On the morning of our second day in Budapest, Jennie and I woke and went to see a synagogue. Because, well, why not? It was in the middle of the Jewish quarter of the city, which was conveniently round the corner from our hotel. Of course, Judaism has a very sad history, and in Hungary that sad fact is no different. In fact, Budapest as whole has a very sad history; something we didn’t realise in its entirety till our second day here.
The building was huge and colourfully patterned, I was taken aback by just how much it resembled Westminster Cathedral. It’s said to be as lovely on the inside as it is on the outside. Sadly, I didn’t see that. As students, we were on a tight budget, and entry was a little overpriced. We went on to the Great Market Hall (the one that was closed the day before), for an early and filling lunch.
The hall looked better than it had the day before, I think it’s because the sun shone directly onto the impressive mosaic roof . I love these kinds of roofs, you don’t see many of them in this country but in Budapest there are many. The hall was warm and packed with vibrant chatty people from all over the world. It’s great to walk through a large room and hear snippets of conversations spoken in what seemed like every language conceivable.
True to its name, it was great, it was a market, and it was in a hall. On the ground floor were rows and columns filled with stalls selling cold food such as meat, cheese, fruit and veg. Upstairs, stalls were serving hot Hungarian food, and it was absolutely rammed. Why was it so busy? Why aren’t these people at work? Well, they were all tourists, every single one, I’m sure of it. Most of them, believe or not, American. I really wasn’t expecting it but we saw more American tourists than we did any other nationality (except for Hungarian). I suppose the Americans were having their compulsory ‘Spring Break European Tour’, but it still surprised me nonetheless.
We decided to try a local delicacy called Langos, everyone seemed to be having it, especially the Americans, and when I explain what it is you’ll understand why. It’s a bit like a pizza, but deep fried. Make sense now? Thought so. Jennie and I got one each, and I have to say it was disgusting. It was like a massive doughnut with fried cheese on top. It was greasy, sickeningly rich and just so big. In retrospect we should have shared one, we only had half each. Actually in retrospect we should have gone to Burger King down the road. It was washed down with more excellent Hungarian lager.
With our stomachs full, and truthfully, a little unsettled we headed off for the Castle district, located on the Buda side of the city. On our way out of the Market Hall we saw a tourist information stall and asked the guy standing there which route we should take. He told us not to go. He said the Castle district is full of great museums, all of which are shut on a Monday. Thanking him we decided we would head to St. Stephens Basilica. What is the difference between a basilica and a cathedral? I had no idea. After doing some research, I’m still none the wiser.
We chatted to the guy for a while, we told him we were students from England, and he said he had applied to University there. Oxford in fact, and he was even a little bit embarrassed at his back-up choice, LSE. “I’ve heard it gets teased for not being very good”. Jennie and I told him we studied at Bournemouth, and I think he felt embarrassed for a different reason. He liked us so much he wrote down his name and told us to add him on Facebook, even slipping in the fact he’s going to come and visit us at Uni. Now listen mate, I thought, you’re very nice and we appreciate the tip about the museums but you can’t just humiliate us with your ‘LSE’ comment and then expect to sleep on my sofa. I tried to exit quickly, but Jennie noticed that he sold tickets for a night-time boat cruise. Great, he’ll probably join us on that too. The river-cruise is something we had wanted to do, but hadn’t actually thought about when. We booked it for Wednesday night at a very affordable price. And much to my relief, he didn’t book himself a ticket.
The basilica left us speechless, Jennie and I are are suckers for a good church and this is probably the nicest we’ve ever seen, and we’ve been to Chichester Cathedral. It was a fairly modern building but that didn’t make it feel any less historical or important. The inside was spectacular, with countless marble statues of Jesus, I tried to count them all but got bored, there were literally hundreds. We paid 450 HUF (about £1) to climb to the top, and the views were stunning. There’s something I find incomparable to looking down at a city from a great height. I could do it for hours and not get bored.
I don’t know what it is but I get weirdly uncomfortable about having my phone out in an open space at great heights. I’m literally convinced I will drop it. It was a fairly windy day too. I’ve been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Skygarden in London, the Basilica in Budapest and (bravely I must say) only got a couple of photos on each. Some people (including Jennie) were holding their phones over the ledge. LITERALLY RIGHT OVER IT. Now I don’t mind standing on the ledge or leaning over it but I wouldn’t trust myself to do the same with my phone. Now what does that say about how much I value my smartphone, in comparison to something less significant, like my life.
