Budapest: A Cultural Holiday

It’s not all that often I leave Hull. Sad as that sounds, it doesn’t usually bother me. Working two jobs, one of which is promoting the culture and allure of this city, there’s rarely time for anything else.

But sometimes you have to get out of the skin you’re used to in order to truly relax. And I was stressed. I was wound so tight I couldn’t even see myself anymore. So I was really glad that my best friend had booked us a five-day holiday to Budapest, Hungary.

Day One: Arriving at Budapest

It’s been years since I last flew. Flying doesn’t bother me much, until the last stretch when my right ear feels like someone has clamped it shut and is trying to fill it with water at the same time. But the landing at Budapest was utterly pleasant. We’d arrived, entirely unknowingly, on St Stephen’s Day, the day of Hungary’s national saint. From 9-9:30pm there are fireworks along both banks of the Danube River, with a spectacular display above the Basilica. And we got to see most of it from the air! I don’t think I’ll ever have a more splendid entry into a country.

We stayed at the Boscolo Residence, in a room on the fifth floor – this is only relevant because a storm earlier in the week had left the basement flooded and their lift out of service. The room was amazing. Nextdoor to the luxurious Boscolo Hotel, we didn’t have a marble bath in our room, but we did have a washing machine and kitchenette with all the necessary appliances. This may not excite most people on their holiday, but for me the freedom to make breakfast for less than the €25 the residence offered.

Gellert Hill
Gellert Hill

Day One: Winging It

Completely unplanned (a little stressful for me), we headed out into the city centre. We got a little lost, pulling out the maps before changing course again and again. Turned out we’d headed south of the city, and there wasn’t much to see on the stretch of road we’d selected. Fortunately, a guy working for the Red Bus tourist services suggested a route which lead us to the Central Market Hall.

Paprika chillies and Garlic  adorning one of the stalls
Paprika chillies and Garlic adorning one of the stalls

An expansive space with two floors, the top holding various traditional stalls and tourist shops and the bottom home to food stalls, we started our souvenir shopping early. The place is very popular with tourists, for obvious reasons, but we managed to hit it at a quiet time. Perhaps Friday’s aren’t popular shopping days with regular tourists. (Note: we returned to the Market Hall on a later day and it was so busy with people that I couldn’t smell the paprika.)

The delicious Gundel Pancake
The delicious Gundel Pancake

We ate lunch at Anna Café across the road; Lauren having a croissant while I had a traditional Gundel pancake, which is like a sweet baklava rolled up in a crepe pancake served with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with dark chocolate. It was so delicious that I had to finish ever drop even after that moment when your stomach clenches with that absolute satisfaction of being full.

Across the river from the Market Hall is Gellert Hill, a spectacular place to view from either side of the river. We aimed to walk to the top of the hill, instead realising that our lunch was weighing us down and we’d ended up walking in circles anyway. There was a cute trail of hearts painted everywhere they could be painted. I took great pleasure in photographing all the ones we found. Perhaps not the most iconic aspect of Gellert Hill – there’s the baths at the base of the hill, the citadel, the church in a cave where we found the second heart – but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

A heart painted on a tree on Gellert Hill
A heart painted on a tree on Gellert Hill

We returned to the hotel a little tired. The weather was beautiful, a constant 26°-28°C and each day we tired our feet out by walking everywhere. But after a few hours back at the hotel, we headed out in search of a bar.

We ended up in a music bar called Johnny Pumps. We found the name far too hilarious for two twenty-somethings who hadn’t had a drop of alcohol, so we headed inside and tested the cocktail menu. They played House music and they didn’t have the ingredients for the one cocktail I really wanted, but we had a brilliant time. The staff were fab. We visited Johnny Pumps a second time during our stay, and I got quite tipsy as the bar manager demonstrated the lack of measuring cups. The best part was that he really looked after us – as two lasses holiday together we could have felt quite vulnerable in a busy bar, but anytime someone seemed to get pushy he spoke up and told them to move on out. That’s good customer service.

Day 2: A Day of Folk

My friend Lol and I love to get cultural. So when we stumbled across the Mesterséqek Űnnepe, a Festival of Folk Arts, we were delighted.

We’d purchased a 72 hour Budapest Card, which entitles you to free or discounted entry at most of the tourist sites in Budapest. It cost about £25 and was a godsend.

A small segment of the Festival of Folk Arts
A small segment of the Festival of Folk Arts

We were headed to the National Gallery, located within the Royal Palace (Buda Castle) of which there are two ways to reach: in a cable car or by walking up the winding walls of the hillside. Seeing the festival stalls lining these walls, we purchased a wristband and took the longer route. There were stalls selling porcelain flowers, glass and metal jewellery, leather bags, knives and whips, hand-woven baskets and gingerbread in various shapes. There were workshops demonstrating how things were made, with traditional music being sung at random intervals. One stallkeeper even sang from his seat behind woven baskets. It was fantastic, and another excuse to spend some Hungarian Forints.

A basket weaving demonstration
A basket weaving demonstration

When we did make it into the National Gallery, I realised that there are certain aspects of culture which really are not my thing. I like art, it’s interesting. I don’t care for hundreds of painting, a third of which seem to be self-portraits. I’d advise people to go to the gallery because the walk up there is amazing, and the views are so spectacular. But, if you’re like me and not really into art in any serious way, then perhaps just walk up there for the fun of it.

