A walk through Budapest

It seems fitting that Budapest is the birthplace of legendary illusionist, Harry Houdini.  The city on the Danube has pulled off its own magic trick to emerge reborn following decades of communist misrule and a past littered with conflict and disaster, to become Central Europe’s most dynamic cultural centre. Even if national politics leave a lot to be desired, Budapest is a welcoming and open place to spend a few days exploring while indulging in its excellent food scene.

The city has an extensive metro and tram system, but the central districts of Pest can easily be explored on foot, which allows you to better admire its late-19th century architecture. During daylight, getting lost in the streets of the Jewish Quarter and the districts to the north and east of the centre, or walking along the banks of the Danube with views to Pest or Buda, is a real pleasure. At night, the area along the river is even more beautiful, and visits to Ruin Bars are (almost) compulsory.

Hungarian Parliament, Budapest, Hungary

Chain Bridge, Budapest, Hungary

József Nádor Square, Budapest, Hungary

Millennium Monument, Heroes’ Square, Budapest, Hungary

Vajdahunyad Castle, Budapest, Hungary

Budapest, Hungary

On the final day of our trip, we decided to take the long way around on a walk to the Városliget city park, which is home to the late-19th century Vajdahunyad Castle. Built as part of the celebrations for the millennium of Hungary’s founding in 896 AD, the castle stands in one of the largest green spaces in the city. It would be a good place for a picnic in summer. The legendary Széchenyi Thermal Baths are also found in the park, but that’s a treat for our next visit to Budapest.

Near here is the Millennium Monument, another memorial to Hungary’s foundation standing in the middle of the vast expanse of Heroes’ Square. We’d seen few tourists on our stroll, but Heroes’ Square is a major stopping point for tour groups. It was a bit of a jolt to the system, and seemed at odds with the austere square in which we stood. The monument itself celebrates the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars, the leaders of the tribes credited with founding Hungary.

This was the last stop on our walk, and that meant only one thing: we could take the exciting M1 metro back to the centre and a visit to the Szimpla ruin bar. The M1 is legendary, the oldest metro line on Continental Europe’s oldest underground system. It has tiny train carriages that really do belong to a different era of travel. It was also built to celebrate Hungary’s Millennium, and should be compulsory for anyone visiting the city.

Earlier we’d walked along the Buda side of the Danube, with views of the Hungarian Parliament, crossing the Chain Bridge beneath Budapest Castle into Pest. Here we passed ancient buildings coexisting with trendy restaurants and dive bars catering to stag parties. We planned to have a snack in the beautiful and historic New York Cafe, but it was packed with people. In the Jewish Quarter though, we struck foodie gold.

Millennium Monument, Heroes’ Square, Budapest, Hungary

Millennium Monument, Heroes’ Square, Budapest, Hungary

Budapest, Hungary

New York Palace Café, Budapest, Hungary

St. Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest, Hungary

Szimpla, Ruin Bar, Budapest, Hungary

We found ourselves passing a bakery selling flódni. A not to be missed treat, flódni is a traditional Hungarian-Jewish cake with plum jam, walnut, apple and poppyseed layers separated by thin pastry. On a chilly autumn day it was a perfect way to remember the district’s history and refuel for the rest of our walk. This though was no ordinary cake shop, but Rachel Raj’s bakery. A famous Hungarian chef, the Flódni we ate is based on a family recipe – we were in good company, the late Anthony Bourdain was also a fan.

House of Terror, a stroll through Budapest’s bloody history

Budapest’s glorious setting astride the Danube, its beautiful architecture and fantastic cultural life belie a simple truth: this is a city that has witnessed true horrors. While its history is stuffed full of turmoil and violence, like most of Europe, Budapest’s mid-20th century history is a litany of monumental barbarism. The seeds of which were planted centuries earlier, only bearing their terrible fruit in the 1940s.

There are regular reminders of these horrors across Budapest. Whether the Second World War or the Communist repression that followed it, Budapest wears its history on its sleeve. However, not all memorials to 20th century conflict are well received. Especially when they are part of attempts by Viktor Orban’s thuggish government to rewrite history, in nationalist overtones that are a bit too reminiscent of that earlier history for comfort.

