DAY 144: REFLECTIONS ON EASTERN EUROPE


A quiet day of reflection in Plovdiv 

After a restful night’s sleep we spent today doing as little as possible and relaxing. We intentionally kept a low profile and gave ourselves a day off as there’s a good chance we won’t be getting much sleep tonight on our overnight bus to Istanbul (our overnight bus leaves at 10:00pm and is scheduled to arrive in Istanbul at 6:00am tomorrow). Today was our last day in Eastern Europe* which we’re actually quite sad about. It’s been a pretty cool few weeks, from our first day in Bratislava (Slovakia), to our time in the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Romania and now Bulgaria. We were a little daunted at the prospect of travelling through parts of this region, but overall it’s been great – so much better than we expected. The whole region is so much more “civilised” than we expected (shows how ignorant we were!), and the language barrier was far less of an issue than we expected (i.e. heaps of people speak English and the local languages are not that hard to comes to grips with). We have experienced so many great moments in Eastern Europe that we wanted to dedicate today’s blog to our favourite highlights….

*We’ve lumped the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria into the “Eastern Europe” category more as a geographical categorisation than anything: they’re all East of the Europe we were most familiar with. We understand that these nations are, in fact, unique and quite different from each other and we certainly don’t mean to offend or upset anyone by calling them Eastern European countries. We had also psychologically put these 6 countries into one category as they were all equally unknown to us and coming here represented something of an adventure for us.


Reflecting on a great few weeks in Eastern Europe…

 

 

THE CASTLES

This region has its fair share of great castles – from the immense edifices in Krakow, Prague and Budapest; to the ruins of Rasnov Fortress in Romania, Tsarevetsi Fortress in Bulgaria and Brezalauspurc Castle in Slovakia. We love a good castle and Eastern Europe has definitely satisfied our craving for historical fortifications. The castles in this region are far older than those we saw in Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland and Austria, representing the very best in Gothic architecture. With every citadel and palace we explored we also learnt a bit more about the history of the region and gained an even greater appreciation of what makes Eastern Europe so unique. The past few weeks have been fantatsic for a couple of castle lovers like us!

 

THE CHURCHES

Neither of us are religious, but we appreciate how pivotal religion is to many cultures, and therefore how important churches are in many communities. Churches are built to facilitate contemplation, introspection and meditation/prayer, and even for ignostics like us, churches can be incredibly beautiful, serene places. Throughout Eastern Europe we have seen and experienced some wonderful churches: from the steepled wooden churches of the Maramures region in Romania, to the beautiful blue Church of St Elisabeth in Bratislava, Kutna Hora’s macabre Church of Bones and the amazing Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia. Gothic cathedrals abound in Eastern Europe too – with their dark ambience, pointy steeples and gargoyles, Gothic churches have a captivating feeling about them that we just love. Best Gothic churches from Eastern Europe would have to be St Vitus Cathedral and Church of Our Lady before Týn in Prague, Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, St Stephen’s Basilica in Pest, and Matthias Church in Buda.

 

THE FOOD

We love food – especially good food. For this reason alone, Eastern Europe has a special place in our hearts. The food here has been SPECTACULAR and sooooooo cheap. It’s a miracle we haven’t packed on an extra 10kgs a piece over the past few weeks! Our fondest food memories include:

  • Trdelník in Czechia – think giant, hot, sugary, cinnamon scrolls that you can wear like a delicious bracelet. Mmmmmm….
  • Dumplings in all their various forms – from the small potato-and-flour knodels (they’re a bit like Italian gnocchi or German spätzle), to giant bread dumplings that are more like culinary canon balls than a dumpling! These are an absolute staple here; I think Eastern Europe would grind to a halt should dumplings disappear off the menu!
  • Goulash in Hungary. It’s such a cliché, yes, but Hungarian goulash is awesome! Juicy, tender meat stewed in paprika-rich gravy, served with the obligatory dumplings – does “comfort food” get any better than this?!
  • Papanasi are traditional Romanian sweets. They’re like giant, deep fried doughnuts; gauranteed to bump your blood sugar levels and cholesterol up over night, but absolutely worth it.
  • Dimitri’s grandmother’s mixed lamb stew in Bulgaria. The woman is a genius.Nothing more needs to be said.
  • Shashlik (i.e. grilled meat on a sword) from Bulgaria. Salads from Bulgaria. Soft white cheeses in Bulgaria. Thick, creamy, fresh yoghurt in Bulgaria. Really, Bulgarian food in general was a highlight!

