The Grand Budapest Walking Tour
Sunday, July 26, 2015
I’ve been to Budapest a number of times now. It’s the city that, prior to my first visit in 2011, I was the least excited about. That all changed once I arrived on a cold December morning nearly four years ago. I became immediately entranced with the city’s towering architecture, unique culture, and their dual ‘past-is-present’ focus. Today, Budapest is one of my top favorite European cities to visit, any time of the year.
Of course, because this is my sixth visit to Budapest, I’d gotten into the assumption of thinking that I’ve seen and done it all. So I truly appreciated that, once again, Viking was able to surprise me by offering up a complimentary shore excursion option that I’d never seen before.
In addition to the standard motorcoach tours of both Buda and Pest – the two distinct parts of the city that are separated by the River Danube – Viking also offered up a third option: the ability to tour both Buda and Pest with a local guide using nothing but our feet and public transit.
I thought that was a fantastic idea. I love walking tours that really walk, and I am a huge fan of using public transit to get around. But I’d never taken public transit in the city before because, let’s face it, my Hungarian is not so good. I can say please, thank you, and cheers! None of which help me on a bus.
To start with, we disembarked the Viking Lofn and met our local guide pierside under cloudy skies that looked like they might burst open at any moment. Fortunately, today was also the first day where I wasn’t perspiring through every last layer of clothing on my body. While the couple from Arizona complained about the cold, I revelled in the 18°C temperatures that finally, after nearly two weeks, let me cool off.
We began our journey on foot with a walk across the Chain Bridge. Spanning the Danube, the Chain Bridge isn’t made of chains at all. Rather, it was named after István Széchenyi, a man who was a major supporter of the bridge during its construction in 1840. Time – and probably the near-inability of most of us North Americans to pronounce anything beyond a few syllables in length – has seen it shortened from Széchenyi (se-chain-ee) to just “Chain.”
The Chain Bridge was completely destroyed in World War II, save for its towering buttresses. It was rebuilt and reopened in 1949.
Across the bridge on the Buda side of the city, we took the Budavári Sikló – or the Budapest Castle Hill Funicular. First opened in 1870, it too was destroyed during the Second World War. Following the war, the Funicular didn’t reopen until 1986. Today, it whisks guests from the Chain Bridge up to Buda Castle, some 95 metres (312 feet) above.
Normally, the Funicular is subject to a special fare, but our walking tour included that for all of us, so we weren’t out of pocket for anything. After we’d wandered around Buda Castle, the Fisherman’s Bastion and the Matthias Church, we embarked on the second part of our journey, hopping aboard a minibus destined for central Pest, back on the other side of the Danube.
Our guide showed us how to pay for our fare, and how to validate it. If you have an existing fare, you have to punch it in a little machine next to the driver. Failing to punch the fare means it is invalid, and you can be find if the local transit police board the bus to do a fare check.
Budapest’s beauty becomes more apparent as you realize how much of the city – the vast majority – was destroyed or damaged during the Second World War. Much like Nuremberg, the city has been put back together again, brick-by-brick, into the style that it once was. Interspersed, of course, with modern architecture that speaks to present-day European tastes.
Our minibus ride took us down from Buda Castle and back across the Chain Bridge into the heart of Budapest, were we disembarked just one block from St. Stephen’s Basilica. Our guide asked if we’d like to go into the Basilica, and when the majority of our group agreed, he led us on a guided tour of the building. I thought this deviation from the planned schedule was fantastic, as I’d not been inside the Cathedral yet despite repeat visits to Budapest.
Following that, we wandered around historic Budapest for another entire hour before our guide gave us the option to stay in town or return to the Viking Lofn. Don’t know how to get back? No worries – he’d walk you straight to the ship.
I opted to stay and wander Budapest for a little while longer. I knew that when I returned to the ship, several harsh realities would kick in: I’d have to pack. I’d have to prepare for my flights tomorrow. I’d have to prepare to, once again, leave Europe behind me.
So once again, Viking has pleasantly surprised me. This entire journey has surprised me – from the new excursion offerings to the grace and elegance with which the company (and the crews of the Viking Vidar and Viking Lofn) handled the ship-swap in Nuremberg. Everything seemed well-thought-out. Everything seemed polished. Both crews of both ships were always in control, and they always knew what to do – even if, perhaps privately, they didn’t. But they never let on if that was the case; the program went ahead as scheduled.
That’s what I like so much about the company. It’s why I enjoy sailing with them so often. I know what to expect, yes. But Viking keeps tweaking their onboard and on-shore offerings in subtle ways with each passing river cruise season. They’re listening to feedback from their guests. They’re listening to feedback from people like me who write about them. And they’re listening to feedback from their employees, moreso than many cruise companies. Viking is dialed-in. I’ve seen the changes firsthand in the nearly four years I’ve been sailing with them.
I still like what I see. And you will, too. Because once you take your first Viking cruise…you’ll be back. No doubt about it.
Our Live Voyage Report from onboard Viking River Cruises’ Viking Lofn’s Grand European Tour continues next week with a full recap of our voyage. Be sure to follow along with our adventures on Twitter @deckchairblog.