Budapest City Tour – Part I

A motley crew of Italians, French, Germans and us headed by our very able and competent guide Attila (the hun!) boarded Petnehazy’s mini van excitedly for the very first guided city tour of Budapest. With introductions made, the day’s agenda passed around and the sun out in full swing, our minivan sped towards the Buda end of the Chain Bridge – promising a day of history, culture and European art.

The Danube glittered in the morning sun, blue sky made no pretence of the warm day ahead and Attila said everything there was to say in English, French, Italian and German in cyclic fashion.

The Glittering Danube

Fishermen seemed to play quite a significant role in Buda’s history as we were about to see. Enroute to the top of the Buda hill is the medieval Watertown that bears memory to the fisherman who lived and worked there.  The streets here are named in their memory. So there’s Hook Street, Harpoon Street, Perch Street, Catfish Street so on!

Listening to Attila

First stop, the Castle District atop the Buda hill. The southern end of this hilltop plateau houses several historical places of interest – the major ones being the King Matthais Church (officially known as the Church of Our Lady), the Holy Trinity, the fisherman’s bastion, the House of Wine Tasting and the Music History Museum. The Hilton Hotel with its glass and chrome architecture is jarringly out-of-place in the medieval setting. The courtyard of the hotel houses a very old Dominican cloister and the Faust wine cellar.

Ugly Hilton

Hungarian House of Wines

Off the bus and on to streets abuzz with tourist activity. Cobbled streets dating from the middle ages wound uphill through the medieval city with arches, stone carvings and iron work; displaying plaques that outlined their history.

Abuzz with Tourists

Cobbled Streets

Medieval Town

Colored Buildings

All the way to the top of the hill the streets were lined shoulder-to-shoulder with pink, yellow, red, orange and other bright houses, stores, cafes and apothecaries and bakeries. A hodgepodge of building styles after repeated destruction, renovation, excavation and rebuilding.

The Glorious King Matthais

St. Matthais Church

We gasped in awe at the first sighting of the Church of Our Lady or Mathias Church. The impressive house of worship was a coronation and wedding church of the Hungarian kings. Charles Robert (who gave the original name of the Hungarian currency Forent) was crowned here in 1309 as the King of Hungary. He named the currency after the Italian Fiorini Fiorentini and said goodbye forever to French Francs! King Matthais – the greatest king of Hungary –  was married in the church two times. The emperor Francis Josef was crowned here; and he and his wife Empress Sisi ruled over Austro-Hungary. The last coronation took place in this church during the first world war when Charles the IV became king.

Details of the Church’s Facade

The church was built in the mid 13th century, but was frequently restored, repaired and remodeled in the architectural style that was in fashion at the time. Most of the exterior of Matthias Church was added around 1896 in a Gothic style.

Motley Crew

We lost our guide briefly and then managed to locate him in time for the story of King Matthais and his coat-of-arms. According to Attila, when the legendary king was about 3 years old and was playing in the royal nursery, a black raven came swooping through the window and made off with his ring. Many many years later, in memory of the very disturbing event, the great king decided to make the infamous raven part of his coat-of-arms. Strange man!

”So,” asked Attila later, ”if the king was suitably inspired by the raven, what was his army? Red army? NO! Black army!”

The Old Town Hall

Holy Trinity Column

The Holy Trinity is in the middle of the square with the Holy Trinity Column, which was erected to commemorate the plague epidemic in 1709. Also in the square is the Old Townhall(now Collegium Budapest). All the four streets of the old city converge at the town square.

Inside the Hungarian House of Wines

Hungarian Wines Anyone?

The sun was blazing and our very kind guide herded us into a local wine shop and proceeded to tell us about the famous Tokaji wine. Hungary produces 700 (!) different kinds of wine. The Hungarian House of Wines (in the cellar of the Dominican monastery cloister) used to have a special program where for 20 euros you could participate in special wine tasting for two hours unlimited! The famed Tokaji wine that comes Tokaj-Hegyalja district of Northeastern Hungary, is a topaz colored wine and was crowned as the “king of wines and wine of kings” by Louis XIV. In 1999, the same wine was chosen as the wine of the century in Bordeaux, France.

Us

Fisherman’s Bastion

Now back to the legendary Hungarian fisherman.These brave men rose above their calling to catch fish and make an honest living. Legend has it that in the middle ages, there used to be a small village below the castle inhabited by fishermen, who during the raids by the Ottoman Turks, fought hard and defended the castle fort. In memory of those brave men, the fortress was named after them. Seven towers of the castle represent the seven chieftains.

