budapest: the great synagogue & a stroll down váci utca in belváros

Tuesday, September 26: Today is our last day in Budapest, and we head out early so we’ll arrive at the Great Synagogue by opening time.  As usual, we walk out of our Airbnb courtyard onto Kazinczy utca and past Szimpla Kert.  Tonight, we’re determined to go inside the famous ruin bar to check it out.

Szimpla Kert

The Great Synagogue, also known as the Dohány Street Synagogue, is the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world, seating 3,000 people.

On our way to the front of the Synagogue, we peek through the gate at the Raoul Wallenberg Emlékpark (memorial park) in the rear courtyard.  This courtyard holds the Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs, created by Imre Varga, which resembles a weeping willow.  The leaves on the metal “tree of life” are inscribed with the family names and tattoo numbers of victims.

According to one source, at least 400,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered by the Nazis, but our guide in the synagogue tells us 600,000 Hungarian Jews were killed from 1944-1945.  Many of them came from the more Orthodox rural areas outside of Budapest.

Holocaust Memorial

Dohány Street once bordered the Budapest Ghetto, part of the old Jewish quarter set aside by the Nazis, where Hungarian Jews were forced to relocate by the Hungarian Government during the last years of World War II, from November 29, 1944 until January 17, 1945.

Great Synagogue

The synagogue was built between 1854 and 1859 in the Moorish Revival style, based on Islamic models from North Africa and medieval Spain, most notably the Alhambra. The Viennese architect didn’t believe a distinctly Jewish style could be identified, and thus borrowed the style of people who he thought were most closely related to the Israelites, notably the Arabs, according to Wikipedia: Dohány Street Synagogue.

interior of the Great Synagogue

According to our tour guide, the building consists of three richly decorated aisles, two balconies and, oddly, an organ.  The design is more like that of a basilica than a synagogue. Normally synagogues don’t have organs or cemeteries.  The seats on the ground floor were originally for men while the women sat in the upper galleries.

Our guide tells us there are very few openly practicing Jews in Budapest; most Jewish people today are more secular.

The ark contains various Torah scrolls taken from other synagogues destroyed during the Holocaust.

interior of the Great Synagogue

The decorations inside the synagogue are stunning.

interior of the Great Synagogue
interior of the Great Synagogue

After our tour, we wander around the courtyard to see the Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs up close.

Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs
Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs
Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs

There is also a memorial to Raoul Gustaf Wallenberg (born 1912 – death date unknown), a Swedish architect, businessman, diplomat and humanitarian.  He is memorialized for saving tens of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary during the later stages of World War II.  While serving as Sweden’s special envoy in Budapest between July and December 1944, he issued protective passports and sheltered Jews in buildings designated as Swedish territory.

When the Red Army lay siege to Budapest on January 17, 1945, Wallenberg was detained on suspicion of espionage and subsequently disappeared. He was later reported to have died on 17 July 1947 while imprisoned by the KGB secret police, according to Wikipedia.

Other people known as the “Righteous Among the Nations” are also included on the Memorial.  This respectful title is used by Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis.

Memorial to Raoul Gustaf Wallenberg
The Raoul Wallenberg Emlékpark
The Raoul Wallenberg Emlékpark

We find stones placed in a memorial behind the Synagogue.

Jewish Cemetery

Over two thousand Hungarian Jews who died in the ghetto from hunger and cold during the winter 1944-1945 are buried in the courtyard of the synagogue.

Jewish Cemetery

The Great Synagogue is 75 meters (246 ft) long and 27 meters (89 ft) wide.  The style of the building is Moorish but its design also features a mixture of Byzantine, Romantic and Gothic elements.

Great Synagogue

Two onion domes sit on the twin octagonal towers. A rose stained-glass window sits over the main entrance.

Great Synagogue
Great Synagogue
Great Synagogue

After we leave the somber synagogue, we head toward Váci utca in Belváros, passing some interesting street art on the way.

street art in Budapest
street art in Budapest
cafe in Budapest

We are heading toward the pleasant Belváros, which means “inner city” in Hungarian. It is the name of the central part of most Hungarian cities. Váci utca is one of the main pedestrian thoroughfares and perhaps the most famous street of central Budapest, featuring a variety of restaurants and shops catering primarily to the tourist market.  We’ll make our way down Váci utca toward the Budapest Great Market.

