We recently spent a day touring the beautiful Hungarian capital city of Budapest, also famously known as the Crown Jewel of the Danube. Here are some impressions of our time in this wonderful city, as originally told on our sister-site, From the Deck Chair:
Our first full day of touring with Tauck began today as we set out to explore the “Pest” side of Budapest (pronounced pesht) as part of a two-night stay in Budapest before embarking Swiss Jewel here tomorrow.
Once again, things that could have turned into a little annoyance have all been taken care of by Tauck, and that includes breakfast at the hotel’s Peppers restaurant, which is quite good. There are no checks to sign or gratuities to leave; all Tauck guests had to do was leave their room number with the girls at the front, and head on in. Couldn’t have been easier.
A reader emailed last night to ask what I thought about river cruising solo, and I have to say I personally believe that a river cruise is a great idea for the solo traveler. It is intimate, and before long you’re certain to know everyone. It also tends to attract a more well-traveled type of person, and one thing I have discovered about people who travel frequently is an insatiable desire to share their travels and swap stories with others; again, this lends itself very well to sailing solo.
I am already on a first name basis with about 20 people, and I’m a bit of an introvert – so I consider that a very good ratio considering it’s only my first full day on tour!
We began our tour at the Hungarian Opera House, which was designed by Miklos Ybl and opened in 1884. The story goes that Emperor Franz Joseph declared that the opera house in Budapest should not be as large as the ones in Vienna. Ybl promised and followed through on that guarantee, creating a smaller theatre and stage. However, the Emperor didn’t specify how opulent it should be.
Reportedly, Franz Joseph visited the Hungarian Opera House only once, and was so incensed at its beauty and opulence that he never returned. His wife, Empress Elisabeth – or Sisi – did, however, return.
Today, Hungarians can enjoy the opera for an affordable price; even the best seats in the house only cost the equivalent of about $80, with the “cheap seats” going for less than the cost of a meal at McDonalds. It’s a venue dedicated to culture, with a full program of operatic productions scheduled. Tomorrow, Erkel Ferenc’s Hunyadi Laszlo will premiere to a sold-out crowd. Just visiting this amazing, palatial space made me wish we were headed there for a full performance.
We were, however, treated to a surprise operatic performance that was exclusive for Tauck’s guests. For ten minutes we were entertained by two highly trained singers in the Opera’s sweeping Grand Staircase. Once again, it’s a nice little touch that you really couldn’t have experienced any other way. Even Stacie, Christine and Andy, our Tauck Directors, seemed genuinely impressed.
It’s worth noting here that there is an extra charge for those visitors to the Opera House that wish to take photos – like yours truly. Tauck covered these additional fees for each and every guest wanting to take photos, along with the standard admission fee. Like the hotel yesterday, there was no waiting or queuing at all; we just walked right in.
With ample time to explore here, we eventually made our way to Hero’s Square, which was originally completed in 1900 and intended to be a monument to 1,000 years of Hungarian History. In later years, it has also functioned as a war memorial for both the first and second World Wars, as well as serving as a memorial site for Imre Nagy, a politician who was executed in 1958 as a result of the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956.
One of the things I love about river cruising is the QuietVox audio headsets. These were put to great use today on our Tauck tour, allowing guests to move about the memorial (or the opera) at their leisure while still remaining in contact with their guide. Best of all, you don’t have to be two feet away to hear them with these handy radio-receiving devices.
Afterward, we spent some time at our leisure in the Central Market Hall, or Nagycsarnok, in Budapest’s 9th District. This marked the end of our group touring, but our guides as well as Stacie, Christine and Andy were quick to point out that if we wished to walk back to the hotel on our own, it was an easy, 15-minute stroll down the one street directly in front of the market. Once again: couldn’t have been easier. I also appreciated that guests had the option to choose what they wanted to do, and how they wanted to do it. I go stir-crazy if I sit on motor coaches too long, so I was looking forward to the stroll.
Constructed in the late 1890’s, this imposing market offers all the grandiose scale of a Parisian railway station coupled with every type of fruit, vegetable, meat, spice and souvenir imaginable. Although there are plenty of tourists here, the market is also a go-to spot for local Hungarians as well.
Lunch and dinner were not included today, but I see that as a good thing: By putting the onus for two meals on guests today, it removes the need to have to come back to the hotel, or meet at a pre-arranged location at a set time. Which is what “free time” is all about, and I was thrilled that it was exactly as advertised on our itinerary for the day: free time, with no restrictions.
After having lunch, I set out from the market on a three-hour stroll through Pest. I crossed the Liberty Bridge spanning the Danube, which was constructed in 1896 and opened by Emperor Franz Joseph himself. It measures 1,102 feet, and hosts trams, cars and pedestrians.
I also took the time to loose myself among Budapest’s streets; a good aimless walk is one of my favorite pastimes, and today provided a great opportunity for me to visit areas of the city that I missed during my first brief visit here last December, including the Chain Bridge, the Gellert Baths, Gresham Palace, and St. Stephen’s Basilica.
But one thing has remained with me all day, occupying the thoughts in the back of my mind like an itch that refuses to be scratched. It was the sight of dozens of cast-iron shoes lining the banks of the Danube near the Hungarian Parliament. Placed there in 2005, the shoes are intended to serve as a memorial to a dark chapter in Hungary’s history: The execution of Jewish citizens on the banks of the Danube in 1944-45.
Paraded through the city, they were forced to remove all their personal effects – including their shoes – while standing in a line along the edge of the embankment. With this task completed, they were then executed by Arrow Cross militiamen, whereupon their bodies would fall into the Danube.
Standing there today, such a tragic, brutal offence is difficult to imagine. The sun is shining, tourists are coming off river cruise ships not 500 feet away, and families are strolling past, eating ice cream cones as they go.
Yet it did happen. People – innocent people – were herded across the uneven cobblestone. Ahead of them, the Danube glistened, and Fisherman’s Bastion on the Buda side looked on silently. I can only wonder how many ordinary, good Hungarians closed their eyes when those shots rang out across the river. But I appreciated our local guide’s forthrightness when she explained this monument to us: “There are many beautiful moments of brilliance in Hungarian history; but then, there are those that we would rather forget; and those we would rather never mention. But to pretend it never happened is not the solution.”
It reminds me of a line in one of my favorite movies, Magnolia (1999): “We may be through with the past, but the past ‘aint through with us.”
Regardless I love everything about it here in Budapest. I love the way people dress, the way they talk, the way they interact with each other. Budapest is, if nothing else, a city that has left its mark on history – and one that has had history leave its mark on the city. The pain of the Second World War and the fear and uncertainty generated by the subsequent Soviet occupation can still be felt.
And yet, it is the perfect embodiment of modern history. Look to your left: There’s an H&M store and a Burger King. Look to your right: There’s some pock marks in the concrete on one building from when the Russians came rolling in at the end of the war.
When I first came here in December, I felt like I could have used a week in Budapest. Today, I still feel that way. Despite the fact I am returning in December for two days, I still feel like I need a week to even begin to appreciate all that Budapest has to offer. At night, I think it rivals many European cities in terms of raw, unmatched beauty. And how could it not? Few cities are book-ended on either side by a river and joined by ten (ten!) bridges spanning the Danube.