My first impression from the bus entering Budapest, after a pleasurable tour of the Herend Porcelain Manufactory, is not a pleasant one. Streets congested with vehicular traffic and jams remind me of my home-city of Bangalore. But there the comparison ends, as I am soon charmed by the magical city and the river Danube that flows through it.
Budapest, the Hungarian capital, was formed by the joining of the calm Buda on the west and the vibrant Pest on the east, in 1873. It is ten times larger than any other city in Hungary and has several bridges and railway bridges connecting Buda and Pest, the most important of them being the Szechenyi Lanchid or the Chain Bridge.
I am fortunate to get a room with a view on the sixth floor of the majestic Hotel Inter Continental, which is located in the old city center or Pest side of the River Danube. The hotel affords stunning views beyond the river and Buda, including the Castle Hill and Royal Palace. With their lights twinkling and also reflecting on the waters of the Danube, I feel like I am in fairyland and throughout my stay in Budapest, I keep the curtains drawn wide open so that I can see the majestic river, the last thing before going to bed and the first thing after arising in the morning. The Danube offers contrasting views by day and by night and both are unforgettable.
Budapest is well-known for its gastronomical delights and an evening visit to the Gerbeaud Café is a palate-pleasing experience as their confections, with liberal dashes of chocolate, melt in one’s mouth. Gerbeaud, one of the largest and most traditional cafes located in the center of the city was started in 1858 by Henrik Kugler and bought in 1884 by its late owner, Emile Gerbeaud, a Swiss confectioner, who expanded it considerably.
One cannot speak of Budapest and not say a word about its delicious wine, Tokaji (pronounced with the j silent), which has its origins in the Tokaj region. It is possibly the sweetest and best wine that I have ever tasted. Tokaj is UNESCO-listed and its wine industry is one of the main employment source, estimated to provide nearly 5,000 jobs. Hungary’s central government and the European Union have joined together to invest in upgrading Tokaj’s vineyards and bolstering the international reputation of its wines.
I embark on a walk around the World Heritage listed Castle District on the Buda side, not realizing that it is quite a climb to Buda Castle. The colorful tiles dotting its rooftops are eye-catching but the most exciting part of being up here is the breathtaking view of the Danube. Entering the slightly hard to pronounce, “Halaszbastya” Restaurant on Castle Hill becomes worthwhile, not so much for the refreshing drink as to hear a small orchestra play soothing melodies. They quickly oblige when I make a request. And what a treat it is for the eyes and ears to look out at the “Blue Danube” whilst hearing Johann Strauss’ composition by the same name. But I will have more as I pull an obliging friend and we twirl around in a waltz much to the amusement of the other visitors.
After dinner at the Michelin-starred Pierrot Restaurant, comes the best part of the day—a cruise on a speedboat across the Danube. The ride includes a glass of liquor, which I offer as obeisance to the Danube whilst the ride does the intoxicating. There are lights winking everywhere, including on the magnificent Chain Bridge under which the boat passes several times. Their starry reflection on the waters is enchanting and, for me, a never-to-be forgotten sight.
A visit to Budapest would be incomplete without dropping in on their Parliament. The building looks like a palace from the outside and is no less impressive inside. The external façade is awe-inspiring with pointed arch arcades, eighty-eight statues of the many Hungarian rulers as also numerous spires, gargoyles and Gothic ornaments. On first sight, it seems to bear a striking resemblance to London’s Houses of Parliament and the penny drops when I hear that they provided the inspiration for its Neo-Gothic design. The construction was started in 1885 and completed 17 years later in 1902. Not surprising, as it is the largest Parliament building in the world with ten central courtyards, twenty kilometers (~12.5 miles) of staircase and 691 rooms. I barely manage to negotiate a few of them and find the interiors stunning in their decoration by Hungary’s best artists. Here, Neo-Gothic melds with Renaissance and there are Byzantine influences too, especially visible in the staircase hall.
A room that arrests one’s attention is the circular Copula Hall with its display of the statues of Hungarian monarchs and a ceiling as intricate as ones in cathedrals. The Coronation Crown and the insignia, which were given to King Stephen during his anointment as King in the year 1000 CE, are displayed here along with the other Coronation Jewels. I am fascinated by the majestic chandeliers as also a numbered cigar holder that is allotted for each Member of Parliament, to place his cigar in, as smoking is not permitted in the Assembly area! The Parliament is open for tourists only when there are no sessions on.
The Szechenyl Thermal Bath is the largest in Europe and highly-recommended for its medicinal waters, supplied by two medicinal springs. Built in the NeoBaroque style, it is an imposing sight and I wonder about how the Great Baths of Mohenjo-Daro would have been described by a traveler. But, on the day that I stop by, the place is jam-packed and I am glad that I have decided not to take a dip.
The Hungarian State Opera is a Neo-Renaissance building that is worth checking out, even if one is not able to catch an opera. It looks majestic from the outside and I stare in awe, before stepping inside. Designed by Miklos Ybl, a leading architect of 19th century Hungary, this construction is considered to be one of his masterpieces. There are gleaming marble columns in the foyer and a vaulted ceiling covered with murals, imaginatively depicting the nine Muses.
Andrassy Avenue, on which the Opera House is located, is a part of the UNESCO world heritage and an exciting place to walk around and shop in. I locate a shop to pick up chocolates from and am persuaded to settle for marzipans, to prevent the risk of melting chocolates.
After dinner, it is time to check out the vibrant nightlife of the Pest area. I find myself in the “ruin pubs,” which look in a state of dilapidation but are apparently meeting places for people of all age-groups.
There are people thronging everywhere and I decide on an early pack-up, as my flight back is early the next morning. The fallout of the party is visible at the International Airport the next day, with very few staff present on Saturday morning to proceed with the formalities. As I complete mine and head into the departure area, I make a silent wish to return some day. The city had me in its spell.
Melanie Kumar is a Bangalore-based writer. She enjoys writing about life in its many manifestations. She also does literary reviews and is an avid traveler, who never misses an opportunity to pen her thoughts about her travels.