Thursday, November 6, 2014

Tryst with Eastern Europe - Budapest

Tryst with Eastern Europe - Prague

The train journey from Prague to Budapest was long - about 7 hours. It was scenic in parts, through green forests and fields and small villages; then came mountains with Alpine wooden houses and then we went along the Danube river to reach Budapest. After leaving the Czech Republic, we crossed Slovakia and then entered into Hungary to reach Budapest. The Budapest station felt quite run down though after Prague's modern train station, even though it did have a pretty Central hall. 

About Budapest

I had expected to find Budapest similar to Prague- both were famous Eastern European cities, bombed by the Nazis and then Soviets during the Second World War, fell under Soviet rule for many years and now both were coming out of Communism.

But I could not have been more wrong. They were similar in some aspects - both have a river splitting the city, a Castle on one side of the river, atop a hill, overlooking the city and both have Jewish history from the Holocast. But I think, that is where their similarity ended.

Buda at night

Budapest did not feel as rich as Prague. It felt more like a mix of the poor and the rich, the new and the old. A bit like India too! And while Prague has retained its old world charm, Budapest has managed to regenerate into a modern city, while still retaining some of its history. It was bombed a lot more during the World War and hence does not retain all its old heritage - some of the old buildings survived and some didn't. 

And then there was a liveliness I witnessed in Budapest that was missing in Prague. Every few blocks, we would run into groups of people playing music or singing or just dancing. Small local concerts seemed to be going on everywhere. People were partying and having a nice time everywhere; in parks, on the streets, next to the river - how could a city have so much energy?

Pest, from Buda
Budapest is actually made up of two cities on either side of the Danube - Buda in the West is hilly and houses the Castle. Pest (hate the name though!) is on the Eastern side and is more flat and densely populated. Both are connected by the Chain Bridge (yes, that's another similarity to Prague!).

Both cities are now one, but they still retain their unique characteristics from before. Buda is where the royals and high class people used to stay - rich, classy and aloof. And Pest is where the locals used to stay - humble, earthy and lively. And you can feel this difference between the two cities even now. I had read two statements defining the difference between the two cities and I agree with both. Its said that 'When Buda sleeps, Pest wakes up...' and tourists are adviced to 'Visit Buda but stay in Pest…’.

Places to visit and things to do

Chain Bridge
We spent two days in Budapest; one in Buda visiting the Castle and the area around it, and one day in Pest exploring its streets and Memorials and other places of interest. The Chain Bridge connects both the cities and was the first bridge that was built on the Danube in the 1850s. The Bridge has a majestic look, and provides panoramic views of both sides. Its difficult to imagine now but till the 1850s, the two cities on opposite banks of a river were not connected at all and boats were the only mode of transport!

St Matthias Church
The Castle and Castle complex are both located on top of a small hill in Buda. The Castle complex includes the Fisherman's Bastion - a set of structures (in marble?) overlooking the city and providing panoramic views of Pest; and St Matthias Church - a grand Gothic Church with a pretty orange roof. The Castle complex houses a couple of museums too, though we just spent time walking along its cobbled streets.

St Matthias Church
There is a restaurant in Fisherman's Bastion where you can enjoy a meal while taking in the views of the cities below. Is a definite recommend. We walked from the Castle complex till the Castle, following a deserted path on the other side of the hill overlooking Buda. It was a quieter and less crowded way to walk across the hill:) plus provided a prettier view of some very pretty houses of Buda, nestled in green forested hills.

Buda Palace
Also, since it was summer time, there were loads of food stalls everywhere and people in costume walking around, playing music and entertaining the crowds. The Palace was like any other European building - a grand stone monument. The Hungarian Art Museum is located inside the Palace (which we did not see).

I was surprised though with the number of lion sculptures everywhere in the Palace. It surprises me much, given that Europe doesn't really have any lions on the continent, why do all the coat of arms and palaces display so many lions? Anyways, after walking around the Palace, we walked back down to the Chain Bridge. It was a nice walk, with panoramic views of Pest and ending in the Grand Market complex just next to Danube. You also have the option to take the funicular up the Palace, which is definitely easier than walking up and down the hill!

The second day, we spent most of our time in Pest. First, we walked on the Andrazy avenue from our hotel to the Heroes museum. It is one of the main avenues of Pest, and is lined with many old and important buildings. A lot of those buildings still display the damage that was done to them during the Second World War. Budapest was majorly bombed during the war, and a lot of buildings were torn down just after. Some remained though but it looks like there are some more which will be taken down soon.

We passed by the Opera House and the House of Terror while walking down Andrazy avenue, and after a long walk reached the Heroes Monument. Its a big open square with statues of old kings as a reminder of the history of the country. The whole area around the Monument is worth a couple of hours by itself - the Museum of Fine Arts, Palace of Art and Museum of Agriculture, all are housed in pretty buildings around this square and can keep you gainfully busy for a couple of hours.

