On this, our first morning in Budapest, we woke early, no alarm needed. Both of us were excited to see what this great city might have to offer. Breakfast is included every day at our hotels, and this one was just fine. There were excellent croissants and wonderful European breads, some kind of yogurt fruit soup, muesli with all the fixings, fruit, very smelly sausages and hot hard boiled eggs, juice and fruit and many coffee style choices. I especially loved that yogurt fruit soup and had it every day.
Our bus call was for 8:30 and it really was just a way to get a feel for the city. A woman from Hungary was our local guide, but I wasn’t that impressed. I kept hoping to get more information about the people and the city, but instead her commentary was dry and boring. Her accent was difficult as well. I was disappointed at the rush rush speed of the morning tour. We traveled along the boulevard to Hero’s Square, lovely in the morning sunlight and surrounded mostly by tour busses. As we exited the bus, we were told “You have fifteen minutes here”. Hmm. She issued little pink listening devices with earphones that were supposed to make hearing her easier, but if you were more than ten feet away the static was unbearable. She gave us a bit of history of each of the monuments, and even though there was some sort of celebration going on, I still don’t have a good sense of what holiday is being celebrated.
Fast photos, and back on the bus. Not impressed. I am glad we opted for a free afternoon and a full free day to ourselves tomorrow! Of course, the reason for the rush was so that we could make our 9:15 entry to Parliament. Nice to walk past the long lines of people without having to buy tickets or wait. There were soldiers at the entrance that looked so still we at first thought they were wax figures. Melody and I didn’t have a clue if taking photos was OK, and it was a bit scary to do so. I warned Melody but others were doing it and no one seemed to mind.
Once inside the building, we were led to the different halls, and finally to the crown room where the oldest crown in Europe is housed in a glass case surrounded by more guards. Now I have to say these guys were a lot more scary, and they were barking orders at people who got too close. One woman in our group got down on her knee to try to take a photo and the guard gruffly moved toward her with his gun and said “Get up, Get up!” Now why that was a problem, I have absolutely no clue!
We all squeezed into a tiny balcony overlooking the legislature hall for another few minutes before we were herded back into the main halls and funneled out into the bright sunshine. I suppose this rapid pace had nothing to do with our particular group because it seems that all groups were being herded around just as quickly. There were a LOT of tour groups there that morning.
Back to the bus for the ride across the river to Buda Castle in the “old” part of town. BudaPest is actually two cities that are separated by the Danube River, which was also once the limit of the Roman empire in this part of the world. There are rivers and then there are “Rivers”, and this is a big one. The history of the Danube in relation to human culture goes back into antiquity. The river travels through 9 countries and one of the delights of travel is taking a river cruise on the Danube in one of those Viking River Cruise Boats. (At least that is what I hear)
Somehow we expected Buda Castle to be an actual castle but it isn’t. It is a small area that was once enclosed within castle walls on a hill overlooking the river. The walls are still visible, but there isn’t a sign of a “castle” anywhere. Once again we were herded through the streets trying to hear Bernice’s comments through the static, and if she offered any explanation, I missed it.
At the top of the hills is the Matthias Church (not officially a cathedral), an imposing structure from the outside that wasn’t very impressive on the inside. Once again we entered without having to wait in line, and once again we were herded through the church fairly quickly. On our walk through the streets however, we did see some great little shops and were hoping that there might be some time later to explore. Imagine our surprise when she said “You have half an hour to be back at the bus”. Sheesh. I would imagine reading this you might wonder why in the world anyone would choose to go on a tour rather than going on their own. At this point, I was wondering the same thing!
Melody and I really wanted to stay on Castle Hill rather than being bussed back to Pest with the group. Looking across the river we could see that walking wasn’t an impossible thing and we told Lorena we planned to stay and get back on our own. A couple of people behind us were also interested in finding some other sights and decided to skip the bus as well. They had also heard of the hidden labyrinth under Buda Castle and this was one of Melody’s must do’s. Lorena pointed down the street and said, “It is right down there, and I think it might be open”
Happy to see the bus leaving us, we wandered down the cobblestone narrow street with our new friends Ellen and Roger, and almost passed right by the tiny sign that said “Labyrinth”. There is some controversy surrounding this place and my daughter loves a hidden controversy. She had found out about it on the internet, with all the intrigue of a special place that has been taken over by the government, supposedly for tax issues, but more than likely just because they wanted it, hidden and closed, and only recently reopened.
We stepped into the cool cavern and walked a short distance only to be stopped by an iron door with a lock. Awwwwww…dang!. Unsure what to do, and feeling really frustrated, we were surprised to hear the voice of someone behind the door saying, “It’s unlocked, just push”. So began our fun little foray down into the old limestone caverns that were under the old Buda Castle long before humans were there, but were then carved out for sinister and not so sinister reasons.