Posing at Fisherman’s Bastion

In Memory of the Brave Fishermen

The other parts of the castle were defended by carpenters, shoe makers, blacksmiths etc! And today Fisherman’s bastion is a much-loved folklore. Hmmm. Not a very flattering story for the Black Army!

The bastion provides breathtaking views of the Danube and the Pest side of the city. The Parliament House overlooks the river like a Gothic queen and the three bridges (Elizabeth, the Chain bridge and Margaret bridge) look like giant arteries pulsing with traffic and life.

Pesht

Gothic Queen

From here we drove further south of the hilltop plateau to visit the famous Gallert Hill, the Freedom Statue and the Citadella. But more on all of that in my next post!

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Margaret Island

One of the things we like doing in a new city besides sightseeing is to attend a local event – a show, concert, musical, live band – to get a feel of the local culture by mingling with the crowds and soaking up the ambience. Some years ago when in Hua Hin, Thailand we landed up at a jazz/rock live concert near a crowded market area featuring several upcoming and enthusiastic local bands. It was an evening filled with Thai banter and chatter, humidity, bad acoustics combined with sizzling street barbecues. In the spirit of keeping good travel traditions alive, we scoured Budapest Timeout sites and found to our delight that a band was playing the Blues Brothers in Margaret Island. The h was appropriately excited, the daughter had moments of doubt (she related to Blues Brothers only through a Disney production of Drake and Josh; where the brothers win a competition by performing Soul Man through some clever antics.) and I was happy to get some good old Hungarian fun!

Margaret Island (Margit-sziget)

Margaret Island

The 2.5 km-long island located in the middle of the Danube is a popular recreational area that is mostly covered with parks. Entry by taxis/cars is restricted although buses ply until late hours at night. The music fountain and water tower are protected UNESCO sites. At the entrance to the island is the Grand Hotel Margitsziget –  a seemingly pricey and snooty establishment. We were quite focused in getting to the concert and didn’t quite explore the island, which apparently houses a Japanese garden, a mini zoo and a famous thermal spa.

Water Tower

Getting to the island proved to be a bit of a song and dance – with the suggested ferry missing in action and ultimately we took a cab and were pretty much taken for a ride. The island is quite charming, with endless manicured lawns, stretches of colorful flower beds and avenues lined with trees.

Flower swatches

Manicured Lawns

The band was playing at the outdoor amphitheatre and tickets were sold at the entrance. The atmosphere was one of a cool Hungarian summer evening with locals prepared for a night of good music, beer and pretzels.

Blues Brothers

Chic Hungarian Women

And it did turn out to be an entertaining one for us too even if the entire concert was in Hungarian! Okay, the band indulged the only non-Hungarian members of the audience (us) to two words in English  – Soul Man. That put the daughter in good spirits while the h filmed pieces of the concert on the iphone and made sure he got the bike, the shades, the laser beams and the dancers in his grainy footage. The cute couple next to me gave equal attention to the stage as well as to each other and I soaked in the music over a glass of cheap red wine in a plastic cup.

The Shades!

The soul men do their thing!

At the end of the show, we agreed that the tickets were totally worth it. And with that yet another beautiful day in Budapest came to an end. (Oh, and getting back was an easy bus, tram, metro and cab ride away. We were total pros!)

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Exploring Budapest on Foot

A little bit about Budapest

We knew so little about Budapest when we arrived there. Only that the city is made up of two sections – Buda and Pest – that lie on either side of the beautiful Danube and that Hungary was a communist country.

Well all that was about to change thanks to our friendly and well-informed guide Attila (who took us through the big city tours). He spoke five languages and sprinkled his narrative with easy quizzes that made us perk up every now and then. Attila was also a Bollywood fan, having spent his childhood watching Raj Kapoor movies with his mother!

According to him, the name “Buda” comes from the name of its founder, Bleda (Buda), the brother of the Hunnic ruler Attila. And the name “Pest” originates from the Slavic word for cave “peshtera” or from the word for oven “pesht”. They were united to become a single city in 1873.  The Danube enters the city from the north; later it encircles two islands, Óbuda Island and Margaret Island.  Pest lies on the flat terrain of the Great Plain while Buda is rather hilly.