Szechenyi Baths
Just behind the Heroes Monument, is the City Park, a huge public garden along with a circus, a lake and the Széchenyi baths. Budapest has a lot of thermal springs in and around the city, and the Széchenyi baths are one of the thermal springs open to the public. Its a pretty little place, you need to buy a ticket to go in, but its worth it. You can spend a couple of hours in the warm spring water, which apparently has medicinal value. I was however more impressed with the yellow building all around - its quite pretty and well designed. In fact the whole scene felt a bit like the view of the baths from Roman times which are shown on tv.

St Stephens Basilica
Close to Erzsebet square and the Promenade is located St Stephens Basilica; a grand and impressive Basilica dominating the Pest skyline. There are lots of cafes and restaurants around the Basilica, if you want to spend time in the open outside. And inside, it is one of the biggest and most exquisitely decorated churches I have ever seen, with loads of elaborate paintings in gold all around.

St Stephens (inside)
There was a wedding happening that day inside the Basilica, so we could not explore much but it looked dazzling in the lights. Also, there were so many weddings happening all around the city that day; everywhere we went, there were couples getting photographed with the touristy sites in the background. Is Saturday a lucky/preferred day for Hungarian weddings?

One of the days, we took a tour of the Dohany Street synagogue - the second largest synagogue in the world - and the Jewish Quarters located just behind the synagogue. It was an interesting tour for me, as I have never ever been to any place affected by the Holocast before. All that I had seen before in movies and read about in books was finally right there in front of me - and it was not a pleasant experience. 

Our tour guide was from the US and told us many interesting things about the history of Hungarian Jews, what happened to them in the Second World War and what was happening in the Jewish Quarters now. Jews in Hungary had been persecuted before the World War too by the Habsburgs but they had finally earned the right to work and stay in Pest if they paid a tax and by the 1800s had got the right to own properties too. Of course, all of it changed with the World War. There were about 800 thousand Jews in Hungary before World War II but less than 200 thousand survived after. There are still 100 thousand Jewish people still staying in Budapest - the third largest population in any European country.

In the first few years of the war, the Arrow Cross killed thousands of Jews, but the real persecution began near the end, in Apr 1945. Hungary used to send 5 trains full of Jewish people to Germany everyday, to send to concentration camps. Other countries used to send 1 train a day, but since Hungary had entered the war late, they were trying to make up for the delay!

All the Jews in Budapest had already been shifted to the ghettos in the Jewish quarters, with 20 people staying in one small apartment. That was less than half a meter per person! Even when the war was to end, the Arrow Cross as a last measure killed many Jews by pushing them into the Danube! Apparently the Hungarian regime had killed a lot more Jews than the Germans!

In our walk around the Jewish Quarters, we saw some of the historic sites and heard stories about what efforts some people had made to save as many Jewish lives as they could. Raoul Wallenberg had provided thousands of Jews with Swedish passports, while Carl Lutz gave Jews Swiss passports and saved Jewish children by taking them into orphanages. These stories of brave souls made me think, that if a person wanted to help the Jews, he/she could have. All the voices who blame just Germany for all the ills that befell the Jews need to take a hard look inside themselves - if they were quiet, weren't they also in a way supporting what Hitler was doing?

During the tour, we also saw an orthodox Jewish synagogue - the Kazinczy Street synagogue- and Rumbach Street synagogue - a smaller one which may get demolished soon as the building suffered a lot of of damage in the World War. One interesting fact our guide mentioned was that, there were now some Orthodox Jews staying near the Kazinczy Street synagogue, who stayed isolated from the rest of the population in the city. It was interesting to hear about them, especially that in their area, the businesses all had two separate doors in their stores - one for normal people to use and one for the orthodox Jews to use.

Dohany Synagogue
The last stop on the tour was the Dohany Street synagogue - the second biggest synagogue in the world which also houses within its compound, a World War memorial and a Jewish Museum. This was the first time I had been inside a synagogue, and it felt a lot like a church with seats for people to sit on and a central altar to pray. Apparently, this synagogue was made with themes similar to a Church to get greater acceptance for the Jewish community from the local Christian population. And the synagogue was so popular with the Jewish community that it was a matter of pride to own a permanent seat in the synagogue - you could even get a mortgage to buy a seat!

The most disturbing place inside the synagogue though is the cemetery. When the Soviets liberated Hungary after the World War, they found about 2000 dead bodies lying inside the synagogue park. They were the bodies of the Jews from the Ghetto who had died because of starvation and cold. Some of the bodies were identified, some weren't. But they were all buried in 20 mass graves within the synagogue complex - about 90 dead bodies in one grave! This place is a reminder of how cold and brutal were the actions of the authorities on the Jews during the War. 

While visiting such places, on the one hand you want to know more about the history but on the other it pains to hear about it! Also, I find it tough to accept how people try to put the blame wholly on Hitler - I don't think its possible to commit such brutality without actually internalising that hatred that can make a person do something like this!

