Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Honeymoon in Europe: Budapest

Continuing on from ParisSalzburgVienna and Bratislava.

When we were planning our honeymoon trip and determining places to visit I was both the most excited and the most nervous to visit Budapest. To offset some of the nerves I decided that I would splurge a little bit more than usual and book us a fancier hotel. Using TripAdvisor and Expedia I found a great deal at the Hotel Corinthia Budapest and snapped it up. From the pre-visit reading that I conducted I learned that taxi's can be a little unreliable in Budapest. So to ensure that our visit would start well I contacted the hotel and arranged for a luxury sedan to pick us up at the train station.


Carrying on the tradition of travelling under Chrissy's maiden name we were welcomed by a friendly driver holding a placard with a new spelling of my lovely wife's name. Classic!

For me usually all hotels look alike but this one was definitely special and in of itself proved to be a highlight of our whole honeymoon. We enjoyed great service, fantastic decorations and the nicest 'free' wellness centre I have ever seen with a beautiful pool and multiple steam/dry saunas.


Picture source: The Hotel Corinthia
Unbeknownst to us at the time of booking, the location of the hotel turned out to be fantastic as it was close to some great attractions and amenities. The perfect place in which to explore the city.

Christmas Markets

Even though Christmas was a few days passed the seasonal markets were still open.  Needless to say Chrissy and I visited them often to sample the food and drink.

Budapest Basilica Christmas Market - View from Cathedral

Hungarian Pizza: langos and toppings



Budapest Basilica Christmas Market - View towards Cathedral

Walking Along the Danube

From the early 1st Century the settlements that eventually became Buda and Pest were independent regionally influential cities. Then in 1849 the Széchenyi Chain Bridge was completed as the first permanent span across the Danube river in Hungary. This bridge became a literal and figurative connector and in 1873 the two cities along with the historical city Obuda unified to become Budapest. 

Today the riverbank and the rebuilt Chain Bridge (it was destroyed by retreating WWII Germans in 1945) provide gorgeous views of the cities most famous landmarks. 

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Chain Bridge Lions

The Chain Bridge and Pest side from the Buda side

Buda Castle

Budapest Parliment

Looking up at Buda and Matthias Church from Chain Bridge

Chrissy and her 'tourist pose'

Gellért Hill Cave

Free Walking Tours Budapest

After our enjoyable walking tour in Vienna we searched out a tour company in Budapest in which to partake. The highest ratings on TripAdvisor were for a company called Free Walking Tours. As it included our favorite word 'free' in the title we were 'sold'! Note: the tour guides work for tips and we came to learn that they go above and beyond to earn them.

With a half assed idea where to meet the group we wandered in a general direction to one of the main squares and came upon a large number of tourists milling around near a fountain. 


With a few introductory words to the large group we were segmented by native language and began our 2.5 hour tour. The "Original" tour started through some of the areas we had visited already like the square with the Christmas Market and the Chain Bridge. However, the local guide providing history and commentary on the locations really added context and made each stop a richer experience.

Highlights from the Original Tour

 Matthias Church

Fisherman's Bastion



We had so much fun on the 'Original' tour that we signed up to go on the 'Bar Tour' that night.  As a couple who had spent every moment together for 2.5 weeks and had limited language skills to converse with the natives we relished the chance to interact with another people

We met a lot of really great folks but most memorable of all were Ana and Alex from Romania and Calgary via Romania. Just like us they were on their honeymoon. But completely unlike us they were separated by geography as Alex was working in Calgary and Ana was still in Bucharest trying to get a visa to Canada. Witnessing their commitment to each other and seeing how happy they were in each others presence really put into focus how fortunate Chrissy and myself are. We spend alot of time together and sometimes get on each others nerves but at the end of the day we spend so much time together because we chose to and most importantly we can.

Picture by Alexandru Jinga

The final tour we took was the Jewish District Tour on a cold and rainy New Years Eve.

The Jewish people have a long history in the Budapest area that can be traced back to the 13th Century. As the city grew so did the Jewish population and their influence until 1930 when they numbered ~200,000 with more than half the city's businesses either owned or operated by Jewish families.

The Great Synagogue in Dohány Street

This of course would change with World War II. Hungary eager to win back land lost during WWI sided with Germany and was quite successful in protecting it's Jewish population until 1944 when the Germans turned on the Hungarians. Deportations of Jews to death-camps immediately began and what is now known as the Jewish District was walled off to form a ghetto. When the walls finally came down only a year later the Jewish population of the city was already halved.

The 'liberating' Russians with their economic over theological ideologies did little favours for the district and the area fell into disarray with crumbling buildings and modest infrastructure. 

Today the area is going through a rebirth with new investment into places of worship and infill commercial and residential developments. Wandering through the byzantine maze of streets you'll find trendy shops, cool restaurants and one of a kind ruin pubs.

Szimpla Ruin Pub

Unique to Budapest are ruin pubs. Defining exactly what a ruin pub is can be difficult but they all share the same characteristics; the buildings are run down and barely seem structurally sound, the interior design is best described as eclectic, and the clientele is all over the map from the terribly cool to pram pushing tourists. 
These artsy cafe/beerhalls were the catalyst for the rejuvenation of the Jewish District.

As much as I usually dislike places that can be described as hip there is something I admire in the absolute crappiness of it all. Basically somebody decided, "Frak it. I don't care if we don't have a roof. I want to get wasted with some friends". That's a spirit I can admire.

