Hungary, for the most part, is a flat land; flat like a table top. Riding on straight roads in good condition brought us to Budapest in no time.
We all know that Buda is the hilly part and Pest the flat part of Budapest, right? These two parts only became today’s Budapest when a bridge was built across the Danube River in 1848. Before that time, there were two cities, Buda on the hill, Pest in the flats.
Hungary, like Finland, grew from different roots in Europe. While most countries in Europe have either Germanic or Slavic roots, Finland and Hungary have Finno-Ugric roots. Nomadic tribes from the plains of today’s Siberia/Russia settled and invaded the native Celts and the, by then degenerate, Romans in the late 800’s. The official start of Hungary as a Nation was in the year 895. And what a Nation Hungary turned out to be. Powerful and smart Hungarians ruled until the Ottomans (Turkey) invaded in the name of Allah and then again, until World War 1, when Hungary sided with Austria and lost the war. The history of Hungary is a bit complicated but basically, the Celts were the inhabitants until about 450 AD; along with the Romans in some parts until 430 AD. Then there was a quiet time until about 800 when Attila the Hun invaded the area. After he left, Hungary (Magyaroszag) started. King Stephen was the 1st Christian King and was baptized in about 1000 AD. Christianity and the Catholic faith took hold of Hungary.
I always need these History lessons as orientations. The people we met in Hungary are wonderful people, helpful and friendly. We had no problem with the language because most Hungarians today speak English. The younger generation is well versed in languages and the country today is a powerhouse of ideas and industry.
Coming close to Budapest the traffic increased and the roads multiplied and to make my life easier I cheated for some part of the way and took the toll road without having the proper sticker. The roads close to the Capital of Hungary are like any other Western city and local roads are especially busy. Luckily for us that we did not get caught by the police, because not having the toll sticker could be very expensive. I managed the final parts into town on the local road system and managed to find the center of Budapest after all. I followed the sign for the info center to the old part of the town. Upon arrival I watched the bikes while Carol went inside to look for rooms. After some time Carol came back with arms full of brochures and the address for the Hotel President, a new hotel, close to the Presidential Palace on the Pest side of town. Amazingly, all this was given to Carol by another hotel. The info center could not be found and Carol did well by asking for help while looking for a room in a hotel near our present stop. Not only did the hotel find another hotel for us, they also argued the price down from 85 Euro/night to 60 Euro/night incl. breakfast and parking. Yes, this time we had A/C included and even Wi-Fi. Carol did amazingly well.
We settled into the President Hotel but had to wait a few hours since we arrived at about noon and the rooms were not ready until 2 PM. Absolutely no problem with us, we sat in an air conditioned lobby and each of us had a hotel computer in front of us and checked up on email, read the latest news, did some writing to loved ones, etc.
The hotel room we received was great. Possibly the best room we’ve had on this trip.
We stored away our stuff, and after some time walked to the Hungarian State Opera house to take a tour of this building. Opera is still big in Europe. Hip Hop or Techno music seems to be for the young. The more sophisticated, the more mature or maybe even the more educated people prefer the more difficult, classical music. Opera, too, is part of the elite’s repertoire, and is big business for the city and the daily tourists here in Budapest. Mozart, Beethoven and the famous Hungarian composer Franz Liszt play an important role here. The tunes of the gypsies, transcribed into classical music by Bella Bartok or pieces by Paganini can be heard throughout town. We experienced a transition to sophistication like stepping into a new world. Having come from Albania the transition was especially noticeable. Budapest in the early to mid 19th Century was second next to Vienna (Wien) Austria. While Vienna was the head quarters for the Emperor of the Habsburg Dynasty, Budapest was the playground. Queen Elizabeth (Sisi) was the darling of the ages. As the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph, she made Budapest a focal point. Still beloved today, she was the one who gave permission to build this very elaborate Opera House. Grand staircases, huge marble columns, mirrored halls, etc. This Opera House represents the epitome of the ages of the Biedermeier Period (1812 to 1848) and beyond. Up to World War 1, Budapest was important to the Habsburgs. Many Buildings in Budapest are from the time of the Habsburgs so the look is very ornate. Never-the-less, this decoration adds to the ambiance of an Opera house. Old plays, performed in period buildings, take on some authenticity from their surroundings, by what seems like osmosis. The effect is wonderful. The tenor who sang 2 arias to us after the tour in a powerful, tenor voice made us feel special. The surroundings helped him and all of us to bring the past to the present. Carmen’s Soldiers’ Song was especially moving.
