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Hungary: Budapest, Tihany
Budapest, Hungary: Tale of two neighbours
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
River Danube separates the neighbourhoods of Buda and Pest. They all stick together to make for the beautiful city of Budapest – the Capital of Hungary. The first settlement on the territory of Budapest was built by Celts well before 1 AD. It was later occupied by the Romans. They constructed roads, amphitheaters, baths and houses with heated floors in this fortified military camp. The glory continues.
Budapest was the first stop of my tour of Central Europe. Accompanying me was my wife, my sister and her husband. Our plan was to visit Hungary, Austria and Czech Republic with a touch & go to Liechtenstein and Slovakia… technically 5 countries in about 12 days. Of course, it all added up to just about 11 destinations, barely enough to soak in the magical experience of an era gone by.
We landed at Budapest International airport on a Sunday at 5PM. Since our immigration was cleared in Helsinki itself, we were out quickly. In case you are not an EU citizen, plan for some time on hand as the immigration may take time, especially during holiday season. Some folks in my line actually missed their connecting flights at Helsinki! Before we stepped out, I changed a few Euros. At the airport I got 24 Hungarian Forints (HUF) to 1 EUR. That was bad. The official rate was around 28 HUF.
My friend Varga Tamas, Managing Director of International Sonderbeilagen, a leading Destination Management Company based in Budapest was kind enough to organize a car for me to explore Budapest and Lake Balaton. He prepared a little map for me for the places to visit in Budapest.
The representative of Regina Rent-a-Car, a local company, was waiting for us at the arrival hall. It was a pleasant surprise to be greeted rather than us going to the desk of the car company. A brand new VW Golf was waiting for us. The papers were ready, just a signature and off we were. We had to do a bit of acrobatics to fit in our bags though.
I am used to driving on the left side of the road. Hungary drives on the right side. For the first few minutes it was a bit tricky but it was all well thereafter… albeit, quite often my left hand went searching for the gear shift! Thankfully, it was Sunday and the traffic was easy allowing me to maneuver at my pace. I must admit I got a few surprised stares from a couple of other local drivers. Though it was a pretty straight road to my hotel, I did have to roll down the window to get the directions. I should have requested for a GPS.
Anyway, by 6PM we were at Kempinski Hotel Corvinus Budapest on Erzsébet Street. It was very convenient location with easy access to many attractions and the Danube Promenade. For the next 3 days we would be the guests of this beautiful hotel. Adding to our delight were their excellent rooms, impeccable service and sumptuous breakfast every morning. The valet took charge of my car and parked it safely in their garage. The hotel certainly has my recommendation.
After a long journey from India, we quite deserved a little back-straightening rest and a hot shower. By 7PM we were ready to stroll around. Just 3 blocks away was the beautiful Danube river front. Sitting in one the restaurants on the Pest side of the river, we were enchanted by the views of the two bridges (Elisabeth Bridge and Chain Bridge) connecting Pest with Buda and the majestic Buda Castle standing proud on a hilltop across the other side. The time just flew past observing hundreds of other tourists on the promenade, passing boats on the River Danube and trams on the bank. By 9PM we were back in our rooms catching up with our rests that would charge us for the exciting days ahead.
After a sumptuous breakfast, we were ready to explore the charms of Budapest. Just across our hotel was Erzsebet Garden. A little walk in it was a good way to begin our day. Our first stop was a visit to Citadella located in Buda on the Gellert Hill. It was a 20 minute drive from the hotel.
The history of the Gellért Hill goes back thousands of years to the Celts and Romans. According to archeological findings, a watchtower stood here as early as in Roman times and it later became famous and infamous as the home of witches and the venue of Bishop Saint Gellért's martyrdom. The fortress of the Citadel was built by the Habsburgs in 1851 to demonstrate their control over the Hungarians. The top of the Gellért Hill is a strategic point from where they had an overview of both Buda and Pest. Though it was equipped with 60 cannons, it was used as threat rather than a working fortification. The panorama terraces offer a stunning view of the city. By a short walk one can reach the Liberation Monument. The statue was erected in 1947 after the Second World War. The main figure is a woman, holding an olive branch, the symbol of peace in her hands.