The Astoria
piano garden
Váci utca
Váci utca
Váci utca

We stop at the Anna Cafe for a double chocolate muffin, orange juice and coffee.  And I wonder why I gained weight on our trip! 🙂

Anna Cafe
chocolate muffin, OJ and coffee

We come across a huge statue of Mihály Vörösmarty, a famous Hungarian poet and dramatist.  A monument by Hungarian sculptor Ede Kallós, constructed in the 1900s, stands in the square that bears his name.

statue of Mihály Vörösmarty

We take our time meandering down Váci utca.  I am tempted by many things, especially the vintage Budapest signs.

vintage Budapest signs
vintage Budapest signs

Of course, I can never resist the temptation for textiles, and I resort to buying three scarves for 6 euros each.

Me buying scarves on Váci utca
chilies and garlic on Váci utca

As we approach the Great Market, we can’t resist the urge to walk out on Elizabeth Bridge, where we have views of the busy boat traffic on the Danube, Castle Hill, and the Inner City Parish Church.  Located next to Elizabeth Bridge, it is the oldest church in Pest, founded in 1046.  Underneath the baroque façade and the Gothic walls are the remains of a 12th century Romanesque basilica ( Inner City Parish Church).

Inner Town Parish Church
Castle Hill from Elizabeth Bridge
Castle Hill from Elizabeth Bridge
The Danube from Elizabeth Bridge

Finally, we’re charmed by a garden of ceramic mushrooms before we head into the Great Market.

garden of mushrooms on Váci utca

At another kiosk outside the Great Market, I run into a young man looking through the scarves.  He says, “They’re all so pretty!”  I say, “Oh, you’re a big fan of scarves?” He says, “Yes, for my girlfriend!” as if to set the record straight that the scarves are not for him. 🙂



pest > chain bridge > buda’s castle hill: fishermen’s bastion & matthias church

Monday, September 25:  As I spent nearly two hours wide awake, tossing and turning from 4:30-6:15 a.m., I have a hard time getting up this morning.  By the time I drag myself out of bed, and we eat breakfast, have coffee and shower, we don’t leave the apartment until after 11:00 a.m. This is such a late start for us when we’re on holiday!

We walk out through our shabby chic courtyard.

the courtyard at Charlie’s Budapest

On Kazinczy utca, we walk past the cheery eateries and ruin bars, including el Rapido Grand Bazar Grill & Deli and Szimpla Kert.

el Rapido Grand Bazaar on Kazinczy utca
Szimpla Kert

The figs and other fruit at a small market would be awfully tempting if I hadn’t just eaten breakfast and if it weren’t almost lunchtime!

a small fruit market in Pest

I like how in Budapest most graffiti is transformed into street art.

street art above Hungarian Restaurant
street art in Pest

I love the yellow trams that run through the city.  Currently over 30 tram lines run in Budapest.  The 47 line, seen here, links Deák Ferenc tér in Pest, the city’s busiest station, with points in southern Buda via the Little Ring Road.

Budapest trams

I marvel at the array of architecture found throughout the city, though I don’t know what this building is.

Budapest architecture

We’re heading to Chain Bridge to cross over the Danube, and on the way, we pass by the Budapest Eye, the mobile Ferris wheel we saw all lit up last night in Erzsébet Square.

The Budapest Eye
The Budapest Eye

It seems everywhere you go these days, couples hang “love locks” to profess their undying devotion.

locks at The Budapest Eye

We continue to make our way to the Danube, admiring the grand buildings and the trams along the way.

Budapest architecture
Budapest trams
On the way to Chain Bridge

Finally we’re on Széchenyi Chain Bridge, the suspension bridge connecting Buda and Pest, the western and eastern sides of Budapest.

Chain Bridge

We have fabulous views of the Danube this morning.  Below Castle Hill, we see St. Anna Church and Batthyany Square.

View of St. Anna Church and Batthyany Square from Chain Bridge

Looking north, we see Margaret Bridge and Margaret Island.  Margaret Bridge is a three-way bridge connecting Buda and Pest across the Danube and linking Margaret Island to both banks.  It is the second-northernmost and second-oldest public bridge in Budapest.

View up the Danube with Margaret Bridge

On the east bank, in Pest, we have a clear view of the Hungarian Parliament.

