Free Day in Budapest October 7

facades on Szondi Utcasee the lady in the window? Ahh, our free day lies before us with only our own agenda to think of. Perfect. Even though the morning dawned with a bit of a cloudy sky, the temperature was till warm enough that it wouldn’t interfere with our plans to walk the city and go to the baths. I knew before we came on this trip that Budapest was famous for its healing waters and beautiful public baths.

One of the reasons I enjoy group tours is that I can get a taste of the culture and the history of the people through the conversation of the tour guide.  Our group guide Lorena is a charming woman, but her insight into the country is at the level of a Wiki search.  She would offer a few tidbits but they weren’t at all connected.  Our local tour guide Bernice had even less to offer, with some history and dates and names but no personal stories to flesh it all out.  I really missed that.

walking along Szondi Utca  GoAhead Tours offers the usual tour support, including luggage management (a really nice plus), transportation between airports and hotels, a few meals, and back-up trouble shooting if you really need it. The other thing that Go Ahead offers are group tours for a price.  Usually the price is quite high for the convenience of what you get.  It is similar to those excursions on cruise ships that can be so expensive. In Budapest, one of the “optional” tours was a day long cruise of the Danube and lunch in some remote estate with wine of course.  With so few days in the city, I didn’t want to waste our time floating along the river looking at scenery.  I wanted to walk the streets and look at buildings and signs and sit in street cafes and watch the people.

Free Day in Budapest 10-7-2012 2-15-55 AM The other big thing I wanted to do in Budapest was experience the amazing thermal waters.  Because of its location on limestone there are more than 100 thermal springs that feed the city’s famous bathhouses.  The water emerges at 35 to 76 degrees C and was the source of a flourishing spa culture in the Roman Age. Buda and Pest were occupied by the Ottoman’s from 1541 to 1686 and the Turkish bathhouses prospered.  Many of the spas of today are traditional Turkish baths.  The spa list is long, but after reading about several, including the famous Gellert Baths, I knew that the beautiful Szechenyi Spa in City Park was the place I wanted to visit on this Sunday in Budapest

Melody and I slept in a bit and then had a leisurely breakfast with another couple, Joan and Frank from southern California, at the hotel buffet.  We really enjoyed them throughout the trip. Sometimes the group dynamics of these tours can get a bit crazy, but this group was great. People were friendly and we could move from one couple or group of friends to another, sharing conversation and time with different people at different times.  Melody was especially popular since she was the resident iPhone, Skype, and Wireless access guru for several folks. 

almost 6 miles according to googleWe fired up the iPad for walking directions to city park and decided that taking the Szondi Utca (street) would be a great route to give us a taste of a different kind of downtown city neighborhood.  The skies were a bit overcast and it was coolish, but not raining, and walking along Terez Korut in the daylight was fun. Things were still quiet on this Sunday morning, but the difference in energy between the main road and Szondi Utca was dramatic.  The road narrowed and the buildings were older, with crumbling facades and black encrusted sandstone faces. It was just under 2 miles to the park where the baths were located.

view from the terrace  at the Szechenyi Baths The Szechenyi Bath was built in 1909 in City Park, and is the largest spa in Europe.  It is a huge complex with gorgeous architecture, 3 outdoor pools, several saunas and steam rooms, and indoor spring fed pools of varying temperatures. Outside the entrance we bought cheap little Hungarian flip flops and then walked into one of the more amazing experiences of our trip.  On entry, we paid our 3400 florints (about $14.90) and were given little plastic watches that were used to lock and unlock our rented “cabin” which was just a small changing room.  It was nice to have a private place to dress and a safe space to store our belongings while we were in the baths.

Melody under the fountain  at the Szechenyi Baths We stayed there for hours, at least 4 I think, but I lost track of time.  We slipped into the big pools first and thrilled at the warm water and views of all the baroque architecture and statuary.  We also thrilled at some of the beautiful people and were happy to see lots of not beautiful people as well.  Just as in the pictures, there were old men playing chess on big chess boards right in the water.  We then went into the inside pools and wandered from building to building trying out each of the pools in turn.  Of course, the cold pool was really cold after all that nice hot water, but once I got in it made my skin tingle when I got back out and into the hot water.  So invigorating.  I had to really work hard at convincing Melody she could do it, but once in she loved it too.

inside pools  at the Szechenyi Baths I know there were tourists there, but there were a lot of families and older kids (not many small ones), and it seemed that most of the language being spoken was Hungarian, not German or English as is the case where there are a lot of tourists.  It was a completely healing experience, not only spiritually and emotionally, but physically!  My knee was very happy about that whole thing after a couple of days of serious walking. We enjoyed our great lunch right there in the spa, having tomatoes and cucumbers with feta and some kind of phyllo pastry thingy with lots of veggies in it that was really good.  And of course, beer.  Good beer.  Beer is cheaper than water just about everywhere in Eastern Europe.

we find our way to our little rented cabin inside the Szechenyi Baths Thoroughly relaxed we went back to our little cabin, and started the trek home via Andrassy Ut, the main thoroughfare that runs from City Park and Hero’s Square all the way to the Danube River and Parliament.  Andrassy Way is lined with huge palatial homes that were once owned by the wealthy, but were confiscated by the Nazis, and then again during the Communist invasion, and then later turned into embassies.  Our plan was to walk all of Andrassy to take in the fancy designer shops closer to the river, but instead we found ourselves intrigued by something called the House of Terror.

