Budapest is one of the grand cities of Europe, a place whose reputation for grand belle-of-the-ball architecture, all around the long and winding Danube river, precedes it. I visited here with my Eastern Europe-fixated friend a couple of years ago, and saw plenty that confirmed my pre-trip expectations that Budapest is, indeed, a bewitching place.
By time we’d rested, had a self-catered lunch and discussed what we might like to do, it was mid-afternoon. So we opted for a bit of a wander, ending up taking in the less than glamorous Southern Pest district more by accident than design. En route, the biggest immediate impression was the sheer number and variety of baroque, neo-classical and art nouveau buildings that rubbed shoulders alongside the other high rise buildings on Budapest’s streets.
Those buildings gradually faded out of sight as we got to the Jozsefvaros district. This area was full of battered-looking social housing, and the streets were thronged with huddles of people swigging from beer bottles. It reminded me a bit of certain parts of East Berlin: it felt like a weird, ironic sort of post-Communist hangover, as if this suburb was still part of the Soviet superstate. We did see one notable thing on this walk, Kersepi Cemetery, the burial place of many of Hungary’s most prominent historical figures, but it had closed by the time we reached there.
Our first full day in the city began with us heading to its main tourist draw – the Royal Palace and Castle Hill. Feeling a bit footsore from yesterday, we decided to take the Siklo funicular railway up the hillside, which dates from 1870.One short and slightly rickety ride later and we were stood by the royal palace. This sprawling, majestic complex dates from the late seventeenth century in its present incarnation, but it had been razed and rebuilt many times before that over the course of Budapest’s turbulent history. The elegant edifice is surrounded by beautiful grounds that are dotted with elaborate statues, whilst the national gallery, national library and Budapest history museum are all housed inside.
The palace is to the south of castle hill, commanding fantastic views of the city. Better still are those you get from Fisherman’s Bastion, next to the towering spires of Matthias Church, which make up part of the old town complex to the North of the palace. It’s breath-taking despite the inevitable gaggle of tourists crowding the walls around you. The highlight of the old town, at least for me, is the evocative hospital in the rock, where photography is sadly prohibited. This is an underground area directly beneath Budapest castle, which was utilised as an emergency medical facility first in the latter days of World War II (when Budapest was being heavily bombarded by the Red Army) and then again during the 1956 uprising.
St Stephen’s Basilica, along with Parliament, is one of the most majestic monuments on the Pest side of the river that is noticeable from Castle Hill. Inside, it’s not quite as grand as the world’s very finest cathedrals, but it has an air of moody, sombre grandeur that makes it very much worth a visit. Try to head in before 5pm so you can go to the Holy Right chapel and see the mummified hand of St Stephen, the first king of Hungary, which we unfortunately weren’t able to.
The next day was mostly about exploring the legacy of Budapest’s World War II and Cold War years, something which cast a dark shadow over the country for quite some time.The day began at Memento Park, a surreal outdoor collection of socialist memorabilia. It’s gathered and displayed with the stated purpose of acknowledging Hungary’s oppressive, cold war past, but also to affirm it has now superseded all that, as proven by arranging it all in one convenient place for tourists to gawp at.
It’s unsettling to think these monuments were lining Hungarian streets as recently as the early 1990’s. Statues aside – and yes, there are ones of Lenin, as well as a replica of the ‘boots of Stalin’ (the rest of the statue having been pulled down in the 1956 uprising) – the highlights are the East German Trabant car, which you can sit inside, and an indoor exhibition inside a disused barracks that gives some context to Cold War Budapest.
After a pit stop back at the Hostel we headed for one of Budapest’s most revered places, the Heroes’ Square on the fringes of City Park. Flanked by two grand art galleries, the square was built in the late 19th century to commemorate the glory days of the Magyars, with chieftains of this period guarding the Archangel Gabriel atop the centrepiece pillar. The colonnades at the North of the square are given over to famous Hungarian rulers and statesmen through history. All in all, a very impressive place, heavy in symbolism and, you suspect, an important part of Hungary’s national heritage.
It was a return to the gritty 20th century next, as we called in to the aptly named House of Terror, another place where photos are not allowed. Now a museum, this was the headquarters of first the Hungarian Nazis (known as the Arrow Cross Party) and then the AVO, later AVH, who were essentially the Hungarian secret police during the Cold War years. Both of them used this house as the base from which they would keep tabs on citizens and brutally punish dissidents, and the spirit of this is certainly kept alive within the walls of its present incarnation.
The ordinary-looking exterior belies what is inside; note the word ‘Terror’ stencilled in to the roof.
Everything about the museum seems designed to unnerve the visitor. Whether it’s the headphones that resemble nooses as they dangle from the ceiling on the top floor, the dramatic and sudden dimming of the lights that occurs in the ‘Resettlement and Deportation’ room on the first floor, or the video of a man recounting an execution he witnessed as you take the slow motion elevator ride to the basement, you’re never really allowed to feel at ease here. The reconstructed cells in the basement are particularly effective. Here, the showy audio-visuals that are ubiquitous elsewhere finally stop, as the experience of stepping in to the claustrophobic underground cells, designed in a way to crush all hope, is powerful enough in itself.
Excellent as this museum was, we needed to end the day on more of an uplifting note, and so paid a visit to the Central Market. A must for foodies and souvenir hunters alike, this huge indoor complex has stores stocking Hungarian wares as far as the eye can see. In the case of food, this means meat and paprika galore. It’s a good place to fill your belly at a bargain price, either if you’re self-catering on your travels or thinking of having a go at some Hungarian cooking when you return home.
We had a very enjoyable couple of days in what is indeed one of Europe’s very best cities. It has attractions, restaurants, nightlife and a public transport infrastructure to match just about anywhere I can think of. Sure we didn’t do everything some might say we were supposed to (a visit to one of Budapest’s famous thermal baths being one notable omission), but we still got a lot out of the trip, and left with a better understanding of this fascinatingly diverse, richly historical and very welcoming city.