Hungarian Parliament

On Castle Hill, Matthias Church and Fishermen’s Bastion, where we are heading today, glow in the sunlight.

Matthias Church and Fishermen’s Bastion from Chain Bridge
Chain Bridge

My legs are so sore from all our walking yesterday that our plan is to take the funicular up to Castle Hill. Sadly, the funicular isn’t running today, but some people in a cart offer us a ride to Matthias Church for 2,240 Forints each (~$8.50).

The cart drops us at the neo-Gothic Roman Catholic Matthias Church, which sits beside Fishermen’s Bastion at the heart of Buda’s Castle District.  Saint Stephen, King of Hungary, built the first church here in the Romanesque style in 1015.  Used as a mosque and ultimately destroyed by the Ottoman Turks in 1241, part of the current building was built in the latter half of the 13th century. In the late 14th century, Gothic elements were uncovered and more were added. In the 17th century, an attempt was made to restore the church in Baroque style.

Matthias Church
statue on Castle Hill

Originally named after the Virgin Mary, the Church was renamed in the 19th century after Matthias I (1443 – 1490), King of Hungary and Croatia from 1458 to 1490. He “attempted to reconstruct the Hungarian state after decades of feudal anarchy, chiefly by means of financial, military, judiciary, and administrative reforms” (Encyclopedia Britannica: Matthias I).  The king’s two royal weddings were held in the church, which later served as the coronation venue for the last two Hungarian Habsburg kings, Franz Joseph in 1867 and Charles IV in 1916.

Matthias Church was used as a camp by the Germans in World War II and the Soviets during the Soviet occupation of Hungary, leaving it in disrepair. The church was largely renovated between 1950 and 1970 with funding from the Hungarian government.

We wait in a long and slow-moving line to buy tickets for Fishermen’s Bastion and Matthias Church. Of course, I have to complain about the lack of a “system,” as the signs are confusing and every customer who goes to the ticket window has to waste time asking about the ticket prices and what they include.  My comments about the lack of systems in various places leads Mike to tease me the rest of our trip: “They need a system!  A Cathy system!” he jokes.

Fishermen’s Bastion

We finally get our tickets and climb up to Fishermen’s Bastion. Built from 1895-1902, it is a terrace in neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque style which has great views of the Danube and much of Budapest.  Its seven turrets represent the seven Magyar tribes who founded the present day country in 895-896.  Its name originates from the guild of fishermen who offered protection during the Middle Ages.

The roof of Matthias Church, seen most clearly from Fishermen’s Bastion, showcases the famous Zsolnay ceramic tiles. Zsolnay is a Hungarian manufacturer of porcelain, tile and stoneware; the company’s ceramics are noted for the eosin process that was introduced in 1893. The secret eosin (Greek eos, flush of dawn) glaze causes porcelain to appear iridescent metallic. Typical colors include shades of green, red, blue, and purple that change with the angle of reflection.  These ceramics were favored by art nouveau artists.

Matthias Church
Matthias Church

We have a fabulous view south to Elizabeth Bridge from Fishermen’s Bastion.

view south to Elizabeth Bridge from Fishermen’s Bastion

Across the Danube, we have a clear view of the Hungarian Parliament and a huge construction crane.

View east from Fishermen’s Bastion

Looking north up the Danube, we see Margaret Island and Margaret Bridge.

view North to Margaret Bridge and Margaret Island from Fishermen’s Bastion

Some people apparently complain that Fishermen’s Bastion looks a little Disney-esque, but I find it quite attractive.

Fishermen’s Bastion
Fishermen’s Bastion

It takes us a while to get unobstructed pictures of ourselves at Fisherman’s Bastion because of a group of rude Asians who keep pushing into our pictures.  I even say with irritation to them, “How rude!”  Why is it that when we take pictures, we try to do it as quickly as possible and then move aside while other people stand hogging a picture spot for ages?  It seems people these days don’t have any sensitivity to other people.