 

THE TRANSPORT

Getting around in Eastern Europe is an adventure all by itself. The roads are not that great, especially in rural Hungary and Romania, and most of the time people drive like they’re race car drivers. Some of our scariest moments on Eastern European roads have involved overtaking at 160km/hour with millimetres to spare; dodging donkeys, cows, horses and various other farm animals at break neck speeds; and choosing which side of the road to drive on arbitrarily. In contrast to the endemic speeding on the roads, the trains in this part of the world have been SOOOOOOO SLOW. The only thing slower than a Hungarian train, we decided, was a Romanian horse and cart. We expected to see horses and carts around, but the sheer number of them is amazing – they seriously out-number cars in rural Romania! We’ve seen 4-way intersections “clogged up” with horse and cart traffic, each giving way to their right like “real” cars. Awesome!

 

VILLAGE LIFE

If you like rustic, you’ll love Eastern Europe – especially Romania. Most of Romania is like one giant farm stay waiting to happen. The smells were a bit pungent at times, but the people so friendly and down-to-Earth that it was worth the olefactory assault. If you want to step back in time and experience a rural getaway, definitely look at Eastern Europe.

 

CAFE CULTURE

In contrast to the rustic rural side of life, we also loved the vibrant, funky cafe culture – especially in Budapest, Brasov, Krakow, Plovdiv and Prague. The coffee was good, the people-watching entertaining (who knew tracksuits could be so fashionable?!), and the vibe very cool. Eastern Europe sure knows how to do cafe culture well – much to our caffienated satisfaction.

 

STREET SIGHTS

The streets of Eastern Europe are unique: the cobbles, the mix of old and new architecture, the ubiquitous graffiti, and the slightly “rough around the edges” finishes. There’s nothing sanitised or pretentious here! On the darker side, the streets are also home to a legion of stray dogs (especially in Romania), stray cats (especially Bulgaria) and beggers. We realise that poverty and beggers are (unfortunately) common in cities around the world, and we generally subscribe to a philosophy of supporting charities that help people help themselves, rather than just giving money to beggers. In Bulgaria, however, this principle was sorely challenged as we saw lots of pensioners on the streets, struggling to survive and trying to supplement their meagre pensions by begging. Only it wasn’t quite begging; too proud to simply ask for money for nothing, these hardy souls find ways to provide a service or goods to sell for a few stotinki (i.e. Bulgarian cents). For example, in Sofia we saw an old lady with a set of bathroom scales beside her and a sign that (presumably) said something like “weigh yourself for 50 stotinki” (about 25 Aussie cents). And in Plovdiv there was the elderly gentlemen who had picked the last few wild flowers of the season and was selling possies for 50 stotinki. The simply dignity inherent in these acts was so incredibly touching.

 

NATURAL WONDERS

Some of our best memories of Eastern Europe will be the “wild” ones – from the unique rock formations of Teplice National Park, to the high mountain scenery around Bansko and the Tatra Mountains, there are some seriously spectacular views to be had in this part of the world. Being here in autumn has made it all the more stunning, as leaves turn yellow, orange and red and whole mountain-sides look like they’re on fire. For pure, unbridled wilderness, however, Romania once again wins the prize. The hills and mountains of Romania were just awesome (full of bears and wolves, mind you, but awesome)!

 

So to all the wonderful people we crossed paths with whilst in this part of the world: THANK YOU! Thank you for your patience as we butchered your beautiful languages; thank you for your glorious food and wonderful hospitality! To all the guides and museum curators we grilled: thank you for sharing so much of your passion for your home countries with us – through your eyes we learned to look at Eastern Europe in a different way. There’s no doubt this part of the world still has its issues, but there is a vitality and an energy here that’s thrilling – and the natural beauty of the place is captivating. It’s been a blast!

DAY 130: LEAVING HUNGARY, SEEKING ENTRY INTO RURAL ROMANIA


Travelling across the Great Hungarian Plains…

We crossed the Hungarian Nagyafold (translation = Great Plains) today on our way from Eger into Romania. Hungary’s vast flatlands are akin to the Aussie Outback in some ways; the Aussie Outback tends to be somewhat warmer and drier, but the overall effect visually is the same: a virtually treeless expanse extending in every direction as far as our eyes could see. The Hungarian Plains do hold a sort of romantic appeal, with the sky seeming larger than life and human habitation so sparse. 

 

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The Great Hungarian Plains.

 

 

Our day was long and quite tiring, with our journey from Hungary into Romania starting early this morning. First we caught a local bus from Eger to the Hungarian town of Debrecen, the biggest town on the Nagyafold. The bus ride itself was uneventful and not that scenic, but did give us an appreciation for how extensive the Hungarian Plains are. It was interesting to find out that the Nagyafold used to be forested and that it was only during the years of Turkish occupation that all the tress were cut down. With little vegetation to protect the precious top soil, winds soon blew away all the best soil worsening the state of affairs. It only took some 200 years for the regions (admittedly sparse) forest to turn into the arid plains they are today. Another example of how extensively human beings can change a landscape in a short period of time I guess.

