I had now reached the fifteenth day of my trip, roughly the halfway point of the month of travel. As I journeyed further eastward into Hungary, I was now crossing the Cold War's Iron Curtain into countries that had been part of the former Eastern Bloc. This was a part of Europe where I had never set foot previously, and I was looking forward to see how these areas differed from the more familiar terrain in the western parts of the Continent. My travel this morning was taking me to Budapest, where I would be spending the next two days taking in the sights and sounds of this unique city. Budapest has stood at an international crossroad for centuries, a place where Hungarians, Germans, Turks, Russians, and many other ethnic groups have met with one another over the centuries. Sometimes those encounters have been peaceful and cooperative in nature; far too often they have been the opposite. However, the city that grew up in their wake is a unique fusion of many different cultures, and a blending of east and west symbolized by the very name of the city itself. What were originally two separate towns, Buda on the west bank and Pest on the east bank, eventually grew together to form a single great city. This was the place that I was keen to explore next.
The first difference that I encountered during this leg of my trip took place on the train itself. The cars on this train were arranged differently compared to what I was used to seeing, made up of lots of little compartments of six seats rather than rows of individual seats. These compartments were also all located along a single wall of the train, with the aisle outside each compartment running down the other wall. I didn't like this setup very much due to the forced communal seating in each compartment. There were three other people in mine and none of us had much in the way of room. There were also only two electrical plugs inside, rather than one in each individual seat, which was not enough for each person to plug in their devices. Was this whole setup a vestige of the communist regime? It would make sense due to the communal nature of the compartments, although that's only a guess. Anyway, while this wasn't a difficult ride by any means, it wasn't as comfortable as I would have liked.
The train eventually brought me to the main station in Budapest, Keleti Pályaudvar. This was a large station with a somewhat faded look, kind of what I imagine a lot of other train stations would have looked like a couple decades ago. It lacked the gleaming steel and glass look of some of the stations in Germany and the Netherlands. Still, it worked well enough and a train station is ultimately a train station, no matter how pretty it might appear. The building was constructed in the late 19th century as the dates on the front suggest, and it's located on the eastern side of the city. (The name apparently means "Eastern Railway Station" in Hungarian.) I also had to change some of my money here into the local currency, the Hungarian Forint, which was fortunately something I'd been able to skip in most countries to date. Only Switzerland and their Swiss Francs had required converting money previously. I soon found that Hungary was the polar opposite of Switzerland in terms of cost: outside of the tourist areas, everything was cheap! I could get a full dinner for the equivalent of eight dollars if I headed away from the restaurants that were designed to cater to foreign tourists. This was a pleasant surprise, and something to keep in mind for anyone reading who might be interested in traveling here.
I knew that all of the major attractions in Budapest were located to the west of the station, and so I headed off in that direction along the busy Rákóczi thoroughfare. My first stop was a religious house of worship - but not a Christian one for a change. Instead, this was a synagogue known as the Grand Synagogue or alternately as the Dohány Street Synagogue (Dohány utcai Zsinagóga) after the street on which it's located. This was supposed to be one of the most beautiful buildings in the city, and I needed to visit it on the first day of my trip since this was a Friday and it would be closed the next day for services. At the entrance to the synagogue, the staff was telling visitors that they could not enter without covering up their arms and legs. Fortunately I had all of my clothes with me in my backpack, and it was easy to change into a long sleeved shirt and pants. With that requirement met, I could enter the synagogue itself.
I had visited so many Christian churches on this trip that a lot of them had started to run together in my memory. The Grand Synagogue represented a completely different tradition, one with its own ideas regarding religious architecture, which ended up producing a strikingly pretty house of worship. The Grand Synagogue was built in the 1850s and drew inspiration from the Moorish Revival style, taking its cues from the Islamic architecture of northern Africa and Moorish Spain. The outside featured two towers that distinctly resembled the minarets used to call Muslims to prayer each day. Here on the inside, the synagogue had a large open space with two tiers of balconies extending out from each wall. Rather than depictions of religious figures, the synagogue used chandeliers for decorative elements, with small electric bulbs replacing the candles that had originally stood in these fixtures. Small windows on each wall let in additional light through stained glass carved into a repeating series of six pointed stars. At the far end of the synagogue, what would have been an altar in a Christian church was instead a featured place to display the Torah. The Grand Synagogue can seat over 3000 people at once, and it is the largest synagogue in Europe.
