Tag Archives: Budapest

EUROPE 2011: Prague, Czech Republic

Biosphere area near Brno and the Austrian border by train

Overnight, the weather had turned colder and rainier. We packed, checked out, and waited inside the hotel lobby for our cab ride to the Western Railway Station. There, we planned to catch the express train from Budapest to Prague, about a six-hour trip. On the railway platform, Dave kept asking me not to lag behind.

Western Railway Train Station BudapestI was quite taken by the architecture of the building. Not modern by any means, but the unique design reminded me of something, but I couldn’t think what. Later, after some research, I found my answer.

McDonalds at Budapest train station The Western Railway Station was designed by August de Serres and built by the Eiffel Company of Paris. The construction took three years to complete, and the iron building was cast in Paris. The station opened in 1877, twelve years before the Eiffel Company built the famous Eiffel Tower. To date, the train station has retained its original style. Over the years most of the old iron structure has been recast and replaced. Yes, the building houses a McDonald’s, but as many have said—and I agree—it is the most beautiful McDonald’s in the world.

Inside Budapest Hungary Train Station Slightly lost as to which train to board, we were scoping out the station when a man hurried toward us saying, “Prague?” He yanked my roller bag out of my hand and took off. I scurried after him. He climbed the steps to a nearby train and demanded my ticket. I showed it to him but held on tight to it. He ushered us toward a compartment, hoisted my bag, along with Dave’s, into the overhead rack, and stuck out his hand. Dave gave him the equivalent of a six-dollar US tip in forints. The man looked at the money, looked at Dave, and back to the money, all the while shaking his head. Then he said, “Euros.” Dave dug into his pocket, took out the equivalent of an additional four dollars US, and said, “That’s it. No more.” Grumbling, the man walked away with his ten-dollar tip.

We had booked a semiprivate compartment, which meant we shared it with one other couple. We had just settled into our assigned window seats when the other party arrived, led by the same man, and he followed the same routine. He pocketed his forints and euros, and left grumbling. “I’ve never heard anyone in New York complain about a ten-dollar tip for two small bags,” said the man to his female companion as they made themselves comfortable in the seats next to us.

Villa Tugendhat in BrnoSome friends who had taken the same train trip the year before said the scenery offered nothing noteworthy, so pack a good book. I planned to spend the time writing my next book. However, I had read Brno was the most scenic part of the trip, and after scrolling through images on the Internet, I realized this town would have been an interesting place to visit for its scenery—and its architecture. From the moment I first saw a photo of German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat, an icon of modernism, I found it hard to pass Brno by. But I had no option; it all came down to time.

As the train left the station, we struck up a conversation with our compartment companions, Kath and Tom, two attorneys from Albany, New York. They were drawing to a close on a nine-week backpacking trip through Europe and “parts beyond,” as Tom put it. Between chatting, writing, and a short break to eat a ham and cheese sandwich, the ride moved along quickly. As we neared Brno and the Austrian border, we left our compartment and headed to the opposite side of the train to photograph the beautiful farmland. Someone mentioned we were passing through a biosphere area.

Prague Alchymist hotel Six hours later, we pulled into the Prague train station and wished Kath and Tom goodbye, then walked the two blocks to the taxi stand, where we caught a ride to the Alchymist Grand Hotel. As we neared our accommodations, an officer at a police checkpoint stopped and searched our cab. Later, we found out the Alchymist was located across the street from the US Embassy, and the search was a precaution. I noted this incident for a future book scene.

At check-in, while we sipped champagne served by the hotel staff, we were informed of a large family group staying on the lower floors, so we had been upgraded to a suite. The room was comfortable but a bit dark, and the overhead lighting poor. I drew aside the heavy damask curtains to let in more light, but the small dormer windows didn’t admit much illumination; that, coupled with the overcast day, meant no sun to brighten or warm the space. However, the soft lighting gave the room a certain ambiance. Never one to overlook an opportunity, I used my active imagination, immediately envisioning this setting as one for a scene in a future Darcy McClain and Bullet thriller. So while Dave unpacked, I typed notes into my iPad and photographed the room for future reference.

Across the hall, the small bathroom had a sloped ceiling, making the area hard to negotiate without hitting your head, especially if you were tall, but the solitary dormer window overlooked a series of balconies. The 1954 movie Rear Window, in which a wheelchair-bound photographer (James Stewart) spies on his neighbors from his apartment window and becomes convinced one of them has committed murder, came to mind. Another plot point in a new Darcy thriller?

On our first night in Prague, we decided to eat at the hotel restaurant. Before dinner, we unwound with a glass of wine in the lobby and listened to rain pelt the windows. We hoped the weather would clear overnight, for the next day we had a full agenda.

Next week: “Europe 2011: The Churches of Prague.”

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.”

EUROPE 2011: Budapest, Hungary – Part 2

Budapest at NightThe M1 yellow subway line ended at Vörösmarty Square. Back in the city center, we bypassed our original plans to take a break at the hotel, as we still had plenty of sightseeing to do and so little time to do it in. In retrospect, we should have added a day to our Dubrovnik and Budapest visits. As it was, I had already missed out on one site on my list. Once an ardent philatelist, I wanted to see the Bélyegmúzeum, the stamp museum, as I own quite a nice collection of Hungarian stamps, but we had to forgo this attraction in favor of others.

