Sunday 13th September 2015, Budapest, Continued
This morning we woke to the sound of bells, presumably from the Mátyás Templom up by the bastion. It has been another hot and sunny day.
We decided we needed a break from walking the steep streets of Buda so made our way down to Szel Kalmán (formerly Moskva) Tér and from there on the bus to the rack and pinion railway that carries families out of the city up into the cool Buda Hills for Sunday strolls in the woods, adventure trails for the children and a sedate ride in a rattling, wooden, open-sided train through the trees to János-hegy on the Pioneer railway.
The Pioneer railway dates back to the days of Russian domination as many of the signs still testify. Nowadays the children who run the railway are Hungarian scouts and guides. The whole operation is managed by the children though there are adults driving the trains. Our tickets cost us around £1.50 each for a long slow ride through the dense woods, stopping at tiny stations where we were saluted by school boys waving flags, changing the points and blowing whistles.
Much of the route is single track so we had frequent waits in the sunshine at passing places until the children gave us permission to continue. Our tickets, sold to us by a pretty girl of around fourteen were later clipped by a 12 year old boy in a peaked cap.
The station at János-hegy is still well below the summit and we were left to scramble up through the woods along rough and slippery paths, hanging on to the bushes as we pulled ourselves up. By the time we emerged at the top my knees felt like jelly and we were both hot and sticky. Here we queued with families for hamburgers in cotton wool bread and soaked in sticky tomato sauce. They were basic but hey, they cost us less than a pound each! We shared a table with a family with three children and we didn’t see anyone all day who was not Hungarian!!
Having finished lunch we discovered we were not quite at the top and struggled up to the Queen Elizabeth Tower, named for the Austrian wife of the Emperor Franz Joseph. She learnt to speak Hungarian and for this her subjects took her to their hearts and she became affectionately known to her Hungarian subjects as Sisi.
The tower had fallen into decay during the Soviet era and was restored in 2005. A staircase winds up to the top with external walkways at five different levels offering spectacular views over Budapest lying like a map spread out far below, surrounded by woods with the hills down on the Buda side of the river no more than bumps on the landscape and the Danube a thin, silver thread winding through the city.
Returning back down to the crowds still enjoying picnic lunches and queuing for traditional Hungarian fried pizzas covered with cheese and cream, known as langos, Ian bought himself an ice-cream and sat on the only stool he could find in the woodland to eat it.
Finally we made our way to the chair-lift for our final treat of the day. It runs non-stop all day down to the foot of János-hegy. As the chair comes round you jump on and pull a safety bar down as you are whisked up into the air with the whole of Budapest spread out way below you. It may be less effort to take the chair-lift up and walk down but it is nowhere near as impressive. We sat, suspended from the cable, our feet resting on a metal bar as we slowly and silently glided down the mountainside for around 15 minutes, our feet sometimes almost grazing the treetops, sometimes suspended high above them and always, the awesome vista of the city way, way below! Our trip down the mountain cost us less than £3 each and must be one of the best bargains ever! Thank you Budapest - and eat your heart out London Eye!
At the bottom we had to jump out and run for it as our chairs swung round for the next ascent. On the road outside we picked up the bus back into the city centre, still a long way down. It terminated at Szel Kálman Tér, with a large and boring shopping complex. The surrounding streets where in turmoil as new pavements and tram tracks were being laid. We eventually found a bus that took us up to the citadel and we walked down from there to our flat. On the way we discovered a tiny local shop where we bought pasta, sardines, wine, peppers and tomatoes. With these we returned home and cooked our own supper so we could catch up on sorting photos and writing the blog. Whew! Up to date at last!
By the way, we have discovered that a lot of filming takes place in Budapest. So much so that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have bought a house up in the Buda Hills so they have somewhere for themselves and their extended family of adopted children to stay whenever they are here.
Tuesday 15th September 2015, Budapest
The weather for the last couple of days has been horribly hot and close and moving around has been a real effort. Yesterday Ian suggested we go to Heroes’ Square, built for the Hungarian millennium in 1896 and intended to honour Hungary’s illustrious leaders. At the centre stands a high column topped by a statue of the archangel Gabriel who, according to legend, appeared to King István offering him the crown of Hungary. Nowadays this huge open space is used more by roller bladers and cyclists than for ceremonial purposes and on a day like yesterday was little short of a furnace! It is used every year for the National Gallop, a military horseback display due to take place shortly as part of Hungary’s heritage weekend activities.