Outside of the main building lies the rest of the Grand Synagogue's complex, grouped together inside a fenced area. Immediately next to the synagogue lies the Jewish cemetery, a quiet memorial to the thousands of Jews in Budapest who were killed by the Nazis during the Second World War. There is also a Holocaust memorial for all of the Hungarian Jews, over 400,000 of them, who died in that dark period. These symbols are important to help visitors remember the difficult history of the Grand Synagogue and its congregation. The building was taken over by the Germans during the war (and used as a stable as a sign of contempt), and was left in badly deteriorated condition afterwards. The communist regime did not see any reason why the synagogue should be rebuilt following the war, and for decades the building lay in a state of disrepair. It was only in the 1990s that restoration could take place, and the Grand Synagogue was reopened to the public in 1998. This was one of the most moving places I visited on my trip, and it was a must-see location in Budapest.
I continued walking towards the city center and soon saw this bronze dome peeking out from above the streets. This was the highest point of St. Stephen's Basilica (Szent István Bazilika), one of the largest churches in Hungary. The building is named after Hungary's first king, the Magyar warrior who adopted Christianity around 1000 AD and was proclaimed a saint by the Catholic church after his death. In a somewhat ghoulish touch, his right hand is supposed to be housed in this basilica's reliquary. I'm not sure if I want that to be true or not. As for the building itself, St. Stephen's was built in the late 19th century in the Neoclassical style. It is exactly the same height as the Hungarian Parliament building at 96 meters (315 feet) due to a building ordinance that prevents any structure from being taller. This is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Budapest, and I saw plenty of visitors when I arrived.
The interior was a bit different that many other churches. Rather than being laid out in the general shape of a cross, with a central long aisle bisected by a shorter one at a right angle, the basilica had a series of domed segments that ran off to either side of the main entrance. Visitors couldn't even walk forward in a straight line towards the altar, but were instead channeled off to each side to take a more circular route. The interior decoration was similar to many of the Baroque churches that I had viewed in Vienna, with a lot of marble pillars and colorful paintings on many of the walls. The most prominent feature was that main dome, rising hundreds of feet above the center of the basilica. It was painted on the sides with angels and a huge depiction of a bearded figure (God?) in the middle. This was a neat church to visit, both due to its huge size and the rather unique interior decorations. St. Stephen's was a blend of several different styles, and although it was pushing the boundaries of good taste in some places, it never quite crossed that line in my eyes.
There was an option to climb up to the dome of St. Stephen's for a better view of the surrounding city, and of course I was happy to take that. Once again a narrow set of stairs ran halfway to the top of the dome, although this set was fortunately not as confining as some of the others. Up near the top, the stairs opened up into a larger space and I realized that we were on the inside portion of the dome itself. Four sets of stairs attached to the sides of the dome ran up to a viewing platform that let visitors outside into the open air. From this vantage point I had sweeping views of the city, allowing me to see some of the prominent landmarks in the distance. The green-roofed building off to the west was the location of Buda Castle off on the other side of the river. I planted to head there and explore the Buda (west) side of the river the next day. Closer was the brown dome of the Hungarian Parliament, a little bit to the north and one of the places I was going next. I could even see the people in the square below, with its boulevard extended out towards the river. I thoroughly enjoyed doing these tower climbs, and they helped to situate me geographically in each new city that I visited. For the very minimal fee charged to climb up here, I had the chance to experience these amazing 360 degree views of Budapest.
A couple streets over from the basilica was this building, the home of the Hungarian State Opera (Magyar Állami Operaház). Like many of the other historic theatres and opera houses that I had come across on my trip, I didn't stop to take the tour of this building. I did take a short look at the Neoclassical exterior, and popped inside to take these pictures of the entry hall. That was quite some ceiling decorations for a reception area, and there were two spiral staircases at either end that had a red carpet running down the middle. I was also amused to see that Billy Elliot was the musical that was currently being performed here - did that really count as an opera? I guess it was close enough for their purposes.
Still proceeding towards the Hungarian Parliament building, I came across this controversial monument known as the Memorial to the Victims of the German Occupation. While that might sound like an unobjectionable theme for a monument, the structure has widely been viewed as an attempt by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to downplay Hungary's role in the Holocaust and whitewash the country's history. Despite what the monument suggests, Hungary's Arrow Cross fascist government was a willing ally of Nazi Germany during the war, and it sent hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews to their deaths without voicing any objections. The Orbán government has pursued an aggressively nationalist policy and curtailed free speech since his election victory in 2010, and this seeming embrace of some of the worst elements in Hungarian history has been a disturbing sign. In response to the memorial's construction, protesters have turned the area around it into an unofficial Holocaust memorial, leaving behind flowers and photographs of the Jews who were killed. This is an attempt to push back against the state narrative than Hungary was an innocent victim of Nazi aggression, and these mementos serve as an effective form of counter protest. This area seemed to be getting skipped by most of the tourist groups, probably because they didn't want to be involved in the controversy.