I love the views from up here.

view of Parliament

Streams of sunlight bathe the Hungarian Parliament, offering a gorgeous view; the Parliament is impossible to fit in a photo when you’re up close to it.

view east from Fishermen’s Bastion
statue near Fishermen’s Bastion
Fishermen’s Bastion
Fishermen’s Bastion

We have to pay an extra admission fee to go in the far turret, because it’s part of a restaurant and cafe. Here, I get the message that my camera card is full!  I can’t believe it because today I switched bags and forgot to put my extra camera card in my new bag.

view of Parliament from Fishermen’s Bastion
view of Parliament from Fishermen’s Bastion
view from Fishermen’s Bastion
view from Fishermen’s Bastion
Fishermen’s Bastion – photo by Mike

After leaving Fishermen’s Bastion, I insist we go to a shop to find a camera card.  I cannot fathom taking pictures with my phone the rest of the day.  The card costs me 16,500 Forints (nearly $63!).  It’s so annoying to have to spend that much when I have a camera card back at our Airbnb apartment. I hate it when I do stupid things that cost me a lot of money.

As we eat our bread, cheese, and Mango Fanta picnic lunch on a bench outside Matthias Church, I put the new camera card in and it doesn’t work! I keep getting a message that the card isn’t formatted, and when I try to format it, nothing happens. There’s another smaller card in the package, but I ignore it, thinking it’s something I don’t need. I’m embarrassed to reveal how technically challenged I am, but when I’m unable to get it to work, I take the receipt and the opened card package and go back into the shop to tell the saleswoman the card doesn’t work.  She asks for my camera, takes the card out, and inserts the small card from the package into what I now know is the adapter for the microdisk. I’ve always just bought a single camera card, and I thought the smaller disk was for a phone or something.  Anyway, after inserting the microdisk into that slot in the adapter card, voila!  The camera works.  I snap my first photo in the shop.

testing my camera card on chili peppers

Paprika, made from ground dried chilies, is found in many Hungarian dishes, so chili peppers are an iconic Hungarian sight.

drying chili peppers

After lunch and my camera card debacle, we head back to Matthias Church to go inside.

Matthias Church
Matthias Church

The inside of the church is stunning.  The frescoes on the walls, ceilings and columns are the works of famous Hungarian painters, Bertalan Székely and Károly Lotz. They also created the magnificent stained glass windows.

interior of Matthias Church

The whole interior is mesmerizing, and we climb to an upper gallery for more astounding views.

inside Matthias Church
Interior of Matthias Church
inside Matthias Church

The most magnificent monument in the church is the double sarcophagus of king Béla III and his wife Anne de Châtillon in the Trinity Chapel.

Tomb of King Béla III
Tomb of King Béla III
Interior of Matthias Church
Interior of Matthias Church

In the upper gallery, we find a gorgeous stained glass window behind a statue of the famous Sisi, or Elisabeth of Bavaria (1837 – 1898), Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary by marriage to Franz Joseph I. We’ll see more of Sisi on our trip to Vienna, Austria.

We could spend hours in here admiring the interior, one of the most beautiful churches I’ve encountered.

angels guarding the door

We leave this area and walk along the western wall of Castle Hill toward the Royal Palace, in hopes of visiting the Budapest History Museum.

a walking tour of pest & a confusing (but fun!) visit to the széchenyi thermal bath

Saturday, September 23:  After lunch, following a Lonely Planet Hungary walking tour of Budapest, we stroll up Andrássy út, the most expensive street in Hungary. On this grand street, we find the Hungarian State Opera, and though we missed the final 3:00 English tour, we determine to return another day. Statues of opera muses adorn the first floor façade while great composers such as Verdi and Mozart line the second floor.

Hungarian State Opera House

A side street, Dalszínház utca, leads us to the New Theatre, a 1990 reconstruction of the original by Béla Latja (1909). On the façade parapet, nine gilded ceramic angels carry tablets spelling out the name of the theatre, and globes and geometric designs feature shades of early Art Deco.

New Theatre
New Theatre
Fanciful balconies
splashes of color

A block up from the Hungarian State Opera, on Nagymező Street, we find the “Broadway of Budapest,” with the Budapest Operetta (Budapesti Operettszínház) at Number 17. This musical theater with its pink facade features 500 performances per year of Hungarian operettas and contemporary musicals, as well as historical-literary musicals aimed at the younger generation, making it one of the most frequented theaters in Hungary.  I love its fancy wrought iron canopy and old world elegance.

