Budapest is quite picture-perfect, and being a photographer, I rank this high on a destination's list of desirable characteristics. Composed of Buda and Pest, you get two cities for the price of one. The regal past of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is evident but the grimy industrialism of Communism remains in the mix to this day. Pest's landscape is quite flat while Buda is perched on high hills overlooking Danube sunrises and the Gothic architecture of the Hungarian Parliament building. I chose a hotel adjacent to Fisherman's Bastion and the Castle where views were stunning both day and night. The neighborhood where we resided is old-world and chock full of ancient doorways, parks, old churches, and the Royal Palace complete with its grounds of lively equestrian statues and sparkling fountains. Walking seems to be the transportation mode of choice as several winding paths lead up to Castle Hill culminating near the famous Chain Bridge.
Upon arrival to the city, however, walking to our hotel was not an option. We hoisted our carry-ons off the plane and made our way to the main arrival gate to find a local taxi company to drive us to the Hilton Hotel high on Castle Hill. I didn't realize the taxi drivers here are dare devil race car enthusiasts who don’t give a second thought to driving down the wrong side of the road to screech past a car on narrow two lane highways. I know I screamed more than seven times on that ride to the hotel. I heard myself praying out loud and fumbling for the middle seat belt to give me added protection from being hurtled out the window at the next intersection. It was an excruciating 40 minutes to our hotel. I was never so grateful to exit a vehicle.
Our room overlooked the beautiful brownish (not the sunny blue that Strauss wrote about) and somewhat muddy Danube (there had been several days of rain prior to our arrival) with outstanding views up and down the river. After a much needed three-hour nap, we made our way out of our room for the evening to explore the surrounding neighborhood. The hill town of Buda grew up around its castle and Matyas Church from the beginning of the 13th century. Buda flourished under kings and wealthy German merchants who set up shops to supply the royalty. The area was later destroyed by the Turks and again by their evictors and later rebuilt after World War II. Fisherman's Bastion, located in our hotel's backyard, and a Unesco World Heritage Site, was designed by Frigyes Schulek in 1895. By its name, one would think it was built as a defensive structure, but no, it serves instead as a viewing terrace. Some of my most memorable shots in Budapest were taken from 5:50AM to 6:30 AM (I am grateful for jet lag at times) watching a stunning golden sunrise through those magical arches. The conical towers of the Bastion were made to resemble the tribal tents of the early Magyars. Many nights, we sat on the stone benches of the Bastion to gaze at the fully illuminated Parliament building and the other famous iconic structures along the river, talking with others who were visiting this magnificent city. There is no worry of crime or concern for safety in the wee hours, and the streets are rarely overcrowded. People are friendly.
To appreciate the remarkable views in the city, the next best thing to renting a helicopter is taking the funicular railway that starts in Adam Clark Square. The Budavari Siklo was originally intended as a quick and inexpensive commute for workers employed in the Castle district at the top of the hill. It is now entirely a carnival ride for the tourists. The quaint wood-panelled carriages look like tiny, antique garden sheds, and seem to be in excellent shape for their age. Their near perfect condition is explained, however, by the fact that the original machinery of the 1870 Siklo was destroyed during the WWII. The current railway is a replica that was built in 1986. The ride lasts a mere 90 seconds and, and costs 1,000 forints (almost £3) per adult. It's a cheap thrill, but you barely have time for one good photo.
Being the cemetery enthusiast that I am, our first day's priority was Kerepesi Cemetery. It was a long two-hour walk across the Danube and through a maze of city streets in Pest before we finally arrived at Kerepesi on the opposite side of town. Exploring at street level, though. is always best as it reveals countless small surprises along the way. Since 1847, Karpesi Cemetery has served as final resting place for many of Hungary's most prominent citizens. Achingly poignant, distraught statues adorn many of the graves. I was searching for the most mournful, wretched and miserable figures and they were here in this place. I was not disappointed. You could cut the sorrow with a chainsaw. The stone people seemed to be ironically alive with pain and torment as their grief was palpable. Those not buried in single tombs reside in ancient mausoleums, some crumbling in ruin. It was magnificent. There are tombs of poets, actors, writers, sculptors, painters composers and architects sprinkled throughout the gorgeous green park-like setting. Tree-lined roads lead to several smaller areas of the cemetery where off in the distance, you could spy a distraught female figure kneeling in the overgrown grass, weeping into her robe. Giant stone angels stood tall with wings outspread guarding their departed. Many have called this place the Père Lachaise of Hungary. We were the only people there that afternoon which added to its mystery. Karpesi is a remarkable cemetery and well worth an afternoon stroll.
Most visitors leave Budapest without ever trying one of the famous spa baths that are a relic of the Turkish occupation of the area centuries ago. The water here comes from natural springs and is rumored to have healing properties. Budapest has more thermal springs than any other capital city in the world. An amazing 70 million liters of thermal water rises to the surface daily. The hot springs have given birth to dozens of medicinal baths and to a bathing culture dating back to Roman times. In lieu of actually getting into one of these famous spa baths, though, we opted to do the next best thing. We visited one and took paparazzi photos of all the bathers. It is amazing what you can capture with a long lens and a little patience.
