It is as surprising to me as it may be to you that of all the places we visited during our tour, it is the city of Budapest that pops up most often in my post-trip daydreams. Budapest was never even remotely on my bucket list, but now I am continually plotting schemes to return there. The plot generally involves a fantasy of magically finding an apartment to let above the posh shops on elegant Andrássy Avenue and leisurely wandering this beautiful city for weeks and weeks and weeks…
Leisurely was not exactly the by-word for this visit, however. As neophytes departing our river boat we were armed with only the most scant knowledge of the city. Oh, it’s two cities you say? There is Buda, rising majestically on that massive knuckle of a hill above the west bank of the Danube, and then there is Pest fanning out on the flat to the east. Geographically, it reminded me a bit of Prague. But it is different from Prague, somehow. In my memories, it is somehow more airy and graceful. Much as I adore Prague, and long to stand again on the Charles Bridge, it is Budapest that most captured my heart.
After our tour of the Central Market, we boarded the Tauck buses for a precipitous climb up the hill. Our destination was the magnificent Matthias Church, perched alongside the famed Fisherman’s Bastion in Buda’s Castle District. The original church was built back in 1015, but was somehow lost to history. The current building was raised in the 14th century and restored in the 19th century. A church is a church is a church after you’ve been touring awhile, but this one is special, and memorable for the details that remind us that it was used as a mosque for some time after the Turkish conquest of Budapest in 1526.
This was our one and only rainy day of the whole trip – after touring the church we took refuge under the canopy of a nearby outdoor café. The CE pronounced the coffee to be as heavenly as the spires of Matthias.
Also heavenly was the view of Pest below from the Fisherman’s Bastion:
We rumbled back down the hill to visit Hungarian Parliament, which is as sacred to its countrymen as any church:
A few blocks from Parliament is the Ministry of Agriculture, where our guide proudly showed us the bullet holes in the wall from the Bloody Thursday uprising of 1956 when the Hungarians revolted courageously, albeit in vain, against Communist rule.
There was Liberty Square and its somber memorial of WWII German occupation:
And the Dohány Street Synagogue, viewed today as a poignant reminder of the Holocaust. We were surprised to learn that the familiar names of actor Tony Curtis and make-up doyenne Estée Lauder were instrumental in funding the synagogue’s post WWII restoration.
For me the most heart-wrenching reminder of the Holocaust was the Shoes on the Danube memorial to the Jews executed on the Danube’s bank in 1944 and 1945 by the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party. We walked extra miles on one of our precious days in Budapest to see this and it was worth every step.
As we wandered the city on our own, we were surprised to encounter a statue of John Calvin, or — as he is known in Hungary — Kálvin János, next to the Kálvin Square Reformed Church:
And then, we happened upon the imposing St. Stephen’s Basilica in the midst of a glorious organ concert:
Of course, everyone worships a bit differently – and among the most sacred experiences we had was a memorable lunch at the venerable Café Kör. The restaurant’s unprepossessing exterior and cash-only policy protects it somewhat from the tourist hordes, but the simple yet satisfying cuisine can’t be beat. The menu is humbly presented on a white board:
And once the waiter decided we were temperamentally attuned to their liking, and with sufficient Hungarian forints in our pockets,
he steered us toward a strudel for dessert that now haunts those Budapestian daydreams of mine. I’ve never, ever tasted anything called a strudel that came close to this:
I’m sure we didn’t experience all that was holy in Budapest, but it was a good start!