Impressions of Budapest

If you haven’t given much thought to Budapest, Hungary maybe it’s time you did. This city can hold its own against any number of great European cities like Paris, Rome or London. There have been travel moments in our lives that just stay with us because they were so special. Strolling the banks of the Danube in Budapest after dark is just such a moment…

Enjoy a stroll thru Budapest with us.

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Goulash, New York Cafe and Kürtőskalács

Eating In Budapest

In planning for our recent trip to Budapest we went on the internet looking for food specialties and where to find them. Hungarian goulash was high on the list of course but once there I decided I prefer the lighter soup version of goulash. My wife discovered it was going to be restaurant week while we were there with many establishments offering special menus of their favorites at special prices. We managed to book a number of reservations before we left for the trip.

Almost a universal recommendation for visitors was breakfast at the New York Kávézó (that’s Hungarian for café) located in the Budapest New York Palace Hotel. After our visit we agree this is a very special place. What a gorgeous place and the orchestra played unobtrusively while we sipped our coffee and cappuccino.

My search on the internet came across Kürtőskalács which were advertised as the pastry of Budapest. It is a sweet, spiral-shaped pastry that originated in Transylvania. It’s also known as ‘chimney cake’, because of its unique shape. Making kürtőskalács requires a cylinder to wrap the dough around and a rotisserie for baking so it is usually not something made at home.

Budapest’s Market Hall

Two articles I read said you could find them at shops in the Market Hall, a famous food hall and discount venue in Budapest. No trip to Budapest is complete without spending some time in this institution (Tip: the deeper into the hall you go the lower the prices) shopping for t-shirts and paprika.

On our first visit to the Market Hall I had the name Kürtőskalács displayed on my phone (there was no way I was going to attempt to pronounce it) and I would show it to various merchants. Everyone thought you could find this nearby and one man gave me directions to go out and across the street. After about an hour we came to the conclusion that there were no Kürtőskalács to be found anywhere nearby and we moved on.

Kürtőskalács stand at the train station

I would occasionally show Kürtőskalács displayed on my phone as we traveled around the city but still came up empty. Who would have thought it would be so hard to find?

A few days later we were coming out of the central train station just after dark and guess what? Right on the sidewalk was a Kürtőskalács stand with about ten people waiting in line. This delicacy costs about two dollars and you select your coating flavor. Don’t leave town without trying one.

Images of Budapest

If you haven’t given much thought to Budapest, Hungary maybe it’s time you did. This city can hold its own against any number of great European cities like Paris, Rome or London. There have been travel moments in our lives that just stay with us because they were so special. Strolling the banks of the Danube in Budapest after dark is just such a moment…

Enjoy a stroll thru Budapest with us.

Getting Around Budapest

Budapest is a remarkable, beautiful and large city with the Danube River running thru the middle of it. Along the river in the central city are four major bridges. Starting from the north at the southern tip of Margit Island is Margit Bridge.

Nightscene Hungarian Parliament Building
Hungarian Parliament Building

Margit hid or Margaret Bridge is a bridge carrying trams, cars and pedestrians connecting Buda and Pest along with access to Margaret Island. It was designed by French engineer Ernest Goüin and built by the construction company Maison Ernest Goüin et Cie. between 1872 and 1876. Margaret Bridge was the second permanent bridge in Budapest.

Next is the Széchenyi Chain Bridge. Designed by the English engineer William Tierney Clark and built by the Scottish engineer Adam Clark, it was the first permanent bridge across the Danube in Hungary. It was opened in 1849.

Next is Elisabeth Bridge (Hungarian: Erzsébet híd) is the third newest bridge of Budapest. The bridge is situated at the narrowest part of the Danube in the Budapest area, spanning only 290 m. It is named after Elisabeth of Bavaria, a popular queen and empress but often referred to by locals as the “White Bridge”.