Controversial World War II memorial, Budapest, Hungary

Dohány Street Synagogue, Budapest, Hungary

Dohány Street Synagogue, Budapest, Hungary

Shoes on the Danube Bank, Budapest, Hungary

In Liberty Square, close to Parliament, is an ugly (politically and aesthetically) statue to victims of the Second World War. It’s controversial because people see it as an attempt by the Fidesz government to distort Hungary’s role in the Holocaust. Like the Polish government before it, they’re trying to obscure the very active role of both citizens and government in the deaths of more than 600,000 Jews during the German occupation of 1944-45.

The Nazis didn’t occupy Hungary at the start of the Second World War, they formed an alliance with the more than willing Hungarian government instead. In 1940, Hungary joined the Axis and its armies participated in the invasion of Russia. Only in March 1944, when the German military was in full retreat and defeat was inevitable, did the Hungarian government attempt to end its pact with the Nazis. Hitler ordered Hungary occupied.

Despite being subject to racial laws modelled on the Nürnberg Laws, Hungarian Jews had largely been ‘protected’ from the Holocaust. The Nazi occupation established ghettos and deportations to death camps began. In only a year, some 437,000 Jews would be deported and murdered. It’s said that trains ran day and night from Budapest to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Yet, there were only 150 Germans in charge of this task.

Without the full cooperation of the Hungarian government and tens of thousands of its citizens, it would have been impossible to organise mass murder. Cooperate they did, the entire apparatus of state was put to work. The deportations continued until the Soviet army liberated Hungary in early 1945. Rich in irony, in the same park stands a memorial to the Soviet ‘liberators’, as well as to former US President, Ronald Reagan, slayer of the communism dragon.

Nearby is a far more poignant memorial. Along the Danube are sixty pairs of iron shoes that tell a heartbreaking story. In late 1944, the fascist Arrow Cross came to power in Hungary and began mass executions of Jews and others in Budapest. Thousands were brought to the Danube and shot. Their bodies dumped into the freezing waters which, contemporary observes reported, ran red with blood.

We walked through the former Jewish ghetto, visiting two of the city’s synagogues, to reach the House of Terror, which tells the story of this journey into madness in grim detail, often using contemporary film. It’s a haunting experience, especially the descent into the cellar where the torture cells and hanging post are still found. A lift takes you into the bowls of the building as an audio recording explains the terrible history of this building.

Shoes on the Danube Bank, Budapest, Hungary

Kazinczy Street Synagogue, Budapest, Hungary

House of Terror, Budapest, Hungary

Soviet Russian memorial, Budapest, Hungary

The museum also tells the story of the post-war period, the Russian occupation and the brutal suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. But there is another story, one I’d not heard before, it tells of the terrible fate of ethnic Germans living in Hungary following the liberation of the country. Around a half a million ethnic Germans were persecuted, striped of their rights, had lands confiscated and were ultimately expelled.

Ethnic Germans had lived here for centuries, many were encouraged to settle the land after the Ottoman Turks were defeated in 1686 – this diaspora was one of the Nazis’ main arguments for their territorial claims in Eastern Europe. Ethnic Germans would pay the price for their real or imagined complicity in Nazi crimes. Tens of thousands were sent to Russia and East Germany as slave labourers, many more were expelled to West Germany, a country they’d never previously set foot in.

Sell Art, Buy A Yacht … Budapest Street Art

It’s no surprise that a city like Budapest, with its cutting edge cultural attractions and a long history as an artistic centre, should have some impressive street art. Yet, I was still surprised by the wealth of building-sized art that is scattered across the central part of the city. Their approach is somewhat different to Berlin, where street art still feels a bit underground. In Budapest, the walls are more curated, deliberately transforming the city into a colourful canvass.

This is largely the result of the annual Színes Város Festival, or Colourful City Festival. Since 2014, they have been commissioning artists to brighten up the cityscape, and the festival has endowed central Budapest with some magnificent public artworks. While many of the invited artists are international, the festival has provided a shop window for homegrown talent. The Neopaint collective are particularly well represented.

Laura by Vilmos Aba-Novák, Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

Woman in Red Hat by Vilmos Aba-Novák, Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

Rubik’s Cube by Neopaint, Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

6:3 by Neopaint, Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

Polish-Hungarian Friendship Tree by Neopaint, Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

October by Károly Ferenczy, Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

There are pieces of art all over the city, but the epicentre is the Jewish Quarter. Here, the many dilapidated buildings that once typified the area have seen a rebirth in recent years, street art has helped. It’s just a shame that the very first artwork I spotted was an enormous piece commemorating an epic (for Hungarians) football match of 1953. Known as the Match of the Century, this was a stunning and unexpected 6-3 victory over England at Wembley Stadium.

