What does one do for 10 days in Budapest? What does one do in any great city with a spectacular riverfront, classic buildings, and a complicated history that demonstrates the best, and the worst, of human nature?For ten days Katherine and I walked and rode public transportation – subways, buses, streetcars and boats – throughout this city. Here are some of the highlights of our semi-random wanderings.
First, the river. The Danube is the second longest river in Europe and flows through or along the borders of 10 countries and four capital cities. The section that flows through Budapest – dividing the once separate cities of Buda on the west bank from Pest on the east – is one of the most scenic riverfronts I have ever seen.
Overlooking the river from a hill on one side is the Buda Castle, originally built in the 13th Century. On the other side of the river is the Parliament Building, a 19th Century Gothic Revival landmark that I just couldn’t stop taking photos of as the lighting changed or perspectives shifted – e.g., from the heights of the Castle District, the deck of a boat as we passed by, or one of the two bridges to the North and the South. The Castle, the Parliament and the many Art Nouveau buildings on the riverfront are also visible from the promenades on both sides of the Danube.Although the views were less dramatic off the river, our perambulations were just as satisfying. One of my favorites was a guided walk of the old Jewish Quarter, with its winding, alley-like streets, and synagogues, from the grand (the “Great Synagogue,” the largest functioning synagogue in Europe) to more modest temples tucked almost unobtrusively into the neighborhood. I’m not a big fan of traditional Jewish cooking. I had many fights with my Mom when I was growing up over my refusal to eat her beef flanken, a grey piece of gristly, overcooked beef boiled in soup. The memory still makes me shudder. So I wasn’t tempted to eat in any of the kosher restaurants in the neighborhood, but I did indulge in the classic Jewish-Hungarian pastry, flodni — a layered delight of plum, poppy seed, apple, walnut and cake. No shuddering there.
Another great walk was along Andrassy ut (avenue), the Fifth Avenue (or Rodeo Drive, depending on your US coastal orientation) of Budapest. A shady walk takes you from the high-end stores and Opera House near the downtown area past classic, Neo-Renaissance mansions, town houses and embassies close to City Park at the other end of the avenue. A great walk for window-shopping; more serious shopping on Andrassy could do some serious damage. Katherine managed to resist adding to her growing collection of handbags from around the world.
City Park holds a number of attractions, including the Szechenyi Spa, the first thermal bath established in Budapest, the “City of Baths,” and the largest therapeutic bath in Europe. It was a bit strange, sort of like a hot tub with hundreds of people, including way too many hairy, Eastern European men with potbellies in skimpy Speedo-like bathing suits. Ugh! It doesn’t compare with the sulfur baths on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean at Esalen, but soaking in the warm water felt pretty good, as long as I could avoid brushing up against the guys in the Speedos.
It should come as no surprise to my regular readers (all three of you) that one of my favorite mornings was spent at the Nagyvásárcsarnok (pronounce that!) Market in South Pest, the largest and oldest indoor market in Budapest. One of the best meals of our trip was the stuffed cabbage we had for lunch at one of the stalls. As if there wasn’t enough cabbage wrapped around the ground meat, the platter also included one of the largest and best tasting servings of sauerkraut I have ever had. I did pay for that lunch for a couple of days afterwards, and I don’t mean the few Florian (the Hungarian currency) it cost – if you catch my drift (I recommend you stay upwind).By the way, the girl in the photo below trying to get the large chocolate-covered thing into her mouth shared a stand-up table with us at the market. I don’t remember her name or where she was from (somewhere in England), but she was a good sport in allowing me to memorialize one of the more awkward moments of her life.My next to last highlight was visiting the Budapest Jazz Club, a world class jazz venue that was just a few minutes walk from our digs at the Adina. Jazz, especially the kind that sends most people running for the exit, is one of my passions (along with Larry David, eating, and watching football on TV). During our visit, the club was featuring a series of concerts by the members of the graduating class of the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music. I didn’t have high expectations, but I was blown away by the group led by pianist Rafael Mario, the son, I was told by a woman sitting next to us, of a well known Hungarian jazz pianist. The saxophonist, Varga Gergelky, was also very impressive. Remember these names. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them at some of the top clubs in LA and NYC in a few years.
This review of highlights concludes on a more somber note. One of the sites on our must-see-list was The Shoes on the Danube, a memorial to the Jews who were executed by members of the Arrow Cross, a fascist militia during WWII. The victims were lined up on the edge of the bank overlooking the Danube, ordered to take off their shoes, prized possessions during the war, and shot so that their bodies would fall backward into the river and wash away downstream. The memorial consists of cast iron shoes in the style of the time, including a very disturbing set of tiny children’s shoes.What made this even more unsettling are recent ominous developments in Hungary, perhaps best symbolized by a disputed memorial in the center of the city to the “occupation” of Hungary by Nazi Germany in 1944. The memorial was erected in the middle of the night in 2014 amid great controversy. Since then, demonstrations and impromptu, unofficial additions to the memorial tell a different story about the so-called “occupation.” I will let my photo of one of these additions tell this alternative story.Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. In recent years support for the Jobbik party, which espouses an explicitly anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic ideology, has grown dramatically, gaining almost 21% of the total votes in the 2014 parliamentary elections. There is some indication that support for the party may be dropping, however.
This is not a reason to avoid Budapest. For me, controversy and tension make a place more interesting, especially if the issues reflect more universal concerns that transcend the borders of a single nation. Besides, for Budapest the positive side of the ledger heavily outweighs the negative.
Hungary has its Jobbik party, the US has Donald Trump. The dark forces of history, and perhaps the present, are writ large in Budapest. There is much to be learned from strolling its streets, neighborhoods and river front.
Rick Steves, the Lonely Planet Guide and others have covered the best places to sleep, eat and visit in the tourist areas. I have little to add to that. But after ten days in Northern Pest I do have a few recommendations in the neighborhood that you may not find in the usual sources.
I did find the Adina in the Lonely Planet Guide, so all I can do is affirm, enthusiastically, their description. I have gushed over the place in previous posts, so I’ll just briefly repeat that if you are looking for a spacious, well-appointed and quiet place to stay just a bit removed from the main tourist sites, this is the place. I should also add that the staff were very friendly and helpful.
Just 2-3 blocks south of the hotel is the Beer Store. I think that the address is 32 Hegedus Gyula utca (the hotel is at 52-54 Hegedus). Just look for the bleery-eyed guys hanging out on the sidewalk with pints of freshly poured beer clutched in their hands.
About a block or so west on the closest cross street to the Beer Store, Csanady utca, is one of our two favorite restaurants in the neighborhood, Kanaan Bisztro and Cafe, an elegant, upscale (but not expensive by US standards), and innovative restaurant that we ate at several times. The spare ribs were my favorite entree.
About a block north on Victor Hugo u. 35 (that is the official way to list an address) is the Greek restaurant, Gyradiko Estia. Excellent food at a reasonable price.
For something completely different, try the Vietnamese restaurant, the Oriental Soup House at Balzac utca 35. One block west, close to the river is tree-lined Poszonyi ut. There are several attractive restaurants with outdoor tables which we didn’t have a chance to try out, with one exception, Babka. Their mezze platter was very good.