Eger, Budapest and a drive past Balaton
by MagdaDH_AlexH on October 23, 2011
The first, overwhelming impression of Hungary is of flatness. After Slovakia, which is almost unrelentingly hilly and often mountainous, the great Hungarian plain comes as a shocking surprise, even if one knows it's there. The roads are better, the money hard to calculate (we manage to take out close to a thousand Euros from a cashpoint by mistake – all those currencies that don't differ from each other by more than a actor of five make one complacent, now that the likes of Italian lira, Greek Drachma and old Polish zloties are gone). But it's the language that is the most savagely impossible. Apart from a day in Dubai (where everything seemed to be bilingual and the Arabic was almost invariably complemented by English) I have never before been to a country where I could understand so little – not a street sign, not a billboard ad, not a packet description or a newspaper headline – and it's a strange, discomforting feeling. Hungarian is not an Indo-European language and despite the obvious influence of mostly Slavic but also other European languages, it remained inscrutably different. I keep wondering what influence speaking such a language must have on the Hungarian national identity and psyche. For a foreigner, it's an alienating, discomforting experience. It needn't be a major drag on a visitor, though, as those employed in the tourist trade do tend to have at least some English, although German is more common, especially outside of Budapest where American organised groups seem to even possibly outnumber the German and Austrian tourists who are naturally (by reasons of history and geography) the most common foreign visitors. Our first stop in Hungary is for lunch in the lovely Eger, a picture-perfect middle-European townscape of Baroque-influenced buildings, similar in style to what you can see in other parts of what used to be Austro-Hungarian Empire, from Slovenia to southern Poland, Austria itself to Slovakia. A sole minaret tower reminds of the Ottoman occupation of most of what is now Hungary between mid-16th and late 18th century. We have a lunch in Eger (with the first, though not mind-blowing, goulash soup of this trip) and then visit a wine shop. Eger is a centre of a major Hungarian wine growing region, and Egri Bikaver (Bull's Blood of Eger) is the most famous Hungarian red, made from a blend of three or five grapes, but based on the ancient Kadarka grape variety (now largely replaced by Kefrankos/Blaufrankisch variety that we have already encountered in Slovakian wines). We buy a fairly expensive (for a Hungarian red, anyway) bottle of a superior Bikaver, a good-value but even more expensive half-litre of Tokai Aszu (which we will carry around most of the Balkans to deliver eventually as a birthday present to my mother who is a fan) and trot back to the car for an evening drive to Budapest.
We stay on the outskirts of Budapest and take a train into the city for our day of sight-seeing. In hindsight we could have driven in, as we ended up driving through the city eventually on the day of our departure (Budapest has a motorway ring-road but it's not a complete circle due to the city backing onto hills in the north-east) and it was less traumatic than we feared (though traumatic enough with a slightly odd placement of signs meaning that I consistently managed to miss every turn that I was supposed to take and thus ended up going in a much bigger circle – and through the very centre of the city – then intended). Still, the sight-seeing day is by public transport and, equipped with a family ticket that allows us to use any public transport in the city we start the tour. The Other Adult spent a few months in Budapest nearly twenty years ago, and thus has a vague idea of what to see and where to go, and although one can only just glimpse Budapest in a day, it's possible to get an idea of what is considered to be one of the most impressive cities in Europe.We emerge from the metro station at Batthyany ter straight onto the Danube bank and are immediately greeted by the most celebrated – and possibly among the most attractive – sight of Budapest: the Parliament Building. Somewhat reminiscent of the London's Houses of Parliament, the Hungarian Parliament building was designed by Imre Steindl and opened in 1896, on the thousandth anniversary of Hungarian state (which was then a semi-autonomous part of the dual monarchy of Austro-Hungary, demoted from the brief existence as a republic following the 1848 revolution), to be finally completed in 1902 to and is one of the largest parliament buildings in Europe, measuring 268 metres in length and 96 metres in hight. A symbol of sovereignty and national unity, the building is decorated with nearly 90 statues of Hungarian kings and nobility and holds Hungarian royal insignia. The building is generally in a Gothic Revival style, decorated with a proliferation of turrets, pointed arches and mock buttresses. The dome, topped by a Gothic pinnacle, is of a more Florentine-Renaissance provenance, but fits within the whole to create an almost magical impression: a light, fairytale-like structure despite its huge bulk and heavy-going heraldic connotations. It's possible to do an interior guided tour but even just looking at the building from the outside (the best view is from the Buda side of the river near Batthyany ter) creates an unforgettable image of this Budapest icon.