After we visited the most dominant dome, St. Stephen’s Church, we ended day one after a delightful dinner at a plaza right in front of the Basilica.
The next morning a huge breakfast spread greeted us at the hotel. Six different kinds of coffee, several fresh, whole fruits, dried fruits ( prunes, apricots, etc) and canned fruits ( pineapple, peaches), various fish and smoked salmon, different kinds of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, onion rings, hash browned potatoes, different kind of breakfast rolls, breads, fresh cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes and condiments of all kinds, etc, etc. What a feast! We surely do not need lunch after a breakfast like this.
To get a good overview I like to take a Hop On/Hop Off Tour via bus whenever available. Today we spent several hours doing just that. We drove past the parts Budapest considers most important and had a chance to get off and see them for ourselves. We pass on the Hero’s Square and the modern shopping streets but get off at Buda Hill to see the Pest side of town from a higher vantage point. This part of town housed the old castle and was in olden times the refuge and shelter for many when being attacked by others. High up on a hill, crowned with a church, of course, it sits today still dominating the view from the Pest side. This is old history, very old indeed. While we took some pictures of the present day relics of the 17th to 20th Century houses and their many ornate details, we also found the prehistoric part of town up here. Sure, the Baroque Period left its imprint and the view of Pest was delightful and Hungarian architecture and the many colored roofs of the churches were unique, but we chose a different route and went underground.
Budapest sits on a fault line. Hot springs abound and were already praised during Roman times and long before. Roman Spa’s are still in use today. Hot water comes to the surface in some spots and eons before the Romans, even long before the Celts, man has used this area. The hot water and the hot steam created caves and underground caverns millennia ago. For generations, people built on top of these underground cavities and used the existing spaces as their cellars or as storage spots. As late as the cold war during the 1950s and ’60s, these places were used as shelters or storage facilities or secret places by various governments.
Today, these underground passages are accessible to visitors. Evidence was found that cave dwellers used these caves for shelter. The ice age was probably not as cold when you could live with a hot spring next to you. Carol and I explored this underground labyrinth and while most of the installations today are used as a kind of art gallery, the feeling of being below ground, of being primordial is still present. Budapest, artfully sectioned off, and presented the history of the hills of Pest and the geology of the site in a great way. We spend a few hours in the maze of cellars, former hot water channels and darkness. These walks were nice and cool this far below ground, especially when the above ground temp hit 38C (106F) that day.
The heat hit us without mercy once we came out of the cave system and only an Ice cream in the shade could help us recover. We had received a pamphlet last night of a concert in the city of Pest and decided to attend. Using the Hop On/Off Bus we came close to our destination and found, after some questioning, St. Michael’s Church but were a bit early for the performance. There is always a bench someplace and we took the time to write some postcards and Carol spotted a wedding reception right in the middle of the sidewalk. The bride’s maids were licking ice cream and sure enough spilling some of the dripping chocolate Ice cream on themselves in the heat. It was an odd sight for us to see a reception being help on a pedestrian walk, in the middle of the day, everybody dressed up, the bride lovely and smiling while everyone around them went on with their lives.
The concert was lovely and the orchestra played Pachelbel, Vivaldi, Bach and Mozart. The surroundings of the smallish church with great acoustics helped make the evening a delight. Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody #2 added the right paprika spice to the performance. On our way back to the hotel, we passed various artists and performers in the pedestrian section of town who made a living from doing their stints as break dancers, painters of futuristic and fantasy evoked dream landscapes or even as part of a quartet playing classical music. Most of these performers were young and I am sure, just made a few Euros to help them along. The air had cooled down a bit now and after a light dinner in an outside café we returned to the hotel.