 

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Human beings changed the face of Hungary’s Great Plains from forest to this.

 

 

We reached Debrecen around lunchtime and since we had to wait 3 hours for our connecting train to Santu Maru in Northern Romania, we got to see a bit of the town and have our last meal of Hungarian goulash (ahhh paprika how we will miss you!). Debrecen is today Hungary’s second largest city, with a population of around 200,000. It is also one of its major cultural and academic centres with a major university being based there. Unfortunately most of Debrecen was destroyed during WWII and only the cathedral and buildings around the central square were rebuilt. The town has an interesting history though; having been the biggest town on the Great Plains for over 800 years, Debrecen was the target of numerous attacks by various factions over the centuries. Some attacks were repelled, but most were not, so the town has had to pay fealty to many different lords over the years. At one point, in fact, Debrecen was paying tithes to the Hungarian King, the Ottoman Empire and the Haspburgs of Austria! One of the enduring effects of this colourful history is that the people of Debrecen are known to be especially tolerant of religious and ideological diversity.

 

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Exploring our last city in Hungary today: Debrecen.

 

 

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Debrecen’s central square is flanked by lovely buildings rebuilt or restored after WWII.

 

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This cool old building has been used as a hotel since the 1930s.

 

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Debrencen’s cool Cathedral is painted yellow as this was the colour all “official” buildings and churches were painted under the Haspburgs. In Hungary it is still referred to as “Maria Theresa Yellow”.

  

 

After exploring Debrecen’s central square and yellow cathedral we headed to the train station with our tour group. The train from Debrecen to Santu Maru took about 3 hours, allowing for time to stop at the border on both sides and have our passports stamped. Romania is not a part of the Schengen area (though they would like to be – their application has been denied twice due to rampant corruption and inadequate border security measures), so we actually had to have our passports stamped for the first time in about 3 months! It was a long but painless process with the only moment of anxiety being when the train started moving before the Romanian Immigration Officer had returned our passports to us (they take them off you and walk away with them, which is in itself a little nerve-wracking!). Luckily someone got the train conductor’s attention and we didn’t go too far, but for a moment there we weren’t sure whether to jump out of the train or just wave our most prized possessions goodbye…

 

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The border town on the Romanian side where the train almost left without our passports.

 

 

The change in the scenery once we had crossed the border into Romania was amazing. We knew Romania would be poorer than much of Central Europe and more rustic, but it was still surprising to see how much poorer the region is. In all honesty it was like we had crossed from Europe into Africa. In the space of a few kilometres dirt roads replaced tarmac and the number of horse-drawn carts on the roads out numbered the cars. 

 

Traditions and farming methods have not changed around here for centuries.

 

 

Maramures, Romania: where horse drawn carts out number cars.

 

Rustic Romania.

 

When we arrived in Santu Maru a small bus was there to pick our tour group up and drive us the last 3 hours to the tiny village of Vadu Izei. Vadu Izei is our home for the next couple of days; this rustic village is deep in the heart of Romania’s poorest and most tradition-bound region: Maramures. Maramures lies in a valley totally enclosed by the Carpathian Mountains, right at the border between Ukraine and Romania. This region is densely forested and isolated. This isolation has meant that many traditional practices, crafts, farming techniques and beliefs that were suppressed or superseded in other parts of Romania are still alive Maramures. Which is why we’re here: to see some of that traditional Romanian culture in action!

 

The state of the roads, homes and shops as we drove through Maramures today reminded us more of Africa than Europe.

 

Our home away from home for the next couple of days: the tiny village of Vadu Izei.

 

We can’t drink the water out here because it comes from wells and is untreated, they have intermittent issues with electricity supply, and yet we have internet! 

 

 

All up it took us 12 hours to get here and we are exhausted! Luckily the guesthouse we’re staying in here in Vadu Izei has warm showers and comfortable beds. The guesthouse is very cute – it’s right on the edge of the village with great views back over the surrounding hills. Not that we got to see much of the view (we got here just as it got dark)! We’re looking forward to seeing the region properly tomorrow though. We’re going on a tour around the region tomorrow in the same little bus that brought us here from Santu Maru so stay tuned for more stories from provincial Romania on the morrow…

 

The view from our guesthouse late this evening.

 

Settled in and keen to explore more of rural Romania tomorrow.

 

 

 

DAY129: KEEN & EGER IN HUNGARY


Exploring Eger…

We left the big city traffic and chaos of Budapest behind today and headed East, bound for one of Hungary’s prettiest best preserved Baroque town: Eger.