Free Day in Budapest 10-7-2012 5-59-03 AM For the first time since arriving in Hungary, I began to understand how oppressed this nation has been and how awful its recent history. Over and over the Magyar people have been almost completely destroyed, only to rise again, still maintaining their culture and their language. The museum wasn’t anything like I expected.  It told in stark detail the history of the Nazis in Budapest, the killing of the Jews, the oppression of the Soviet Gulag that replaced the Nazis when the Germans lost the war.  It was sobering and troubling, but somehow I understood how the people seem to be unwilling to talk much about it.  I at first thought the House of Terror was some kind of torture museum, and I was totally uninterested.  I am so glad that we wandered past this sober building with the photos of dead Hungarians embedded all along the walls.  In front of the building was a huge sculpture of heavy iron chains and poetry celebrating the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. 

Internment camps in Hungary In spite of the horrendous story, when I researched more Hungarian history, I read that even though 400,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered in the holocaust, the people of Budapest managed to save more than 60 percent of its Jewish Community. It is encouraging to see the transformational change in Hungary and Budapest that has happened since then and even more so since its entrance into the European Union in 2004.  I am not quite sure of the politics, but even though both Hungary and the Czech Republic are part of the European Union, neither country has yet to adopt the Euro.

Free Day in Budapest 10-7-2012 6-08-57 AM Hungarian history is hard to track, and as much as I read, I had a hard time retaining it.  The first settlement was attributed to Celtic tribes and then during the first century AD the Romans built a fortification that eventually evolved into a town. The Huns were never associated with Hungary, in spite of the name.  The Magyar (Hungarian) pagan horse-riding tribes arrived in 986 AD and the Christian Kingdom of SZt. Istvan (St Stephan) was established in the year 1000. St Stephan is now a national symbol of the country and the thousand year old crown that we saw in the Parliament yesterday was actually used by him. The Mongols showed up in 1200 or so, and then King Matthias (not sure what he was or how he got there!) brought the renaissance to Hungary. 

memorials to many killed in the House of Terror Then in the mid 1500’s the Ottoman Empire showed up until the Habsburg Empire centered in Austria took over.  The Ottoman and Austrian cultures still are a major part of life in Hungary. Hungary was almost autonomous for a short time after the defeat of the Habsburgs in the mid 1800’s and Buda, Pest, and Obuda were unified and the official city of Budapest was created in 1873 under the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. Confused yet?  Whew! the cafe on Terez Korut I am exhausted trying to track this, and spent much of my time in Budapest trying to figure it out and haven’t even included the “dark ages” of  World War I, the Nazi regime, World War II, and the Communists!

Air raids and a three-month siege towards the end World War II resulted in the death of more than 38,000 civilians and nearly complete destruction of much of the city.  Is it no wonder that it is hard to get Hungarians to talk about their history? When I asked Bernice a question about the Communist Era and how it happened she was short and snippy with me, and I actually have no clue what she said. Somehow, though, understanding the history of a country helps me to understand the culture a bit, and to appreciate what I am seeing in a completely different way.  Hopefully my “short version” will stick and as I look back at my experiences in Hungary.

10-7-2012 Free Day in Budapest After the intense and somewhat depressing visit to the House of Terror, we felt a change in the weather coming and decided that it was time to head back toward the hotel rather than continuing along Andrassy Way to the high end district.  Instead we walked toward our hotel along the main east/west boulevard, past lots of little shops and cafes and chose one with nice tables outside where we could sit and people-watch. The cappuccino was outstanding and the pastries light and flaky. I have to say, I was totally spoiled by the coffees in Europe.  Yum!  We needed a little pick-up since I was getting a bit worn out and we still had our evening cruise waiting.

Budapest Danube Cruise 10-7-2012 8-42-00 PMMelody and I are both trying to get picture on this dark rainy night with our iPhones from the boat on the Danube under the Chain Bridge The evening cruise on the Danube in the rain was something I won’t ever forget.  By the time we started walking the half mile or so to the piers the rain was coming down in full force. Our boat was just a nice size for a small dinner cruise, with a warm and lovely cabin protected from the rain.  During the classic Hungarian dinner we slowly made our way up and down the river past the incredibly lit Parliament buildings and under the illuminated bridges, all glistening in the rain.  Buda Castle shown on the hill above us, lit up like Christmas.  I can only imagine what Christmas would be like in this city with all the beautiful lights.  It was a fitting end to a wonderful day in one of the great cities of the world.

Many more photos from this lovely day in Budapest are online here.

Tour Day in Budapest October 6

Hero's Square 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.

morning light at Hero's Square 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.

inside the Hungarian Parliament building 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.

04 Parliament 10-6-2012 12-42-33 AM 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.

05 Buda Castle 10-6-2012 2-42-30 AM 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.

beautiful Hungarian tiles on the roof of St Matthias 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!

capturing the view from Castle Hill 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”

the Labryinth under Buda CastleHappy 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.
door in Buda Castle
the Labryinth under Buda Castle  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!

added some of Melody's chicken spaghetti to my gulyas chicken 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.

OK, that is one bid bird! 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.

cruises on the Danube 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.

afternoon walk home via the Chain Bridge 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. 

St Stephen's BasilicaOnce 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 dome in St Stephens  “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).[1] 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.

map 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