There's also a Soviet War Memorial nearby (Szovjet háborús emlékmu), something that the Red Army left behind all over eastern and central Europe. Regardless of how I might feel about the Soviet Union, this was a dignified memorial to the fallen. Located in a small public park, this column carries a short inscription in Russian and Magyar sitting below the hammer and sickle and a red star. One thing that I hadn't known before this trip was how much heavy fighting had taken place in Budapest in 1944 and 1945. We tend to remember the fighting that took place in Berlin at the end of the war, but the bloodshed was just as bad in Budapest, if not worse. The city was under siege for two months before being brutally battered into submission, with more than a hundred thousand casualties on both sides. Americans generally don't hear that much about the battles that were fought between the Nazis and the Soviets, focusing instead on the more limited fighting in France and western Germany where our soldiers were deployed. This monument was put in place by the victorious Soviets to commemorate their victory over the Hungarians. I'm a little bit surprised that it hasn't been removed or torn down in the decades following the fall of communism.
The biggest tourist highlight lying alongside the eastern edge of the river is the Hungarian Parliament building (Országház). This enormous structure was built in the late 19th century, during the same period as the British Parliament at Westminster, and took inspiration from the same Neogothic style of architecture. The site for the Hungarian Parliament was located on the eastern side of the river in Pest by choice; the palace of Hungarian kings was located on the western side of the river in Buda, and by placing this structure on the opposite bank of the Danube, it was a symbolic way of balancing out the power of the monarchy with the power of the people. This is the largest building in Hungary, and as I had already learned at St. Stephen's Basilica, also the tallest building. I could see the parliament building from a long distance away, with that enormous central dome stabbing up into the sky. The dome is the one element that strays from the Gothic style, and it reflects the Turkish influence on Hungary's national culture. Otherwise, this building could have come right out of the blueprints for a medieval cathedral.
Quite by accident, I managed to arrive just as a changing of the ceremonial guard was taking place. The brown uniforms of the guards with their sabres at hand were inspired by cavalry uniforms that Hungarian soldiers had long worn into battle under the Habsburgs. It was a picture perfect scene for the assembled crowd of tourists, complete with a breeze stirring the Hungarian flag overhead. Meanwhile, I kept hearing this loud buzzing sound in the background as I was walking around the parliament building. When I went reached the side and had my first glimpse of the river, I realized that there was an air race of some kind taking place. Red Bull energy drink was sponsoring this event where little planes flew through an obstacle course, in what I presume was a timed race. Everything was located over the Danube, with inflatable floating gates that the planes were flying between. The planes were very loud up close and they were flying in daredevil fashion, only a short distance above the water. With Buda castle located just on the other side of the river, it made a perfect backdrop for this event. This was definitely not something that I had been expecting to see, and it was one of those fun coincidences that sometimes pop up while traveling.
The visitor's center for the Hungarian Parliament was recessed into the ground, and it looked to have been constructed recently. The place was packed with visitors and tours were starting about every 10 minutes in a variety of different languages. I would have been willing to take a tour in any language just to see the building itself, and although there was no English tour for a few hours, I saw that a French tour was available relatively soon. Even better, it was leaving at the same time as an English tour, and I correctly guessed that I could sign up for the "French" group and simply listen to the English guide instead on the microphone earpiece. That worked out very well indeed. While waiting for the tour to begin, I was able to walk through a small exhibit called "a thousand years of Hungarian legislation". It had a number of artifacts from different periods of Hungarian history, like some medieval parchments and robes, and a collection of ribbons handed out by Hungary's fascist Arrow Cross government in the 1930s. There was nothing earth-shattering here, but it was a nice little place to stroll through while waiting for the formal tour to start.
