31 Aug Budapest: Weekend in a Hungarian City
When I went to Budapest, sadly I only had a weekend (wedged between two other trips) to taste the Paris of the East. My hotel room was on the Pest side of the Danube River, a niche in a fortified building, a cockroach riddled, pock-marked veteran of the 1956 revolution. Outside my window, clotheslines hung above city traffic and constructions. I had to get my priorities in order. How would I see so much in so little time? I cursed myself for having the plane ticket to Athens. I was already smitten with Hungary.
First thing is first. I had to eat. Ok, so in this regard I’m biased. I enjoy eating and drinking local fare more than just about anything. It’s a great way to chat with locals and get a genuine taste of the flavors of the culture. I found an underground spot where steamy aromas filled the cheap, dimly-lit eatery, and ate till I nearly exploded.
Budapest leaves nothing to want in the food department. I enjoyed a slew of delicious treats from trout with almonds, potatoes and green beans to Goulash to thyme roasted chicken with goat cheese mashed potatoes. There is a fabulous array of beer, as well. It’s the birthplace of the Vienna lager. Delicious pilsner-style lagers and double bocks abounded.
Next I went to City Park where a wine and beer festival was taking place and for a minimal fee I sipped local libations and met lots of interesting people. Booths lined walking path run by locals as well as traveling nomads selling hand-made crafts to the rhythms of live drum beats. I thought I’d lucked out, but no, a glass-working German couple informed me that the park is hopping nearly every weekend with some sort of festivity.
Around the corner a massive gate, modeled from a castle in Transylvania, guards the statue of Bela’s chronicler, Hungary’s first historian. Touching the quill in its hand means you will be documented in the future annals history. That’s right. I touched it. Apart from more sculptures, a common addition to almost all the buildings in this stunning city, there was a live Hungarian quartet playing the fastest violin ever.
Architecture and art are two of Budapest’s many gems. I hit Heroes Square to take a look at the enormous statues honoring the founding fathers of the seven tribes of Hungary. Nearby, the Museum of Fine Arts contains an immense art collection, over 100,000 international pieces. The building itself is a work of art. I was also particularly touched by the immense quantity of gold that went into the construction of St. Stephen’s Basilica and caught myself pondering how many suffered to build and pay for it.
Later, I strolled along the Danube. Both sides of the river are beautiful: Pest with its urban flatness and Buda with its hills. On the Pest side I encountered the strange androgynous bronze creature named “the little princess” and developed a strange affinity for it.
Crossing the Széchenyi Chain Bridge with lions guarding both sides took me across to Old Buda. An anecdote about the bridge is that the sculptor forgot to put tongues on his lions. They lions do have tongues, in fact, but they can only be seen from above. Legend says the sculptor threw himself into the Danube in shame. I climbed up on the railing of this massive bridge and I’m here to tell you the fall would not be pretty. On the Buda side, the famous rock-carved baths and caves at the base of Gellért Hill were well-worth the visit.
Finally, I hunted for bohemian street art in the alleys of downtown Pest where artists dabbled in everything from portraits to spray paint. I struck up some interesting conversation and got an authentic sense of the context from which these people come.
It was fast, but I felt satisfied enough …to start planning a significantly longer return trip to Budapest.