couldn’t carry a tune. Eventually, he got bored and wandered off, conversing cheerfully with the raindrops and sky. And eventually, the rain stopped enough to allow the rest of us to finally wander away as well.
The sun was out by the time we made it back to our hotel and we had a pleasant evening strolling around the quiet pedestrian streets in Pest. The next morning, we were off to our next destination. We were aware as our train rolled away that two days were not nearly enough for a wonderful place like Budapest.