“Budapest is a prime site for dreams: the East’s exuberant vision of the West, the West’s uneasy hallucination of the East. It is a dreamed-up city; a city almost completely faked; a city invented out of other cities, out of Paris by way of Vienna — the imitation, as Claudio Magris has it, of an imitation.”
― M. John Harrison, The Course of the Heart
Budapest was easily my favorite city visited on our Danube cruise. I have to admit, as the above quote suggests, it is a city almost completely faked … and perhaps that is why I loved it. Why faked? Well, it is estimated that more than 80% of Budapest’s buildings were destroyed or damaged in WWII. All five of the bridges that cross the Danube were blown to bits. Who did all of this damage? Well, pretty much everyone involved. Americans bombed Budapest while it was occupied by the Germans. Germans blew up bridges when they eventually retreated from Budapest. I think the Soviet Union did their fair share of damage as well.
So basically, most sites in Budapest are reconstructions of buildings as they once were. But going back even further, several of the most picturesque locations in Budapest were fakes to begin with. Fisherman’s Bastion, for example, looks like a castle, but really is just a photo op with no substance behind it. It was built between 1895 and 1905 as part of the 1,000 year celebration of the Hungarian state. It was then mostly rebuilt after it was destroyed in WWII.
Vajahunyad Castle (below) is another fake originally built for the 1,000 year celebration, it was never a real castle. But it sure is beautiful. We got up early on a Sunday morning to visit it, and were really glad we did. We had the place mostly to ourselves.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, we hired a private guide in Budapest. Her name was Orsolya, and she was fantastic. Here is a pic my sister took of Mr Q, our guide, me and my mom. If you happen to need a private guide in Hungary, you can find her website here. I really wish we’d had more time in Budapest, because I would have loved to take her Castle tour, or maybe one of her wine tasting tours.
We asked her to take us to some places that might be off the beaten track. We knew we’d see the major sites either on our own, or with our cruise tour. She fulfilled our wishes by taking us to the Metropolitan Ervin Szabo Library. This is a functioning library that is housed in the 19th century Wenckheim Palace.
I suspect she had to pull some strings to get us inside, it seemed to involve her showing some I.D., signing some papers, and asking for the head librarian who had to come and let us in behind a velvet rope. She led us past several floors of rather utilitarian library rooms, until we came upon some of the original palace rooms. Imagine studying for your biology final in these rooms!
Orsolya said she spent many hours studying in this library while at university.
Before we parted ways with our guide, she told us about a coffee shop that was tucked away above a book store on Andrassy Avenue. She pointed out the escalator and said ‘just take it up one floor’. We were able to squeeze in a visit the next day, and were really glad we did.
What? Doesn’t the coffee shop at your local Barnes & Noble look just like this?
It was overcast and drizzly on our last afternoon in Budapest, so while Mr. Q and my mom stayed warm and dry on our Viking river boat, my sister and I decided to take a taxi to the top of Gellert hill and then walk back down again. The panoramic views were lovely, if a bit grey.
The walking path down the hill was gorgeous in the rain.
Overall, Budapest was simply an amazing city. The people were lovely; everyone we dealt with was patient with our total lack of Hungarian and our pathetic attempts to figure out their currency. I can’t tell you how many times I messed up with their money, and the person I was paying handed me back the money they didn’t need (I’m not usually so bad, but 245.78 forints for one U.S. dollar is just not easy math and when a 500 bill is your lowest paper money … well, it was easy to get confused). Not a single waiter sneered at us or was unkind.
The only thing I would have changed about Budapest is that I would have stayed longer. One could easily spend a week to 10 days here, there was so much more we wanted to see but just didn’t have the time. We never were able to tour Parliament or the State Opera House. I would have enjoyed spending some time in their National Gallery and their Museum of Applied Arts. The funicular was closed for repairs, so we weren’t able to ride it (it was scheduled to open the day after we left). We would have liked to visit the zoo, and possibly spend some time in a thermal bath (Budapest is known for them).
Yep, it’s official. We must return, and next time we stay longer!
Stay tuned, next week I’ll share Vienna, the Imperial City, with you.
P.S. Thank you everyone who left a comment to win a German magazine. It sounds like we are all of a like mind and love to get our hands on a good decorating magazine, no matter the language. I’m keeping the drawing open until the end of the day on Friday, then I’ll pick 4 lucky winners and let you know who they are!