City trip Budapest
Statue hopping in Buda and Pest
On a trip to Budapest, it's time to revisit some old favorites and undertake an exploration of the city's many statues. City Park and the Széchenyi thermal baths are visited in Pest, the city centre, and across the Danube, in Buda, the Castle Hill which has its share of statues, Gellért Hill with the Citadella and back to Pest to visit the large market.
Travelogue & photos: Michelle Spaul
From utilitarian to Austro-Hungarian
I love arriving in Budapest: the drive from the airport to the city centre takes in outlying areas that are evocatively Eastern European. Utilitarian buildings and factories stand out from the scrub and gradually the empty spaces are filled with concrete cubes housing local businesses. Even with no ability to speak Hungarian it is clear that you can buy anything and find any service along the suburban highways.
Quite suddenly the buildings change and Austro-Hungarian buildings with their Empire style dominate. At first they are run down, facades and stucco fall from the walls, but as you move into the city centre - Pest - they are tended with care; angels and gods support doorframes and balconies, windows are ornate, doors are painted.
I was staying in an apartment off Lizst Tér, just by 'Oktogon', this gives easy access to the number 4 and 6 trams and the yellow or number 2 metro. For dinner on my first evening I wandered around the corner to a Scottish bar where I enjoyed a bowl of broth and a couple of pints of very good IPA. I was also adopted by an ex-pat group who meet in the bar once a month.
As this was my fourth trip to Budapest and I was travelling alone to attend a friend's wedding, I had no plans and no obligations - other than to get to the wedding celebration in the nearby town of Szentendre.
I decided to visit several sights that I had passed through quickly on previous visits.
The City Park
Exploration and relaxation
I decided to explore the city park, visiting each of the tourist sights. One evening I met friends at the ice rink after looking around Heroes' Square admiring the statues of Hungarian kings, saints and famous characters and taking a moment at the tomb of the unknown soldier.
The two art museums flanking the square are gracious examples of public buildings and join with the square to form an interesting public space. Immediately behind the Museum of Art the permanent buildings of the ice rink look over the temporary rink made in the basin of a drained pond. On the other side of the rink, the Vajdahunyad Castle looks down over the skaters.
Going back in the daylight with the ulterior motive of spending a good few hours in the Széchenyi thermal baths, I walked around the park starting with the zoo. It looks like zoos should look; elephants hold up the ornate archway which is protected by an army of polar bears. Ancient looking monkeys spy on the unsuspecting visitor and guard the Art Nouveau architecture.
The park has a large pond in its southern part, in the winter the pond is drained and one end used to create the ice rink. Across from the zoo the other end of the pond is damned and still full, attracting hundreds of birds. The pond is warmed by the thermal waters in the area and is steaming.
The birds occasionally splash themselves and look very much like any bathers taking advantage of the thermal springs to be found throughout Budapest.
Seeing the birds enjoying the water spurred me onto the Széchenyi thermal baths. These are my favourite baths; there are numerous indoor pools each at a different temperature, a steam room and sauna, plunge pools, a pool for exercise classes and even a pool with pea green water.
But the joy of Széchenyi on a cold winter's day is the outdoor complex of three pools. The large middle pool is for swimmers and is rather cold, swimming across it is one of the ways to get between the two outer pools with their fountains and underwater jets, and the further of these pools has a large spa bath with a moat.
The water is forced around the moat, more relaxed swimmers can let themselves be pushed around and those seeking a challenge can swim against the current.
It is possible to get massages and other treatments in the baths and the prices are very reasonable.
So many building styles
On the way back to the metro I popped into the Vajdahunyad Castle and enjoyed its eclectic mix of buildings fashioned on the Romanesque, the Gothic, the Transitional, Renaissance and Baroque styles. The castle is so astounding that taking photos of the other photographers was part of the pleasure of being there.
Of course the castle has its share of statues; most splendid is Anonymus, the first medieval Hungarian writer of chronicles. This statue is understandable very popular...
