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Walking Wounded – Budapest, Hungary

Walking Wounded
Budapest, Hungary

Budapest’s days as a budget detour from the wallet stomping clutches of western Europe are officially history. The rules of supply and demand, compounded with enterprising locals knowing a good thing when they see it, couldn’t keep the epicenter of Hungary and one of Eastern Europe’s most popular jumping-off points a cheap destination for long. The coup de grâce was Hungary’s 2004 tap-dancing entry into the EU, which triggered yet another painful jump in the economy, biting both locals and visitors alike in the ass. From the visitor perspective, accommodations and transportation have been hardest hit – I paid more for a train ticket out of Budapest going to Bucharest in neighboring Romania on a half-busted, slothful train with frontier-era seats than I paid to cross all of France on the TGV – but this lost perk is only a chink in the armor that is Budapest’s all-around allure.

In 1873 the scenic and historic cities of Buda and Óbuda on the hills west of the Danube River charitably united with industrial and uninviting Pest across the river to form Pest-Buda, later to be wisely renamed Budapest. Though a fantastic amount of economic and cultural flourishing followed the formation of Budapest, it was nearly all pounded to dust during the two World Wars where Hungary found itself on the losing team both times. Forty years of Communist rule proved to be slightly less disastrous in Hungary than in neighboring countries and Budapest managed to bounce back, becoming one of the most prosperous cities in the region. The 1956 Uprising hammered the city one last time, when Russian retaliations killed thousands and left the citizens to once again clean up and polish its image.

Budapest Parliament
Budapest Parliament
comely, green and wide Andrássy út boulevard is a stroller’s treat. The Roman-era Castle District has been beautified and is consequently choked with tourists. The Pest side of the Danube is lined with a string of understated, but pleasing classic buildings (interrupted by a few hideous hotels), highlighted by the awesome neo-gothic Parliament building and the Buda side is all vistas, monuments and Castle Hill adornments. Trams skirting both shorelines complete the postcard image of a city built behind the power of a raging late-Renaissance period and a populace with a flair for architectural beauty. Stories of these attractions battered me for years before I finally found myself in Budapest for a five day layover visit on my way to my temporary home in Iasi, Romania and I was cautiously excited to finally lay eyes on the city that had succeeded in generating so much hubbub around me.

After two full days of self-imposed confinement in my room at the pricey, but disarmingly hospitable Hotel Hid recovering from an especially punishing bout of travel, I finally made the long foot trek down Rákóczi át, one of Pest’s main arteries, past the imposing Keleti train station and out onto Erzsebet Bridge for the much anticipated Oh-Wow moment I had been seeking. Despite the long build-up, I was not disappointed in the least. I stood for a full 20 minutes, slowly rotating in place, occasionally taking pictures, admiring the river, both banks and the exquisite scenery stretching off into the distance. Once I snapped out of my mouth-breathing reverie, it was time to dive into the teeth of Buda’s offerings, as they were collectively beckoning the travel writer in me from the top of the hill like a carrot in front of a starving donkey.

As tempting as the hilltop Citadella looked with the neighboring Independence Monument and the statue of St. Gellért taunting and daring me to brave the intimidating steps for a closer look, instead I averted my gaze and pushed north. I had Castle Hill Fever and I wasn’t going to let a fortress, some cool monuments and what was probably a million dollar view of the river sidetrack me. After a mild climb, my first stop was at the Royal Palace, which has been leveled and rebuilt a half dozen times since the original was thrown up in the last half of the 15th century. Today it is home to the National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum, among other things. Quite honestly, the Palace is a tad on the plain side by European standards, but that doesn’t stop bus-loads of tourists, me included, from staggering around the front courtyard with appropriate looks of reverence, cameras up and clicking away. As I had approached the Palace from Ferdinand Gate on the south side, though I didn’t know it at the time, the best was still yet to come.

Fishermen's Bastion
Fishermen’s Bastion
Continuing north, I climbed some stairs, passed several knee-high ruins, cut through a bustling upscale tourist area with enough swanky cafes and intimidating hotels to give my wallet an inferiority complex, I finally found myself face-to-face with Matthias Church. Matthias isn’t the biggest or most extravagant church in Eastern Europe (my vote on that goes to Prague’s St. Vitus), but it’s still enough to make a church elitist take pause (and 27 pictures). After a quick detour to ogle the colorful tiled roof of the National Archives building, I continued on to the model-like Fishermen’s Bastion, a relatively small but fairytale-like neo-Gothic structure built in 1905 that only needed a captive princess hanging out of the top window to make the cover of “PQ” (“Prince’s Quarterly”). From the edge of the Fishermen’s Bastion the view of the Danube and the stunning Parliament building are priceless and I passed a long interval taking dozens of pictures from fractionally different angles and staring out, squinting and trying to imagine the city as it had been 100 years ago.

I’d like to tell you that I opted for the walk back to the Pest side of the river over the Chain Bridge and indirectly home up Andrássy át boulevard because I was bursting with vigor, but in truth I was just too cheap to shell out for public transportation. The foot pain was tremendous, but the experience was nevertheless rewarding not only in that Andrássy át’s tree-lined walkways and elegant buildings are captivating, but it offers many shaded benches for one to rest his cheap-ass feet and enjoy an ice cream cone.

Matthias Church
Matthias Church
As if I needed anymore climaxes in one day of balls-out touring, the far end of Andrássy át held two more enticements; Hero’s Square, which was satisfactorily photographed and thoroughly enjoyed from a sitting position at the entrance, and the adjacent City Park, which boasts the castle/fortress hybrid Vajdahunyad vára, a small zoo and, most importantly, copious large trees making it a welcome place to hide from the July afternoon sun. I didn’t learn any of this until the following day of course, after I’d indulged in a night of hard-earned, wine-fueled convalescence on my bed watching “Friends” dubbed in Hungarian.

Not counting the time I spent in a prone position, I ultimately gave Budapest two and a half days of focused touring time, which was just about perfect. I left while I was still agreeably captivated, but before the unexpectedly high prices wore down my spirit enough to make me burst into tears (though the moment when I bought that train ticket was a close one).

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