Monday, February 9, 2009

That Pest-y Buda

(Here is a link to a photo album illustrating this adventure, though there's a link at the end, too in case you want to read the story then get a visual aid.)

The next morning I was up at 5:55 and headed to the shower. It was a late night, but the drive to explore Budapest, said to be the most beautiful city in Europe, was greater than my reluctance to get off the bunk bed. Everyone else was up, showered, dressed and ready to hit the streets before seven. Go Team Budapest!

It was a quiet Saturday morning in the Hungarian capital and we moved towards the massive Neo-Gothic Parliament, listening to our voices echo off the buildings and public art of the governmental district. We finally saw people when we approached the parliament building in the form of two guards with furry ushanka hats (the ear-flap hats). They were patrolling the chained off main entrance to the building. According to the guidebook we needed to enter a small door next to the main staircase. We stood by the chain, stared at the door and wondered what to do next. As we discussed, one of the guards began to stroll towards us. Apparently he would let us in, but to watch him approach was to see a man hauling himself through ankle-deep Jell-O. He took his sweet time pulling back the chain to let us pass. Little did he know we had a schedule to keep. Or, maybe he did and this was one of his few kicks for the day.

Regardless, we purchased our tickets for the English language tour from an older woman huddled in the small room next to the regal, main staircase. We had time to kill before the tour, so we walked back across town to St. Stephen’s Basilika. The Neo-Classical building took over 50 years to complete thanks to the collapse of the central dome, causing the architect to start things over at square one. In 1904 it was finally finished. The interior is layered in gold leaf, marble and paintings, a reminder of the power once wielded by Budapest on the European stage.
St. Stephen was the first King of Hungary and his right hand is enshrined in a chapel near the alter. Unfortunately there was a private service underway, so we had to leave the ornate sanctuary before seeing the relic. With more time to kill and not much sleep in our systems, we searched for an example of the famous Hungarian coffee café. After roaming for a few minutes, we realized the only coffee place near the Basilica was “California Coffee Company.” Obviously an import, with a menu in English, we felt a little guilty patronizing the place. They did have bagels, though, a rare product in Europe.

With a shot of Americanized caffeine in our systems and after reviewing our itinerary again, we headed past all the massive bronze art to the Parliament building to learn about the massive Neo-Gothic structure on the Danube. Modeled on the Parliament building in London, but with a dome and more spires, it really feels like an ennobling place to legislate.

The interior is red, teal, and gold, much like the interior of the Basilika. Statues of kings and other proud Hungarians line the walls. In the center of the main rotunda sits the Holy Crown of Hungary. Originally placed on St. Stephen’s head in 1000, over 50 kings have worn the crown. With time it has become more ornate and the coronation set expanded to include a sword, orb, and scepter. In the 16th century they put a cross on top, but in the 17th century it was accidentally bent over. Instead of straightening the ornament, the Hungarian’s left it lop-sided. Now the official coat of arms of Hungary proudly displays the now very distinctive crown.

At the end of World War II, the American Army captured the crown in Austria and took it home for safe keeping before the advancing Soviet Army found it. For most of the Cold War, while Hungary was firmly ensconced behind the Iron Curtain, the Crown Jewels were stored in Fort Knox. The Americans ran a bunch of experiments on the objects, confirming their veracity, then Jimmy Carter gave them back to the Hungarians in 1978. Who knew the U.S. took the Hungarian crown jewels as war booty?

We also saw the assembly chamber where the former upper house of parliament sat. Similar to the House of Lords in the British system, the house of wealthy nobles was pitched leaving a single National Assembly and a convenient open meeting space for tourists and conferences. As the third largest Parliament in Europe, the building is also notable for the traumatic modern history it has contained. In the 1944, the Nazis installed a puppet government lead by the Arrow Cross Party. Basically Hugarian Nazis, they immediately started sending Jews, people who sheltered Jews, and Roma to Auschwitz. In 1945, the Soviets conquered Budapest and installed their own satellite Communist government. In 1956 a massive popular revolution in Budapest succeeded in temporarily removing Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. The Russians weren’t happy and quashed the revolution. Thousands died in the conflict, but the Hungarians succeeded in establishing a more liberal form of Socialism termed “Goulash Communism” with relaxed travel restrictions.
We walked along the Danube, crossing from Pest into Buda, where we climbed to the Buda Palace.