 

The beautiful town of Eger, Hungary.

 

 

Eger is a relatively small town (population about 55,000) in the Northern Uplands (Hungary’s version of highlands – there is no point in this country that stands above 1,000m so the Hungarians decided “uplands” was a more fitting term to describe the hills of this region). The town is about 150km from Budapest but a world away in terms of vibe. We’ve only been here a day and already we’re loving the more laid back feel of Eger compared to Budapest.

 

Hitching a ride on a Hungarian train from Budapest to Eger.

 

The picturesque town of Eger – worth the 3 hours trip from Budaspest!

 

 

It took us 3 hours to get here from Budapest this morning by train (it seems the Hungarian rail system is best described as punctual but very slow), with scenery gradually changing from urban sprawl to suburbia to farmland and villages. Many of the towns we passed were very rustic, to say the least. Certainly it was apparent that Hungary’s current economic hardships (the country was hit particularly hard by the recent GFC) are affecting some communities more than others.

 

The expansive Great Hungarian Plains, dotted with a few rustic villages.

 

The villages out here have electricity and running water, but just barely!

 

 

We arrived in Eger, checked in to our accommodation for the night (a great little guesthouse about 10 minutes walk from the centre of town), and headed out for our orientation walk around the town with our tour group*. Eger is pretty small so the orientation walk didn’t take long and we were soon on our way exploring the town’s historical centre on our own.

*We met our new tour group today; the group is made up entirely of Aussies, all very well travelled individuals who are here to see something different and a bit “off the beaten track”. It’s great for us as many of our fellow travellers have been to places we haven’t and we can pick their brains for ideas on where to go, when to go, etc!

 

Our home for the night: the Atrium Guesthouse, Eger.

 

Our room is up on the top floor of the guesthouse and we have great views over the surrounding countryside from our balcony.

 

 

We learnt today that Eger was settled by the Hungarians in the 9th century and its castle and cathedral were built not long after, in the 11th century. The remnants of Eger’s castle are still on the hill and we had a great time exploring the walls and its inner courtyards.

 

Right this way to Eger Castle…

 

Eger Castle was originally built in the 11th century but fell into disrepair during the years of Turkish occupation. It was partially rebuilt in the 19th century but many of the older parts of the castle are little more than ruins.

 

Hmmm…, oh yes, I can see your problem – there are birds nesting in your cannon!

 

We had a great time exploring Eger Castle!

 

 

Eger grew up around its castle and soon became an important trade and religious centre. Then, in the 12th centuries settlers came from the areas beyond the Rhine and established vineyards in the region – a tradition that continues to this day, with the region producing some of Hungary’s most famous rich red wines*. 

*Egri Bikavér (translation = Bull’s Blood of Eger) is the town’s most famous export. This full bodied red wine earned its name during the 16th century when the town was under siege by the Turks. When the Turkish soldiers saw the Hungarian soldiers, with their beards coloured red by the wine they had been quaffing, the story spread that the fierce Hungarians drank bull’s blood to fortify them before battle.     

 

The hills around Eger have been covered in grape vines for centuries. The region’s best known produce are rich red wines known as Bull’s Blood.

 

This sculpture just outside the castle commemorates the acts of the brave citizens and soldiers who defended Eger against invading Turkish force sin the 16th century.

 

 

The town reached the peak of its development in the 14th and 15th centuries, though the Turkish occupation of Hungary in the 16th century put a halt to the town’s prosperity. One of Eger’s most epic moments in history was when a small group of citizens and soldiers, under the leadership of István Dobó, defended the fortress against a horde of invading Turks. They held off the invaders for months, and though the city was eventually conquered by the Turkish forces, the brave actions of those soldiers and of István Dobó became the stuff of legend and a great source of pride for all Hungarians. There is even a statue in Eger’s central square to commemorate their success.

 

This statue of István Dobó sits in Eger’s main town square.

 

The cute cobbled streets of Eger.

 

 

During the years of Turkish occupation churches were converted into mosques, the castle rebuilt, and other structures erected, including public baths and minarets. Then, when Hungary was liberated, the Turkish-built structures were torn down and churches rebuilt – including the beautiful Eger Cathedral and the Baroque Church of St Anthony.  

 

The beautifully restored Eger Cathedral.

 

Eger Cathedral from the inside.

 

Eger’s Baroque Church of St Anthony (currently under renovation, hence the scaffolding).

 

The interior of Eger’s Baroque Church of St Anthony was especially beautiful, with its many frescos and marble detailing.

 

 

A single Turkish minaret, still visible today, was left standing. The minaret stands all by itself on the fringes of town, a rather odd testament to the town’s years under the Turks. 

