EUROPE 2011: Danube Bend, Hungary

Szentendre on the DanubeDuring our 1994 trip to Europe, we had reserved a day cruise down the Danube River from Vienna to Budapest, but due to a misunderstanding with the hotel concierge, the trip never occurred. Ever since, I had had Budapest and a Danube River cruise on my wish list. Now that I had seen Budapest, I was looking forward to today’s river voyage, despite the grey, chilly, misty morning. And according to the weather report, no improvement was in sight.

Esztergom Basilica, Hungary on this side and Slovakia across the Danube Bend We met our tour guide at the Intercontinental Hotel, next door to the Sofitel, and were immediately informed that the river cruise had been canceled. Evidently, the water level on the river was too low. Instead, we boarded a bus for a full-day excursion of the Danube Bend.

Esztergom Basilica Our first destination was the artist city of Szentendre, home to Caprice International, a diamond exchange factory that opened about fourteen years ago. We watched a film on jewelry design and viewed an exhibition of Hungarian jewelry, giving us an insight into the history of Hungary’s one-thousand-year-long culture of jewelry making. Next, we visited the showroom where thousands of jewels were on display; diamonds as well as other precious stones, and most offered for sale at special manufacturer’s prices.

Crypt in the Esztergom Basilica on the DanubeOur next stop was Esztergom, the former capital of Hungary from the tenth until the middle of the thirteenth century. Esztergom is the seat of the Hungarian Catholic Church and home to the Basilica of Esztergom, a masterpiece of classicism, and the third largest church in Europe. The cathedral sits on the right bank of the Danube, which forms the border with Slovakia.

Spires of Esztergom Basilica on the Danube The grey, neoclassical basilica is colossal in size and has a central dome that is over two-hundred-and-thirty-feet high. Construction began in 1822 on the site of its destroyed counterpart, another casualty of the Turks. Such destruction is also evident in the smashed faces of the statue Gabriel, and the missing heads on the angels above the altar in the Bakócz Chapel.

The red-and-white marble Bakócz Chapel is a splendid example of Italian Renaissance stone carving and sculpture. The copy of Titian’s Assumption over the church’s main altar is said to be the world’s largest painting on a single canvas. But I was more interested in seeing the crypt, a series of tombs guarded by monoliths representing mourning and eternity. From the depths of the cellar, we climbed to the cupola for the outstanding views of the city: a four-hundred-step hike.

Vadaszcsarda RestaurantBy the time we completed our tour of the basilica and the neighboring grounds, the noon hour was near so we boarded the bus for lunch at Vadaszcsarda Restaurant. On the drive, I spotted what looked like castle ruins on a hill. Intrigued, I asked our guide about them. She seemed quite disinterested in the castle and said she would give me a brief history after lunch. As far as I was concerned, I would have traded our time at Caprice International for the opportunity to explore the ruins. Our restaurant, I discovered, sat on a rise, affording an ideal vantage point for snapping photos of the castle, but this was the extent of my exploration—through a zoom lens.

According to our guide, the castle ruins were actually the ruins of a military camp built on Sibrik Hill, which overlooks the Danube, in the town of Visegrád. The camp had a triangular ground plan and was built in the first half of the fourth century as one of the important fortifications along the limes: a border defense system of Ancient Rome. In the early fifth century, the Roman army abandoned the military camp. She also informed me that there is an upper castle, lower castle, and a royal palace, but I had to Google “Visegrád Castle” for the history, as the time had come to depart for the artist town of Szentendre, our final destination of the day.

Visegrad castle ruins by the DanubeNo sooner had we entered the riverside town and parked, it began to drizzle. In minutes, the drizzle turned to rain, sheeting down steady and fast. Those of us intent on shopping ran down the cobblestoned streets and dashed from store to store. My plans to stroll this charming town with its Mediterranean atmosphere never happened, as the rain showed no signs of easing. Disappointed, we camped out in the Dorothea Bistro Café for the two-hour duration and became better acquainted with Brad and Kat, a Canadian couple who were our bus companions.

I had read that after the Turks left Szentendre, mostly Serbian refugees had settled here, followed by Hungarians, Slovaks, Germans, Greeks, and Romanians; each ethnic group establishing its own section of the town, thereby creating a versatile townscape. After scrolling through pictures of Szentendre on the Internet, and seeing the well-maintained merchant houses that encircled the main square, I had hoped to photograph a good portion of the town, in addition to some impressive riverscapes, but it was not to be.

Precisely two hours later, our guide ushered everyone toward the bus and we piled on, all of us damp to dripping wet, for the drive back to Budapest. At our hotel, we changed into dry clothes and braved the pouring rain for dinner at an Italian restaurant located near the Sofitel. We retired early, for tomorrow we had a long train trip from Budapest to Prague, in the Czech Republic.

Next week: “Europe 2011:,Prague, Czech Republic.”

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