Once the tour began, we were ushered through a series of underground hallways and staircases into the central section of the parliament building. The Hungarian Parliament is a gigantic structure, with almost 700 rooms according to the tour guide, and there's enough space for all of the legislators to have their offices here. The formal entrance brings visitors in through a staircase with a red carpet, under a cathedral-like vaulted ceiling with statues on either side. It's pictured above in a slightly off-kilter image, photographs being a bit more difficult to take when part of a tour group. This entrance leads straight to a central room under the huge dome, where there is a sixteen-sided room that connects the two wings that run off to the north and south. In the middle of that room, directly underneath the dome, sits a glass case with a very faded crown inside, constantly guarded by two soldiers in full dress uniform. Inside sits the Holy Crown of Hungary, arguably the nation's most revered treasure. This is supposedly the crown worn by Saint Stephen (Saint István) himself when he converted to Christianity a thousand years ago. Historians can't state that with certainty, but they have been able to date this crown as far back as 1200, which means that the legend really could be true. We were not allowed to take any photographs of the central sixteen-sided room or the crown. However, I decided to be a jerk and managed to sneak a quick picture by zooming back in on the crown after the tour had walked two rooms away down the hall. This was a stupid and reckless thing to do, but the result was the semi-blurry image captured above. I was not thrown out of the building as I probably deserved.
The historic crown of Hungary was one of the main highlights of the tour. Another one was seeing the legislative chamber, or more precisely a replica of the legislative chamber. The Hungarian Parliament was built to be a bicameral legislature with two identical wings, each containing a chamber that looks like this. However, Hungary's current House of Magnates is a unicameral legislature, and so this chamber is only used for public tours and ceremonial functions. The room itself was a grand spectacle, with all of those arches around the walls and the extremely high ceiling overhead. However, the seats themselves were cramped and modest; I thought that perhaps they looked different in the actual legislative chamber, but I saw a picture of it online and that room really does look identical to this one on the guided tour. Perhaps the Hungarian legislators are very good at working in tight quarters.
The tour then proceeded back down into the basement, where it concluded in a room that had a number of informational displays set up along the walls. These were more interesting than the information provided on the actual tour, and this little museum was one of the best parts of the whole package. I liked the scale model of the parliament building, for example, which was my best way to capture the whole enormous structure in one picture. There was also a crumbling big red star down in this area, which the guide explained had sat on top of the Hungarian Parliament's central dome during the period of communist rule. It was quickly taken down following the fall of the Iron Curtain, and ended up here in this little museum. Finally, one of the maps showed a number of different locations where the Hungarian national assembly had met in past centuries. Perhaps more importantly, it also showed the much larger historic borders of Hungary as compared to the present borders, which has been a source of resentment in Hungarian right-wing circles for many decades. Defeat in World War I and the collapse of the Habsburg empire was not kind to this nation. Hungary's support for the Axis cause in World War II was largely driven by this resentment, and it hasn't disappeared entirely to this day.
Outside, the sun was still shining and it was a lovely day to walk alongside the riverfront. The Red Bull air race continued to take place, and the crowds that had gathered to watch made it difficult to view the next monument that I wanted to see. This was a quiet but powerful memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Known as "Shoes on the Danube", the memorial is a series of several dozen empty shoes sculptued out of metal that sit on the edge of the Danube a short distance away from the parliament building. There are no big plaques here or flashing signs, just these empty shoes as a way of commemorating the souls who were lost. On this particular day, the monument was juxtaposed against the spectators for the air race, and the constant drone of planes buzzing past overhead did not fit with the somber note sounded by these sculptures. I did the best I could to view the memorial without disturbing the spectators.
I walked south from the Hungarian Parliament next, heading into the shopping district located near the riverside. The most famous street here is named Váci utca (with "utca" meaning "street" in Hungarian), a pedestrian boulevard full of upscale stores and restaurants. This was a bigtime tourist area, as evidenced by the high prices and the frequent use of English on the signs. The chain stores I could do without; I did spend a little bit of time looking through some of the smaller stores advertising Hungarian souvenirs, but ultimately didn't end up buying anything. Whatever I purchased would have to be carried on my back for the next two weeks, not to mention the strong possibility of being broken in the process, and that dissuaded me from getting anything here.
After bypassing all of the tourist shops, I found my way to this more traditional (and enormous) marketplace. Known as the Central Market Hall (Nagy Vásárcsarnok), this huge indoor market was constructed in the late 19th century as a more formal replacement for the outdoor market that had stood in southern Pest for centuries. The interior featured hundreds of vendors selling their goods across three different floors. The most popular item for sale appeared to be different types of meat, which could be found in all different types of cuts and sizes. There were also plenty of fruits and vegetables, cheeses, freshly baked bread, dairy goods - you name it, anything that would be sold in a traditional market was available here. One of the reasons why I had traveled to the Central Market Hall was due to its location, right next to the hostel where I was staying in Budapest, and I took advantage of the cheap prices to get dinner here both nights of my stay. I was able to get a loaf of bread, fresh produce, and some deli meat for the equivalent of about five dollars, and that was better than I would do in any restaurant.