After being thoroughly pleased with our trip to the Basilica we walked down to the river to seen an unconventional memorial named “Shoes on the Danube Bank”. In 1942, the Nazis occupied Budapest and killed most of its Jewish people. They lined them up on the riverside, but before shooting them, they forced them to remove their shoes as they were expensive belongings in those days.
The memorial is a long stretch of iron shoes, modeled on pairs from that era. It is incredibly haunting and moved us both. We spent a long time here and reflected on the city’s tragic history. The memorial was wonderfully subtle and a sad reminder how humans can be so inhumane.
It’s just a short walk down the river from the Hungarian parliament. Which is probably second (out of two) in my list of ‘favourite parliamentary buildings’, to Big Ben. But still, it is bloody great! It’s a huge Gothic building, with a big dome, sharp steeples and scary soldiers with guns outside. I think it’s the colours of the building that make it so eye-catching, the white building with the burgundy top, next to the blue river. I liked the building so much I actually bought a postcard with it on, and sent it to nobody. It’s currently blu-taked to the wall in my bedroom, it’s like being there all year round.
After a long day of successful exploring, Jennie and I headed back to our hotel. Not before stopping off at the famous opera house on our way back through. Upon arrival at the pink building we couldn’t help but feel a little underwhelmed. Supposedly it’s a national landmark, and it did seem a little, well, ordinary. To lift our spirits I exclaimed that I quite liked it, that it was charmingly modest. After standing outside for a long time, taking a number of photos we decided to go inside and try to get a sneak view of the theatre, deciding that must be the reason why it’s so famous.
It was absolutely rammed with locals. In hindsight we probably should have questioned why everyone was local. Not one tourist. But everything is clearer in hindsight. Jennie tried to haggle with the man taking tickets with the limited Hungarian she knew. And she knew absolutely none.
“Hello, could we please take a peak inside?”
The man looked baffled.
“Ticket?” He replied bluntly.
“Oh no, we just want to have a quick look, we’ll come straight out”
But this time he proclaimed it rather than questioned. He pointed at the ticket office. Jennie’s girlish charm obviously wasn’t working.
I pointed to the curtain.
“Look we’ll be right there, you can watch us”
He shook his head. Desperate to see it, we tried to think of an alternative way of getting. We could see no side doors and we left bitter and disappointed. Jennie reexamined the map.
“Are you sure that was the Opera House?”
“Of course it was, we just went inside.”
Jennie pointed at the map and it became quite clear that we had not been in the National State Opera House at all, the real one was around the corner.
“Well where have we been for the last half an hour?”
Thinking about it now, I think it was probably a local theatre. But I wonder how many unknowing tourists like us make the same mistake.
We walked round to the real thing and stepped through the door, and it was quite clear we’d have to pay an extortionate sum to go any further than that. We could visit the gift shop though, of course. Which was teeming with Mozart merchandise, which annoyed me because he’s not even from Hungary. On the inside and out it was as grandiose as you would expect the Hungarian Opera House to be, I think though, we preferred our little unassuming pink one round the corner.
We laughed at that thought and returned to the hotel. We rested, showered and dressed before heading into Budapest for what would be our first time exploring the city at night. We ate at Tapas restaurant called “Pata Negra” on the Pest side, and it really was special. Our dining experiences had been a bit disappointing up until that point, but the food was delicious and came in abundance. The cocktails were also flowing at a rapid pace which make my memory for the rest of the night a bit distorted but I’ll tell it as well as I can remember. When the bill finally came, we looked at each other in disbelief, it was about £25, and for the amount of food and drink we had, and the quality of it, was more than reasonable. In fact it was unreasonable, to them. We should have paid more, we robbed them.
We left and walked down to the basilica we had seen earlier that day. It was lit up and looked even better than it had earlier. We wandered down to the river and saw the city’s landmarks for the first time at night. Everything was lit up, the castle, the parliament, the bridges. It had been a long twenty four hours since reflecting on our mixed feelings the day before. Today had exceeded our expectations in every way. In a strange way, the previous day had made this day all the better. We went to sleep that night tired, drunk and content. Not that content though, as we had to be up at 6:30 to catch a train to Vienna.