Zsofie and I are, together with many others, a proof that Erasmus program actually works. We met in Bonn when at parties played Madonna “Hung up”. After so many years we can say we were actually good! As per all official relationships also our families knew each other during a couple of lunches and dinners. Those lunches and dinners, tooked a 50% more than normal ones, due to the Hungarian-German-Italian translation and return… a comedy movie director could have done a movie on it!
It is time to return to Budapest this November, also to have Matteo know better the city. Our last trip to Budapest was two summers before but for a very short time (the occasion was the wedding of Zsofie and Peter). During this long weekend our Hungarian friends did everything to make Matteo fall in love with the city and to consolidate my love for it as well.
The city in macro areas
Arriving in Budapest in the evening, when lights illuminate the bridges, the Parliament and the most important monuments means starting in the right way. To make us enjoy a breathtaking view and to see a map of the city en plein air Zsofie and Peter take us by car to the Citadella. From here you have the opportunity to see from above the two macro areas in which the city is divided: Buda on the western side and Pest on the eastern side. In the middle its Majesty the Danube.
The bridges would deserve a separate chapter. There are nine that connect Buda with Pest, two of which are railways-bridges. They were all destroyed by the Nazis at the end of World War II and later rebuilt, as far as possible, similar to the original structure. The most famous are the Chain Bridge (a sort of “room with a view of the Parliament”), the Margaret Bridge (you will recognize it for its “angular” shape), the Freedom Bridge (thanks to its three Art Nouveau naves it is considered one of the most beautiful bridges in the world) and the Elisabeth Bridge, the only one which has not been rebuilt as the original structure, and which is dedicated to Princess Sissi. For more information on Sissi’s relationship with Hungary you can contact my mother, who literally work out the VHS in which Romy Schneider played the role of the young princess (who later became empress, in the second VHS).
“The Martians: they are already here among us – they just call themselves Hungarians”
(Leo Szilard, Hungarian physicist)
Beyond the ante-litteram gossip about his aesthetic manias and love affairs, there is something that makes Sissi seem to me to be an almost mythological figure: she was Austrian and she learned Hungarian. My preparation before a trip requires that I learn to say at least a dozen words that help me to get a little bit in goods relationship with the people of the place I visit. Well, after fifteen years friendship with Zsofie I can hardly say three words: good morning, thank you and… a word that is not good if said by a lady!
Did you know it?
Hungarian has an alphabet of forty letters and I do not know how many cases and declinations: it has nothing to do with the other European linguistic strains but it seems to derive from a Finno-Ugric language. Get ready to fight with street names and squares that will make you sweat even in the middle of winter! This preamble just to ask you not to be frightened by the names I will indicate below: I made a shameless copy-paste from Google.
From Art Nouveau to the Murales
There cannot be a good pedometer that goes haywire without having first consumed an adequate breakfast. To start the assault of the city we have a brunch in a bakery-cafeteria from which we would not go away: Artisan Pékség. Peter tells me that, while we are eating carbohydrates like hell, a famous Hungarian chef – Széll Tamás – is buying bread next to us for his restaurant.
We leave for our walk with an upturned nose. Yes, because if you are passionate about neo-classical and Art Nouveau architecture you will return in the evening with a neck pain. A building that deserves to be seen is the Hungarian Art Nouveau House. If you don’t have time to visit it, pass at least in front of it to see how beautiful it is. Since it is already half hour that we are walking without eating, it is time to go to the covered market of Belvárosi Piac.
Here you can spend your lunch break or buy typical food for dinner. Peter buys for us some finger food for the evening aperitif at their home: Liba tepertő, fried goose skin, excellent if you want to get rid of a cardiopathic husband. We walk towards the Jewish quarter. I find myself discovering how many beautiful murals there are around the city, some of which are about sports, music or other “national symbols” (such as Rubik’s cube).
The importance of the memory
The Tree of Life
The synagogue in Budapest is the second biggest in the world, after the one in New York. If you have time you can join a guided tour (it is closed on Saturday). However, don’t miss the Tree of Life (you can also see it from the street, on the west side of the Synagogue entrance). This monument is a weeping willow tree on which 50,000 leaves in steel sheets are engraved the names of Jews killed during the Nazi occupation. Some leaves are still unnamed, just to remember even those who have been forgotten.
Shoes on the Danube bank
Budapest is rich in symbols and monuments, many of which recall the tragic fate that struck the Jewish community during Nazism. If you go from the Parliament to the Chain Bridge along the Danube you will encounter an art installation known as “Shoes on the Danube bank”. The Hungarian militias who collaborated with the Nazis (known as the Arrow Cross Party) for the extermination of the Jews slaughtered men, women and children right on the banks of the Danube. People were tied up in groups of three, shot and thrown into the icy waters of the river (the shooting was summary so some died drowned). The installation makes me shudder while some idiots armed with selfie sticks do not find nothing better to do than taking smiling selfie in front of this sad historical testimony.