Buda and Pest

In the 1400s, under the king Matthias Corvinus, Buda became the main hub of European Renaissance. In the 1500s, it was attacked and conquered repeatedly by the Turks, who left behind the famous Turkish baths. Later in the 1600s, the Habsburg empire reconquered Budapest from the Turks and ruled over Austro-Hungary for the next 300 or so years. Today, Hungary is a parliamentary republic. We gasped in awe at its Parliament House that overlooks the Danube and is a classic example of Gothic architecture.

Parliament House

Budapest is truly one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and it’s not surprising that it is home to several world heritage sites.

Andrassy Ut and Vaci Utca

Our first taste of Budapest was Andrassy Ut – a Champs Elysses kind of boulevard that stretches from Daek Square (where we got off the tram) all the way to Hero Square (every European city seemingly has one of these!)

Being all cool on the metro!

How to get there

Windows

And the Renaissance comes to Budapest!

It is a Unesco World Heritage site and is a popular starting point for visitors to the city. Some of the most spectacular buildings of Budapest adorn Andrássy út including the Hungarian State Opera House, the Liszt Ferenc Music Academy, or the Ballet Institute and the House of Terror.

Opera House

Apart from cultural buildings, elegant neo-renaissance and neo-baroque villas and mansions dating from the 19th century line the street. You will often see people stepping out from behind ornate doors with handsome dogs on leash and wonder at the sheer possibility of living among such splendor. Andrassy Ut is great for walking, stopping at cafes to sip a coffee, watching passersby and just gawking at the richly sculpted facades.

Sculpted facades

Pretty cafes

The boutiques house the biggest and most upmarket fashion brands. The boulevard is lined with restaurants, cafes, bars and clubs that are much higher priced than elsewhere in the city.

Mom and pops

The small mom-and-pop pizza place where we stopped for lunch had seven varieties of pizza. But the grumpy old Hungarian who spoke no English pointed to two available options and in her own sweet way said ‘take it or lump it’. Just kidding! Limited choice but very easy on the pallette.

House of Terror

The House of Terror (Terror Haza) is a paid musuem that contains exhibits related to the fascist and communist dictatorial regimes in 20th century Hungary and is also a memorial to the victims of these regimes, including those detained, interrogated, tortured or killed in the building. (Sadly all of the video documentaries are in Hungarian; although a few narrative text displays are translated in English.) Our mood inside the building turned from sombre to becoming outright depressed and horrified when one of us stepped into a solitary cell large enough for a crouching human being with no ventilation whatsoever and experienced 10 seconds of sheer horror.

One of the main pedestrian thoroughfares that we didn’t get to see but comes highly recommended is Vaci Utca. It starts from Vörösmarty Square and ends opposite the Central Market Hall at the Pest end of Liberty Bridge. This famous downtown street of Budapest apparently rivals the pedestrian streets of Paris, Amsterdam and Milan according to one guide book. Worth a visit surely!

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Petnehazy Club Resort, Budapest

Cottage 412 – Our Holiday Abode

First stop in Europe and our home-away-from-home for the next six nights. The resort was quintessentially RCI and we smiled in utter familiarity (having stayed in RCI resorts three times previously). Our wooden cottage was absolutely adorable with a back porch that overlooked distant hills covered with verdant forests, soothing the eyes immediately after the harsh Dubai summer. The cottage had its own sauna and that was pretty hot stuff! It was a bit warm inside though and fans were quickly rented (!), bags unpacked, coffee brewed and we were all set to explore Budapest.

The cozy warmth of a wooden cabin

Situated in the suburbs of Buda and overlooking the Buda hills, the place is a promising getaway for locals and tourists alike. Families tended to stay for weekends and enjoy the pool, tennis, horse riding, trekking and the Hungarian summer.The restaurant attached to the club served gourmet food at the most reasonable prices; and we pretty much sampled most of the chef’s masterpieces on the menu. Of course like all good Indians we repeatedly requested their ‘fiercest Hungarian paprika’ or ”chilli paste’ with every meal and were obliged each time!

The best place in the world

The perfect dip on a summer’s day

No resort vacay is complete without a massage. So in good tradition, we treated ourselves to a pleasurable hour but it was nothing spectacular; although the aching limbs sighed and relaxed. Wifi was available in the public areas and there usually was a beeline for the ipad, laptop or iphone so we could all do our unsuspecting FB friends a favor and inundate their walls with our happy travel pics and sincere statuses (may be we should apologise!).