The Budapest Operetta
The Budapest Operetta
inside the Budapest Operetta

Mike stops on a bench for a brief chat with Emmerich (or Imre) Kálmán (24 October 1882 – 30 October 1953), a Hungarian operetta composer who was one of Adolph Hitler’s favorite composers despite his Jewish origins. After Austria was annexed to Nazi Germany in 1938, he rejected Hitler’s offer to become an “honorary Aryan” and was forced to move to Paris. After his emigration, performances of his works were prohibited in Nazi Germany. He eventually settled in California in 1940, returning to Vienna from New York in 1949 before moving in 1951 to Paris, where he died.

Mike has a chat with Imre Kálmán

The eight-story Neo-Renaissance Mai Manó House houses the Hungarian House of Photography, a photo gallery, featuring world-class exhibitions.  After it was built in 1894 as a photo studio, it was the home and workplace of Manó Mai, the former imperial and royal court photographer of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Mai Manó House
Mai Manó House – photo taken by Mike Dutchak

We find the leaning statue of Miklós Radnóti, a Hungarian poet who was shot by the Nazis in 1944 and tossed into a mass grave.  When his body was found, a small notebook of poems was retrieved from his overcoat pocket.  From love poems to the wife he’d never see again to poems depicting the gruesome horrors of the Nazi regime, his small collection is a chilling masterpiece about the barbarism experienced during the Holocaust.

Miklós Radnóti, the leaning statue

Across the street from the Hungarian Operetta is Thália Színház, a performance art theatre.

Thália Színház

Our Budapest Walking Tour would have taken us ever-so-slowly to Heroes’ Square, but we are in a hurry to visit the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath before dinner.  Instead of walking, we take our Airbnb host Charlie’s advice and take the Metro 1, known in Budapest as “the underground” (“a földalatti”), the oldest line of the Budapest Metro system, built from 1894 to 1896. In 2002, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  After many frustrating moments figuring out how to buy tickets, Mike finally figures it out and we’re on board.

Metro 1, also known as The Underground

At Heroes’ Square, we get out and look out for the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath.  We follow the signpost shown below.

Signs at Heroes’ Square

How confounded we are by the workings of the Széchenyi Thermal Bath! Of course the language barrier makes it difficult, but the impatient attitude of the ticket salesperson also puts us off to the point where we almost consider walking away. Almost.  In the end, I’m glad we persevere.  It’s quite the experience.

The daily ticket with locker usage is 5,100 Forints, about $19.55 each. Simple enough.  But, there’s the issue of the towels. We didn’t bring our own towels, so we need to rent them.  The ticket salesperson mutters something about 3,000 Forints, which is about $11.50.  Surely, the entry fee can’t be nearly $20 and the towels nearly $12?!! That seems rather outrageous. It takes us quite some time to figure out that we must pay 3,000 Forints per towel, but 2,000 of that is simply a deposit that will be returned to us when we return the towels.  We finally commit and pay our fees, heading inside the locker rooms wearing electronic wristbands to lock the lockers.

It’s confusing because there is only one locker room for both men and women.  Where on earth are we supposed to change?  By watching other people, we find there are little cabins with doors on two sides, one leading into the locker room, and one to an outer area. Mike and I change in one shared cabin.  Mike figures out that to lock both doors, we must fold down a panel on the bench seat, which in effect blocks both doors.  We change and carry our heaps of discarded clothing into the locker room, stuff them into lockers #150 and #151, double test them, and then proceed into the pool area wearing our wristbands.  We are both worried about this procedure as all our money, credit cards and passports are in our bags.  We had trouble in the Blue Lagoon in Iceland with locking the lockers and then having them accidentally open when we thought they were locked! All seems to work fine here in the end.

We walk through the indoor pools, take a short dip, then head for the outdoor pools.  The outdoor pools are not quite hot enough, in my opinion, for the cold air temperatures.  I don’t bring a phone or camera to take pictures, because for one, I don’t want my camera to get wet, and two, I’m not sure of the protocol.  However, I desperately want to take photos!

After we soak in the outdoor pools for a while, I see a few people walking around the pool decks taking pictures with their phones or iPads, so I go back inside to my locker and grab my phone, stopping to take a picture of one of the indoor baths.

inside the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath

As I’m taking another picture, a man happily jumps into the middle of my picture, a hilarious photobomb!  I crack up laughing.

a photobomber at Széchenyi Medicinal Bath

Most of all, I want pictures of the outside pools.  So, I take a deep breath and head out into the cold, wearing a towel wrapped around me.  Brrrr!  I have to make this quick.

