Budapest: The Capital of Freedom
What’s the first thing you notice when visiting a new place?
For me visiting Budapest, Hungary, my first trip to Eastern Europe, it was the language. Hungarian is guttural, clanging, and utterly foreign to me. I remember thinking if aliens existed and had their own dialect, it would have to sound exactly like Hungarian. (The eery female voice announcing each stop on the tram seemed to compound this observation.)
But like the German language, its distinct and comical difference to English makes me giggle.
To my disappointment, my first day in Budapest I woke up with a cold. With watery eyes and pockets full of tissues, I dragged myself out of bed and met my tour guide at 7:30 am, hoping only to get through the day without dissolving into coughs and sneezes.
But when I reached our meet point at Matthias Church, across the Danube and adjacent to Budapest Castle, I was plenty distracted from being sick. This extraordinary and historical church - a photographer’s pot of gold for all occasions (visitors, bloggers, engagement and newlywed shoots) - completely takes your breath away (even more than does a stuffy nose!) András, my kind and knowledgeable tour guide, met me in front courtyard of Matthias Church.
He told me a little bit about its history, sharing that it was nearly eight centuries old, built in 1255! There seemed to be a fascinating piece of history in every detail of its architecture, even down to the brilliant tiles, stunning and handmade by the world-renowned Zsolnay Porcelain Manufacture.
Behind the massive church lies Fisherman’s Bastion, which I learned was named for the city’s fishermen called to defend the structure during wartime. I couldn’t help but think of Notre Dame, and wondered if this could have inspired Victor Hugo with architecture so similar to the home of Quasimodo and his gargoyle friends.
Speaking of war, past wars are heavily woven into the history of Budapest (which Hungarians pronounce “Buda-pesht”).
In Liberty Square, the Hungarians have erected a statue of a smiling Ronald Reagan, commemorative of his role in ending Communism in the late 1980s. I made sure to pay him a visit on my walk through the city!
The number “96,” I learned, is also symbolically upheld repeatedly throughout the city. It was in 896 that Hungarian Magyars first came to the area, whereupon the first stages of the Hungarian Kingdom were born. The city’s two tallest buildings - St. Stephen’s Basilica and the Hungarian Parliament Building - both stand at 96 meters high (about eight stories), and are the tallest structures in Budapest.
Today, this remains significant for a few reasons: it reflects the notion that neither government nor religion are regarded over the other. And to preserve this reminder, strict building regulations ensure that no other structure is built higher than either of these two. However, apparently ongoing debate ensues as to whether that ruling should change.
Andras also had a cheeky anecdote to share about an American we know and love: Will Smith. As we crossed the Chain Bridge from “Buda” to “Pesht,” he pointed out a sign that read “DO NOT CLIMB.” Andras explained that when Will Smith was in town filming for a movie, he climbed to the top of the Chain Bridge to do the “Shiggy challenge,” (at the highest peak in this above picture behind me) while the whole ordeal was captured via drone. The video (hilarious, by the way) went viral, and travelers all over the world came to Budapest began climbing the bridge as well, hoping to mimic Smith’s antics at the very top. Authorities were forced to take measures to dissuade this reckless behavior, hence the seemingly overly-obvious warning sign.
After my tour I went home to grab my bathing suit. Why in February, you might ask? Because a must-see stop here was the Turkish baths that remain following the Turkish Empire era in present-day Hungary. There were a few but one was right off the tram route and if both András and one of my roommates recommended it, that was good enough for me.
I walked up to a magnificent yellow structure, with equally spectacular ceilings and crown molding flaunted in its interior. Inside, it was actually rowdier than I’d expected, as plenty of young singles and couples meandered in and out of the bath area (may have been because it was Valentine’s Day but who knows). I heard lots of languages and accents, indicating that travelers the world over came to enjoy its supposed healing properties - or simply the aesthetic and comfort of a centuries-old bath house. But having just started experiencing sick symptoms, I stepped in, breathed deeply, and felt my nose start to clear. The warm waters were just what the doctor ordered.
On my last day in Budapest, I had an afternoon flight and a free morning to boot. A thorough search and a recommendation to visit the city’s Jewish Quarter from Andras led me to Peet and the Flat White, which to me sounds an awful lot like the title for a modern-day fairy tale for hipsters. Amused by this and intrigued by reviews, off I went.
The waitress, a sweetheart with a thick accent, right away recommended, naturally, their flat white, and with it a breakfast platter with lots of meat, per my request. The whole thing was just what I needed, and anywhere decked out with year-round fairy lights, exposed brick, and various plants is a hideaway for me. The robust glass loaded with raw sugar on the table, whatever its purpose - consumption? decor? salve for a bad day? - also didn’t hurt.
In an earlier post I talked about my first night in the city, which was quite a special night shared between two women talking about life and faith in the context of each of our cultures.
But my second night was spent soaking up what Budapest was about. After my afternoon at the Turkish baths, I went back to my room to change and ventured back out to explore. I revisited St. Stephen’s Basilica and parked it in a corner coffee shop to write. When I felt satisfied with my processing the trip so far, a few hours later, I packed up and walked to Liberty Square to see the Ronald Reagan statue in Liberty Square.
By this point the sun was starting to set, and what better time to see the riverside structures of Budapest than with a palette of warm hues melting together behind it. It was so gorgeous!
When I made my way back toward the Danube, I walked through the courtyard surrounding the Hungarian Parliament building, and took some snaps with one of the largest statues I’ve ever seen - an erected structure paying homage to Gyula Andrássy, Hungary’s former prime minister between 1867 and 1871. It was the largest statue I’ve ever seen up close.
All in all, what a two-day excursion! Eastern Europe, you’re a gem.