by MagdaDH_AlexH on October 24, 2011
We follow the Buda bank of Danube towards another of the Budapest landmarks, the Chain Bridge (Szechenyi Lanchid), founded in 1849 by the philanthropist and reformer Istvan Szechenyi who devoted many years to the greater task of regulating the Danube which would turn the great river into a reliable, viable trading route. The Lanchid is the oldest of the seven road bridges of Budapest (before that, the only crossing of the Danube was by a ferry or a pontoon bridge).The building of the bridge had not only a practical but also a symbolic significance, foretelling the future unification of Buda and Pest into one city, symbolising the national advancement (it was opened during the brief period of the Hungarian republic and the Hungarian Independence Army were among its first users) but also the more general human progress so beloved of the 19th century reformists and revolutionaries alike. Designed by an English engineer William Tierney Clark, the iron sections of the bridge was actually manufactured in England and shipped to Hungary for final assembly. The Lanchid connects to the tunnel under the Buda's Castle Hill, constructed in 1857 by a Scottish engineer Adam Clark (not related to William) who also supervised the actual erection of the bridge. Destroyed by the Nazis in 1945, the Lanchid was reconstructed by 1949 and nowadays it remains one of the emblematic sights of Budapest together with the Hungarian Parliament building. It's a wrought iron suspension bridge with two stone towers, suspended on two chains and at the time of its building it was the suspension bridge with the second-longest span in the world as well as one of the only two permanent crossings of the Danube (I don't seem to be able to find where the other one was, though I am assuming it would be in Vienna as the oldest known Danube crossing, Trajan's bridge in what is now Romanian Drobeta-Turnu-Severin, had been destroyed over 1500 years before). The stone lions that guard bridge's entrances seem related to the metal ones at Trafalgar square (although maybe all 19th century ornamental lions are related somehow). It's an attractive building, and even more so when lit up at night. It is also a practical one, being a very convenient link between the most attractive and touristically interesting parts of Buda and Pest. On the Buda side, the Castle Hill raises directly above Adam Clark Square (which is located between the bridge and the tunnel); on the Pest side the bridge leads to the Roosevelt Square, where the beautifully fluid Secessionist Gresham Palace stands (you can stay there if you can afford the Four Seasons' rates) in a contrast to the hieratic elegance of the arches and columns of the Neo-Renaissance building of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (incidentally, also brought to life thanks to the same Count Istvan Szechenyi who offered a one year's income from his estate for the initial establishment of the Learned Society). While walking over the Danube stop for another angle on the magnificent Hungarian Parliament building (do watch out for the cyclists who, although supposed to use the roadway, seem to take over pavements and other pedestrian routes in Budapest with more smug impudence that in any other city we have visited during this European tour).