Over the road is an artwork commemorating another epic Hungarian success, the Rubik’s Cube. The 1974 invention of sculptor and professor Erno Rubik was a form of torture to people of a certain age. I must have spent days of my life trying to crack the secret of Rubik’s Cube as a teenager. They were the ‘must have’ accessory of an entire generation. I can’t say I ever managed much success against the fiendish Cube, but the artwork was a welcome reminder of more innocent days.

A few streets away, we came across a giant painting of the cover of Time Magazine. I hadn’t known before but, in January 1957, Time announced the ‘Hungarian Freedom Fighter’ as Man of the Year for 1956. This followed the violent suppression of the Hungarian Revolution by its own Communist government and the occupying forces of the Soviet Union. It’s an interesting reminder of some of the terrible things that these streets have witnessed.

Another poignant reminder of the history of Budapest’s District VII  can be found on Akácfa street. A giant mural of a seamstress looms over pedestrians below, the Hungarian word Szabómesterek, or master tailor, ‘sawn’ on the wall below. Tailoring was one of the major Jewish professions in pre-Second World War Budapest, and this piece in the heart of the Jewish Quarter is a reminder of the huge human and cultural loss experienced in Hungary between 1941 and 1945.

The Great Wall by TransOne and Fat Heat, Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

Miss KK, Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

Miss KK, Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

Miss KK, Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

Miss KK, Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

Seamstress by Neopaint, Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

Further down the street are a number of other artworks that look like watercolours of master painters. There’s also an large piece depicting a cycle race. My favourite, a few streets away and next to the excellent Kőleves Vendéglő restaurant, is of a massive cow in a purple tracksuit eating a forkful of grass. I couldn’t find much information on it, but it has something to do with traditional Hungarian foods.

The giant murals may be the most impressive part of Budapest’s street art scene, but I came across a number of fun, thought-provoking ‘dolls’ made as collages from fashion magazines or Instagram pictures that I really loved. These are the work of a fashion designer and street artist known as Miss KK. These witty pieces are worth looking out for if you’re wandering around Budapest.

Curing the “Cat’s Wail” at Budapest’s Gellert Baths

Budapest has a bathing culture dating back thousands of years. Today the city remains home to dozens of thermal spas and public bathhouses. Slipping on the flip flops and bath robe to while away half a day in indoor and outdoor pools of varying sizes and temperatures, is one of the quintessential Budapest experiences. This region is blessed with thermal springs, and they have been put to good use ever since those bathhouse devotees, the Romans, arrived in the 1st century.

It’s no surprise that the Romans called this Aquincum, or that Budapest’s reputation for thermal baths would be further enhanced by the hammam-loving Ottomans, who captured the city in 1541. Some thermal spas can still trace their history back to the Ottoman period. For the modern visitor who may have enjoyed a few too many ruin bars, there’s a more important fact about Budapest’s baths: legend states they cure the “Cat’s Wail’ or macskajaj, Hungarian for a hangover.

Gellert Thermal Baths, Budapest, Hungary

Gellert Thermal Baths, Budapest, Hungary

Gellert Thermal Baths, Budapest, Hungary

Statue, Hungarian Parliament, Budapest, Hungary

Statue, Hungarian Parliament, Budapest, Hungary

Hungarian Parliament, Budapest, Hungary

Choosing which bath to visit is tricky, everyone has a favourite place. We decided on the Gellert Thermal Baths, part of the art nouveau hotel of the same name. Founded in 1918, it has pretty turquoise-tiled pools, and is a relaxed place for the novice bather. The outdoor thermal pool was particularly exciting on a chilly autumn day. Our visit to Gellert allowed us to walk along the river to the Central Market Hall and then explore Újbuda, Budapest’s Bohemian District 11.

We strolled along the waterfront close to the Hungarian Parliament. Built in 1896 to celebrate the 1,000th birthday of the founding of Hungary by the invading Magyars, it is the third largest parliament in the world, rumoured to have 20km of corridors and stairways. After strolling around it, we followed the river to the  Liberty Bridge. On the far side of which are the Gellert Baths. First, we made a visit to the late-19th century Central Market Hall.