The caverns were used by the Romans for who knows what, and then in the tenth century they were used by King Matthias as a prison and torture chamber. The very Count Dracula himself was held in this place and tortured for 15 months. It definitely felt seriously creepy. The walls dripped with moisture and the air was dank and misty. The keepers of the place had some strange stuff in there, including wax figures dressed in French Renaissance clothing that seemed to have no relevance whatsoever. They also added to the creepiness with spooky music and blue lights. It actually made the place seem much less spooky to me because it was so dang campy. Still, seeing a place that has all sorts of hidden agendas is a bit creepy.
During World War II people hid from the Nazis and the bombings. They also stored food and wine in the cool caverns during peaceful times (not many of those in Hungary). Our friends stayed behind to watch a movie offered in one of the caverns but Melody and I decided it was time to go forth and find lunch!
Emerging into the sunlight, we ended up right at a perfect little place that turned out to be the oldest standing building in Buda Castle and had an amazing meal on the terrace overlooking the town streets. I had a chicken paprika and Melody had some kind of spicy chicken spaghetti and they were both so dang good we were swooning.
After lunch we walked back to the Fisherman’s Bastion and a little park where Melody succumbed to the photo opportunity guy with a giant golden eagle. It was worth every florint to her to hold that eagle and she said he weighed so much she could barely hold her arm up. Florints somehow seem like funny money, coming in bills representing thousands. At the moment, there are 227 florints to a US dollar, with most meals running between 1000 and 3000 florints.
We learned about florints the hard way at the ATM machine. I thought I would get about 50 US and put in my card. When the machine said what language I of course said “English”. Then up came the language and up came 50. My brain somehow thought they meant that the money was in English as well (Duh! I was tired!~) and I found myself with a handful of ten thousand florint notes and realized that I had taken out 227 dollars instead of 50 dollars. Whew! Lucky for me, our bus driver is Hungarian and I can keep at least part of that money for his tip without having to pay to have it exchanged into something else again.
The afternoon was waning and the beautiful sunlight would soon be behind the hills. We didn’t particularly want to walk around Budapest alone in the dark and decided it was time to head back across the river. But first we had to get off the hill and the best way to do this is via the funicular (an inclined railway up a cliff). We still weren’t completely familiar with converting florints to dollars but it didn’t matter and we paid our money and enjoyed the short ride downhill. With the brace and the walking sticks, I was doing fairly well, but my braking system was less then optimal and downhills were hard.
Just below Buda Castle is the Chain Bridge, classical beauty that crosses the Danube back to the Pest area of the city. Walking the bridge was wonderful because of the lovely views of the river, but also for the opportunity to do some serious people watching. It is a very popular place for bikers and walkers of all kinds.
Once on the other side, it was just a short distance to St. Stephens Basilica, where the right hand of the very long dead saint is kept in a small chapel. I am not Catholic, so relics are a bit foreign to me, but they seem to be a big part of the Catholic tradition in Europe. My Wiki search led me to discover that relics aren’t just a Catholic thing, but are an important aspect of some forms of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Shamanism as well as, and many other religions.We had to look up the difference between a Cathedral and Basilica, and a plain ole Church and learned that a Basilica is only designated as such by the Pope. This is a fun link if you care to read about the difference “What is a Basilica and how is it Different from a Cathedral?”
In spite of our ignorance of these details, the basilica was breathtaking. I am quoting here:
“The church is named for Saint Stephen I of Hungary, the first King of Hungary (c. 975–1038), whose incorruptible right hand is housed in the reliquary and is considered the most important church building in Hungary, one of the most significant tourist attractions and the third highest building in Hungary.
Equal with the Hungarian Parliament Building, it is one of the two tallest buildings in Budapest at 96 metres (315 ft) – this equation symbolises that worldly and spiritual thinking have the same importance. According to current regulations there cannot be taller building in Budapest than 96 metres (315 ft). It has a width of 55 metres (180 ft), and length of 87.4 metres (287 ft). It was completed in 1905 after 54 years of construction, according to the plans of Miklós Ybl, and was completed by József Kauser. Much of this delay can be attributed to the collapse of the dome in 1868 which required complete demolition of the completed works and rebuilding from the ground up.
Our walk home from Buda Castle was just a little over 3 miles one way, perfect for a sunny afternoon. We decided that dinner wasn’t necessary since our lunch had been substantial and delicious. Settling in for the evening, checking out the TV stations, we found one English speaking station, CNN International Version, which seemed to have nothing of current interest going on. The Hungarian stations were fun to watch and listen to, though, and we entertained ourselves a bit before deciding to try to get some rest.
Of course I took a TON of photos, and if you are interested, you can see them here.
Next: Free Day in Budapest, the Szechenyi Bath House, Andrassy Boulevard, and the House of Terror