by MagdaDH_AlexH on November 16, 2011
First settled in the 13th century, when Hungarians moved across the river to escape the Mongol attacks, the Castle Hill became a location of king Bela's keep and following that, numerous other castles and palaces. Buda Castle Hill is one of the most interesting and attractive for sight-seers parts of Budapest, with many historical buildings, viewpoints eating and drinking places. It's also a bit of a tourist trap, and thus perhaps not the best place for a good value refuelling stop, but worth the visit nevertheless. The normal touristy way up the Castle Hill is using the funicular, but as this is not included in the family travel card we bought earlier and costs a whooping SIX EUROS for a return ticket – very expensive for a ninety second ride and not really worth it. The bus no 6 goes up the hill from a nearby location and is free with the family daily ticket so we pack on that. Up there, we choose to miss the neo-Baroque Buda Castle (apparently, it was never inhabited by the Hungarian royalty) which, although containing excellent collections of art, will take too much time of our single Budapest day.One of the best reasons to go up the castle hill is for the views it affords towards the Pest, and particularly the wedding-cake of the Parliament raising in its neo-Gothic splendour from the river bank.Matthias Church (named after a popular king that held two weddings here – officially it's The Coronation Church of Our Lady) was originally started in the 13th century but underwent several changes and restorations in later years. Nowadays it presents an attractive, mostly 14th century florid-Gothic exterior (restored 19th century) with a strikingly beautiful tiled roof. The next-door modern Hilton hotel has a mirror wall in which the reflections of the church play with the castle-inspired shapes of the modern building. Immediately next to the Matthias Church is the Halászbástya or Fisherman's Bastion, an unashamedly mock-Gothic structure that provides unsurpassed viewing terrace but is also a rather attractive (despite its clearly 19th century origins) structure in itself, with its grand staircases, cute conical turrets and many walkways. Stephen I in bronze watches the tourists milling bellow his horse-mounted statue, guarded by the falconers in medieval garb, complete with a hooded eagle but with very modern mobile phones. We walk back down to the Danube bank, the balconies and terraces of the Bastion raising above us, an archetypal image of a medieval castle.
by MagdaDH_AlexH on November 17, 2011
We walked for a very, very long time to find our Budapest meal: all along the Pest bank of the Danube, from the Houses of Parliament (which look best from the other side anyway), past the imposing neo-Renaissance Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the beautiful Art Nouveaux Gresham Palace (now the Four Seasons Hotel), with excellent views of the Buda Castle Hill and Gellert Hill. We walk past the Chain Bridge and then past the Erzsebet Bridge, and we almost sit down in a number of places – but not quite. The walk itself is a good one, but we are Very Hungry indeed as it's close to tea-time and we had no lunch: and thus, when the Other Adult suggested trying out this quay-side placed I agreed despite grave misgivings regarding the prices (and possibly quality) in such an obvious tourist hotspot: the river, the other boats, the views, the folk-garbed waiters who spoke decent English all seemed to suggest a tourist trap, or at least an upmarket-locals trap. I was encouraged by the large and obviously Hungarian party enjoying their meal at the next table, though, and a large beer rarely tasted as good as that first one I had on the Sinatra's terrace. The menu dispelled the price fears quite significantly: eating out in Hungary is cheap by standards of most European countries and although the Sinatra Piano Bar was not cheap by Hungarian standards, it was very reasonable by western-European or even Polish criteria. We had an enormous (but then, all portions in Hungary seem enormous) mixed-grill plate which included a massive selection of various cuts of pork, turkey, sausage, some freshwater fish potatoes, onions and some vegetables. EVERYTHING was actually very tasty, though also very, very greasy. The actual weight of meat was in excess of a 1kg (well over 2 lbs) but the dish was advertised "for two". Well, it easily fed our hungry family of four and I later regretted ordering extra salads and vegetables (also yummily buttery). We had a couple of beers each, the children had soft drinks and ice creams and we enjoyed it all in a leisurely manner, with a view of Danube and the Gellert Hill on the other side. The total came to something in the region of 30 GBP – about 35 Euro – with a fairly decent tip to our nice waiter (he smiled, which was an unusual thing for a Hungarian hospitality employee, and spoke good English). I am sure we could have eaten cheaper in Budapest, and probably as well, but the whole experience was such a positive one that I am not going to begrudge Sinatra the tourist prices. I did not have a proper look inside where the actual "piano bar" is located, so cannot comment on this aspect of the service, but as a place to eat delicious, greasy Hungarian food in copious quantities with a view of the Danube it worked really well.
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