A view from one of the first suspension bridges ever constructed, looking up at Buda Castle.

A royal castle has sat on the site since the 13th century. Sieges and wars destroyed the original fortification, and the current building was erected in 1770. The castle has an incredible view that you can enjoy by wandering up the paths in the hill or by funicular.

St. Stephen's Basilica is poking up on the horizon with the dome.

I didn’t know funiculars were a mode of transportation until I arrived. Now I see funiculars everywhere. Personally, I just like saying the word.
Rachel, Erin, Halley and I wandered around the castle, taking in the view of the surrounding hills and river. We also eaves dropped on a tour that described the ruins underneath the castle, evidence of the old Roman city. It’s been a popular place to build for some time. We then turned a corner and heard a bugle blasting a Reveille-like call. The Hungarian changing of the guard was underway, with soldiers marching in front of a rather non-descript building.

As the last notes faded, and the new soldiers settled into their posts, a middle-aged man who looked like a grizzled Robin Williams asked us if we knew where we were going. Crap, a freelance tour guide. He told us he would show us around the castle area and tell us good places to top to eat. An officially dressed officer then stopped by and whispered something in his ear. I figured he was being told off, but instead his eyes widened and he looked past us at someone walking by the building, “Look, look there! That is the Prime Minister of Hungary!” The Prime Minister was out for a Saturday stroll with his wife while security guys spread out around him. I couldn’t tell you his name at the time (I now know it’s Ferenc Gyurcsány), but I’m always a fan of snapping pictures of someone with political power.

PM Ferenc Gyurcsány and the missus are on the left of the frame.

Our tour of Buda hill left the potential tour guide behind, but we found the main sights by following the streams of tourists and tacky souvenir shops. Matthias Church sits a respectful distance away from the palace. Built around 1000 it was first restored in the Gothic style in the 14th century, then turned into a Mosque when the Turks took over in 1541. When the Turks were kicked out at the end of the 17th century, the Hungarians tried to make it Baroque, but just couldn’t fix it. Finally in the 19th century it was given its current Neo-Gothic form. Like everything in Hungary, it has a pretty complicated history including sieges, miracles and many coronations involving the crown with the slanted cross. It’s named after Matthias the Just, the greatest Hungarian King. I think his name was really what propelled him to greatness.
Inside Matthias Church. The original paintings were uncovered after the Turks left. they were touched up or redone in the 19th.

Outside the ornately painted and tiled church is the Fishermen’s Bastion, a Neo-Romanesque overlook of Danube, built for the Millennial (The Millennial really gave Budapest a lot of reasons to build). We took in the view and I considered chatting with a falconer who was standing in the middle of the bastion with his eagle and hawk for tourists to pose with.
I didn’t want to pay to put the bird on my arm, but I was curious to find out how he came by the birds. Were they rescued after injuries? Were they bred for tourists? Were they captured? Questions I will never know the answer to, because we had an entire city yet to explore.
The Fisherman's Bastion. It would be a perfect place to perform Shakespeare, or shoot a Disney movie.

Our final destination on Buda Hill was the Labyrinth. Way back when the Romans were on the hill, people started building tunnels under the city. These were expanded in medieval times and just kept getting bigger. They were used for storing supplies and people during times of siege, such as in World War II when the Russians defeated the Nazis in the Battle of Budapest. It’s an interesting history, so it made sense “Let’s Go Europe” would recommend we check it out. In fact, the tunnels were one of the highest rated things to do in Budapest.

One of the mystical passages leading to enlightenment and other such B.S.

After visiting, I can tell you it is one of the lamest things to visit in Budapest. The above history was taken from a small sign near the entrance. The rest was a futile attempt at profundity.

We walked down the dungeon stairs off the street into the dank tunnels. I was excited because it smelled like a cave, but instead of ornate formations there were hokey, pseudo-mystical inscriptions and the highest admissions price we paid all day. Instead of acting as a museum, the installation is supposed to be a meditation on labyrinths though human history. We started with reproductions of European cave art. There was no explanation, just images copied from Lascaux and Altamira. Normally I’m down for some Ice Age art, but this was just pointless. Then we found fake medieval fonts and mazes. Again, normally fine, but it was accompanied by a forced attempt at introspection and New Age mysticism. It’s enough to make me create crop circles.

