The long day of travel from Romania into Hungary seemed to pass by rather quickly. I guess we're just getting comfortable with days that require 20-plus hours of travel. We've become the self-proclaimed seasoned veterans of the 'long-haul'.
We pulled into the Keleti Train Station late in the afternoon, having left Brasov around the same time a day earlier. It was grey, wet and cold outside. We couldn't really get a feel for the city as we passed through it in our taxi. We were tired and in desperate need of a hot shower and a warm bed.
Cameron's mother Paulah put her little black book into action once again. We were given the contact info of her ex-colleague who is now living in the Hungarian capital. Ironically Cameron also worked with their son during his time with Ralf at the Soup Meister. Small world isn't it?
Since he and his wife were traveling to Turkey at the time that we planned to visit Budapest, they graciously offered us their empty apartment, providing us with fantastic accommodations within walking distance of the city centre. And the unobstructed morning views of Margaret Island and the calm Danube River weren't too bad either!
It was yet another stroke of good fortune and unexpected generosity. We were, and are, very thankful and grateful for their hospitality.
We had a lot of work to do in Budapest. The 2010 Olympics in Vancouver are fast approaching and we needed to rent out our place. This required dedicated internet time in order to get caught up. Yes - we do slide in a bit of work when necessary.
We also needed to come up with a solution to our passport dilemma - we had a brand new passport when we left Vancouver but are coming dangerously close to filling it up with visa stamps. It didn't help that Bulgaria and Romania required stamps in and out, even though they are both current members of the EU (an unexpected and unwelcomed surprise - though it's still cool to have the stamps so we're not complaining, at least not too loud).
It's our own fault. We unwisely assumed that a new passport would be sufficient and didn't even think to acquire the 40-page Canadian passport, a move that we're now seriously regretting. Europe is cold in November and December and our goal is to spend some time in the sun before the trip is complete, requiring space in the passport. Long story short, we think we have it all figured out now… but time will tell!
Modern day Budapest is actually the union of two cities that were divided by the Danube River. On the west bank of the river is 'Buda' and the eastern bank is 'Pest', hence the name Budapest. The city of 2 million is one of Europe's most exciting capitals with its rich culture, incredible architecture and intriguing history.
We only had one plan for our five days in Budapest - explore and get lost in the city's extraordinary cultural heritage. We were excited to get started!
Our first day, and every subsequent day, started with us passing the stunning gothic Hungarian Parliament Building. Constructed in 1902, it is one of the finest Neo-Gothic buildings in Europe. It was the largest parliament building in the world at the time of construction. Take a look at the photo album - you'll know exactly which building we're talking about!
Every day revolved around sightseeing. We probably logged about 10 km's a day of walking through the city each day. We crossed the landmark Szechenyi chain-bridge, the first permanent crossing between Buda and Pest. A good amount of time was spent on the Buda side exploring the medieval Castle Hill (Varhegy) that stands proudly above the Danube and is also home to Matthias Church (Matyas Templom), the Royal Palace (Kiralyi Palota), Hungarian National Gallery, Vienna Gate Square and Fishermen's Square, to name a few. It also gave us unforgettable panoramic views of the remarkable city and its architectural wonders.
We met a Hungarian man in Jordan named Miki. He was the friend that traveled with us to the Dead Sea. When we asked him questions about Budapest we got the sense that he wasn't that impressed with his home city. It wasn't that he didn't like it, nor had anything bad to say about it. He just didn't boast about it or see it as a tourist hotspot. (Unlike our British Columbia crush!)
We weren't quite sure what to expect from the city but after our first day of exploration we fell instantly love with Budapest. Unfortunately we lost Miki's email address and weren't able to take him up on his offer to be our free tour guide; his anticipated email arrived a day to late.
Budapest was also the first city that introduced us to the European tradition of 'Christmas Markets'. The city comes alive with festive squares and market strips that are cheerfully decorated with Christmas trees and typical holiday ornaments. The vendors have everything that one would need to celebrate the season.
From hot wine to pig roasts to freshly baked treats, along with retailers selling unique crafts and Christmas present ideas. It's such a fun way to get into the holiday spirit! Little did we know that these Christmas markets would become a daily ritual throughout our future European travels.
We spent one afternoon on the Pest side of the Danube doing a tour of the Great Synagogue (Nagy Zsinagoga in Hungarian). Completed in 1859, this is the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world next one in New York City.
During WWII the synagogue was used as a detention centre and also acted as the centre of the Budapest Ghetto for Jews. It walked away from the war with little damage but the same cannot be said for the thousands of Hungarian Jews that died in the atrocious conditions of the ghetto. Our guide gave us valuable insight into the synagogue's importance during the war and the subsequent years of communism that followed. It is quite the building and represents much more than a place of worship.
What more can we say about Budapest?
It's a fantastic city with enough attractions to keep you busy for weeks. It is one of those cities that we could see ourselves living in, provided we learn to speak the incomprehensible language.
The next and final segment of our Eastern European tour was to be the gothic, sophisticated and energetic capital of the Czech Republic - Prague. Although we find it odd to group Budapest and Prague in the 'Eastern European' category. They're both so progressive and Western.
We were up at the crack of dawn and on our way. Our itinerary for the day required us to make a brief stop in Vienna before boarding an afternoon train to Prague.
November 28th, 2009