Having been taken around the city several times I realised I needed to put it all together in my head and bought a guide book in English and written in a wonderfully passionate and self depreciatory fashion by a Hungarian author and ex-State Secretary for culture.
Most walks in the book start in a simple square, always a place for socialising. The Vörösmarty Tér is named for the poet whose statue stands in its centre and is flanked by a department store and the Café Gerbeaud.
As it is winter and approaching Christmas the square is given over to a traditional Hungarian Christmas market and the statue is protected in a large bubble of plastic as the soft stone would soon crack and crumble in the frosty air.
It is worth walking through the café, if not stopping for a coffee and some Viennese confectionary - or even better the Hungarian specialities.
From Vörösmarty Tér it is an easy walk to Roosevelt Tér with its historic and modern hotels.
Crossing the Danube
By now it is clear that statue spotting is a simple and enjoyable pastime; the statesman Ferenc Deak graces the otherwise bleak Hotel Sofitel. From Roosevelt Tér it is hop, step and jump to the Széchenyi Chain Bridge. The bridge was built to ensure that travel was possible between Pest and Buda during the winter months.
The pontoon bridge of spring, summer and autumn could not withstand winter ice and the river was not always sufficiently frozen to carry travellers, with the effect that many were stranded on the wrong side of the river and had to wait until the weather would let them cross.
Beautiful and important as it is, despite what you may read elsewhere, the Széchenyi Chain Bridge is not the oldest bridge over the Danube, this honour is afforded to the Steinerne Brücke in Regensburg, Germany.
Crossing the chain bridge allows a view of the very wide bend that is the home of Budapest. On a clear day four other bridges can be seen (though one is behind us), each with their own character and history.
And once on the other side the scale of the royal palace and castle area becomes clear. I walked up the tree-lined hill side, and paused over the funicular railway to take a couple of pictures.
The Castle District
A magical kingdom
I entered the castle district through an ornate gate and gazed up at the statue of the Turul bird, which is said to have fathered the father of Árpád, the first king of the Magyar and helped the Magyar find the lands that are now Hungary.
The castle district is magical, I loved wandering around and looking at the buildings. This tiny area of land - only 1.5 kilometres in length - has been invaded 31 times in its history, starting with the invasion of Buda by the Mongols.
The result of the final invasion - when Russia liberated the city in 1945 - is that many older buildings were exposed. There now is a blend of buildings from many ages in many styles.
There is so much to see up here that I spent the day just wandering, I saw the flying nun and the gothic statue of Kapistran, a friar who fought in the liberation of Buda from the Turks, the grave of the last Turkish commander with its moving epitaph "He was a heroic enemy. Let him rest in peace".
I also saw the Magdalene tower - the only remains of a church that was the sole house of worship to Christians during Turkish rule and the only part of the same church to be restored after the Second World War, a stone window, the national archives and the Vienna gate. I did not visit the catacombs on this trip.
But the most notable buildings in the Castle district - other than the Castle - are the Fisherman's bastion and the Mattias Church.
The bastion is relatively modern, being completed in 1905, yet it has the look and feel of a medieval castle. The whole edifice is an ornately decorated lookout point with glorious views up and down the river and across to Pest.
Of course no part of Budapest is complete without statues, here a very regal statue of Saint Stephen (István in Hungarian), the first king of Hungary, looks towards the Mattias Church.
The real name of the Mattias church is the Church of the Blessed Virgin in Buda, its common name comes the popular king (Mátyás in Hungarian) who held both his marriages in the Church.
Mattias is felt by many to have brought in a golden age for Hungary, creating an empire, expanding Hungary's sphere of influence and implementing internal reform.
Unfortunately the empire collapsed soon after his death and the door was opened for the Ottoman Empire. His church was restored in the 19th century and some feel the restoration was inappropriate, however, when I see the tiled spires I smile as this proud building sums up so much about Budapest for me.