Searching for the point.

The final section detailed the doomed Late Eocene species Homo consumus. The creature produced artifacts preserved in concrete such as Coke bottles and computers. It didn’t appreciate the world and went extinct 50 million years ago. Geeze. We finally went though the “Labyrinth of Courage” in the semi-dark, searching for the sun. We found the exit. Strike one against the “Let’s Go” series.

We finally descended the hill and crossed the river in to Pest, first searching desperately for a café of some kind. One of the bummers of wandering semi-aimlessly through a new city is food tends to cluster. If you find one restaurant, you’ve found ten. We didn’t know where the cluster might be and stumbled into the shopping district just as everyone’s patience was starting to slide. With sandwiches and Hungarian wine in our systems, we could continue our trek to the Hungarian National History Museum. We only had so much time to deal with and Halley looked at me honestly and said, “How much time do you need?” Oh, she hasn’t seen me in a new museum. “I will use as much time as I am allowed.” She suggested 45 minutes. I pushed for 1.5 hours. We decided 1 hour and 15 minutes would work.

The entry staircase to the National History Museum. There aren't as many Barbarians in the murals as I would have liked.

As you can tell, I learned a lot about Hungarian history. Not surprising considering I had everything to learn. Hungary has been conquered, invaded, and resettled dozens of times. This makes it a country fiercely proud of the moments in their history when they were independently ruled. This includes the line of beautified kings and revolutionary leaders. These people take on a mythic quality when exhaulted all over the city in massive bronze statues including “Heroes Square” near the City Park where all these heroes from throughout Hungarian history have gathered in one triumphant arch.

After learning about Maygar armor and 18th century bustles, we needed grabbed coffee again and were given the slowest service I have yet to experience in a café in Europe. That’s saying quite a lot. In Vienna, I practically had to tackle the waiter before I could pay and Carolyn and I could get to our waltzing lesson. This slow waiter was a problem because we needed a bath. Crossing the river for the third time, we headed towards the Gellért Baths. The thermal pool at Gellèrt is described as the only opportunity you will ever have to swim in a cathedral. We didn’t get this experience because the bath had a sign proclaiming it “Geschlossen” (It also said “Closed” and something in Hungarian that likely conveyed the same idea).

We considered its opening time and coming back in the morning, then consulted the map and guidebooks and found two other baths. One was a short walk along the cliff fronting Buda Hill. We saw the steam rising from the complex, but saw a locked door and a gathering of rough locals eying us in suspicion. We darted away and crossed the river once again, heading for the Metro so we could shoot to the suburbs to find Széchenyi Medicinal Bath, the largest medicinal bath in Europe which stays open 'til 10 PM.

The bathing culture in Budapest started with the Romans when they got to the region early in the first century and set up Aquincum, the capital of Lower Pannonia and a bastion against the Barbarians. The Romans were excited to discover Buda (then Aquincum) sits on a fault line, popping up the Buda Hills and percolating geothermally warmed water through the bedrock. They set up their elaborate bath houses and went about the business of being clean and healthy. The idea was forgotten through the more conservative Middle Ages, but was brought back to Budapest by the invading Turks who stole the idea for soaking in hot springs from the citizenry of Constantinople, the heirs of the Roman Empire. So it all came full circle.

The Széchenyi Medicinal Bath was built in 1913 with Neo-Baroque domes and classical statues. We found it by crossing through Heroes Square and thinking we were lost or locked out about three times before getting to the front door. It was open until 10 PM and it was only 8. We had plenty of time to soak and get rid of our Rheumatism.

As we stood in the doorway looking at the ticket booth we felt very foreign. Everyone seemed to know the system. There was a menu of options and even the English translation took us some time to process as it described methods for getting deposits and refunds. Erin finally stepped up and was quickly handed a basic ticket after speaking a few hesitant words. With tickets and cards ready to go, we wandered into the hall next to the booth. People in bathing suits were crossing in every direction with self-assured purpose. Some descending a slippery set of stairs, others entering little wooden doors lining a hallway. We could see the steam rising from one of the baths through the window to our left. There was no roof over them! The baths were just standing in the open freezing air and bathers were dashing from its warm water into the locker area that we slowly entered. This would be an adventure.

