Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Curiosities of Budapest

Hungarian Parliament, BudapestFor a tourist, both Buda and Pest (two parts of Budapest on either side of the Danube) have a lot to offer and you can easily spend a 3-day long weekend without being bored even for a minute.

Buda Castle district
You can either take the funicular or walk up the hill to reach the Buda Castle District. Either way you get to see some beautiful views of the city before you start exploring the district. There is an imposing building of museum and after passing through what looks like a village with shops and hotels, the beautiful Mathias church comes into view.

The fisherman’s bastion was my favorite in the district, to me it was a magnificent terrace of the Buda Castle and offered beautiful views of the Hungarian Parliament and the rest of the city.

The Buda Castle also houses the Hilton hotel and the very famous Faust wine cellar. If you are a wine-lover, it is definitely worthwhile to spend some time tasting different wines from Hungary while sampling some delicious scones and cheese along with it. The sommerlier is very friendly and explains all about the wine while allowing you plenty of time to sample it.

Saint Istvan
Although the cathedral had an impressive façade and offered views from the top, I was enamored with exquisite interior with designs that had a touch of the Oriental about them.

Hungarian Parliament
To me, it was like the Sphinx in Cairo, impressive in pictures and from afar but lacking lustre up-close. Guided tours have long queues and did not seem worth the money.

Opera house
The best way to see the opera house is to catch a concert there (obviously you have to plan ahead) since the opera guided tour is overpriced. The building looks like any other from the outside and this adds to the ‘awwwww’ factor once you see the inside….really beautiful.

Jewish District
We saw people clothed in black robes and matching hats and no one needed to tell us it was the Jewish district. My hands were itching to take pictures of them but it was Saturday (Sabbat) and Ashok told me that he wouldn't come to my rescue if I got beaten up for sacrilege! The synagogue came into view with the 2 minarets shining in the sunlight. After we took a walk in the block, we decided to come back again for the guided tour on Sunday.

Ashok is fascinated by Jews and more specifically Hungarian Jews (a small but extremely talented group of people) and so I couldn't help smile when he was given a cap soon after we entered the Synagogue.

The tour was very informative and the guide, really friendly. I learnt a lot during the tour and here are some of the key points:
- This is the largest Synagogue in Europe and second largest in the world (weirdly, the largest one is in New York)
- The interior of the Synagogue was fashioned like a Cathedral (unlike in other Syngaogues where the altar is in the middle and the audience sit around it in concentric circles) out of respect to the Christian community
- More than 2000 people who died during the holocaust are buried in the Synagogue (and not in the Jewish cemetry) since they were killed while taking shelter in the Synagogue and there was no way to dispose the bodies.
- More than 80% of the Hungarian Jews live in Budapest.

The museum in the Synagogue was very interesting too but I would probably need a separate post to describe it.

No visit to Budapest is complete without doing what the locals have been doing for hundreds of years - a visit to one of the legendary baths. Even cab drivers will recommend this as one of the must-do things. Yes, weekends are crowded and its better to take your own towels but the experience is new and refreshing on various levels because of the openness of the baths and the beautiful architecture. I have a good mind to go back for a spa weekend since each of these baths offer a wide variety of treatments and massages. Tip: Buy tickets from your hotel or travel office to avoid the long queues at the bath.

Holocaust memorial centre
As the name suggests, it is not exactly a ‘fun thing’ one does during a vacation but it is a historically important place offering a lot of information and insight into the sad past. My visit to the Dachau concentration camp left me completely drained both physically (since I chose a severely cold day to go there) and emotionally, so if you have not read much about the holocaust, then you should brace yourself for this visit.

Danube night cruise
A night cruise after a visit to the holocaust memorial is a good way to remind yourself that whatever happens life goes on and that one must not dwell on the past but learn from it and move on. The area around the Danube river is a UNESCO world heritage site and you will see why. It is indeed a sight to see the historical monuments (castle district, museum etc.) along the river glowing against the dark sky while you cruise through it sipping champagne (I would not opt for the dinner cruise since I find it overpriced and eating will distract you from the beautiful sights). Tip: Choose to sit on the upper deck – the views are better and you can go out of the cabin for taking some great pictures.

Govinda to the rescue
My biggest concern in traveling to Eastern Europe has always been the ability to find vegetarian food and my past experience in Marienbad did not help. Google pleasantly surprised me with Govinda, a vegetarian restaurant in Budapest run by Hare Krishna. All my doubts about the chef’s capability vanished when I tasted the lentil soup they had, it was this ratatouille moment when I almost smelt home ! They had a wide variety of menus and a surprisingly low price. Add to it the convenient location (a few 100m from the Saint Istvan Cathedral), it was the perfect place for us.

Other tips
- Exploring the city on foot is a great option when the weather is good
- Transport to and from the airport is possible only by means of a taxi or airport shuttle (there are number of private companies doing this, google to find the best option)
- Although we did not have any issues, the locals warn you against visiting certain districts to avoid your pockets being picked.
- Get Hungarian forints from your home town or use an ATM since the exchange rates offered at the Budapest airport are very poor.

Budapest made complete justice to its reputation as one of the most beautiful cities of Europe. It was a weekend of feasts – a feast for the eyes, the mind and the stomach.
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Website Hit Counter I had decided to have a counter only after I hit a 1000 views and since it happened last week (as on 14 Dec 2009), now is the time to see some stats :)