In 2009, I went to Prague (which I loved) and Vienna (which I...liked-ish), but this time I pushed even farther east to the other former capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire--Budapest.
|Parliament in Pest|
Budapest was actually 3 separate cities until 1873: Buda and Obuda on the right bank of the Danube, and Pest (said Pesht) on the left. In 1873, they were united to give us the capital city we know today as Budapest. These 3 names now simply designate three parts of the same city. Buda is hilly, residential and quieter (other than the tourists buzzing around Buda castle and the Matthias Church) than the more bustling, flatter, commercial and business area of Pest. Both areas can boast pretty, colorful, historical buildings and must-see sites, as well as excellent views of each other. Budapest definitely reminded me of Prague--Central/Eastern European cities, significant Jewish histories/sites, similar types of cuisine, crazy, impossible to decipher languages (that interestingly enough, are not at all related--could have fooled me!), lots of art nouveau architecture.... Though I found Budapest a bit less well-preserved and quaint, but with better food--Hungarian goulash soup and paprika chicken (well paprika everything really), cream cakes galore, their own thinner-pastried strudels, langos (mmm fried dough) etc etc...YUM. If pressed to choose (or recommend), I'd definitely say Prague (but hey, why not both?).
Two things I really liked about Budapest--the coffee shops (not the Amsterdam kind), and the money. Coffee is definitely an important part of Hungarian culture, as it is in most of Europe, and they have a lot cafes, many of which are establishments from the 19th century, with beautiful interiors and a "story" in their menus. Besides these though, Budapest had actual American-style coffee shops, and I'm not just talking about Starbucks. I even saw one place called "California Coffee." I realized this was something I missed about the US, as, other than Starbucks, the "coffeeshop" doesn't really exist in France. Sure there are a gazillion cafes, but it's just not the same thing. I was even able to get a chai latte at one of these coffeeshops! As for the money, though Hungary is part of the EU, they, like the Czech Republic, are not yet on the euro--though this is kind of a pro and a con. A pro, because the exchange rate is highly favorable--1 euro=270 Hungarian florints, but a con because new currency is always a little confusing, plus it means getting charged for the exchange. Unlike expensive Switzerland, where technically the exchange rate is also favorable, but everything is still super expensive, Budapest actually was a pretty cheap place. In the oldest cafe in Budapest, I was able to get a pot of tea and a fabulous pastry for about 4 euros. Score!
My first day in Budapest woke up on the wrong side of the bed, so to speak: I woke up to light snow (when promised mostly sunny), and a very unwelcome cold. Not a great way to start a trip. Well, after sleeping in for another half hour, I forced myself out of bed, swallowed a couple of day quill I had luckily brought just in case, bundled up, and walked along the Danube to the Parliament building to get tickets for the 10 o'clock English tour. After a tour of the gorgeous interior of the world's 3rd largest (and Europe's largest) Parliament, including Europe's oldest crown, the snow had stopped, blue sky was appearing, and the day quill was working its magic. I was ready to explore Budapest! And explore I did, until both my knees and ankles hurt.
After the Parliament, I headed back to the Danube to find what turned out to be my favorite thing in Budapest (besides the Parliament and the pastries): a WWII Holocaust memorial of copper shoes to remember Jews who were shot into the river near the end of the war when the Germans knew they were losing. The shoes represent the real shoes left behind along the bank. It reminded me of the exhibits in the DC Holocaust Museum and London Imperial War Museum which have piles and piles of shoes gathered from concentration camps, but even more moving because of the fact that they were "on location," and though made of copper, looked every bit as real as the shoes in the museums.
Then I continued my tour of Pest (the left bank), walking through different squares, snapping photos of statues, art nouveau buildings and churches. I took another tour (not by choice) in the Synagogue, the second largest in the world and largest in Europe. The tour guide reeled off her memorized schpiel in heavily accented English so that I probably only understood like 75% of what she said, as she went over "the history of the Jewish people" in like 15 minutes. Anyway, I did learn that Poland and Hungary lost the most Jews in WWII, Hungary losing 600,000 out of a population 1 million. Today, there are only 125,000 Jews in the country. The rest died, escaped, or were never given the chance to be born.
|Buda castle behind statue of "the Little Princess"|
|Great Market Hall|
Et voila! Next time, we return to France!