The market was the end to my first day of sightseeing in Budapest. I had covered most of what I wanted to see on the eastern bank of the river in Pest, and I planned to use my second day in the city to explore the western bank in the historic parts of Buda. As it turned out, the weather decided to throw an obstacle in my path:
Rain. And not just any rain, but a heavy driving rain that lasted throughout the day. I've lived long enough to recognize the sight, when a storm promises to stick around for many hours rather than unload a downpour for a short time and then rapidly blow itself out. This was the kind of day that you want to spend inside, watching a movie or curling up in front of a fire with a good book to read. Unfortunately, this was my last day in Budapest and I had a choice between braving the rain or staying indoors and seeing nothing. That wasn't a choice at all, of course. This was going to be a wet and miserable day for sightseeing.
I crossed over the Liberty Bridge (Szabadság hid) to the western bank under this dreary rainstorm. The Danube was swollen with the rain and beginning to rise on both banks, although I saw that there were sizable walls on each side to prevent flooding. The western side of the river was much more hilly than the eastern side, and a rocky elevation rose up in front of me. This area is known as Gellért Hill, and it contains a large public park with a couple attractions that I intended to visit. There was a small stone building that I passed off to my right, which I wasn't able to find any information about. All of the online resources that I looked up were in Hungarian. As I began climbing the hill, I came across this little statue of St. Stephen, whose dour expression was a good fit for the rain sheeting down. He looked sad to be outside too.
My goal had been this unique destination, the underground church known as the Sziklatemplom (I couldn't find the English translation) located in the Gellért Hill Cave. This was one of the more amazing churches I had come across, a small chapel and monastery built by Pauline monks into a naturally forming cave in the side of the hill. I would have expected that this place dated far back into the medieval era, but it was actually built in the 1920s. The church was sealed up for decades under the communist authorities (and the head of the monastery executed), then was finally reopened in the 1990s. The place is still in use today, and in fact a service was taking place when I visited on this Saturday morning. It was obvious when walking through the small underground structure that this church had been built right into the cave itself. While the rock walls had been smoothed by the passage of many feet, the ceilings were low and it would have been completely dark without the installment of electrial lights. There were several small chapels inside, each one with seats for only a few dozen people. This was a very intimate setting. Unfortunately I was not able to get a good look at the main altar since it was in use at the time. Still, this was a really neat place to visit, especially with the rain pouring down outside the cave.
Back out into the rain again, I continued walking upwards through the park on the Gellért Hill. I wasn't entirely sure where these walking paths led, and fumbling around in the cold rain wasn't a lot of fun. I did start to get some great views looking east across the river though, both of Liberty Bridge and further east in Pest. I could just make out the tops of the Hungarian Parliament building, and St. Stephen's Basilica further off in the distance. Eventually I reached the top of the hill where this triumphal statue greeted me. Known as the Liberty Statue (Szabadság szobor), it commemorates the people of Hungary who died pursuing the cause of independence and freedom. I couldn't help but note the irony of the "Liberty Statue" devoted to independence being constructed in 1947 at the dawn of communist rule in Hungary. The communist regime was so popular that the Hungarians rose up in revolt in 1956, temporarily seizing control of Budapest before being crushed by the Soviet military. On this morning, the hilltop containing the memorial was completely empty, and it felt strange seeing this memorial in an isolated state. Normally there are always tourists around sites like this. I did not stay long, hurrying onwards in the hope of getting out of the rain soon.
I had been planning on spending some time visiting the Citadella, this walled fortress located at the top of Gellért Hill near the Liberty Statue. This place was built in the 1850s by the Habsburg rulers in response to the revolution that had broken out in Hungary in 1848. The belief was that having a modern fortress in Budapest would help the military maintain control over the city. It was never used by the Habsburgs but the Citadella was used by the Germans during the Second World War, when it was a key strategic objective in their battle against the Soviets. The Citadella came under heavy shelling and was mostly destroyed during the course of that fighting. It was then rebuilt by the communist authorities in the 1950s, partly for strategic reasons and partly because the ruins had become a public safety hazard. It was then used again during the Hungarian Revolution against the people; unfortunately the Citedella's history is mostly one of being used as a tool of foreign oppressors against Hungarian citizens. Anyway, I had planned to tour the Citadella, but decided to skip this outdoor site because it was raining so hard. I was able to see the scarred exterior walls, and that would have to do.