Just before entering the lobby we heard loud music and some evidence of a happening close by. Naturally we had to investigate and found, near the American Embassy, a huge crowd sitting on a large grassy area watching a 2010 Soccer World Championship Game. Soccer is a huge part of the Sport Scene here and the crowd was enthusiastic but well behaved. Beer concessions passed out beer in plastic cups and the police were there but did literally nothing more but watch the game too, on the huge, digital display set up just for the occasion. The loud speakers were blaring out the sports commentator, the group of watchers ooohed and aaahed and everybody was having a wonderful time. So, Carol and I bought a beer too, stood on the side lines and watched some of the game too. The night was mild by now and the company we had were cheering and enjoying themselves. Can it get any better than this?
Another fantastic breakfast! Our feet are sore; I have sunburn on my nose. My bones creek when I start to walk, traveling is not easy when sightseeing is involved. So for today we only want to visit Hungary’s Parliament building. This sugar cake looking building, a rather close copy of Westminster Palace in London, is not far from our hotel. We start off in the cool of morning and have to dodge many runners since some kind of field event has been scheduled for the area around Parliament on this Sunday. People of all ages, from very young to rather senior looking folks, run around the streets. I am not sure if it is a Marathon but it does not matter. We just enjoy their enthusiasm while we try to find the entrance to the Parliament buildings. We are early, too early in fact. The first tour is at 11 AM and that leaves us time to just walk about. Idling along the Danube River, seeing the bored security guards, watching the runners and their support groups makes the time go quickly. When we enter the Parliament building we are screened just like an airport. This is serious business now. There are over 1400 rooms in this building and the halls are decked in memorabilia of Hungary. Statues of former Kings, of founders, famous statesmen and artists line the walls and rotundas. One of the sections in Parliament holds the crown of Hungary. Roped off and heavily guarded and alarmed, it is hard to take a picture. Notice the crooked cross on top of the crown. It is said to be the crown which was used to ordain Stephen the First as King of Hungary but latest research showed that some parts of the crown are even older. No matter, it is an old symbol of power, whoever wore this crown was in charge, could do as he pleased, had the ultimate say over everybody.
The building today, this Parliament building, elaborate and old as it seems to appear, is in fact very modern. Every 10 years all rooms, all systems are refreshed and re-modernized. Votes are electronically counted, every word, even whispers are constantly recorded in the entire complex. This is an open, for all and everybody accessible place. Hungary has an open Government. Most Ministries, Education, Economics, Labor, etc are all housed within this building complex. It is a huge set up, all linked together, and all within arm’s reach of everybody. This system works for Hungary and it sure is impressive to see how other nations rule themselves. While we, of course, did not see all the rooms, we did get a positive impression of how things run in Hungary and we could see that democracy has set the way for the future.
The Parliament tour ended and the heat shimmers on the asphalt in the streets, it is hot outside. What to do? Walking around town in this heat is no pleasure so we took a rest for a few hours back at the hotel only to resurface in the late afternoon to attend another concert, this one in the famous St. Stephen’s Basilica. While yesterday’s music was based on baroque masters, this performance was based on sacred works by Handel, Albioni, Vivaldi, Gounod, Dvorak, Liszt, Schubert and Mozart. Compared to the previous night’s performance, this one is more elaborate with Soloists, Tenors and Sopranos and Organ. Yet, sometimes, one player, in this case the organ player, can ruin a terrific and promising set up. Sorry, Mr. Gyula Pfeiffer, your playing was way too loud and your organ play overpowered all. You did not accompany, you dominated each and every piece. It could have been wonderful but because of your dominance the whole evening was ruined. I left disappointed especially since I knew this event could have been delightful, Mr. Pfeiffer.
After we had a bite to eat and swished down the musical experience with a beer or two, we returned to the hotel. I woke up at night to loud thunder, to lighting and when it got light enough to see anything outside we decided to stay another day, doing nothing but write, read and bum. Why ride in this rain, why battle downpours like this? Tomorrow is another day; I will go to Szentendere tomorrow.