Made out of dried and ground red peppers, paprika is Hungary’s most popular spice. A visit to the stalls in the market might give the impression that it’s Hungary’s only spice. Paprika stalls proliferate amongst the fruit, vegetable and cured meat stalls, attracting a steady stream of locals and tourists. Each year, Hungarians consume half a kilo of paprika per person. That’s quite an undertaking, but it does find its way into a large number of traditional dishes.

Anyone who has never seen a lot of vegetables in one place before will no doubt love the market, but it’s not a patch on markets in other parts of the world. The real show-stopper is the market’s own metalwork architecture. Upstairs you can buy hot food and souvenirs. It was crammed with tourists. We decided it wasn’t worth the crush and set off across the Danube for the baths. Minutes later we were bathing in a thermal pool in chilly air under a blue sky. It was fabulous.

Crossing the Danube, Budapest, Hungary

Central Market Hall, Budapest, Hungary

Central Market Hall, Budapest, Hungary

Central Market Hall, Budapest, Hungary

Central Market Hall, Budapest, Hungary

Central Market Hall, Budapest, Hungary

It was well after lunch when we emerged from the fantastic interior of the baths and headed into nearby District 11 in search of food. This is an up and coming area, that will likely have completely changed in a few years due to gentrification. For the time-being it’s a low-key, youthful neighbourhood that has a number good restaurants and cafes. We ate in Béla, with an interesting art collection on the walls, but this district is blessed with good eating options.

We walked off lunch with a meander through the area, passing traditional bakeries and trendy art galleries until reaching Budapest University of Technology and Economics, home to 20,000 students. This explained all the bars and pubs we’d been passing. Too tired to walk back, we caught the metro to central Pest and discovered the intriguing architecture of Budapest’s metro stations – some of which are truly remarkable.

Exploring Budapest’s medieval Castle Hill

If you want to experience the peaceful atmosphere of the medieval streets that make up Budapest’s glorious Castle Hill, you’ll have to get here early. By mid-morning, tour groups swarm through the narrow lanes, crowd around the beautiful 14th-century church named for King Matthias and the nearby 19th-century fortress of Fisherman’s Bastion, and make a visit to the Budapest Castle and museums an endurance test. In the early morning light the views alone make it worth the effort.

Views over Budapest from Castle Hill, Budapest, Hungary

Budapest Castle, Budapest, Hungary

Matthias Church, Castle Hill, Budapest, Hungary

Castle Hill is a special place despite mass tourism, especially if you do the lung-bursting walk through pretty Király lépcső park. We discovered the old funicular that does the same climb in a fraction of the time only after reaching the top. The terraces outside the castle offer magnificent panoramas over the Danube and Pest. Buda and Pest were joined as one city in 1873, their historic differences are no less obvious today than in the 19th century.

The castle’s main attraction is the Hungarian National Gallery, with its collection of Hungarian artists, and a couple of smaller museums. Nothing was open this early, so we’d have to come back and face the crowds later. Instead we wandered around the castle grounds – there are several areas of ruins testifying to some of the conflicts this hilltop has witnessed – and then into the streets of the old town.

The current palace is from the reign of Empress Maria Theresa in the second half of the 18th century. Repeatedly damaged over the centuries, it was mostly destroyed during the Battle for Budapest in 1945. Defended by Hungarian and German troops, and besieged by Russian armies, there was only ever going to be one result. Hitler refused to allow his troops to retreat or surrender, so Castle Hill was pulverised. Thousands of trapped civilians died needlessly.

As you walk around the surrounding streets, the patchwork of buildings is testimony to the reconstruction undertaken by the post-1945 communist regime. Historic buildings now rub shoulders uneasily with ugly late-20th century structures, the communist authorities lacked money or materials to do a full and faithful reconstruction. Recently, the European Union subsidised more reconstruction and the area surprisingly retains its atmosphere.

We walked along a pretty escarpment that overlooked Buda and the Buda Hills, before diving into cobbled streets lined with pastel-coloured houses. Reaching the Military History Museum we were greeted by a Russian T34 tank, the workhorse of the Soviet armies in World War II – Berlin has a couple parked outside the Soviet Memorial in the Tiergarten. The Church of Saint Mary Magdalene towers over this area and, when it’s open, the tower offers spectacular views.