Loving the ambience

The staff spoke English and were very friendly. The resort offered several sight-seeing tours (which we found terribly useful and attractive). (See posts on Touring the City and Touring Outside the City for details)

A word of caution: the resort is quite a ways from the city. Shuttle services are available at fixed hours for a fee. However, a good ten minute walk through winding, steep road lead us to a bus stop that took us all the way to the nearest tram station. From there on to the nearest metro station. Easy peasy!

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Making Travel Plans Early

I learned from our US east coast holiday in the summer of 2011 that to get great deals you have to start planning really early. Of course everyone knows that! But it’s not often that we actually put that simple tip in use. Also, you need to be slightly mad about traveling in order to return from one holiday and start planning for the next. Anyway, if you’re thinking about traveling in summer, start planning and researching by Feb latest.

Where to Go?

Getting the travel map for your holiday right is often the hardest. After looking at Australia (too expensive and too big to handle), US (been there in 2011), SE Asia (too sticky, hot and humid in summer), I narrowed it down to Europe. Now it was a question of which part of Europe and how many cities. We had been to a few countries in western Europe already. The Mediterranean side seemed quite tempting at first but could get infernally hot during summer for my liking. Scandinavia seemed a good choice but somehow that didn’t click. Maybe the eastern side? Hmmm…

So, while focusing closely on eastern Europe I realized that Budapest, Vienna and Prague lie in almost triangular arrangement on the map and seemed just perfect.  Plus, the three chosen countries are all part of Schengen and you need to get a single visa to travel across all three cities. A few friends had spoken highly of Prague and many had expressed their intent on seeing the city some day. So why not us?

So that was it – Budapest, Vienna and Prague it was going to be!

We decided to start at the lower tip of the triangle and move up. This proved to be advantageous since the Schengen visa was processed quickly by the Hungarian embassy. Also the UAE dirham is quite strong against the Hungarian Forents (HUF) and you could make it go a long way, which is a nice way to begin your travels.

Where to stay?

There are so many accommodation options available in Europe but my first option always is to find a convenient RCI resort since we are eligible as guest invitees every other year. It’s a great option if you plan on being mobile. RCI resorts (or any other time/point sharing resorts) are usually located a couple of hours from the city and it’s more practical to rent a car to get around. RCI resorts in Hungary didn’t seem a great option since the reviews were not very encouraging and nor were the prices or the locations. I eventually narrowed in on the Petnehazy Club Resort  and didn’t regret it one bit when we got there. (It did turn out to be an RCI resort but for some strange reason didn’t show up in the RCI directory).

www.waytostay.com is a fairly new travel site that operates out of Spain and offers apartments for reasonable prices (if you book early enough) across major cities in Europe. Their customer service is excellent and both apartments in Vienna and Prague turned out to be great. There is a wide variety to choose from in terms of size, price and amenities. They usually they come with reviews and ratings that are quite useful and pretty accurate from our experience. Choosing an apartment that is centrally located can be quite damaging on the wallet; but having a perfunctory check on the map on where the touristy sites are in relation with the apartment is a good idea. Most cities are very well-connected by public transport and the apartments are located decently close to either tram stops, bus stops or metro stations.

Some of the other sites to look at among others are:

http://www.tripadvisor.com/europe-vacation-rentals.html

http://www.apartmentsapart.com/

http://www.homeaway.com/vacation-rentals/europe/r5

Tip: Summer in Europe can be uncomfortably warm on days. So if you can get accommodation with ACs and/or fans for a little more, the additional price is well worth it.

Tip: Many apartments are located on higher floors not all with lifts; so that’s something to keep in mind before making reservations.

You will need to spend a couple of days viewing pages of options, reading reviews and viewing photos of potential apartments before booking the place. It is a tedious process. And that’s why I have provided links to the two we chose:

1.  Praha Loft in Vinehrady

2. Hietzinger House in Vienna . This one is funky and stylish.

Both were well-connected to public transport (metros, trams and buses) and we had absolutely no problems getting around.

www.waytostay.com accepts a 25% payment online. They send you detailed reservation information via email with payment details, balance payments and also the address & contact information of the owner; who coordinates with you for your check-in date and time before your arrival. The balance payment must be made in cash at the time of check-in, including a refundable damage deposit.

Tip: Staying in an apartment offers you the benefit of saving euros on food and laundry. We generally tended to buy breakfast food and ready-to-eat dinners from the supermarket and kept costs down by eating lunch out or the other way around. The apartments provided washing machines and dish washers with detergents as well as iron boxes and boards. It was fairly easy to wash and re-pack clean clothes before traveling to the next city.