Going south the fourth bridge is Szabadság híd (in English it means Liberty Bridge or Freedom Bridge. It was originally named Ferenc József híd (Franz Joseph Bridge). At its two ends are two public squares, Gellért tér, at the foot of Gellért Hill, next to the Gellért Spa and Fővám tér at the Great Market Hall. Built as part of the Millennium World Exhibition at the end of the 19th century, the bridge features art nouveau design and mythological sculptures.

Station on the Budapest subway
Station on the Budapest subway

Navigating the city by surface streets can be confusing with neighborhood streets seeming laid out like a maze. Many areas have very few streets that are laid out in a square grid pattern but rather seem to zig zag back and forth. For this reason even trying to use a compass heading can be frustrating if you are walking. If you are walking to destinations we recommend using a detailed map or cell phone navigation. Fortunately major tram routes and subways trace prominent paths thru the city easily found at major intersections.

Budapest has a very efficient and inexpensive metropolitan transit system. The best option if you are going to be spending a couple of days in this city, is to get a Metro “day pass” which averages about $6.00 per person per day or less and is available in one, two and three day passes. A day pass operates on a 24-hour cycle so if you buy one at 10:00 am it can be used until 10:00 am the next day. You can purchase them from vending machines but our recommendation is to purchase them from a manned ticket window open during business hours at most major stations. These are usually at major street intersections where you will find there are stairs going underground that are often also the best way to cross large city streets. While an amazing number of Hungarians know a passing amount of English, signage is another story in this city. Finding good signage in English is actually very rare in Budapest. Beside being able to talk to an agent about purchasing the best pass for your needs, they will also give you a complete set of pocket maps with some information brochures in English that are not available at the machines. The metro system is based on individual tickets based on tapping onto trams and busses. If you buy a day pass you do not need to tap on or off the various transports but simply have the passes with you. The truth is that after three or four days of riding rapid transit, nobody ever asked to see our pass.

Tram stop on the Route 4 line

One exception to that was one day we bought a train ticket for an hour trip out to Slovakia which offered a partial discount off the price if we had an active transit pass. The conductor on the train did want to see our metro pass to confirm that we were entitled to the reduced train fare.

Metropolitan transit in Budapest has three primary systems. They are subways, buses and the street trams. The easiest to navigate are the surface trams which are clearly marked on maps by their routes. They also have the advantage of being operated at street level where you can see where you are.

As a visitor think about Budapest as being divided up into several areas of interest. First the city is divided by the Danube River. The east side of the river is the old city of Buda with most areas of interest located within a mile of the river. Much of this terrain is steeply inclined up to the fortifications, the castle and Matthias Church and the old city. There is also a funicular that goes up to the castle level from near the Fisherman’s Bastion.

The west side of the river is the old city of Pest and includes most of the large commercial areas and additional major attractions. Some major sights include St. Stephen’s Basilica, The Hungarian Parliament Building, Hero’s Square as well as a number of major museums and galleries.

There are two primary tram lines designated 4 and 6 inside the central city that cross the river at the Margit bridge and the Erzebet Bridge. These two lines are major routes for people to use going to work and shopping and can get busy at times. Along these routes are the Central Train Station, the Market Hall, the New York Cafe and the Octagon intersection. From Octagon you can switch to the #1 subway line to get to Hero’s Square, the National Museum and or toward the river to the Opera House and a popular restaurant neighborhood.

There is an intersection of tram routes 4 and 6 with the #4 subway line at Jozsef Krt and Rakoczi Ut where you can switch routes and take the subway toward the Danube..

The easiest way we found to use the trams and subways is to know the map location where you get on and count the number of stops to where you are going, Understanding the Hungarian tram and subway announcements is often difficult and reading stop locations can be a challenge. Also station names at the various stations in the subway are poorly marked. For example boarding a west bound subway at the Octagon station and wanting to get off at Heroes Square to visit the gardens simply count five station stops.