Széchenyi Medicinal Bath
Széchenyi Medicinal Bath

I love the men playing a serious chess game on the steps of the pool.

an engaging game of chess

Can you spot Mike in the pool below?

Mike in the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath

Széchenyi Thermal Bath was designed by Gyozo Czigler and built in 1913. The Bath was expanded in 1927 with a public bathing department for gentlemen and ladies and a beach site. In the middle of the 1960s, further transformations took place.

Reconstructing the pools of the swimming section, completed in 1999, included equipping them with water filtering and circulation devices. The so-called fancy bath includes a whirling corridor, underwater effervescence production, neck shower and water beam back massage.  These were installed in the sitting banks, according to the Baths website.

Széchenyi Medicinal Bath

I am determined to take pictures all the way from the far end.  I have to walk past the thermal pool, alongside the 50-meter-long swimming pool, and past the activity pool. The pool at the far end has a spiral whirlpool, which makes for interesting photos. As I walk along the 50-meter swimming pool, which is only 26 degrees C (almost 80F) according to the sign, I see a few hardy souls swimming laps in it. It’s hard to imagine swimming in the cooler water, but I guess the water is still warmer than the air.

swimming pool at the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath
Széchenyi Medicinal Bath
Széchenyi Medicinal Bath
whirlpool end of the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath

The panorama picture I take makes the pool look strangely distorted.

a strangely distorted panorama shot of the whirlpool end of the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath

Can you spot me in the bath?  I make Mike get out of the nice warm pool to take the picture.  He isn’t too happy about standing outside in the cold.

Me at the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath
Széchenyi Medicinal Bath

After we stop in at one of the indoor pools, we return to the locker room to change.  Mike takes the towels to the drop-off to get our 4,000 Forints deposit returned.  He faces a bit more confusion as the woman asks him to give her 1,000 Forints, so she can give him a 5,000 Forint bill. He searches through all his coins to put together 1,000, struggling to decipher the values of the coins and becoming flustered in the process.

How disconcerting it is when you first arrive in a new culture and have to figure out all the nuances of language, currency, signage, direction and proper etiquette!

After we finish at the baths, we take Metro 1 back to the Opera and then, beginning on a perpendicular street, take a series of streets back to our Airbnb apartment.  We pass by a little playground park with a pretty mural on the background building.  We’ll pass by this every evening as we make our way “home.”

mural on the wall behind a city park

At the far end of the park is a more graphic and less pastoral scene.

another mural at the city park

We pass more interesting street art along the way.

Budapest Street Art
Budapest Street Art

On the block before our street, we poke our heads into a couple of restaurants and finally go inside the inviting Gettó Gulyás. They don’t have any empty tables so we happily sit at the bar.

Sitting at the bar at Gettó Gulyás

I order a tall skinny beer, while Mike gets a short squat one.

a tall beer at Gettó Gulyás

Our meal starts out well, but in the end, we’re not wholly satisfied. The goose crackling pate and red onion spread on the fresh bread are delicious, as is the beet salad.  But my mushroom stew with egg noodles (what I’d call spätzle) is not that great because of the texture of some of the mushrooms and the strange flavor of the noodles.  Mike’s beef stew is very chewy and he ends up leaving half of it behind.  We resolve not to return to this restaurant despite its cozy ambiance.

Back at Kazinczy utca, our home street, we stop in at an outdoor covered food court, Karaván Budapest, with 10 kiosks.  Here, we each get small cups of ice cream.  I order a brownie topped with vanilla ice cream and Mike gets an apple crumble. It’s a little cold for ice cream, but that doesn’t stop us!

food arcade

I know one of the benefits of staying in an apartment when traveling is that you can eat breakfast in and prepare lunches as well. We could even cook dinner in, but I enjoy eating out too much to do that!  After all, I’m on vacation, even from cooking.  So after we finish our ice cream, we walk to the nearest market to stock up on some food.