Buda Castle (Budavári Palota) was my goal, the traditional seat of Hungarian kings, and I could see the buildings rising up from the top of the next hill to the north. In order to get there, however, I would have to descend from Gellért Hill down to the riverside, and then climb back up the castle hill again. I had only brought a light jacket with me on this trip, and it was already soaked through with water by now. I was also starting to get concerned about my camera, which was picking up a lot of water from all of the rain. That couldn't be too good for the lenses. Despite all of this misery at the time, I love the pictures that came from this half hour walk over to the castle hill. The torrential rain limited visibility and plunged the world into a gray fog. Hardly anyone wanted to be outside, leaving me to walk through the dirt paths and street sidewalks virtually alone. It was a strange day, and easy to get lost in my own thoughts.
One noteworthy item that I came across was the above statue depicting Elisabeth of Bavaria. That was the same woman I had seen repeatedly in Vienna, the wife of Franz Joseph I who had ruled Austria-Hungary for almost seventy years between 1848 and 1916. Elisabeth had been Empress of Austria there, but here she had been Queen of Hungary, and "Sisi" had spent long periods of time in Budapest alone from her husband. The Hungarians still love her today, and this statue was placed at the foot of the Elisabeth bridge named after her (the Erzsébet híd in Hungarian). Eventually I reached the outskirts of the castle grounds themselves, still devoid of other visitors, which were decorated in this Renaissance style. Some of these outbuildings felt more like an Italian villa than a Hungarian castle. I kept climbing up towards the more traditional stone walls, and after some searching found myself at the entrance to the castle itself.
Buda Castle has been converted into museums today, and the one that I was entering was the Budapest History Museum (Budapesti Történeti Múzeum Vármúzeum). There's been a castle of some kind on this spot for almost a thousand years, which is reflected in the very name of the place: Castle Hill. The first medieval castle was constructed in the 13th and 14th centuries, and I was able to view the crumbling remains of the foundation here in the history museum. That medieval castle was almost completely destroyed in 1686, when Budapest was taken back by Christian forces from the Ottoman Turks in a major battle. A new and larger palace was rebuilt in its place, and most of the current Buda Castle dates from this period in the 18th century. Empress Maria Theresa built the new palace in grand Baroque style, which now has been converted into an art museum. I was in the oldest part of the castle here, built long before the current palace, down in the remnants of that old medieval castle. It was cold here and noticeably chillier than above ground. The exibits here focused on what the medieval castle had looked like and what it had been like to live here prior to the castle's destruction. The model above was a reconstruction of the original floor plan as best as can be determined today. According to written sources, none of the rooms that have survived were particularly important, and all of the key locations in the medieval palace have been lost to time.
One room stood out to me in this part of the castle. This small royal chapel was located down amongst the stone foundations of the structure, sitting off by itself at the end of a short hallway. The chapel is thought to have been built during the 15th century, and it originally had two floors instead of one. It was converted into a mosque after the Ottomans captured Budapest, and the upper chapel was completely destroyed in the 1686 siege of the city. The lower chapel was buried under the rubble and only rediscovered by archaeologists in 1950; everything that can be seen here is a modern reconstruction of the original chapel. I found this small chapel immensely appealing, perhaps because of its intimate dimensions, perhaps because of its fascinating and troubled history. This was a place where Hungarian kings and Ottoman sultans had come for private services, away from the pomp and circumstance of official ceremonies, probably with their immediate family members. The simplicity of the place further appealed to me, and the whole chapel had a calm and soothing effect. Someone had opened two of the windows behind the small altar, and they let in a cool breeze. I could hear the rain falling softly outside and the wind rustling the leaves in the trees. The museum was mostly deserted due to the weather, and that left me alone here in the chapel. I'm not a very religious or spiritual person, but I truly did find this place compelling. This beautiful little chapel was almost exactly how I would put together a place for worship if I were to design one. Out of the dozens and dozens of churches that I visited on this trip stretching all across Europe, this simple place proved to be my favorite.