It turned out not to be one of our better ideas. The streets were hot, the sun scorching and the Square was at the far end of Andrássy ut, Budapest’s version of the Champs Elysées but without the crowds or shops. Walking several kilometres along a straight road in the glaring sunshine with only occasional patches of shade from the avenue of trees left us bad tempered and exhausted. Andrássy ut is lined along either side by large mansions in eclectic and neo-classical style. They are in various states of decay having been neglected during Soviet times and even now are only gradually being restored. Some are magnificent and used as embassies while others are shored up and in such a state of neglect and dilapidation that it is doubtful whether they can ever be rescued. Of particular note along Andrássy ut are the National Opera House and the House of Terror. This latter was the headquarters of the Gestapo and, after the war, was taken over by the Communists and used for much the same purpose. We didn’t feel inclined to visit it at the time.
Just beneath the surface of the long, straight road runs Budapest’s first underground, with platforms still wearing their original tiles with polished wood fitments and gleaming brasswork.
As we neared the square we found the road blocked to traffic and the strains of stirring music coming from Heroes’ Square. On arriving we found it packed with spectators whilst thousands of police cadets marched around the square on what we assume was the national passing out parade. Most of the spectators appeared to be the families of the young cadets in their police uniforms. They were all looking very hot and exhausted having been standing in the square all morning. Eventually they marched off, followed by the band. We’d already moved off by then. The sunshine and heat were too much for us.
So we have still not visited Heroes’ Square properly. Maybe for the National Gallop which we understand is quite spectacular, but even that won’t lure us back unless the weather turns cooler.
Ian then dragged me into the park in search of two statues, one of George Washington - a gift to the city from Hungarians in America, and another, known as Anonymous - an unknown chronicler at the court of King Bela who wrote the history of Hungary back in mediaeval times.
The park has wide open spaces with a lake and scattered trees but no seats. It also has a Romanesque chapel and a castle.
After having walked across the city however we were too weary to enjoy any of the attractions. We were in desperate need of somewhere to sit and a cold drink. Eventually we ended up amidst tatty stalls edging the park, near the zoo and the circus. Here in desperation we bought a horrid greasy sausage each and a bottle of chilled water. The bill was three times higher than it should have been but by the time we worked it out we felt too exhausted to go back and contest it. I couldn’t eat my sausage anyway, it was far too greasy with lumps of fat inside. We put it down to experience.
Nearby is one of Budapest’s attractive spas, the Széchenyi Baths (Count Széchenyi was Hungary’s 19th century enlightened social reformer and national hero. Countless squares, public buildings, bridges and libraries are named after him here.) Inside the pretty yellow and white baroque building we investigated the possibilities of using the spa. It looks to be very expensive and would appear to be for therapeutic treatments rather than an energetic swim so maybe I won’t be stripping off for a sauna, a mud bath, massage, toning and a facial! There is a pool for swimming but it looked very crowded and as treatments are included in the price it is not realistic to use it simply to swim.
Deciding we’d wasted enough of the day in the sunshine we took the metro back into the centre of town and found a cool cafe for a rest while Ian ate a sticky strawberry iced bomb and I checked our emails. We then set off in the hope of visiting the Synagogue which had been closed on or last visit. It was closed again today for the festival of Rosh Hosanna. In the grounds we could see the graceful weeping metal tree where each leaf bears the name of a Hungarian Jewish family destroyed by the Nazis.
After that we went home for cold showers and a sleep before meeting Sandra and Larry in the foyer of the Gresham Palace, perhaps Budapest’s most luxurious hotel.
They took us along the Pest bank of the Danube near to the Parliament building. Here there is a memorial of dozens of pairs of shoes lining the water’s edge, symbolising Jewish residents of the city shot there by the Arrow Cross Militiamen (Hungarian fascists) who then kicked their bodies into the river. With the lights of the beautiful city shining in the dusk it was a very sobering and thought provoking memorial.
Making our way to the Margit Bridge Larry led us to a delightful 19th century restaurant with bare boards, very high ceilings and an atmosphere of both charm and calm. With a chilled beer we could relax and select from the menu of authentic Hungarian cuisine. We selected crispy goose for the men and duck with orange for Sandra and me served with red cabbage, pureed potatoes and thick, red wine gravy. The men had to help us out with the duck. The meal was absolutely delicious and no more expensive than the unremarkable meal we ate on the Buda side of the river on Saturday night. Thank you Sandra and Larry for your friendship and hospitality. Enjoy your own travels in Malta and Sicily. It’s been so good to meet you again.