Immediately outside the church is the Holy Trinity Column, built to ward off the Black Death.
The Royal Palace was rebuilt after the Second World War with a new Baroque façade. It houses a gallery, museum and the National Library. I was too late to get into any of these institutions and spent my journey back to the Elizabeth Bridge looking at the statues and admiring the view of Gellért Hill.
The pinnacle of Budapest
I made two trips to the Citadella, which perches at the top of Gellért hill, the first was on a clear day when the views of the river and Pest were my reward. On the second day, when I had time to wander, clouds had dropped over the city and the same panoramic views had become 'Fog on the Danube'.
My route to the Citadella started at the Liberty Bridge or Szabadság Híd. This splendidly ornate bridge was under wraps for repair work, but standing close by on the Buda side are the Gellért hotel and baths, these baths are very nice and popular with tourists, though the outdoor section is visible to the public and, I feel, is a little utilitarian.
Climbing the hill behind the hotel I quickly encountered one of the wealthiest suburbs of Buda, with numerous villas of many ages built into the hill.
The old Swedish embassy is pretty gothic in style. It was the home of Carl-Ivan Danielson, Raoul Wallenberg and Per Anger, Swedish diplomats who went to Budapest during the Second World War expressly to save the lives of thousands of Jews by giving them Swedish passports.
Their heroic act is commemorated with a simple plaque in both Swedish and Hungarian.
Leaving the villa area and heading toward the Citadella, means leaving the suburbs and entering a park. One of the first things that caught my eye were some plastic bottles hanging in the trees, initially these looked like litter, but a little close examination showed them to be bird feeders.
Surrounding the Citadella, the Gellért hill is a park with many paths and lots of trees. The hill used to be the vineyards of Buda and is home to six thousand protected trees, including fig trees said to be planted by the Turks. In this park there are more statues. My favourites are the bust of Deszö Szabó, a poet, and a statue of a girl with a horse.
Walking up to the Citadella the Liberty Statue, with her palm branch, is a stirring sight. This monument was originally erected by the people of Budapest to celebrate the liberation of the city from the Fascists. As she had become the symbol of the city, she was not removed with other Soviet-era statues, though the plaque was rewritten. The other Soviet statues have been removed over time (some have been taken to Statue Park) and replaced with statues representing 'progress' and 'the fight against evil'.
The Citadella has had many uses since it was first built after the 1848-1849 Revolution. It has a bloody history, as demonstrated in the many rooms and displays inside. I have been in the Citadella before and decided to just walk around it this time.
I walked back the way I came, stopping at the Grotto church and admiring another statue of István.
One can take Hungarian cooking lesons here
I walked back across the Liberty Bridge and visited the market. The lower floor of the market is filled with fresh local foods, good wine and spices.
The upper floor has souvenirs and many eateries. Every type of Hungarian food and alcohol can be bought here; it is also possible to take Hungarian cooking lessons!
Walking back to my apartment I took a few back streets. In addition to seeing the market from a different angle, I saw a building that is still pockmarked from gunfire and a grating that was the same as the stamps I collected as a child.
No visit to Budapest is complete without a visit to the Danube. It is possible to take a boat along the river, but I decided to walk from the Margit Híd to the Chain Bridge on the Pest side.
The Margrit Híd is made of stone and centred on the Margaret Island with its 'beaches', hotels and medieval ruins.
The main sights along this short walk were the river facing parts of Buda and the Parliament.
However, the river walk isn't without its share of statues. Here István Bibo (lawyer and Minister of State during the Hungarian Uprising) can be found near a moving memorial to people killed by the Nazis.
In the evening in Budapest it is possible to eat, drink and be merry in a safe and pleasant environment. I dread the arrival of British stag and hen parties...for a cultural evening the Opera is low in cost and high in reputation. I was lucky to be given a ticket for an evening performance about the French revolution, sung in Italian and subtitled in Hungarian. I also took several photos of the opera house which is amazing.