One of the most enjoyable activities we did was to rent a replica Model T car complete with suicide doors and a uniformed driver. This well-informed guide drove us from the hotel, all the way to Hero's Square, through neighborhoods where local Hungarians lived, down the fanciest of shopping districts, through famous landmarks, and back across the Danube to our hotel, all in an hour and a half. There are only four of these special cars in Budapest. It was so unusual that people on the street stopped, stared, waved and photographed us as we passed. We felt like the Royal Family in this classy convertible. I found myself waving with a backwards hand like Queen Elizabeth by the end of our ride. After our tour ended, I suddenly realized I had forgotten to ask the driver for a receipt for our payment. I ran back out to the car and said, "May I have a receipt?". He promptly replaced his cap and strode back to the rear of the car and opened the back door so I could "reseat" myself. It took me a minute to realize the misunderstanding.
Of course, no trip to a famous European destination is quite the same without stopping in for a couple of t shirts from the local Hard Rock Café. My son always wants a new t shirt along with his burger and fries. We had the best view in the house in front of their largest music video screen and hundreds of rock and roll relics framed and hanging on the walls surrounded us. From cheesy burgers to something far more sophisticated, that same day, we chose a late afternoon fete at the Four Seasons. Stopping by for a bathroom visit, we couldn’t help but become entranced by the ballroom music emanating from the grand piano in the Louis 14th style dining area of this magnificent palace. The hotel resides in Gresham Palace, one of the most graceful Art Nouveau buildings in the city, and was commissioned by the London-based Gresham Life Assurance Company. It occupies a prime location in the square on the Pest side of the famous Chain Bridge. I was actually quite comfortable in the ladies room, complete with overstuffed upholstered antique chairs, piped in music, thirsty terry cloth towels and scented Provencal lotions. I spent a good 20 minutes in that royal toilet enjoying the ambiance and luxury of the Four Seasons. I finally emerged, smelling of Lily of the Valley and feeling rejuvenated to find my son fast asleep on a marble encased lavender couch in the lobby, covered in our backpacks and camera gear. I could have remained in the throne room longer, but hunger overcame me, and petit fours and finger sandwiches called my name. For a mere $30 each, we enjoyed the most delicious steaming pots of Jasmine tea, and three plated layers of intricate, sinful delicacies, all warm from the oven. What we could not consume, were neatly packed in cardboard containers surrounded in tissue and placed in a fancy, colorful shopping bag, tied neatly with ribbon. I photographed the magnificent and very tall Paris flower market style floral arrangements that surrounded the lobby chairs on the way out. We also posed with the Ferraris and Porches that were for sale in the circular drive in front of the hotel. I did check the rates for the Four Seasons and the rooms started at $350 per night with a view of an ordinary alley ranging to $3000 for a pent house suite. Maybe we should upgrade for our next visit!
Budapest is home to the third largest Parliament building in the world. The Parliament Building covers an area of 193,750 sq feet, has 691 rooms, 12,5 miles of stairs and it is 315 feet high. There are 90 statues on the façade and 88 pounds of 23-carat gold was used to decorate the interior. Almost all literature about Budapest features a photo of this striking building. We spent an afternoon walking its perimeter and caught a couple of wedding couples having their photos taken on the lawn. We also witnessed the changing of the guard with strutting soldiers struggling to hang on to some sense of decorum amid the camera-clicking hordes.
St. Stephen's Basilica was the next stop on our itinerary. Dedicated to St. Stephen, the first Hungarian Christian king, this church was begun in 1851. It was built in the classical style and its dome is as high as the dome of the Hungarian Parliament. We chose to photograph the ceiling of its interior, a magnificent golden, painted mural. Afterward, we took the lift to the dome for panoramic views of the city. Perhaps the most unusual relic in Budapest resides in this church. The mummified forearm of King Istvan is housed in the aptly named "Chapel of the Holy Right Hand". I like the fact that they label things so concisely. If you look closely, you can see that King Istvan was in dire need of a nail trim before his demise. All the details of his hand are eerily and pristinely preserved.
I was on the lookout for ancient and ornate doors and windows on this trip, and there was no disappointment on the famous Andrassy Street, a very swanky shopping area with loads of expensive and very desirable retail therapy. I was a total door whore. There were doors with naked stone women supporting the side balconies, doors with old metal locks and arched tops, doors of every color and texture, doors to make your mouth water. The Hungarian State Opera House is also on this famous street, complete with Egyptian sphinx statues and heavy, wrought iron lanterns. Opened in 1884, the State Opera House was built to rival those in Paris, Vienna, and Dresden. Its beautiful architecture and interiors were the life's work of a great Hungarian architect named Miklos Ybl. The symmetrical façade of this building follows a musical theme. A sculpture of one of Hungary's most prominent composers, Franz Liszt is featured just outside the front entrance. Strolling down Andrassy Street took a good part of an afternoon as we were lured into several shops to explore, including a delightful Nespresso shop, where we sampled 12 different types of expresso, feeling really awake by the time we left, and then explored a fabulous sunglass shop, and investigated a number of fancy dress shops. My most unexpected fabulous fashion find was a handmade, white cotton blouse made in, of all places, Bolivia.