During our nigh time "Pub Tour" we visited quite a number of the ruin pubs and had a great time. Deciding to see the bars in the light of day we journeyed to the first and best ruin bar in Budapest: Szimpla Kert







The place, a bylaw officers worst nightmare, is just fantastic. If I lived in Budapest you would find me there pretty much everyday.

Michael Jackson Memorial Tree

Very close after the fall of communism Michael Jackson played a concert in Budapest. Across the street from the hotel where he stayed, in the shadow of his room, stands a tree that his fans continually adorn with pictures of the pop star. Every time we walked by I couldn't help but laugh. I know it stands more for the promise of life outside of soviet oppression, but c'mon...it's Michael Jackson.



Great Market Hall

Being winter in Hungary the women all seemed to be dressed in fur with leather accessories. Eventually Chrissy caved and decided that she needed to add an item of one of these two types of dead animal to her wardrobe. I chose to join her looking for deals at the great hall mostly to sample more food.




How awesome are seasonal pickles!?

Pure white turnips everywhere! Why can't it be like this at home?

New Years Eve

Celebrating a night before, Chrissy and I chose to take it easy on New Years Eve and based our night around supper at our fancy hotel restaurant. At the time and looking back on it I can easily say it was the best 'non home cooked' meal I ever had. This is somewhat surprising based on just how simple the dishes we ate were. The meal was a serve yourself from a massive salad bar and grill station. If you wanted a meat from their grilling station you simply requested from the chef's and they prepared it right in front of you with a minimum of spice or sauce. Each order came out flawless cooked to the absolute perfect condition.

As the slob that I am I dined on the following creatures of the Earth; Pig, Cow, Sheep, Deer, Salmon, Trout, Butterfish, Catfish, Shrimp, Mussels, Duck and Goose (liver). I had the meat sweats for days...and regret nothing.


Accompanying our meal was planned entertainment from a roaming pack of 'gypsy' musicians and a particularly amusing couple that was seated next to us. The couple consisted of a man of a certain age and a young slim woman of approximately half his age. We called her the 'heiress'.  He fawned over the heiress all night getting her plates of food that would go untouched and purchasing champagne that would go flat from her birdlike occasional sipping.

The following two pictures of her pretending to be amused and him reaching for his wallet I would think sum up their relationship.


Chrissy took particular amusement listening in on their conversation and then mimicking the heiress verbatim.


With our entertainment concluded and our faces stuffed we headed back to the room to change into looser clothing. After rubbing our overfull bellies for awhile we were pulled outside again by the sounds of fireworks.

Budapest doesn't have any one central fireworks show. Instead it's simply bars, nightclubs and random citizens lighting off their own fireworks into the sky for hours on end. We took particular glee in watching a couple of young gentlemen lighting their fireworks on the boulevard of a busy street and then running for safety. Good Times.

Heroes Square

On New Years Day we got off to an early start and walked down Andrássy Avenue towards the Széchenyi baths in Heroes Square. The baths are the largest medicinal bath in all of Europe and are considered a must visit attraction in the City.

The scope, scale and beauty of the building are impressive as are the options of steam rooms and temperature modulated baths.

Picture Source: Wikimedia Commons
If you are into sitting in a warm giant bathtub with a thousand of your closest personal friends then more power to you. For myself, I just mark it up as an experience in a beautiful setting that I don't need to do again.

Apparently we got into the baths at the opportune time as we noticed a large lineup of holiday bathers waiting to get in after our exit.


For the next hour or so we simply wandered around Heroes Square and the City Park taking in the sights.








Other Highlights


Awesome Bridges

Fantastic Buildings:  Academy of Science

Fantastic Building: The Opera House

Mural Surprises in the Jewish District

Falcon Stance

Notes:

  • Chrissy and I arrived at our Hotel before our room was ready so we went to find lunch and kill some quick time before checking back in. We accidentally wandered into a buffet restaurant and then decided just to go with it eating food that we had no idea what it was. At one point we realised that our diet to that point had been unhealthy and we should eat some salad or at least some greens. Upon closer inspection of the large buffet we found no vegetables whatsoever that were not pickled. 
  • The beer in Hungary is not great - the wine though is fantastic.
  • While walking along the Danube Chrissy decided she wanted to have a drink on a boat. We picked the next boat/restaurant that we came across and it turned out to be the ultra-fancy "Spoon". It may have been one of the best decorated modern lounges I have ever been in. Next time you see Christina ask her about the fancy ladies toilet.
  • This was our 3rd straight city that was tied to the Habsburgs and situated along the Danube. It was really interesting to track their influence through the different regions and identify how they and the river shaped the formation of these cities.
  • The Museum of Terror is one of the most sobering and well curated/presented museums I have ever been in. Even the background music provokes an unconscious response. Highly recommended.
  • My immediate first impressions of Budapest based on a walk down Andrássy Avenue were not great. It seemed like it was trying to be something that it was not...mostly just Corporate America. (i.e) Burger King, TGIF Fridays, Starbucks, Calvin Klein brands everywhere. This changed though as we got to see more of the City. Walking around we developed a feel for the character of different neighborhoods and enjoyed the dichotomy of classically inspired buildings next to Russian era cement monoliths. With the more we learned of the City's history we re-evaluated our opinion on Budapest. 
  • The City seems to have been in a state of flux over the last 100 years. Today it's still evolving and looking for an identity.  I would love to go back in 5, 10 15 years from now to witness how the city has changed.
  • Next stop - London






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