Cupola of the St.Stephen's Basilica in BudapestFrom the city center, we headed straight to St. Stephen’s Basilica, one of Budapest’s greatest landmarks on the Pest side of the city. Construction was completed in 1906, and due to its eclectic neoclassical style, the church took fifty years to build. The basilica is named after the first king of Hungary, King Stephen. The interior is exquisite, decorated with beautiful frescoes, statues, and mosaics, as well as 150 kinds of marble from around the country. The massive church can hold around 8,500 worshippers. In the chapel on the left is the mummified hand of St. Stephen. But what mesmerized me was the cupola, the colors striking—even more so when the sun shone through the glass, making its second appearance of the day (the first being when we passed the House of Terror, which I blogged about last week).

Budapest Chain BridgeIn mid-afternoon, we crossed the Chain Bridge, a nineteenth-century suspension bridge that spans the Danube River and links the Pest and Buda sides of the city. Wide, huge chains connected to the two towers gave rise to the name “Chain Bridge.” The towers are richly decorated with the Hungarian coat-of-arms and stone lions. As soon as we reached the other side of the bridge, we paused to photograph the tunnel, the entrance to the Castle District, but opted not to hike the steep hill. Instead, we rode the funicular railway to the top, slowly inching our way up the incline.

Budapest Funicular RailwayWe exited the funicular, found our bearings, and began exploring Budapest’s Castle District. The hill has many interesting historic sights all in one location. We started with the palace, the first royal residence. It was built in the thirteenth century after the Mongolian invasion and added onto in the fourteenth century. At the time, it was the largest Gothic palace of the late Middle Ages. In the fifteenth century, construction on the palace continued, but with a Renaissance design. This structure was completely destroyed in 1686 during the liberation of Buda from the Turks. In the eighteenth century, a smaller baroque palace replaced the destroyed structure, and construction continued until the palace was completed in 1904. Heavily damaged by the end of World War II, the palace was rebuilt, this time in the neo-baroque style. All of this building and rebuilding was, for me, a true testament to man’s perseverance. Today, the Royal Palace is home to the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum.

Budapest Fisherman's BastionA short walk from the Royal Palace brought us to Fisherman’s Bastion. There are two explanations for the name: either a fish market was nearby in the Middle Ages, or the guild of fishermen defended this section of the wall. The landmark has breathtaking, panoramic views of the riverfront, and you can see to Margaret Island. I expected a bastion to look defensive, but this one didn’t. The ornate, neo-Romanesque towers, intended as observation posts, were built between 1895 and 1902 and erected to impress, not to protect. The bastion resembles a castle out of a fairy tale with its seven pointed turrets and flowing white walls—nothing you would expect from a fortification.

Budapest Matthias ChurchNext on our list was Matthias Church on Trinity Square. Originally built in 1255, the church underwent many changes, as well as renovations and additions. In 1541, when the Turks occupied the city, it was a mosque. When they were expelled in 1686, restoration began on the building, but it wasn’t until 1874 that the church was restored to its former glory. The roof has magnificent diamond-shaped multicolored tiles, and the tower roof is covered in colorful majolica tiles. Decorative gargoyles grace the exterior, and above the portal is a beautiful rose window, a circular window particularly characteristic of Gothic architecture. The interior is adorned with gold-leaf frescoes and stained-glass windows, the golden glow mystic. And because the acoustics are excellent, concerts are often held here.

People still live on the castle hill, but cars are banned unless you live or work in the area or are a guest of the Hilton Hotel. However, the best way to explore these charming, crooked streets is on foot, as you can pause, take in your surroundings, snap pictures, and move on at your own pace. Later that day, we had reservations for a wine tasting at the Hilton, so we spent the next hour treating ourselves to a self-guided tour of the homes and other establishments on the hill, marveling at the different styles of architecture and giving our digital cameras a workout. We ended our photo shoot as we neared the hotel.

Budapest Hilton Hotel wine tasting Faust Wine CellarThe Hilton, built in 1977, was constructed around the remains of a thirteenth-century Dominican cloister and monastery. Faust Wine Cellar is part of the vast underground labyrinth built by the castle inhabitants during the Middle Ages. During World War II, over twenty thousand soldiers could fit within it, which gives you a general idea of the cave’s enormous size.

Inside the hotel, we descended the fifty-four steps to the cellar and immediately reached into our daypacks for a sweater and jacket. Our host offered us blankets, but we soon adjusted to the chilly temperature, and our attention turned to the variety of local wines our sommelier had chosen for the evening’s tasting. It is advisable to make reservations in advance, as the cellar is small and seating limited.

At the end of the two-hour wine tasting, we rode the funicular down the hill, crossed the Chain Bridge, and ate at a restaurant along the Danube River. We had another busy day planned, so after dinner we went straight to our hotel to relax.

Next week: “Europe 2011: Danube Bend, Hungary.”