Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Trip to Budapest - Oct. 2004

Trip to Budapest

When it was announced that the school was going to make some needed repairs on my apartment over the extended weekend, I decided to spend the time in Budapest. About 6 hours north of Belgrade, the Hungarian capital could easily be reached through public ground transport. Although buses and trains were available, I chose to use a van service that picked me up right at my house and left me off at the hotel – a nice service for my first time traveling here. Despite a late start (the van picked up its passengers around midnight instead of 9pm as I had been told earlier), the ride to Budapest went smoothly. After walking several blocks to the correct hotel (the van dropped me off at the other hotel on Margaret Island), I had a simple “breakfast” at my hotel – fresh buns and tea. Showered, I left the hotel, walked across the bridge and headed into the main part of Budapest.

Budapest is a city that has had a rather efficient public transportation system for quite some time. Busses, trams, trains and metros run through the major parts of the city, while other trains and busses transported people to nearby cities. I purchased the Budapest card, enabling me to take all in-city public transportation for free. The card also gave free or reduced entrance to museums and other sites, as well as discounts on some restaurants.

Equipped with my Budapest card and some Hungarin forint currency (aren’t ATM machines great!) I walked over to the nearby meeting place for the Walkabout Tour. I felt that this 3-4 hour walking tour would give me a nice overview of the city. About 8 other people showed up for the English-speaking tour. We started the tour at Hero’s Square, a monument to many of Hungary’s important leaders. Other figures were more allegorical. The bright sunlight cast great shadows from each of the large sculptures. We then walked to City Park. Framing the Vajahunyad Castle (a replica of a former castle in Vajahunyad, now in Romania) were some large weeping willows. A pond, currently drained, would have created an additional romantic touch. During the winter, the pond is a favorite spot to ice skate. Nearby was an old church and other buildings bearing a mixture of styles, including Renaissance, Gothic, and Romanticism.
Within the park was the famous Szécheni Baths, a neo-Baroque complex. Stepping inside for a peek, we saw many older people waiting in line to use pay the theraputic price for the large outdoor thermal pool. The bright yellow paint contrasted sharply with the blue sky and the turquoise thermal pool. Inside the pool, some of the men passed the time playing chess. The scene reminded me of the a bit of the ancient Romans, who also saw the baths as an important social gathering place.

Knowing that there was much more to see, we left the park and headed back to the downtown area, walking down the broad tree-lined street named Andrássy Ut. Even today, the street still proudly displays some beautiful buildings and expensive rent. The ornate Opera house was just one example. Grabbing a quick bite to eat at a corner grocery store, we moved onward, admiring the outer architecture of St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Construction of this large building began in 1851, with the dome collapsing on top of the architect in 1868. It finally was completed (a few architects later) between 1873-1905. An exhibit inside includes a mummified hand of St. Stephen. We then walked across the Chain Bridge, easily identifiable by the two large seated lions on each side. Like all the other bridges crossing the Danube River in the city, this one was bombed during WWII. Built between 1842-47, the Chain Bridge connected Buda and Pest, forming today’s Budapest.

Now on the “Buda” side of Budapest, the terrain suddenly became much hillier. Alternating between a steep road and steps, we made our way up to Castle Hill. Commanding views of the Danube and the Pest side were our reward. Now rather warm, all of us had shed outer layers and were now wearing short sleeves. To our left in the distance was the Freedom Statue, a reminder of the Russian’s help in liberating Budapest from the Nazis. The guide explained that the distaste for Communism and Russian occupation was so strong that virtually all of the Soviet statues/monuments were promptly removed after the fall of Communism. The Freedom Statue was one of the rew remaining remnants, still present due to the intercession of a Hungarian leader. One of our first destinations was the St. Mátyás Church, built in 1255-69. Like other buildings in Budapest, this one contained several different architectural styles. Currently, the gothic tower was scaffolded, taking its turn in the long process of renovation. The tiled roof, consisting of brown, green, yellow, and cream colors, added a distinctive touch. Tourists and locals filled the plaza, relishing the warm sun and perhaps an ice cream cone. One lady quietly held up her embroidery work for tourists to see. Pigeons were everywhere.

Nearby were reminders of the toll WWII took on Budapest. One building, (a former stable) where Nazis were holed up in retreat, still bore the potmarks of gunfire. A steeple, the only remaining part of a bombed church, has been preserved as a monument.

With the tour now over, I wandered through the Castle Hill streets. Pricey souvenir shops, cafés, and shops selling ice cream and other sweets lined the narrow streets. There was a relaxed atmosphere, rather different from the downtown Pest side. Taking a tram back to the Pest side, I went to see the ornamental Great Synagogue. Very few Jews remain in Hungary, but the building is a testament to the greatness of former years, including a capacity of more than 3,000 people. The dominant terracotta color of the building and the onion-domed towers provided additional distinction. The Star of David motif was repeated everywhere, tastefully portrayed in the brick, glass tracings, and even the clock.