World War Memorial
During our walks in the town, we also passed by Szabadság Square - a World War Memorial which highly interested me. The memorial shows the Germanic Eagle circling the Archangel Gabriel (depicting Hungary). There has been a lot of protest against this memorial though, so much so that it was setup at night amid security and was never formally opened. The biggest criticism has been of the fact that it depicts the Hungarian government of being an innocent victim of Nazi German aggression while that was not the case at all - the Hungarian regime was a supporter of Hitler, killing thousands of Jews on its own and hence not as innocent as the visual from the memorial would depict. Still I found it interesting how PR exercises can help rewrite or at least distort history so easily!

Other than places to see, there are a lot of places within Pest to just hangout and relax. The Promenade on the Danube is one such walk. It runs along the river providing scenic views of Buda, the Castle, Chain Bridge and Matthias Church, especially at night. There are loads of eating places all along, and places where you can just take a break and relax next to the river. We also found couples dancing on one of the squares to music being played by a local musician - it was quite a relaxed and romantic moment. 

Buda at night

The Erzsebet Square right in front of our hotel was another happening place. It had a couple of eating places, but mostly hundreds of people all sitting out in the grass and enjoying their friends’ company. They all had beer which they were drinking in the open (not sure if its legal or not, as most countries in Europe forbid it). The whole atmosphere was so much like a full-day party, it was infectious.

Hungarian embroidered dress
Lastly, Vaci Utca is another very lively street for people looking for shopping. Its full of people, shops and lot of local Hungarian stuff. The embroidered tablecloths, sheets and dresses being sold here were something unique to Budapest, even though a bit expensive. Other than that, ceramics and crystal were the other popular Hungarian stuff on display in this area. And of course the ever present Thai massages!

Parliament on Danube
Other than these places that we visited, the Parliament, the Budapest Holocaust Memorial Center, the State Opera and Memento Park are apparently worth visiting. The Parliament is located on the river itself and apparently has a tour which is quite long but very interesting (which we did not see). But I've heard from multiple people that it is a must-see, so would recommend a visit there.

I felt like Budapest was quite a grand and lively city - with wide roads, beautifully built buildings everywhere, the Danube river in its majestic form, lot of history and of course liveliness everywhere. Since we had walked so much, we even felt we knew the city very well:). Wonder why it isn’t much more popular with tourists? I did not see many Indian tourists there either, though was overwhelmed by the number of American ones. Looks like the Americans have discovered this gem way before the rest of the world!

Also walking around the city, I felt that before the World War, Hungary would have been a country at par with the Western powers of today - UK, France etc. How did it get left behind? Was it the lack of Hungarian colonies? Or communism after World War? Its an interesting question which I would like to answer sometime..

My last note would be about the flight we took back, with Wizz air. Stay away from it! It was the worst low cost flying experience that I have had. I think EasyJet and Ryanair are definitely better! Wizz Air charges you even if you check-in before but try to get a printout at the airport - this isn't something I had heard before. Secondly, they charge for the normal sized cabin baggages too! They allow only a small purse in for free, and 40 EUR for a normal cabin suitcase. And to top it all, they sell discounted bus tickets to Central London on the plane which is even more expensive than you can get at the airport. A scam at every level, as I said, stay away from it!


We stayed at the Le Meridien on Erzsebet Square which was the perfect location. It was on 3 separate metro lines (going to the train station, airport and Heroes Monument) as well a 5 min walk from Vaci Utca, Chain Bridge and the Danube. It was a great hotel, and we witnessed a Friday night Hungarian dinner in the hotel, where dancers showcased their Hungarian heritage. I loved their dresses - white ones with colourful flowers embroidered on them. 

Other accommodation options I would suggest are either the Intercontinental or the Marriott, both of which are located on the Danube Promenade itself, providing panoramic views of the river and Buda. 


We uncovered some good food options during the two days we were in Budapest. Trattoria Mamma near St Stephen Basilica has amazingly tasty Italian food. Dona Corso on the Danube offers live music, views of Buda and tasty Czech (?) food. (Plus we also got to see fireworks across the Danube, but I guess that had nothing to do with the restaurant!). And Gringos Amigos again near the Erzsebet square has very tasty on-the-go Mexican options. 

The first night however, we were looking for Indian options and the Curry House came on top of the search options. We did a huge research to check if it wasn't a Bangladeshi restaurant, and all signs pointed to it being Indian. Even at the restaurant, the decor (Hindu Gods) suggested that it was so, but then it finally turned out to be Bangladeshi. The food as expected had a different flavour and not great, but I would still rate it as one of the best Bangladeshi restaurants I have gone to.


The Metro and tram system in the city is quite good and efficient, even though it is the second oldest in the world, after London. We used the metro a couple of times, but not the trams but guess that should be convenient too. 

You can walk around the city if you don’t mind the exercise, but some places of interest are located a bit far off. So would suggest that buying the day pass might not be that bad an idea if you don't want to waste time in walking.


Budapest is very very cheap, one of the cheapest places I have been to in Europe. The cost of a 1.5l water bottle was 20 Rupees or 25p! Its even cheaper than in India! So make the most of it and shop n Budapest if you have time with you:).

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