Our next stop was the Buda Castle. If not for the car, I would have certainly taken the funicular up the castle. We parked our car at the foothills and began our healthy climb. The fortress of Buda was founded in the 13th century. The castle reached its golden age during the rule of the renaissance king, Matthias. It went under major reconstructions several times. First, King Matthias converted the fortification to a palace, later Maria Theresa had it rebuilt and enlarged. Further on, the Castle became a government district. The current elegant Baroque appearance was formed by the mid 18th century. The battles in 1944-45 ruined the place again. Reconstructions after the war rebuilt Budapest Castle District: the buildings by the Habsburgs were reconstructed, the street pattern of the medieval city has been kept and much of the architectural features have been restored. Today the buildings house the National Gallery, the National Library and the Historical Museum. Other must visit locations atop the castle district are the beautiful Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion that offers excellent views of Pest side of Prague.
We spent around 2 hours exploring the Castle District. We walked downhill and got into our car. After missing a few turns, we finally reached the Parliament. The commanding building of Budapest Parliament stretches between Chain Bridge and Margaret Bridge on the Pest bank of the Danube. Construction began in 1884 and lasted for two decades. It opened in 1902, although it should have been finished by 1896 for the Millennium to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of Hungary's foundation. Leaders of the country chose the Pest bank of the Danube as premise, to counterweight the Royal Palace rising high on the other side of the river. The architect, Imre Steindl got his inspirations for the design from London's Houses of Parliament. Visitors can visit the Parliament only as part of a conducted tour. They happen in several languages. However, we missed the opportunity as the one in English was later in the afternoon. Since we had little time on hand, we gave it a miss.
Our next stop was Heroes’ Square. We decided to use the local transportation rather than use the car. Reason was two-fold. One, negotiating the roads without a GPS with hard to find parking spaces, and two, the urge to try the Budapest underground – the second oldest of its kind in the world.
We drove back to the hotel and parked our car. Just across the road was the underground station. One way ticket was HUF 120 per person. We got down at Hosok Tere station. As soon as we came up to the road level, we were appalled by the majestic monument.
Hosök Tere is surrounded by two important buildings, Museum of Fine Arts on the left and Palace of Art on the right. On the other side it faces Andrassy Avenue. The central site of the Hero's Square, as well as a landmark of Budapest, is the Millennium Memorial with statues of the leaders of the seven tribes that founded Hungary in the 9th century and other outstanding figures of Hungarian history. In centre of it all stands a 44 meter tall Corinthian Column – built in the memory of heroes who made the supreme sacrifice for the independence of Hungary. The construction of the memorial was finished in 1900 and the square got its name then.
Behind Heroes’ Square is the City Park, home to a very creative lake, Hungary’s famous Gundel Restaurant and the Vajdahunyad Castle. I am calling it a creative lake because this shallow, man-made water enclosure is the location where huge exhibits are fixed to the bottom of the lake. Jutting out are some works of art including cars, lamp-posts, houses, horses and the likes. One can see them from the edge of the lake or hire a boat to move around the exhibits.
On the other end of the lake is Vajdahunyad Castle. It was built in the 19th Century on the lines of the castle in Transylvania, Romania but using only cardboard and wood. It became so popular that bricks and stone were used to make it stronger in later years. It’s now an agricultural museum. We didn’t have the time to explore the massive City Park, its thermal baths so we had to turn back.
It was the underground back to the hotel. It was almost 6PM. After some rest, I was ready to spend the rest of the evening exploring the fashion street (a great place for brand hunters), and more importantly, walking the Danube promenade to enjoy the river front and the setting sun. As the sun goes down, the lights come up illuminating the bridges and the Buda Castle to offer an unparalleled view.
We called it a day at about 10PM. The next morning we would be doing a 300 kms road trip to visit Lake Balaton.
Budapest Image Gallery Photo viewer
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