After just a couple of trips you will easily get the hang of the system. Rush hour is also an interesting time on the trams. When the doors open on a packed full tram you will quickly realize that the crowd behind you believes there is plenty of room for a number of additional riders inside. You may be reluctant to push in but the next thing you know you are right there, packed into the car that you thought you wouldn’t fit into. Don’t worry most everyone is friendly and accommodating. Also if you aren’t sure where you are ask for help. We rarely found anyone that couldn’t understand some English and were happy to help.

Budapest 23 October 1956

The Passage of Sixty Plus Years

A Time That Hungary Remembers

We are in Budapest sitting in a restaurant and a young couple come in and sit at the table next to us. The young lady is rather attractive and from what I gather is speaking Hungarian to the waitress when she approaches. What strikes me as really odd is the young lady is wearing a white T-shirt with a picture of Vladimir Putin on the front.

A number of questions come to mind. Have the Hungarians forgiven the Russians for Communism and the conquest of their country following World War Two? Are they over the violent crack down when revolutionaries tried to win their freedom back ten years later? Do young people have no sense of history anymore?

I was pretty young and in elementary school at that time, but to this day it is my oldest remembrance of a real historical event. I remember vividly sitting in front of our small family black & white television watching tanks roll down city streets, machine gun fire raking buildings and Molotov cocktails bursting against the tanks. Commentators railed about recognizing a new government and claims by the Eisenhower administration that we were not in a position to engage the U.S.S.R. In that place at that time.

Years later I had a woman work for me named Tunde and she and her husband fled across the boarder into Austria in early November and eventually made their way to the United States. She had a number of stories about their neighborhood in Budapest and the street fighting and how terrified they were about the coming Soviet reprisals.

After dinner that night I was reading a magazine article about the coming anniversary of the Revolution, which is now a National holiday and how the heaviest street fighting had occurred in the Corvin area in a section called the “passage”. Less than three hours before, that is exactly where we sat as I thought about the young woman sitting next to us and that Putin T-shirt.

Corvin Passage 14 Oct 2018

I am not so sure how the Hungarians feel about the Russians today but if I had to describe “micro-aggressions” and “trigger-warnings” to someone, that might be an example. I am not sure why she wore that shirt there yesterday, maybe she is a radical socialist making a statement or perhaps she was being a young cultural revolutionary and maybe it is just fashionable to wear these new icons. Whatever the reason there is no way I can understand and it makes me very sad.

Since we have been posting things on the internet I am very conscious as to what I say. It has never been my intent to be political. I once made a mistake and posted something I thought was simply ironic but a number of people thought was overly neo-conservative and they told me so in no uncertain terms. At this point I am becoming concerned that there are a number of people on the web searching for any unintended slight or social misstep that gives them a reason to attack, while at the same time being very ignorant of the broader culturally careless opinions they hold.

Thank you for humoring me…

 

An old building on a street in the Corvin neighborhood shows a number of scars and the effects of old age…

Visiting Štúrovo On A Day Trip From Budapest

Esztergom looking up at “Castle Hill”

Štúrovo and Esztergom An Hour Out of Budapest

Walking into Esztergom

Maybe it was wanting to see some of the countryside or maybe it was adding another pin to our map but on Saturday morning we set off after several days in Budapest to visit Štúrovo, Slovakia.

Štúrovo is a town in Slovakia, situated on the River Danube. The town sits opposite the Hungarian city of Esztergom. The Mária Valéria bridge across the Danube was reconstructed and opened in 2001 joining the two towns once again after 57 years. The bridge was destroyed by fleeing Nazi’s in 1944 during World War II by detonating a truck load of explosives in the middle of the bridge.

 

Esztergom Station

If you are staying in Budapest the best way to visit the area is to catch a train to Esztergom. Take a train from the Budapest train station with a round trip ticket costing about $8 and the trip taking a little over one hour. The trains run at least every hour with busy periods more often. The Esztergom station is the end of the line. We walked from the station thru Esztergom to the Mária Valéria bridge but if you’re not up for a hike there is a tourist “train” that goes out to the Slovic side of the bridge.