 

After the Turks were defeated and Eger once again became a Christian town all the mosques were destroyed. This single minaret is all that remains of the Turkish architecture that was once here.

 

 

We had a great afternoon exploring the town and the castle over-looking it. This is a very picturesque town that is small enough to see entirely on foot. It’s such a pity we’re leaving tomorrow! That seems to be the compromise with seeing places as part of a tour: we get to see more of the smaller, out-of-the-way places we would not have been able to see on our own (which is awesome), but we have to do it at someone else’s pace (not so cool). For now the compromise seems with it though as we would have been a little nervous travelling through Romania and Bulgaria entirely on our own. We have one more day in Hungary though, with tomorrow’s stop being Debrecen – Hungary’s second-largest city and the “Capital of the Plains”.  Farewell ’til then blog fans!

 

Getting excited about moving on to Romania and Bulgaria next!

 

 

 

DAY 128: A PEDESTRIAN’S TOUR OF PEST


A walking tour of Buda’s twin city across the river

We spent today exploring Pest, along the Eastern bank of the Danube River. There has been a “lower city” in this location for over 2,000 years, with the Romans building Contra-Aquincum across the river from the fortified town of Aquincum in the 1st century. Built on the flat Danube river plains, Pest was home to the workers, merchants and craftspeople; whereas Buda was home to the upper classes and nobility. This side of the river is much newer and busier than Buda, and though it may not have the old world charm of Buda, Pest is still home to some pretty cool sights – including Hungary’s huge Parliament House, St Stephen’s Basilica and the world-famous Széchenyi Thermal Baths. From the Pest side of the Danube River we also got some fantastic views across to Buda castle and Matthias Church.

 

Views across the Danube from the Pest side of the city. You can see the Chain Bridge stretching across to the other bank and Buda Castle high upon the hill.

 

 

We started our explorations of Pest at Hősök Tere (translation = Heroes’ Square), one of the city’s most important public spaces. The square was built in 1896 to commemorate the millennial anniversary of the founding of the Hungarian Kingdom. The square is flanked by statues of the leaders of the 7 Magyar tribes that came across the plains to found Hungary. This huge square is where Hungarians come to celebrate their greatest victories and protest against the things that cause them the most angst. In fact there was a protest organised to happen in the square today, we were just lucky we got there early enough that they hadn’t closed it all off yet (we’re not quite sure what the protest was in aid of, but it certainly looked like it was going to be a big one).   

 

Budapest’s Heroes’ Square.

 

 

From Heroes’ Square we continued on through City Park to the famous Széchenyi Thermal Baths. It was still early enough in the morning that the park was quiet, with just a few people out walking their dogs. The baths were similarly quiet, with very few people out bathing in the naturally heated pools. The Széchenyi Thermal Baths were built in the early 20th century at the site of an existing natural thermal pool (there are over 80 such thermal hot springs in Budapest alone and many thousands across Hungary). The buildings that house the pools are just beautiful and more like a small palace than a swimming pool! The pools themselves are kept at temperatures around 37-38°C, though the water that springs form the ground is much hotter (about 77°C). Given the brisk autumn chill in the air we did not go for a swim in the pools (it’s not the bit where you get into the water that’s the problem, it’s when you go to get OUT that the cold becomes and issue!), but continued our pedestrian tour of Pest down Andrassy Avenue.

 

The beautiful Baroque architecture of the Széchenyi Thermal Baths.

 

 

Andrassy Avenue is the central boulevard through Pest that links Heroes’ Square with the river and the Chain Bridge. Originally laid out in 1872 the avenue is lined with beautiful old town houses that today house high-end brand-name stores and expensive restaurants. Being Sunday none of the shops were open but the stroll down Andrassy Ave was still very pleasant, especially given how sunny and warm it was today (it got up to 20°C today!). The street us named after Gyula Andrassy, Hungary’s famous 19th century Prime Minister who helped rebuild so much of Budapest under the auspices of the Austrian Empress Sisi. We were told that there is a commonly held belief amongst Hungarians that Andrassy had a long lasting romance with Sisi and fathered her eldest son, Rudolf. Who knows if the rumours are true or not…

 

Just one example of the lovely palazzos and townhouses lining Andrassy Avenue.

 

 

Along the way to the river we took a short detour to see Budapest’s Great Synagogue. This is the largest synagogue in Europe and was built on the edge of the Budapest Jewish Quarter in 1859. The building was rebuilt in 1998 after suffering extensive damage during WWII when Budapest’s sizeable Jewish community was persecuted by the Nazis. Hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were sent to Auschwitz, with many more killed right here in Budapest.