Day 3: Abusing the Budapest Card

I had wanted more than anything to visit the Jewish Holocaust memorials located around the city. I know it’s a little dark, but I have always been interested in World War 2 and I’m quite open about my enjoyment at hearing the different stories from a range of aspects around the world.

So, we started in the Jewish Quarter at the second largest synagogue in the world on Dohány Street. It was our first opportunity as the synagogue and museum are closed on Fridays and Saturdays as the synagogue is used for worship. Unfortunately, this meant that a lot of people had a similar idea to us and our long lie-in meant that we arrived at the same time as a couple of hundred others. It was the first queue we had joined since the airport, so we couldn’t really complain.

The stained glass artwork
The stained glass artwork in the Memorial Park 

We joined an English-speaking tour group, which informed us about the history and architecture of the building. It’s similar to many Christian churches because the architect felt it was important to conform to their traditions when bringing something new to the city, so it is forward-facing and has huge stained glass windows. There are two pulpits which were used to translate the readings of the Torah into both Hungarian and German, the two main languages of the country. The tour guide we had worships at that synagogue and she was very passionate, as well as humorous. She’d picked up a slight American accent but the sarcasm of the British, and snapped at the Spanish group who dared shush her when speaking to, as she pointed out, a significantly large group of interested people.

She lead us out into the Memorial Park located behind the synagogue and introduced us to the two main pieces there. The stained glass piece was very impressive, showing an image of a snake rising from the flames and ascending into the spiritual sun. However the weeping willow statue seemed to lure everyone over. On each leaf is the name of a victim of the Hungarian Holocaust, ad our tour guide was very keen to point out that alongside the empty unidentified leaves there were names which are neither Hungarian nor German. It was an impressive piece of art and a beautiful way in which to remember those whose lives were too quickly taken.

The Weeping Willow memorial artwork, with stones laid in respect as the Jewish lay stones on graves
The Weeping Willow memorial artwork, with stones laid in respect as the Jewish lay stones on graves

Following on from the synagogue, we walked down to the Hungarian National Museum. Each room takes you on a journey through the significant eras which affected Hungary, from the royal families who lead the country to the inventors who made a name for themselves. It was really interesting to see everything, and I enjoyed reading about their history. I didn’t know much about Hungary as a nation, but I felt proud to be in the country and to be soaking up their culture as I wandered those rooms.

Day Four: Spa Day

Budapest is the ‘City of Baths’ so we had to use our last full day in order to visit one. The aim of the day was to relax and simply enjoy the day.

We chose to visit St Lukásc Baths because it was free with the Budapest Card (Note: It is only free on the first visit. If using the same card you had to pay 80% of the price. It also isn’t explained that only the entrance is free, and you have to specifically state which sections you want to visit – including the sauna.) It’s located on the Buda side across from the Margaret Bridge, which meant we got to walk past Margaret Island. We’d discussed visiting the island after our spa experience, but this didn’t happen as we ran out of time.

The baths were a little confusing. We found two swimming pools first. Both of which were not heated and require you to have swimming caps. I don’t swim and Lol didn’t have a cap, so we wandered up stairs to the rooftop where you can sunbathe. There’s also an outdoor fitness suite, but this negated our Only Relaxing policy of the day. It wasn’t until I’d realised we hadn’t brought sun lotion with us and I’d been fully exposed to the sun for some time that we decided to head back to the locker room, feeling a little robbed that we hadn’t found what we’d expected.

Getting lost – theme of the holiday – we spotted some heads free from caps in a pool downstairs. A heated pool with massaging jetstreams of water and a wave pool and submerged sun loungers. I was in my element: I may not be a swimmer, but I have always loved the water and I wanted to try out everything again and again. It was truly relaxing: I had my back pummelled by the jetstreams and I floated as best I could around the wave pool and I simply enjoyed the warm water. I was most impressed. And the other tourists in the pool were very gracious, as we all took turns on the sun loungers.

The Shoes on the Danube Bank, strewn with flowers and lanterns
The Shoes on the Danube Bank, strewn with flowers and lanterns

We walked back over the Margaret Bridge and headed along the Danube riverbank to the Chain Bridge, from which we knew the way back to the hotel. This is a particularly wonderful stretch of the river as there are a series of sculptures along the riverside, including the Shoes On The Danube which stand in remembrance of those Jews who were killed by the Arrow Cross militiamen. I had been told to visit this site, and I was pleased that I had, taking several photographs.

We also walked past Hungary’s Parliament building, which is designed based on our own Houses of Parliament but is significantly more grand. It is guarded by soldiers, who were kind enough to answer tourists’ questions.

Hungarian Parliament building
Hungarian Parliament building

Last Day: Finishing Up

We sent the final day visiting the Market Hall again to buy the last souvenirs and enjoyed the food of the restaurants we had most enjoyed.

Five days had been wonderful, both enough time to relax but not enough time to take everything in. There were several things I wished we had done: taken a boat cruise along the Danube, visited the Statue Park, and planned the dates better so that we could have attended the Sziget Festival.

Usually with holidays I plan every last detail, creating a timed itinerary. With this one I had been too busy beforehand to consider it. This made it much better – we stumbled across some fantastic events and we got to see two of three tournaments of the Ironman 70.3 which was also being held that weekend.

A truly cultural city, with something for everyone.

A place to relax, a place to explore, and certainly a place to enjoy.

A statue of the Virgin Mary looking over the Danube River from the Buda Castle
A statue of the Virgin Mary looking over the Danube River from the Buda Castle
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