How I hate going to markets for mundane things when I’m on holiday!! The market is small and crowded and we can’t figure out what is what.  We finally buy yogurt, granola, cheese, crackers, bread, bananas (which I don’t care for unless they’re in a smoothie but Mike can’t seem to live without), and beers so, as Mike says, “we can stop by the apartment and enjoy afternoon beers before going out for dinner.”  It’s way too much food, and it turns out we never even have time to drink the beers as we usually grab dinner out in the areas where we’re sightseeing, thus never returning to the apartment first.  At the end of our shopping spree, we find that people have brought their own bags and the market doesn’t provide bags!  We stuff all our groceries into our backpacks and resolve to bring bags with us on our next shopping trip.

We have a great first day in Budapest, even though we pushed ourselves to go all day on less than an hour’s sleep the night before, and despite the gloomy weather.  My favorite experiences were enjoying the views from St. Stephen’s Basilica and dipping into the pools at the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath.

Total steps today: 13,840 (5.87 miles). 🙂


a gloomy saturday in budapest

Friday to Saturday, September 22-23:  Four days in Budapest and this is our first, but only after Lufthansa carries us, miserably uncomfortable in economy class aisle seats, for 7:55 hours through a six-hour time zone change and across the north Atlantic to Frankfurt.

While airborne, I squirm and wriggle and try to sleep, but manage to snooze less than a half hour, instead captivated by a series of shows on the small screen inset into the seatback: first, a German-language movie Die Reste Mienes Lebens, in which Schimon lives his life following his pregnant wife’s death by clinging to a sentence his grandfather once told him, “Everything in life happens the way it should.” Second, Mama Mia and its exuberant ABBA songs delight me once again (how many times have I watched that movie?), although our destination will be nothing like the Greek island where that magical love story takes place. Finally, I watch the first of seven episodes of the TV-miniseries, Big Little Lies, which took away eight Emmys this year.

We wait in Frankfurt for nearly three hours, where Mike gets a little shut-eye while splayed across the seats in the airport.  All airports should ban armrests and have sets of lounge chairs like Frankfurt does so people can relax between flights. Meanwhile, I busy myself with a fancy coffee and pastry, in what will become a 2-week pastry extravaganza — resulting in a few extra pounds!

Mike taking a nap in Frankfurt

Finally, the airline lifts us the last hour and a half to our destination. We taxi to our Pest neighborhood in a steady drizzle under heavy clouds, bringing to mind the 1999 movie, Gloomy Sunday, which takes place in 1930s Budapest and features the famous melancholic melody which, according to urban legend, triggered a chain of suicides.  The suicide connection is unsubstantiated, but it’s probable that events in the decade in which the song was written, such as famine, poverty and the rise of Nazi Germany, may have influenced the high number of suicides at that time.

Instead it is a Gloomy Saturday, but our enthusiasm at exploring a new city is not one bit dampened.

The taxi drops us off on Kazinczy utca, the street on which Charlie’s Budapest is located; we booked the apartment through Airbnb.  Number 7 is simply a weathered door in a long nondescript wall.  We beep for apartment 7 and soon Charlie arrives with his two lively little girls, Chia and Eliye, to let us in. We enter through two large disheveled 4-story courtyards with peeling yellow paint, hinting at Old World charm. The apartment has a large bright bedroom, a nice well-stocked kitchen with an instant espresso machine, and a patio out the back door which we will use if the weather improves and if we’re able to open and close the door easily (for some reason it’s rather challenging).

The apartment sits on the ground floor in the far corner of two adjoining four-story courtyards.  Our door is to the left of the two pink chairs.

Our apartment door is on the far left bottom corner
the apartment building at Charlie’s Budapest

After Charlie gives us the rundown on Budapest, we put on our raincoats and venture out into the drizzle.

a rainy morning in Budapest

Kazinczy Street is in Budapest’s old District VII neighborhood, the old Jewish quarter, and since spring of 2012 has been dubbed as Street of Culture (a Kultúra utcája). Here in the decaying buildings left by World War II, funky bars and a lively nightlife scene have sprung up amidst the ruins. These so-called “ruin bars” line our street. We plan to visit one during our stay, so I’ll talk more about them when that time comes.

