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I arrived in Budapest by way of Istanbul, which I feel is not the normal point of entry. After all of the Turkish bazaars, mass urban sprawl, and being awoken each morning by the morning call to prayer, the Hungarian capital I now found myself in seemed overwhelmingly cosmopolitan and civilized. Actually, since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Budapest has been considered by many organizations to be one of the most prosperous and enjoyable cities in all of Central Europe for future growth and quality of life. Set stoically on the Danube River–that serpent-like life vein of Central Europe–it is hard to argue that time in Budapest could be anything but well spent.
It wasn’t until 1873 that the opposing cities of Obuda and Pest merged to create the modern capital city. Segregated by the mighty Danube, iconic structures such as the Szechenyi Chain Bridge accommodate the fusion of two cities into one. The first modern link between the two cities, to this day the Chain Bridge is an enduring symbol of Hungarian pride and unity. Anyone paying a visit to the city will undoubtedly cross the gaping suspension bridge at some point, as I did on foot, en route to the lofty and terribly popular Buda Castle District on the hills above the Danube.
Arguably the most popular attraction in all of Budapest, the Castle District could easily occupy an entire day’s worth of browsing. As you would expect, the largest building in the castle complex is Buda Castle itself, an historic bastion of royalty that has witnessed a storied history of Habsburg, Magyar, and Turkish rule. Recently renovated after centuries of siege and warfare, the Castle also hosts the Budapest History Museum and the Hungarian National Gallery. Also gracing the castle district are Matthias Church, the Fisherman’s Bastion, and St. Stephen’s Basilica, which strangely enough features the mummified hand of St. Stephen that lights up when you put money in the box. Hmm.
While the palatial interior of the Castle is impressive and there are copious amounts of exploring to be done between all of the different buildings, what I found to be far more fascinating was the intricate system of tunnels running beneath the Castle district that comprise the Buda Castle Labyrinth. Used as everything from a prison to a bomb shelter, the Buda Labyrinth winds in the dimly lit subterranean darkness for miles on end. There’s even a fountain down in the tunnels that spurts out actual red wine. Though touristy, the effort putting into carving out such a tunnel network is astounding.
Another prominent hill on this side of the Danube is Gellert Hill, home of the highly controversial Liberation Monument as well as one of the best panoramas in the city. Erected by the Soviet Red Army at the end of WWII, the Liberation Monument was meant to remind the Hungarian people of those who liberated them from Nazi control. Today, however, the monument simply reminds many of the oppressive times that ensued under Communist rule. An endless array of souvenirs and intriguing conversations can be found on Gellert Hill and around the base of the monument.
Not all of Budapest is ancient castles and monuments on hills overlooking the Danube, however. Down on river level in the heart of the city center, modern day avenues, squares, shopping, and dining opportunities make the city a charming venue for a stroll around town. The center of the action downtown is found on the stretch of town leading from Andrassy Avenue up to Heroes’ Square. as well as on Vaci Utca. Leading past some of the city’s most impressive buildings, Andrassy Avenue, with its outdoor cafes and tree-lined canopy is Budapest’s answer to Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, Wellington’s Cuba St, or perhaps the Champs-Elysees. The avenue reaches its terminus in the enormous Heroes’ Square, a central gathering place for the general populace, both Magyar and visitor alike.
While there are plenty of upbeat markets and historical fascinations in this central European capital, one of the most powerful sights in all of Budapest is easily the Great synagogue. One of the largest synagogues in the entire world, the realities of the Holocaust are grimly displayed in this architectural wonderland. Standing at the base of the Tree of Life at the Holocaust Memorial in the central courtyard of the synagogue is a humbling experience, to say the absolute least. Constructed of thin metal, the weeping willow structure is representative of lives lost during the Holocaust, with each leaf on the tree displaying the name of someone who died during the ordeal. Furthermore, the tree springs from a a courtyard that stands atop the mass graves of those who perished. Anyone doubting the reality of the holocaust hasn’t stood in this Budapest courtyard.
Finally, no mention of Budapest would be complete without a mention of the medicinal baths that are scattered throughout the city. To this day, one of my largest regrets I have from my travels is that I never got a chance to visit one of the Budapest baths. Budget be damned, it is an experience that shouldn’t be missed. Why I opted to pass on the opportunity to lounge in massive thermal pools with hordes of naked Hungarians in the depths of winter is beyond me, so please, if you are in Budapest, do the Vagabond a favor and let it all hang out.