Continuing onwards, the museum had many more artifacts of interest in its collections. This room full of statues contained some more remnants of the medieval castle, the mostly broken leftovers of stone that had been used for decorations. All of these were discovered in the course of archaeological excavations carried out on the castle grounds. There was also the tattered remnants of a banner that had been used about seven hundred years ago, which is kept in a separate area with special lighting to prevent further deterioration. I included a picture of the invasion routes that the Mongols used when they attacked eastern Europe in 1241, with Buda and Pest both being targets for their invasion, along with more general artifacts included in their own cases. I particularly liked a computer generated reconstruction of the medieval castle as it would have looked around 1500; the chapel can be seen on the right-center portion of that image, the small extention with the peaked orange roofs.
The upper floors of Buda Castle started to look more like a traditional European palace. The displays here extended both further back and further ahead in time from the medieval period. This parcel of land next to the Danube originally held a Celtic settlement, then a small Roman colony named Aquincum a few miles to the north of Castle Hill (the current location of Óbuda, a northern suburb of Budapest that means "Old Buda" in Hungarian). There were exhibits on the culture of bathing that the Ottomans brought to the city, the great siege in 1688, the Hungarian revolution against Habsburg rule in 1848, the fascist Arrow Cross regime under Admiral Horthy that controlled Hungary during the interwar years, the horrible urban fighting that killed almost 50,000 civilians during World War II, and finally the period under communist rule that followed. Budapest is a city that almost has TOO MUCH history, with its position as a crossroads of Europe having led to so many different groups of people occupying it over the years. It all made for fascinating subject matter in the museum though. I was happy to spend some time here, to the point that I was finally almost dry by the time that I was about to leave.
Now it was back into the rain again, and the passage of the last few hours hadn't led to any slackening in the downpour. This was a real disappointment, and I would have loved to wander around the top of Castle Hill and explore the buildings scattered around the palace grounds. There were lots of statues and fountains up here, and the views looking down to the river below would have been spectacular on a clear day. Instead I was walking around dripping wet underneath a hood that was far too light to keep out the rain, shivering every time that the wind blew. It wasn't a day conducive to a lot of sightseeing. In restrospect, I should have spent some time in the Hungarian National Gallery (Magyar Nemzeti Galéria), the national art museum located in part of the Buda Castle complex. It was the building with the Picasso banner pictured above, and this would have been a good place to get out of the rain for a little while. Instead I opted to pass and continuing walking around outside. At least I did get to see the Matthias Fountain, with Matthias Corvinus (and his dogs!) depicted in a hunting scene. It was hard to tell where the water from the fountain ended and where the rain began.
The Castle Hill contains more than just Buda Castle though. It's a whole walled compound that runs along a ridge at the top of the hill, a series of streets full of shops and restaurants that used to be the exclusive domain of Hungarian nobility. On the map above, the castle complex was located at the right side of the image, and everything to the left of it represented the rest of the Castle Hill district. This was another place where the poor weather crushed my plans for the day. I had hoped to spend a couple hours wandering around these historic streets, which must be a charming place to visit on a sunny day. Instead, the roads were empty and half of the stores were closed for the day. I did my best to walk around for a little while, but it wasn't a lot of fun and I mostly wanted to get inside somewhere out of the rain. Well, I had been mostly lucky thus far in terms of weather on my trip. It was inevitable that I was going to get rain at least some of the time, and this could have been worse.
After Buda Castle, the biggest attraction on Castle Hill is this building, the Matthias Church (Mátyás Templom). The current building was constructed in the latter half of the 14th century, and gets its name from King Matthias Corvinus who was married in this church (but did not build it) in 1476 about a century later. This church is therefore much older than St. Stephen's over on the Pest side of the river, and it's one of the oldest surviving churches in Budapest. I wanted to see another one of these classic Gothic cathedrals, only to find when I arrived at the front door that it was closed for a wedding. (That must have been one fancy wedding!) As if to add insult to injury, the Matthias Church had been open that morning and had only closed about ten minutes before I arrived. I could have easily walked over here if I had known ahead of time, but of course that was something I had never thought about. Considering all of the trouble I had gone through to get here in the rain, this was another kick in the stomach. What a day. I'll go ahead and add some pictures of the interior that I pulled from the Internet, and I have to say that this looks like a really pretty church on the inside. Sure wish that I could have seen it in person.