One day, we decided to leave the hustle and bustle to explore one of the famous Danube towns called Szentendre (Saint Andrew). It lies only 16 miles north of Budapest. The most scenic way to get there was by boat which was close to our hotel. We walked several staircases down to the Danube and boarded a vessel in the early morning. Most of Szentendre's older buildings date from the 18th century. Upon early examination, we thought this town was a mere tourist trap, but as we explored, we didn't want to leave. We began our visit with a steaming bowl of goulash soup served at a small cantina near the docks. It was our first local fare, and it was delicious, served with oversized hunks of fresh bread and smeared with globs of paprika sauce. We wandered the cobblestone streets, found enchanting old churches and courtyards, shops, cafes, and fresh foods being cooked by street vendors with sizzling fish and vegetables in the bright sunlight. This charming town boasts handmade ceramics, sculptures, and markets that show the real deal for small-town Hungarian charm. There is a plethora of handmade Hungarian items to bring home. If you go to Budapest, you simply must take a daytrip detour to one of the smaller outlying towns. There are three that are recommended: Szentendre, Vsegrad and Esztergom.
Another remarkable structure in Budapest is the largest synagogue in Europe, aptly called the Great Synagogue. It was built in a Byzantine-Moorish style by a Viennese architect in 1854. It has three naves, and following orthodox tradition, separate galleries for women. Together, the naves and galleries can accommodate 3000 worshippers. In the courtyard, there is a famous holocaust memorial of a weeping willow sculpture honoring the 600,000 Hungarian Jews killed by the Nazis in World War II. This memorial was partly funded by the Hungarian-American actor Tony Curtis. We spent an hour here, learning of the history and examining the graves.
A trip to any city would not be complete without an in depth visit to the local market. In most countries, market stall vendors do not like photographers. They scream obscenities at me or throw raw fish at my camera when I photograph their food, but not here. I felt most welcomed to capture all types of meat (including fish) and produce with my camera, never fearing aggravated assault. It was almost soothing to be so welcomed near strange food. We made a morning journey on a Saturday to Central Market Hall filled with home grown produce from local farmers. This giant market was rebuilt in 1999 and is a perfect place to find local delicacies such as kolbasz, or spicy salami and sheep's cheese. Our souvenir of choice was paprika which comes in a large variety of heat and consistency. We chose three types to bring home. The most interesting one is the very hot and spicy creamy type which is spread onto bread much like you would spread grape jelly on toast. It is blood red and very tasty. Don't miss this market if you are a foodie. The upper levels are home to a myriad of vendors who sell everything from Russian stack dolls to white, lacy aprons. The best stack doll I saw consisted of several US Presidents, ending with Clinton who opened up to a very small doll of Monica Lewinsky.
Often described as the "Little Paris of Middle Europe", there are plenty of things to see, do, feel, taste, experience, and enjoy in Budapest. The monuments here reflect its 1000 year old culture, and the remains make evident the Roman and Turkish occupation, and also the Communist era. There are over 60 museums and galleries in this grand city. The nightlife is buzzing. We passed at least a dozen sex shops on the way in from the airport, so someone is having fun, and the restaurants offer such a variety of food, that your palette will surely never be bored. I think the most memorable times for me were at sunrise and sunset. That early dawn golden light over the Danube is mesmerizing and the long walk around the Royal Palace that I took one evening was truly unforgettable. The sculptures in the city range from heart rending, sorrowful creatures to majestic, ornate, regal forms that capture the true history of the city. Budapest is a city for all moods, for historians, for travelers, for day and night, for the inquisitive, for those who want to enjoy culture, good food, handmade crafts, spectacular views, good coffee, and especially for those who want to try and capture it all with their camera. While Budapest is still affordable, as Hungary does not use the Euro as its currency, it's also one of the friendliest and most welcoming cities on the continent. The Hungarian currency, the forint, is strong. Foreign investors in the past decade have pumped billions of dollars into the country for factories and high-tech corporations. There is $1.1 billion originating from General Electric alone. Next year, Hungary is slated to join the European Union, and an American air base has been built 110 miles southwest of Budapest. The economy is doing quite well. Still, it is difficult to spend more than $30 for an excellent meal, even in the trendiest restaurants with good wine and gypsy musicians.
Trying to describe this magnificent city in just a few words is difficult. If I had to compare Budapest to something, it would be an actress and a vegetable. They would be Katherine Hepburn and an onion. The more you watch this classic beauty, the more entranced you become with her charm, sophistication, and talent. Budapest has amazing layers, both architectural and human. The more you peel away, and the closer you get to the core, the stronger the flavor.
Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end! `I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time?' she said aloud. `I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think--' (for, you see, Alice had learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the schoolroom, and though this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it over) `--yes, that's about the right distance--but then I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I've got to?' (Alice had no idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but thought they were nice grand words to say.)