 

Budapest’s Great Synagogue can seat almost 3,000 people.

 

 

There is memorial built along the bank of the Danube here on the Pest side dedicated to those Jews who were killed in Budapest during WWII. The memorial consists of 40 pairs of shoes, moulded in bronze, sitting on the river bank. The shoes commemorates a specific incident that occurred in January 1945 when a small group of Jews found hiding in Budapest were taken to the riverbank, ordered to take off their shoes and shot. Their bodies were then dumped into the river. It’s such a simple memorial, made all the more effective for its simplicity.  

 

The Memorial to the Killed Jews in Budapest.

 
 

From the memorial we continued along the riverbank to the Hungarian Parliament House. This enormous, iconic building is arguably Budapest’s most recognisable landmark. With its multiple Gothic spires and huge dome, the Hungarian Parliament House is extraordinary. Unfortunately it is undergoing extensive renovations at the moment and it was hard to get a good look at the building in its entirety due to the scaffolding, fences, cranes and clouds of dust flying around. Still, what we DID see was pretty impressive! We’ll just have to come back in 2016 when the renovations are due to be finished to see it properly!

 

The incredible Gothic spires of the Hungarian Parliament House.

 

 

By this stage it was lunch time so we strolled back through some of Pest’s back streets and found a great little pizza place for lunch. Obviously pizza is not in and of itself very Hungarian, but with the amount of paprika they added to it, the pizza we had definitely had a Hungarian flavour to it! On our way to lunch we passed the Hungarian Academy of Sciences building. The majestic building still houses the headquarters of the nation’s central scientific research agency.

 

The Hungarian Academy of Sciences building still houses the headquarters of the nation’s central scientific research agency.

 

 
After lunch we went to see St Stephen’s Cathedral. This is the church we saw (briefly) on our orientation walk around Budapest our first day here with our tour group. Built in the 19th century the cathedral is named after St Stephen, Hungary’s first Christian king. It is a beautiful church, lined with marble inside and illuminated by light filtered by its many stained glass windows. St Stephen’s is exactly the same height as the Hungarian Parliament House building; reportedly this was done intentionally as a way of demonstrating that worldly and spiritual matters are of equal import.

 

The beautiful St Stephen’s Cathedral.

 

The interior of St Stephen’s is lined in marble.

 

With light filtering in through the stained glass windows, the whole church was beautifully illuminated.

 

From St Stephen’s we continued on through the streets of Pest, marvelling again at the juxtaposition between the beautifully renovated buildings, the dirty unrenovated ones, and the abandoned, graffiti-covered buildings. There are signs of renovation and public works everywhere in Pest too, which just adds to the uniqueness of the cityscape. Budapest has certainly been interesting – it’s big, it’s busy, it’s dirty, but it’s also beautiful and grand and stylish. There’s a lot of energy here and signs of progression; it would be interesting to come back to Budapest in 5 or 10 years to see what the city has become; to see what effect all the renewal and renovation has on the cityscape. For now though we have to say farewell to Budapest as tomorrow morning we meet our new tour group and continue our journey into regional Hungary. Viszlát until tomorrow blog fans!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DAY 127: BEAUTIFUL BUDA!


The hilly side of town

Buda is the older part of Budapest; it’s on the Western side of the Danube and is quite hilly (Pest, by comparison, is newer, flatter and on the Eastern bank of the Danube). Buda is also where we spent our day sightseeing.

 

Views over the River Danube and Pest from Buda Hill.

 

 

Budapest is an ancient city, originally a Celtic settlement and then a Roman citadel. Along with most of Central Europe, the town was conquered by the fierce, horse-riding Magyars (i.e. Hungarians*) in the 9th century and became the capital of the newly established Hungarian Empire not long after. The Hungarian Empire was a European super-power in its time, beating back Mongol raiders and conquering many territories. Consequently Buda, the imperial capital, became very wealthy and powerful; from the 10th to the 16th century Buda was one of the largest and greatest cities in Europe.

*Given how unique the Hungarian language and culture is, we have often wondered where the language and the people of Hungary had originally come from. At the National Museum of Hungary, we found out today that Hungarians are descendants of the Finno-Ugric people – a tribe from the Northern reaches of the Ural Mountains. This tribe is believed to have travelled across Central Europe and conquered the Carpathian Basin more than 1,000 years ago. They also settled in Southern Finland – which is why the language that is closest to Hungarian is Finnish, despite the thousands of kilometres that separate the two nations. The truly fascinating thing is that, despite numerous invasions and influences from surrounding Slavic and Germanic nations, Hungarians have managed to keep their very unique language and culture alive for hundreds of years.

 

Buda & Pest were rich and powerful twin medieval cities.