I descended down from Castle Hill and began walking back to the south along the side of the river. This gave me a chance to view the Hungarian Parliament building again from across the Danube, and what a difference a day made. The building had a completely different feel today with the rain pouring down, and the same riverside steps that had been packed with visitors yesterday were now deserted. This was supposed to be the big day of competition for the air race, with yesterday being a warmup practice session, and everything had been rained out. Those big inflatable obstacles were still floating out in the middle of the river, but no planes were flying between them. I crossed back over to the eastern side of the river along the Chain Bridge (Széchenyi Lánchíd), the most famous bridge in Budapest. This suspension bridge was the first permanent route across the river, dating all the way back to 1849. It was blown up by the retreating Germans in 1945, then rebuilt following the war. Today, the Chain Bridge is illuminated each night with bright lights, and I imagine it's very pretty when there isn't rain pouring down on top of everything. I was unable to enjoy the structure very much as I continued to get soaked.
There was one more place that I wanted to see before stopping for the day. This was the Heroes Square (Hosök tere) monument, located a little bit outside of the center of Budapest. I had to take the subway out to this destination which at least allowed me to get underground and out of the rain for a bit. The square itself is a large open space with two museums on each side, the Mucsarnok modern art museum to the east and the Museum of Fine Arts (Szépmuvészeti Múzeum) to the west. At the end of this square sits the Millenium Monument (Millenniumi emlékmu), built in 1896 to celebrate one thousand years of Hungarian rule over the Carpathian basin. The Magyars had first arrived in this region at the end of the 9th century, and the early Holy Roman Emperors like Otto the Great spent much of their reigns clashing with them in this region. Those fierce and somewhat barbarous warriors are the ones commemorated in the center of this monument, which has often been the site of patriotic celebrations of Hungarian national identity. The two colonnades on the sides contain famous figures from throughout Hungarian history, mostly past kings dating from the time of St. Stephen up to the present. There were originally a series of Habsburg rulers displayed here, since they were the kings of Hungary in addition to being emperors of Austria, but all of them have since been replaced. When I visited the square, there were only a handful of people walking through under the cover of umbrellas. Since there's a large public park adjacent to the square just behind the Millenium Monument, I imagine that this place gets a lot more crowded on a typical weekend.
After seeing the statues in Heroes Square, I rode the subway back into the city center and went back to my hostel. I needed to take a shower and then dry out before I started to get sick. The clothes that I had been wearing were pretty much ruined, and I would later end up throwing most of them away. As long as the rain continued, I was content to remain inside and continue drying off. By the time that evening rolled along, however, the rain had finally come to a stop. I decided that I would head out and see one more tourist attraction because it was nearby, the Turkish bathhouse known as the Gellért Thermal Bath (Gellért Gyógyfürdo és Uszoda). This was right across the Liberty Bridge next to Gellért Hill, at the foot of the little church in the rocks that I had visited that morning. Thermal baths are a big part of the Hungarian national culture, a result of the influence of Turkish rule for nearly two centuries, and the Gellért Baths are one of almost a dozen historic bathhouses located around Budapest. This particular building was constructed in 1912 in the Art Nouveau style, and today the bathhouse is part of a larger hotel complex. Anyone can use the baths for a modest fee though, and this felt like a great day to do so.
The Gellért Baths were mostly located indoors, warmed by the mineral hot springs located in the nearby Gellért Hill. This historic bathing chamber was a beautiful thing, a pool of clear water surrounded on all sides by pillars. That was only one out of roughly half a dozen total pools, with most of the rest not looking quite so distinctive. Several of them were outside, and although it wasn't raining it was still quite chilly in the open air. Most of the bathers stayed inside. I enjoyed relaxing in the hot water for an hour or so, and spent some time in the sauna. The only real downside was the fact that I was here by myself, and without anyone else to share the experience it eventually started to grow boring. I would definitely recommend stopping to try one of the Turkish baths while in Budapest, if not the Gellért Baths than one of the many others.
I'll conclude by posting a picture of my hostel's exterior entrance. Does this look like the place where a hostel would be located? There was no sign, no posters, nothing to indicate that this was the place where people could book a place to stay overnight. I walked past the location several times before finally figuring out that this was the correct address. I had to buzz for entry, and that led me into a dark staircase that wound up to the second floor, with nothing on the ground floor to tell that this was a hostel. The whole setup looked extremely sketchy. Fortunately, when I finally made it up to the second floor it turned into a pretty normal hostel, and no one ended up stabbing me or robbing me in my sleep. The price was also very cheap, almost suspiciously so, and along with the lack of advertising this place was doing, I still half suspect that something illegal was taking place. For my purposes though, it worked perfectly fine.
That was the end of my two days in Budapest. Next I would be making a shorter stop in Bratislava en route to Prague. The capital of Slovakia was a bit further off the beaten path, and I was looking forward to see what it would have to offer.