If you want to know something more about Communist time, you can start from the facade of a building that is right in front of the Parliament, where large metal spheres are inserted in the wall in memory of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, when a demonstration – initially peaceful – of students, women and workers, was repressed in blood by the Soviet regime.
It is also worth making half a day trip to Memento Park: in this open air museum, half an hour by bus far from city centre, are collected a lot of monuments from the Communist dictatorship. It definitely worths the trip.
Art, music and much more…
If you are found of music and art Budapest could be an almost frustrating city due to the wide choice of activities that can be done. The Opera is considered, even if smaller, more beautiful than that in Vienna but is currently closed for restoration. Take part to a guided tour of the Academy of Music (Zeneakadémia), Franz Liszt founded it in 1875: visits in English begin every day at 13.30. The ticket costs 4,500 florins (about 15 euros) but it is worth the price (if not for the rest, just for the lady of the ticket office who asked me if I was a student!). The end of our visit (we were just three: Matteo, me and a smiling English gentleman!) ended with a small concert at the piano played by a very young musician: Simon Várallyay (I quote the name, in case he will become famous one day).
If you are not tired yet of Art Nouveau wonders go to take a look at the Párizsi Udvar. Don’t be put in awe by the ushers in livery at the entrance. It’s worth to see it!
The biggest avenue in city centre: from Andreasshy Utca to Heroes’ Square
The central hub of public transports is Deák Ferenc tér, which is not far from the beautiful St. Stephen’s Basilica, and from where the most important street of the city begins: Andrássy út (from the name of the famous count, friend with an F of Sissi …). This avenue is about 2.5 km long and ends in Heroes’ Square. It is worth walking along it to admire the beautiful buildings that overlook the avenue (many are being restored) and to stop and visit the House of Terror, a museum opened in 2002 right in the building that was the headquarters of the ÁVH secret police. It is not only a museum focuses on the atrocities committed by the Nazi and Stalinist regime, but also a memorial dedicated to the victims of these dictatorships. Once you get to the Heroes’ Square you can take the yellow metro line to go back. The oldest stops of this line were inaugurated in 1896 and are really beautiful!
Before get it we crossed Heroes’ square and arrived in Városliget, the city’s municipal park. Between Heroes’ Square and the park there is an huge ice skating rink in winter, where I stopped to admire an over 60 couple pirouetting in style “The cutting edge: Fire & Ice” under the contemptuous gaze of Matteo (man who is at the dance like a vegan to a T-bone)
Something out of usual: Bartók Béla utca
The most fashionable street of the city is Vaci Utca, a pedestrian boulevard that starts in the Vörösmarty tér square and which, in the pre-Christmas time, hosts stalls with plenty of food and crafts. If you want to escape from the confusion, take a breath in Buda, greener and more peaceful than Pest. Don’t miss a visit to the Buda Castle and the famous fisherman’s bastion or take a trip to Margaret Island, a green area in the middle of the Danube. However, if you love going out of the most popular tourist circuits do not miss Bartók Béla utca. This avenue starts from Gellért Baths and is full of cafes, art galleries and designer shops. To restore ourselves from the long walk (we arrived on foot from Pest crossing the Chain Bridge) we stopped for a drink in a beautiful library-coffee shop: Kelet.
We did not spend the last evening of our journey in Budapest, but in Ráckeve, a town of 10,000 inhabitants north of Budapest from where Zsofie’s parents come. They invited us to dine and spend the night there. I download from Google a full-highly dialectical discourse: “thank you for your friendship and hospitality” but that in Hungarian sounds “köszönöm a vendégszeretetet és a barátságot”. I listen to the pronunciation ten times before dinner (I invite you to listen it to get into the part). At the time of the aperitif I extract my leaflet and start to read it but it clutters me without possibility of exit. A moment of silence follows, followed by a series of Pálinka glasses raised high: Egészségedre! Cheers!
It occured to me to know this word in almost all the languages in the world …
> To get to and from the airport you can take bus 100E which stops at Deák Ferenc tér and from there you can take the tram or metro to your destination. It costs 900 florins (about 3 euros), tickets can be bought in front of the bus stop and you can also pay it with the card. It takes about half an hour to reach the city centre.
> If you want to use public transport in an unlimited way you can take into consideration to buy the Budapest Card, which also offers access or at least discounts for various museums and activities in the city. Alternatively you can buy single tickets for public transport (each ticket costs 300 florins and applies to a single route)
> There can not be a real stay in Budapest without having tried the thermal baths, famous already in Roman times and also appreciated by the Turks. What do our native friends recommend? Széchenyi Fürdő and Rudas Fürdő. Check their internet pages: only in some days the Turkish bath is open both to women and men together.
> Where to eat? I always return to Menza, a true institution very close to the Academy of Music. Also very popular among the locals, the daily lunch menu costs 1,490 florins (5 euros) and usually includes a soup and a main course. A real bargain! In Hungarian cuisine, meat is the king. If you need to give your stomach a break, I suggest you to try Kőleves (Hungarian, European, Koscher kitchen with some vegetarian options) and Dobrumba (Middle Eastern cuisine): they are both in the Jewish quarter.