 

These are the ruins of the Roman fortification of Aquincum that was built here. Aquincum became the capital city of the province of Lower Pannonia in 106AD.

 

Admiring the views of the city from Buda Hill.

 

 

Then, in 1541, the Ottoman army invaded and occupied Buda and it’s smaller twin city across the river, Pest. For the next 145 years the region was under Ottoman rule; during this time many of the old Gothic and Romanesque churches and buildings were destroyed and replaced with mosques and structures of Turkish design. When the Holy Roman Empire, under the banner of the Hasburgs of Austria, finally liberated Hungary in 1686, the entire process of destruction and rebuilding was repeated. Mosques were torn down and churches rebuilt, and Neo-Classical palaces built on top of Turkish buildings. As a consequence Budapest’s cityscape is actually quite uniform and “modern”, which we did not expect.

 

Following 145 years of Turkish occupation, Buda and Pest were liberated by the Haspburg’s army and the cities were rebuilt in a style similar to that seen in Vienna.

 

Buda Palace was rebuilt in the 19th century after being left to go to ruin during the years of Turkish rule.

 

The entry to Buda Castle is like something from a fairytale.

 

 

The city, and in fact the whole of Hungary, entered a new age of prosperity in the 18th and 19th centuries when it joined the Austrian Empire. During this time Budapest became the second capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a centre of learning, culture and the arts renown across Europe. It was also during this time that the Austrian Empress Elisabeth (SiSi) became a favourite amongst Hungarians as she spent so much time in Budapest and championed the cause of the Hungarian Kingdom with her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph. It was SiSi who commissioned the rebuilding and restoration of much of Buda Palace. In 1849 Buda and Pest were united into one city and linked by the Chain Bridge, Budapest’s oldest cross-Danube structure.

 

It was Austrian Empress Haspburg (aka SiSi) who commissioned the rebuilding of Buda palace in the 19th century.

 

Admiring the views from Buda Castle. Not bad really….

 

We could see all the way across to Hungary’s famous Parliament House from up there.

 

 

We spent hours strolling through the grounds of Buda Palace today, enjoying the views over the Danube and learning all we could about this great city and Hungary in general at the museum which is now housed in one of the wings of the palace.

 

Statue of St Stephen, Hungary’s First Christian king. After a century marked by frequent raids on Christian western Europe, Prince István realised that converting to Christianity was the key to survival in Europe. The Christian Kingdom of Hungary was founded by the crowning of István (St Stephan) on the 1st January 1001.

 

Buda Castle now houses the National Hungarian Museum and the Hungarian Art Gallery. 

 

 

We also visited Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church, which are both up atop Buda Hill. The Halászbástya, or Fisherman’s Bastion, is a terrace in 1895 to allow the nobility of the time to sit and admire views of the Danube and Pest. Today it serves the same purpose, just for hordes of tourists instead. The Bastion takes its name from the guild of fishermen that was responsible for defending this stretch of the city walls in the Middle Ages. 

 

Fisherman’s Bastion was built as a viewing terrace more than 100 years ago. It was destroyed during WWII but rebuilt in the 1990s.

 

Epic views from Fisherman’s Bastion.

 

Taking 5 minutes to relax between photo shoots….

 

 

Just behind Fisherman’s Bastion is one of Budapest’s main cathedrals (there are 2: one in Buda and one in Pest): Matthias Church. Originally built in the 10th century and then rebuilt in the 14th century, the church is beautiful. It’s decorated roof, stained glass windows and hand-painted interior were just stunning.  

 

The beautiful 14th century Matthias Church.

 

The cathedral’s hand painted Gothic interior was awesome.

 

The cathedral’s roof was tiled in many colours, creating this lovely pattern.

 

 

After hours of exploring Buda Castle and strolling the streets of Buda itself we went back across the Danube via the famous Chain Bridge in search of some dinner. Hungary is, of course, famous for its lavish use of paprika and for its wonderful stews. Put paprika (and few other spices) into a hearty, meaty stew and you get this nation’s culinary signature dish: gulyás (translation = goulash). Yum yum yum! Bellies and brains full we must now retire for the night and prepare ourselves for tomorrow’s explorations across the river in Pest!

 

Crossing Budapest’s famous Chain Bridge.

 

View back up to Buda Castle from the bridge.

 

Looking forward to exploring Pest tomorrow!

 

DAY 126: ÜDVOZOLIJÜK A BUDAPEST!


Ready for our Hungarian adventure

We’re in Budapest! Capital of the ancient and mighty Hungarian empire and once one of Europe’s greatest cultural capitals, Budapest is today a bustling metropolis of more than 3 million people. The two halves of the city, Buda and Pest, straddle the Danube as they have done for more than a 1,000 years. We’re staying in Pest for the next few days and are very excited about spending some time in this fantastic city!