So it turned out eventually to be a good combination as far as accommodation was concerned – the one in Budapest was idyllic resort with rolling meadows, cool forests and a ways from the city; while the other two were in great neighborhoods and a few metro rides away from the major hotspots.

Moving Between Cities

Getting from one city to another is possible by rail, road and air. The flight options didn’t interest me one bit, so I don’t have any suggestions on that. Sorry!

Trains: Eurorail and CzechTransport have good rail connections although we kept our options open before traveling. CzechTransport offers reasonable prices @ about 50 euros per head one way from Buda to Vienna for a four-hour journey. You can find similar rates and duration from Vienna to Praha. The return from Praha to Buda takes  much longer to cover at about 6.5 hours and about 55 euros per ticket.

Buses: Are much cheaper than trains (one rail ticket will cover three bus tickets) and we bused it up and down eventually. There are several different bus lines (Student Agency, Orangeways, Czech-transport, Eurolines to name a few) that ply between each of the cities; with Eurolines being very well networked. If you book online, you need to be able to print tickets. However, you can buy tickets at the bus station easily. Make sure you carry your passports when making reservations. Summer crowds (tourists and locals) fill up the buses quite quickly, so it’s wiser to buy the tickets on the first day of being in the city. The buses are quite comfortable with reclining seats, toilets, wifi (on some) and the driver will helpfully play a Hollywood movie dubbed in the local language for your entertainment! The wifi is too slow to be of any use mostly. Sometimes these highway monsters are truly non-stop, so be prepared with packed lunches and beverages and enjoy the ride.

Tip: Senior citizens and students get discounts on buses and trains. Ask for them. Carry a valid ID as proof.

Tip: Eurorail passes are available for inter-city travel and depending on your requirements you can explore that option as well. However note that in general, most railpasses do not include subway networks and bus service within a city.

Self-drive: Renting a car can be quite expensive, especially if the pick up and drop off destinations are different. Even lower end prices  for a two-day hire of a mid-sized car with GPS and air conditioning can be in the range of  300 euros. Also, the roads are quite narrow and although the highways are dual carriageways, it’s not worth the effort. No autobahns out in the east! Keeping the car in the city and finding suitable parking can be quite cumbersome. Also, the countryside that makes a road trip even more pleasurable is pretty average on the Buda-Vienna-Prague route as corroborated by several reviews on tripadvisor. (You can sigh at the hundreds of wind turbines along the way though!)

In any case, just to have the option, we did get ourselves international driving licenses although we didn’t get to use them eventually. (The family trip ratings would have gone up a notch if that had happened!)

Currency

Although Hungary accepts the euro, all local transactions are preferred in Hungarian Forents (HUFs). International credit cards (Visa and Mastercard) are accepted largely but we found that many smaller establishments require payments in cash. ATMs are located conveniently. If you pay in euros, you will  get change in HUFs.

In Vienna it’s the euro. No doubts on that! By the time you get to Prague, you must unlearn all the previous conversion rates and start thinking in Karuna or Crown! Again, cash payments are preferred in Prague, which is surprising since it is a much-loved tourist destination.

Budget

This was a tough one to figure out and I spoke to a few people who live in Europe and also looked back on what we had spent on our previous vacay to Europe and the US. With hotel booking and flight tickets being fixed costs, your variables are what you plan to spend on eating, sight-seeing, commuting around the city and buying souvenirs. Prague and Budapest are quite inexpensive, Buda even more so.

Depending on how comfortable you are with eating non-fancy food and traveling only on public transport, about 30 – 50 euros per day per person is a fairly realistic range. This includes one meal at an inexpensive restaurant, transport and sightseeing (a reasonable mix of paid and free sights); provided you try to get to the supermarket and stock up for the other two meals. Hungary is very cheap and you can get great food for very attractive prices. So is Prague. Vienna is more pricey and we kinda stuck to pastas, pizzas, strudel and wiener shnitzel.

If you plan on buying alcohol with every meal, then you need to re-calculate your budget. Also, tap water (or naturelle) is good enough to drink all over Europe. Ask for tap.

Well, that’s pretty much all we did on the groundwork and planning! At the end, it all paid off nicely and overall the holiday was rated by us at a cool 8.5! Although looking back, I could raise it to a solid 9! The summer heat (it touched 38 for two days in Budapest) and the missed road trip were two major culprits!

So, come on and let’s see what we did, what we saw and how we were enthralled by the magic of Europe.

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