Castle Hill is a compact area that doesn’t take too long to explore on foot. We found ourselves outside the Matthias Church, which, with its coloured tiled roof and a history dating back to the 11th century, is one of the most interesting churches in Budapest. Legend has it that during the 1686 siege of Budapest – when Christian armies were attempting to end 150 years of Muslim Ottoman rule – artillery fire hit the wall of the church.

The wall crumbled to reveal a statue of the Virgin Mary, bricked up after the Ottoman conquest of 1541. This allegedly disheartened the Ottoman defenders to such an extent that they immediately surrendered. Today, it’s as if the church has surrendered to tourism. Close by is Fisherman’s Bastion, which offers glorious views over the city if, that is, you can squeeze onto the balcony past the tourist hoards invading the modern city.

It was time for lunch, but not in this touristy area. We walked to Budapest-Deli railway station from where a tram whisked us back over the majestic Danube into the centre of Pest for an excellent modern Hungarian lunch at Kőleves Vendéglő.

A Budapest Weekend

A few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, I found myself stepping off a train in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia’s second city. This was the time of Mikhail Gorbachev, and political reform, known as glasnost, was having a thawing effect across Eastern Europe. My train carriage from Prague was full of young conscripts, not much older than myself, heading home for the holidays. We didn’t share any common language, but by the time we arrived we were firm friends.

How a capitalist student and a bunch of communist soldiers managed to hit it off so well, is probably best explained by the amount of beer and fiery plum brandy, slivovitz, that we’d drunk along the way. The Danube flows through Bratislava on its way from Vienna to Budapest, my first sight of this majestic river was through a drunken haze. A few days later I had a dilemma, follow the river East to the Hungarian capital or, against the flow, West to Austria.

Hungarian Parliament, Budapest, Hungary

Castle District across the Danube, Budapest, Hungary

Millennium Monument, Budapest, Hungary

Budapest, Hungary

Hungarian Parliament, Budapest, Hungary

Matthias Church, Budapest, Hungary

Probably under the influence of British New Wave band Ultravox’s Vienna, I chose to go west. It has taken me slightly over 30 years to finally discover whether that was the right decision or not. While I’ll never truly have an answer for my teenage self, I’d have loved to have seen Budapest before mass tourism changed it forever. We visited in late autumn, outside the main season, but tour groups still flooded the castle district and Jewish Quarter. Summer must be hellish.

These were minor irritations when set against the magnificent mix of history, culture and culinary delights that Budapest offers in abundance. If the city has a feel of Prague about it – cut in two by a river with the castle on one bank and the town on the other – set amidst the Buda Hills, it has a more beautiful location and feels more cosmopolitan. Plus, there seem to be far fewer British stag parties roaming the streets, which is only ever a good thing.

We had four days to explore the city, by the end of which we realised that another four days would be needed to do it justice. I had a list of things to see, do, eat and drink from two Hungarian colleagues, many of which remain to be ticked off. We stayed close to the Hungarian Parliament, minutes from the banks of the Danube, and spent most of our time in the central areas of Pest and in the Castle District across the water in Buda.

An excursion to the Gellért Thermal Baths (it’s illegal to visit Budapest without visiting one of the many baths), left us with half a day to explore District 11. Known as Újbuda, it’s close to the university and filled with good cafes and restaurants, as well as trendy bars and galleries. This felt like a real Budapest neighbourhood, well away from Pest’s nightlife and the mass tourism of the castle. There are twenty three districts in the city, we saw only a handful.

Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

Szimpla ruin bar, Budapest, Hungary

Street Art, Budapest, Hungary

Gellért Thermal Baths, Budapest, Hungary

Gellért Thermal Baths, Budapest, Hungary

Castle District across the Danube, Budapest, Hungary

We arrived days before local elections, and Budapest was covered in posters for the ruling Fidesz and a multitude of opposition parties. Once a leader amongst post-Soviet democracies, Viktor Orban’s decade of autocratic government has severely damaged the rule of law and democratic norms. Orban himself describes this as “illiberal democracy”, but let’s call it what it is: autocracy mixed with far right and racist rhetoric and policies.

Orban remains popular (and populist) but his hold on power may be slipping. Shortly after we returned home, Fidesz lost control of Budapest and several other urban areas. Overnight, Budapest became a more ethical place to visit. That’s good news, because we really want to go back and explore more of this city and country.