 

Welcome to Budapest, Hungary!

 

We left our Slovakian mountain retreat early this morning in a private minibus that took us across Slovakia and into Hungary. The drive took about 6 hours, with a stop in the middle for lunch. The scenery was very pretty, especially with the Slovakian hills painted yellow, orange and red in honour of autumn. And the restaurant where we stopped for lunch was great – very rustic and authentically Slovakian (i.e. the waiters and waitresses wore traditional Slovakian garb, the food was all about meat, dumplings, potatoes and cabbage, and there were deer antlers and stuffed animals mounted on the walls).

 

We left the Tatra Mountains behind….

 

…and drove all across Slovakia on our way to Hungary.

 

The Slovakian forest was very pretty, all green, gold, orange and red for autumn.

 

We stopped at this rather rustic restaurant for lunch on our way through Slovakia.

 

Pretty much everything that was stuffed and mounted on the walls was also on the menu!

 

 

By the time we arrived in Budapest and checked into our hotel, it was late afternoon so we didn’t get a chance to see much of the city. We did get time to do a brief orientation walk* with our tour group, however, which was great. Along the way we got to see the Budapest Opera House, St Stephen’s Basilica, the beautiful buildings of the Hungarian Royal Academy of Sciences, and Budapest’s famous Chain Bridge which spans the Danube and links Buda to Pest.

*Our tour leader has taken us on a short 2 hour orientation walk in every city we’ve been to, which has been great. These short 2 hours walks are perfect for giving us an idea of where our hotel is in relation to all the major sights, where the best coffee shops and restaurants are, and how to find important stuff like supermarkets, laundries, pharmacies, and a “safe” ATM (i.e. one unlikely to be watched and/or have a card skimmer hooked up to it). All very useful stuff when you’re new to a city and don’t speak the language.

 

Crossing into the Hungary – our first view of the famous “Great Hungarian Plains”!

 

The Budapest Opera House is modelled on the one in Vienna.

 

The majestic St Stephen’s Basilica on the Pest side of the river.

 

 

So far it seems like a wonderful city, with lots of sights to explore and history to enjoy. There’s definitely an air of faded grandeur about the place though, with many of the beautiful 19th century buildings looking somewhat worse for wear. There are signs of some renovation works going on here and there, but generally the city looks like it needs some serious TLC (i.e. tender loving care) to help restore it to its former glory. The city reminds us of Vienna, just dirtier and rougher around the edges. Given that so much of Budapest was rebuilt by the Haspburgs (of Austria) after Hungary was liberated from Ottoman rule, it makes sense that the city would resemble Vienna; Vienna has just been better maintained I guess. Not that the city feels overly scary or unsafe (this is not Moscow after all!), it’s just a little neglected. There are still pockets, here and there, of splendour and beauty though, as we discovered on our walk around Pest these evening with the group.

 

The faded grandeur of Budapest – this 19th century palazzo, for example, was due to be renovated 3 years ago but all works stopped due to lack of funds.

 

And yet, just a few hundred metres down the road, this beautifully restored building stands proudly along the banks of the Danube. The mixture of buildings rebuilt and buildings left in disrepair makes for an eclectic cityscape. 

 

After our orientation walk we all went out to dinner together as this part of the tour finished today and this was our last evening together as a group. Most of our tour group is finishing here, having done the Vienna to Budapest leg of the tour; the next leg of our tour (from Budapest to Istanbul – see map below) starts on Monday morning and we can only hope the people that join us for the second half of the trip are as easy company as our first tour group has been! It’s actually been quite interesting doing this 2 weeks trip through Central Europe with Intrepid – we’ve enjoyed it more than we thought we would. Generally we’re not really “tour” people as we prefer to do things on our own as much as possible, but it’s been good having a tour guide that spoke the language through Czechia, Poland and Slovakia as neither of us have any idea about any of the Slavic languages! And the Intrepid style of touring seems to suit us as you get heaps of free time to do your own thing with just enough hand-holding to make us feel comfortable in each new place. The tour was also great in that it took us to some very small, out-of-the-way places that we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to see due to their remoteness. We were also really fortunate that the group of people we shared the 2 weeks with were such great company!

 

The next leg of our adventure.

 

Keen to get exploring in Budapest…

 

So we now have a couple of days on our own here in Budapest to explore the city, with our plan being: spend tomorrow exploring the hills of Buda, on the Western side of the river; and then Sunday exploring the much flatter streets of Pest, on this Eastern side of the river. We’ll let you know how the plan worked out tomorrow! Istenhozzad until tomorrow evening…