Our last day began with a gorgeous sunrise and super-cold temperatures.
We boarded busses for the trip in to Budapest, and promptly fell asleep. When we awoke, we were crossing the Danube that divides the two halves of this city: Buda (hilly) and Pest (flat). The mist suggests the differences in temperature between the air and the river, which made a bus tour of the Pest side seem like a great idea.
Budapest is another UNESCO heritage city, but unlike Prague, the glory here is a bit more faded. Our guide mentioned that–because of the cost associated with restoring and renovating the historic facades and buildings–some have fallen into disrepair. Still the beauty of the city shines through–and you can see that the sun started to shine through, too, illuminating the “buda” side of the city as we began our “pest” tour.
One thing that struck me throughout our trip was how carefully and thoughtfully the buildings are ornamented. It always pays to look up and to look for the variations in window and door casements. This was not mass-production. Maybe Mies Van Der Rohe grew tired of such ornamented facades as a young man, but as someone who grew up surrounded by the flat, unornamented buildings he influenced, it makes me so happy to see all this color and decoration.
A recurring theme in our guide’s comments was that Hungary always seemed to pick the wrong side in every war, so it was always being conquered. It happened so often that eventually it seemed like a tragicomedy, as though other countries might look to see where Hungary was heading and go the other way. Something that had little comedy were the years of communist control of Hungary. The building below was the home of the secret police during the Soviet era, and our guide said that the strategy to survival during those years was to become invisible and melt into the crowd. She recounted how the police would come to homes after midnight and remove dissidents and take them to this building; these residents were never seen again. No one could be trusted because one way to avoid arrest and torture was to inform on friends and family. She shared that in the mid 50s, citizens in Budapest held a peaceful protest against the Soviet-installed government that ran for several days; the government “pretended” to want to begin talks and then later fired into the unarmed crowd gathered in the streets. It’s amazing to think that almost 30 years has passed since the fall of the Soviet era, but it’s clear that in cities like Prague and Budapest, the memories of those days will last for some time. One think I really liked about our tour guides is that they never hid the past while still being enthusiastic about the culture and future of their home towns.
We flew past the Hungarian National Museum, the Zoo, some thermal Baths, the Grand Synagogue, and more. The city was truly lovely, and we likely could have spent days there exploring it all.
But, we didn’t have days, so we sped across the bridge to the buda side of the city, which is home to the castle district. I said it was cold. Well, it was so cold, several of our fellow guests didn’t want to get off the bus, which we heard in great detail since our guide didn’t turn off her headset. Detente was reached when she agreed to find them a little cafe in which to warm up while we continued our tour.
For part of our tour, the sun made a glorious return, creating picture perfect skies to show off the colorful buildings of the castle district. In the photo on the lower right, you’ll see an old, faded blue car.
Here’s a close up. It’s a Trabant, which was a Soviet-era car–poorly made, it was one of the only cars available to Hungarians, who put their names on long lists and waited to get them. By the way, they had to pay up front, even if they might not receive the car for years. Now, the cars have become hot commodities for hipsters, and our guide even had one as her wedding “limousine.”
The castle district is filled with lovely shops, impressive statues, and great restaurants, but since we were touring on January 1, things were fairly quiet.
At the top of the hill is …. surprise, another cathedral! This one is Matthias Church, which was founded by … St. Stephen! It is the only church founded by a St. Stephen on our tour that has also doubled as a mosque. The frescos inside were painted over during Turkish occupation to eliminate visual representations of God. Then, they were restored during communist occupation, because of course.
You’ll see a raven on top of a spire in the right photo above. The raven was the heraldic animal symbol of Matthias, and the story is that a raven stole the king’s gold ring. So, this statue holds a gold ring in its beak. Because Budapest.
It’s so cold, Penn eventually becomes nothing more than a Little Goat Diner hat.
We were here!
While we were touring the area around Matthias Church, the weather began to shift dramatically. No more sun, just damp, damp chill and grey skies.
You could see it rolling in over the Danube and on into the castle district.
Our tour ended here, and we had a few moments to set off in search of any shops open along our way back to the bus. We managed to find a cute gallery featuring all made-in-Hungary goods, and learned that Rochester is everywhere:
Now, fully chilled through the bones, we were bussed back across the river to–what was promised as–some of the best food in Budapest as a restaurant called Matyas Pince. Some promises are worth believing!
Our lunch consisted of some wonderful vegetable soup, thick slices of bread, a huge plate of goulash over noodles, a side plate of pickled vegetables (including a wonderfully hot and sweet pickled pepper!), and a delicious strudel. Everything was warming and delicious, and the setting was simply lovely, dating back to the turn of the last century.
Yum! Post lunch, Penn dreams of goulash and Hans Zimmer.
And, he and Harper get their “we’re not twins” on.
Because we couldn’t sail the Danube into Budapest, VRC arranged a separate cruise OF the Danube for us. The beauty of the city was dulled a bit by the fog, but still managed to impress.
Barely visible from the river is one of Budapest’s most touching tributes to the victims of the Holocaust: the Shoes on the Danube Bank. During German occupation, Jewish citizens in the city were ordered to the banks of the Danube, told to remove their shoes, and then shot so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away. In 2005, this memorial was created featuring casts of the shoes.
In the distance on the hill in the lower left, you can see a statue: the Liberty Statue. The name has an ironic meaning for Hungarians. The statue was erected by the Soviets after they liberated Budapest from the Nazis. However, as our guide pointed out, “after they liberated us, they forgot to leave.” Thus, began over four decades of Soviet rule. Poor Hungary. In case you think the irony ends there, when Hungary entered the EU, they were presented with a giant clock … that broke in the first year and would cost too much to repair. So, next time you eat a plate of goulash, send a happy thought to Hungary.
After the cruise, we waited a bit for the busses (which clearly made Boris nervous, as he could see the day’s evaluations dropping with each minute in the cold).
When we got back to the ship, we found that it had snowed! Snow!!!! Of course, dangerous play ensued.
Because what could be better than hurling oneself down a hill into a pile of rocks that served as the only barrier between slider and river? Nothing.
Yes, dear reader, she lived.
And, after one last delicious dinner, we turned in early, prepared for a 4 am call that would take us zipping down Hungarian highways to the Budapest airport as we said goodbye to a grand European adventure.