The Bridge

When we got to the bridge there was heavy foot traffic going both ways across the bridge. A lot of people from the Hungarian side were going over to do there shopping so it must be better value on the Slovakian side. When we got into Štúrovo there was a huge open air market with lots of crafts and food. There were also a number of locations for music and we learned that the Slovakians have a tradition making and playing bagpipes. In Slovakia they are known as “gajdy” and what we heard was a completely different style and tempo than we have been used to hearing.

We spent some time shopping in the market and grabbing something in a cafe with the preferred money being the Euro. The market offered a lot of great local crafts and it was difficult to walk away without buying more than we could pack to carry home.

The Market in Štúrovo
A kiddie ride at the market

 

Crossing back over the bridge into Esztergom you get a great view of the “Castle Hill” and the cathedral that dominates the city. It is obvious from this that Esztergom was once an important city in Hungary.

“Castle Hill” overlooking the Danube

Historically Esztergom is one of the oldest towns in Hungary and was a thriving city in the Middle Ages. Archeological excavations have revealed that the Castle Hill has been inhabited since the end of the Ice Age 20,000 years ago. It was an important Celtic settlement in 350 BC and was later conquered by Rome.

At about 500 AD, Slavic peoples immigrated into the area. In the 9th century, the territory was mostly under Frankish control. In 960, the ruling prince of the Hungarians, Géza, chose Esztergom as his residence. His son, Vajk, who was later called Saint Stephen of Hungary, was born in his palace built on the Roman castrum on Castle Hill around 969-975.

The Hungarian prince’s residence was built on the northern side of the fortified hill. The center of the hill was occupied by a great basilica dedicated to St. Adalbert, who baptised St. Stephen. The Church of St. Adalbert was the seat of the archbishop of Esztergom, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Hungary.

The Mária Valéria Bridge

St. Stephen’s coronation took place in Esztergom on Christmas Day 1000 AD. From that time to the beginning of the 13th century it served as the royal residence of the Hungarian kings until the Mongol siege in 1241.

The capital of Hungary was moved to Buda in 1354 and in 1873 the two cities of Buda and Pest were combined and Budapest became the capital.

A McDonalds in Budapest

In Praise of McDonalds

We are in Budapest this week at the beginning of a long planned trip across central Europe. I’m not sure what I was expecting in Budapest but it is much more than I had ever imagined. While things have been going slightly wrong since we left home with a few problems already forcing some changes in the weeks ahead we will just have to adapt.

With over 35,000 restaurants in over 100 countries, there are times when we travel McDonald’s can seem like a touch of home. While we prefer to eat local, sometimes familiarity, price and convenience win out. While the restaurant’s menu and appearance has a tendency to change based on the country there are always some common choices.

In Budapest, Hungary, one particular McDonald’s has actually become a destination itself. Located in the Western Railway Station (Nyugati Pályaudvar) that was designed by August de Serres and built by the Eiffel Company of Paris. The construction took three years and the iron structure was cast in Paris. Nyugati Pályaudvar was opened in 1877, 12 years before the Eiffel Company built the famous tower in Paris. Almost 150 years later the station has managed to retained its original style.

Over the years much of the iron structure has been replaced. On the right side of the terminal is the what has been called the most beautiful McDonalds in the world. This is one of the oldest fast food establishments behind the Iron Curtain, dating back to the Soviet occupation of Hungary. This McDonalds occupies a large multi-story space with ornate an colonial ceiling in the railway station complex and is a favorite with locals and tourists alike.

We visited around six on a Friday and the restaurant was packed. The lines moved quickly with attendants moving thru the lines taking orders on hand-held pads that printed out an order ticket. Our order priced out a little less than we would have paid back home and featured the usual fare. Placed on a balcony on the second floor was a MaCafe furnished with overstuffed sofas and chairs and staffed just to make coffee based drinks.

While we are not sure this is the most beautiful McDonalds in the world it is for sure the most beautiful we’ve ever visited.