Szimpla Kert, the city’s first and most famous ruin bar, set in a dilapidated apartment complex, sits a few doors down and across the narrow street from our apartment complex.  Tour groups and lone travelers wander down the street, snapping photos of the colorful ruin bars and eatery exteriors with cameras, iPads and smart phones.

the street of ruin bars
our neighborhood

Can you find Waldo in the picture below?

wayward signs
Szimpla Kert

Immediately, Mike throws my detailed plan (outlined in an extensive spreadsheet) out the window, pointing out that going across the Danube to the Buda side doesn’t make sense for today as our apartment is on the Pest side and we’re getting a late start. He’s right of course, so I shrug and we meander through grand pastel-colored baroque, neoclassical, eclectic and Art Nouveau buildings to Szent István tér.

the pastels of Budapest

We wander streets garnished with enigmatic street art, curvaceous facades, vibrant flower stalls, and empty outdoor cafes.

Dressing Room
curvaceous buildings

The outdoor cafes would look inviting but for the light drizzle and cool temps.

outdoor cafe
fierce facade
flower shop

I fall in love with the vintage signs found through Budapest and even end up buying one later in our stay.

Coca-Cola please

The neo-renaissance Roman Catholic St. Stephen’s Basilica looms in front of us at Szent István tér and we must of course climb the 364 steps to the dome’s observation deck. Both the Basilica and the Parliament Building are 96 meters tall, and regulations don’t permit any other buildings in Budapest to be taller than these. The equal heights of these buildings represent a power balance between church and state in Hungary; they also represent the balance between worldly and spiritual thinking.

The patron saint of the church is St. Stephen (c. 975-1038), the first king of Hungary. His mummified right hand is kept in a glass case in the reliquary.

St. Stephen’s Basilica

We find a statue of St. Gregorius in a niche on the wall of the Basilica.

St. Gregorius

We also find Gothic looking details on a building across the way.

Gothic details

After climbing the increasingly narrow and claustrophobic 364 steps to the dome, we find fabulous panoramic views of Budapest from the solid balcony.  The Parliament Building, one of the Basilica’s bell towers, the Buda Hills, and the Budapest Eye Ferris Wheel on Erzsébet Square sprawl out before us.  At this point, I don’t know enough about the city to identify other sites.

View of Budapest from St. Stephen’s Basilica
View of Budapest from St. Stephen’s Basilica
View of Budapest from St. Stephen’s Basilica
View of Budapest from St. Stephen’s Basilica
View of Budapest from St. Stephen’s Basilica
View of Budapest from St. Stephen’s Basilica
View of Budapest from St. Stephen’s Basilica
View of Budapest from St. Stephen’s Basilica

Inside the church, we’re awed by the red marble and gold interior.

Interior of St. Stephen’s Basilica

Doing things in reverse order, we view the front facade of St. Stephen’s Basilica as we exit the building.

front facade of St. Stephen’s Basilica

We’re hungry by this time, and though there are Hungarian restaurants aplenty, we opt for the Hachapuri Georgian Restaurant across the street from the Basilica.  The menu out front looks healthy and enticing.

Looking for a lunchtime restaurant

I can finally shed my raincoat inside the warm and cozy Hachapuri.

Hachapuri Georgian Restaurant

I order Hikali, a set of four dumplings with four different fillings: mushroom, cheese, spinach and potato. Drawings on the menu demonstrate that one should hold the dumpling pouches by the gathered opening, and then bite into them, but I find them too hot and simply cut them up.  They’re delicious.

Hikali – dumplings at Hachapuri

As we will do many times during our trip, we forget to take a picture of Mike’s colorful Vegi Gobi before digging in, so I take a picture of the menu.  The Georgian platter has tomato-cucumber and parsley salads, hummus, cheese with mint, and various flavors of walnut balls served with a light yogurt sauce.  Meant to be shared between family and friends, Mike kindly shares some with me, although I’m too stuffed from my dumplings to partake much in his meal.

Vegi Gobi
Me at Hachapuri Georgian Restaurant in Budapest

Lunch takes longer than we intended and by the time we finish, we realize we will miss the final daily 3:00 English tour of the Hungarian State Opera House.  Instead, we decide to follow the Budapest Walking Tour in Lonely Planet Hungary, walking down Andrássy út, an avenue dating back to 1872 and recognized as a World Heritage Site since 2002. The avenue is lined with Neo-renaissance mansions and townhouses and is one of Budapest’s main shopping streets. The walk ends at Heroes’ Square, near the largest medicinal baths in Europe, Széchenyi Baths.  We have our bathing suits and flip-flops in our backpacks, intending to check it out!