I was now ready for my next destination – the Market Hall. This large landmark, a 19th century steel-framed brick building houses a huge produce market on the first floor and crafts and some eating stalls on the second floor. Hungry, I bought some fruit to gather some extra strength for shopping. Sausages, cheese and other specialties hung from the stalls. On the top floor, the number of stalls selling embroidered tablecloths and other goods was rather overwhelming. Some of the crafts were rather nice (but also pricey), while others were downright cheesy – such as the Russian nesting dolls with pictures of Harry Potter, Michael Jackson, or Kerry. Quality varied greatly. Not finding a doll that neither was too expensive, mass-produced looking, or displaying large imperfections (such as a crooked wig), I moved on. I looked in other stores along the large walking street and after much looking, finally found a ceramic doll (in traditional embroidered dress) that was satisfactory in its porcelain cleaning, painting, and not horribly expensive. After a quick supper, I hopped the bus back to Margaret Island and back to my hotel around 9 pm.

After the same breakfast, I headed towards the train station. One train and bus later, I arrived in Szentendre, a town about 18 km north of Budapest. I entered a grocery store, buying some food for lunch, as well as some plastic wrap in a cutting box (I was tired of using a scissors to cut plastic wrap in Belgrade). Walking past the large finger monument, I entered the more touristy part of the town, cobblestone narrow streets with restored buildings in bright but tasteful colors. Lace curtains covered most windows in this town. There were tons of craft shops, antique stores, cafés, restaurants, and ATM machines, all welcoming tourist dollars. Like in Budapest, English was frequently heard, in addition to German, Japanese, and other languages. Now near midday, many tour groups filled the streets, with the tour leader holding up an umbrella or pinwheel as a guiding device. Serbians settled here at the end of the 17th century, fleeing from the Turks, Seven churches were visible, including 4 Serbian Orthodox, 2 Catholic, and one Calvinist.

After a quiet lunch by a river, I walked back to the bus station to find out departure times for Scansin, an open air museum containing collected restored homes from 18th and 19th century Hungary. As the bus didn’t leave for another hour, I walked past the finger monument once again and headed into the touristy part of Szentendre, wandering the streets and taking some photos. The bus driver announced when we were at the museum’s entrance, and many people also exited the bus. The museum reminded me a lot of Old World Wisconsin, which has done a great job of giving visitors an idea of how different ethnic groups settling in Wisconsin lived – type of homes, furnishing, technology, farms, and more. Unlike Old World Wisconsin, the museum workers were not dressed in traditional costume. It was neat peeking inside the homes to see how people from different regions, religions, and times lived – types of furniture, kitchen furnishings, size of beds, and much more. Outside, sheep munched on the green grass. Some of the tools and equipment inside the barns reminded me of some I had seen in the granary shed on the family farm in Wisconsin. Signs posted in Hungarian and English helped explain the purpose of the buildings, their owner, and other important information. Although the sky clouded up several times threatening rain, I was able to see the entire exhibit.

After another long day, I headed back to the hotel. I had a few minutes left before the next-door public pool closed, so I jumped in and did a few laps. Coming down with the cold that affected the entire school, I decided it was best for me to rest for the night.

The next day it was raining – a perfect day for museums. I started out at the Ethnographic museum. As in Belgrade, this ethnographic museum had a nice collection of traditional costumes from around the country. There, I met a German woman who was upset by the fact that her Budapest card covered only the permanent collection and not the other exhibitions. After the worker explained that the change was due to the May entrance into the EU, I calmly told her it would not be helpful to complain to the man – instead she should contact the Budapest Card company regarding the undocumented change. After waking through the exhibit, we headed together across the street to the Parliament. What started out to be drizzle quickly turned into moderate rainfall. So we, like the others, stood out in the rain (a weather watcher as most Wisconsinites are, I rightly brought along my umbrella), waiting for the next tour. An English-speaking guide showed a large group around several areas of the building. It had some unique touches, including special cigar holders for men who had to rush in and hear important discussions, a large hand-woven carpet (bubble-gum was forbidden inside, as this would have ruined the carpet), a replica model made out of matchsticks, marble columns and floors, and the famous crown. After enjoying some Goulash, I headed towards the art museum, which housed a nice collection including several Goyas, El Grecos, and Breugel paintings.

All packed up, I made my final jaunt to explore a bit more of the Pest side. With my Budapest card now expired (I was supposed to leave for Belgrade around 11), I walked around and enjoyed the good weather. I now felt quite oriented to the city and didn’t need to refer to a map to get to my destination. After a meal in the Great Market (I was hoping to find some nice gifts, but came away empty-handed), I meandered back to the hotel. After a nice extended weekend, I was now ready to get back to Belgrade.

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