The floor was covered in an inch of standing water and we delicately stepped over and through it with our shoes. I parted ways with the girls, turning to the men’s locker area. Everything was steamy and damp. I put on the swim trunks I’d been carrying in my bag all day, and tried to look confident in my path as I followed a massive Hungarian up to the pool level. I stood in the frigid air, waiting for the girls to arrive, but finally gave up my stoic watch and hopped into the water.

The warmest of the outdoor baths. Cool, huh ? (or Hot)

It was heaven. The water was warm. Really warm and smelled earthy and healthful. I ducked my head under and could feel my muscles relaxing. Erin, Rachel, and Halley found me bobbing in the water surrounded by happy couples heedless of PDA norms and large businessmen. We stood under the fountains, then moved to a middle pool area. The first was a decently sized recreational pool. The second was long enough to swim laps, though it was a bit cooler. Halley swam the backstroke and snowflakes began to fall on her face. That is a unique Budapestian experience.

Venus emerging from her shell presides over the "lap pool". Note there is less steam over this one. We didn't soak for quite as long.

After exploring the sauna, the indoor pools and the final outdoor pool with jets and a whirlpool that whipped you around a loop with a 30 foot diameter, it was finally time to get dry. In case you were curious, because it is a public, co-ed establishment, there were no traditional Turkish– read nude – baths. This option is available in Budapest, but the sexes are segregated either with separate bathing areas or with different days of the week for men and women.

The baths are a regular part of many a Budapestian’s day. Online there are pictures of people soaking in the thermal, spring-fed pools playing chess and reading the newspaper while fortifying themselves with the mineralized water. Someday I will participate in such a chess game.

At 10 PM we were dry and cured of the obscure 19th century chronic diseases that ailed us thanks to the therapeutic power of the water. Dinner was supposed to be near the baths, but after walking along the unexpectedly massive blocks to our guidebook advised destination, we were told the cute traditional Hungarian restaurant had just closed the kitchen. We walked on, finally getting to the Metro. At this point we would eat anything. As we emerged from the station near our hostel, an Italian restaurant greeted us with bright interior lights and a bored looking waiter. He assured us they were open and serving, so at 11:15 we ordered our pizzas and they arrived near midnight. The only other customers were three dudes who looked like members of the Hungarian Mob, sporting leather jackets and slicked-back hair. The Mafioso effect was ruined when they started sipping massive glasses of soda instead of wine.

Our final destination was a bar the guy at the hostel told us about near the opera house. Near the trendy part of town, it seemed like a good recommendation. Mensa certainly worked out for us. The streets were eerily quiet and we couldn’t find the street marked on our map. Turning down side streets, we got a little nervous and finally resolved to just find a bar, instead of the one recommended by the hostel dude.

Happy noises emanated from a cellar off the road. The prices looked good, so we stepped down into the dungeon and were greeted with a tiny bar outfitted with three booths, three sitting tables and two standing tables. The clientele ranged from punk to business suits. In other words, this was a local hang out. Always a great discovery because it means drinks are cheap. We ordered a round of palinka, a traditional fruit brandy from Hungary. If the fruit makes juice, it makes palinka. Pears, plums, and cherries are particularly popular sources for palinka. We toasted with our tulip-shaped glasses and sipped the sweet liquor like the locals.

Then we ordered Czech beer and Prost-ed our successful conquering of Budapest. We had see everything on the list, and enjoyed it all, even the goofy Labyrinth. After the girls were hit on a particularly drunk Hungarian who needed to work on his English we decided to call it a night (or morning). Aside: Actually, listening to him was an interesting insight into how I probably sound to a native German as I find the right words but fail to decline them correctly or assign them appropriate genders.

After a brief nap, Erin and I were back on our feet and traveling back through the transit system towards the airport. Even though we had only been in town for 36 hours, we felt a familiarity with the city, lending us confidence as we retraced our steps to Germany and the work awaiting us in Western Europe….

If you actually read this whole thing, I hope you’ve gained a small appreciation and interest in a country that barely registered on my internal world map two weeks ago. I would love to visit again, though next time I might give myself some time to snooze and maybe attempt to learn some of the notoriously difficult Hungarian language.

Until then “viszontlátásra!” (Tschüss!)

P.S. Here's the link to the photo album again.

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