Archive for June, 2011

Budapest and the Danube (not blue, but definitely beautiful)

Monday, June 27th, 2011

Sorry we haven’t written for a while, but life has been moving along so fast we haven’t had time!

On June 12, Ted and his rowing partner Erik-Jan competed in the Dommel regatta in their double. It was a very long race, in which the rowers covered over 18 km including rowing to the start, racing 7.5km, and rowing back to the dock. Given a lack of time to practice together beforehand, they were happy with a strong finish and a well-rowed race. (They came in second, but there were only two entrants in their category.)

Last weekend, we flew to Budapest, for a long weekend in a city we’d been wanting to visit. As an extra bonus, we got to meet up with Ted’s parents there. We stayed at the Budapest Hilton, who did a thing I’ve never seen before; after we booked our hotel room, we could book a number of extras, including a ride from the airport to the hotel, food or champagne in our room, a room upgrade, etc. The ride from the airport was very convenient and well done – we were met by a driver with our names on a sign. We’d also asked for a room upgrade; unfortunately they weren’t able to give us a river-view room the first night, but we were able to switch to one for the rest of our stay. The hotel is right next to the St. Matyas Church, and the view across the Danube is phenomenal: .

On our first day, we visited the church and walked around the Fisherman’s Bastion, right behind it (actually, the Bastion was purely built for ornament, despite the name – you can see it wouldn’t work as a fortress, but it’s beautiful).
Since they were right by our hotel, we took pictures of both buildings at different times, as you can see.

We walked through the National Palace then, down to the river, and across the Chain Bridge, then took a boat ride on the Danube – we’d gotten a Legenda pass that let us use the public transit systems for three days, and the one-hour cruise was included. I always like boat tours as a way to get an overview of the city. The sound track on this one was a dialog between “Buda” (male) and “Pest” (female), made a bit more surreal because both had strong British accents. (Buda, Obuda and Pest grew as separate cities, and were only officially merged in 1873.) By then it was hot and we were tired, so we hiked back across the Elizabeth bridge and back up to our hotel. I don’t really want to know how much distance that all is, but Buda itself is quite a hill to climb!

After a short rest, we took the bus back across the bridge and met Ted’s parents at their hotel on the Pest side of the Danube. We all decided on an old restaurant near their hotel, serving traditional Hungarian food. I had the best matza ball soup I’ve had at a restaurant (not quite as good as homemade, of course!) while the others all had Hungarian goulash, which became a favorite for all of us. For the main course, we divided along gender lines: the men had a beef stew with some sort of grains on the side (bigger than kasha), while the women had chicken paprikash, with dumplings. We were all surprised at how much we liked the traditional Hungarian foods; I’ll definitely be trying to make the dumplings at home (they look easy) next time I make a meal with lots of sauce or gravy, and I may try to perfect my goulash as a cooking project next winter.

By the way, that bus ride to and from the other side of the Danube was when we learned an odd fact about Budapest; the buses and trams are essentially free. Apparently the presumption is that everyone has a transitpass (and in fact we did); the driver doesn’t check them and you don’t scan them when you get on and off as you do in most places. You just get on and ride.

In the morning, we took a tour of the Parliament building. Ted had fallen in love with the building from across the river, so we needed to see if the inside was as spectacular.

It was.

Because it’s a working government building, we only got to see a few rooms: the general assembly room, a hallway as magnificent as the one we saw in the Doge’s palace in Venice, and a rotunda, which contains and protects the thousand-year-old crown of the kings of Hungary, given to St. Stephen by the Pope in something like 1031 AD. Its tilted cross, knocked askew by some ancient accident, has become a symbol of Hungary. After that tour, we walked from the Marriott hotel by way of the Old Parish Church (oldest building in Buda) to the National Museum of Hungary, where we completed the ruin of our feet. Big museum. It has relics ranging from Prehistoric times through the Avars, the Magyars, the Turks, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Iron Curtain and today – though we actually saw it all in more or less reverse order. The single most impressive artifact was the coronation robe, which is a thousand years old – like the crown, it was presented to St. Stephen by the Pope. I don’t know if we’ve seen cloth that old before, but if we did (maybe in Prague?) it was in shred. This was fragile but intact, with all of the gold embroidery still shining. Next to its case was a library we’d be happy to take home (for the shelving, not so much the contents). I kept expecting Ted to pull out a tape measure so he could duplicate the woodwork, but I think it would be impossible to find the craftsmen who could do it.

Ted’s parents had a dinner with their tour group that night so we had dinner on our own back up in Buda at a restaurant called Pest-Buda (an older name for the combined city) – an excellent dinner, featuring homemade sparkling wine, possibly the best goulash of the trip, homemade sausage for me, chicken paprikash for Ted, and homemade apple strudel for dessert.

For our last full day, we spent the morning in the Palace Labyrinth – a huge complex of caves and cellars under the Palace and some of the rest of Buda. It’s been used as everything from storage to shelter; it’s dark, winding and enormous and I don’t think I’d care to be down there without lights. They had it tricked out with different “sections”, with sculptures or images telling various stories of the area’s histor of mythology. The history area had a few nice sculptures and a wine fountain.

The “future history” area, showing “fossils” of tennis-shoe prints and laptops from Homo Consumeris, as found by archaeologists of future millennia, was a bit silly, but it was fun watching other people trying to figure out the joke. Then there was a section that was entirely dark, with a thin cable to hold on to and a story about the sun being lost (it was originally set up for school groups). They had the cable zig-zagging around a room to make it seem longer, but the cable does make a difference.

(They do advise you not to actually drink the wine.)

In the afternoon, Ted’s parents came up on the funicular (a vehicle pulled up the incline by a cable, like the one in Pittsburgh) and we all did a little shopping, then went to the National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum. Both are in the Palace. The Gallery doesn’t showcase the Palace itself, but lets you see several hundred years’ worth of Hungarian art. It was a bit odd to see so many recnognizable art styles while not recognizing any of the artists’ names. The Budapest Museum did have some of the Palace itself visible, mostly the lowest level and the Chapel. We were too tired by then to see the whole thing so we focused on those parts (and on some argument over exactly which room was the chapel – there were a few false leads before we reached the unmistakeable real thing).

We walked back over toward our hotel to finish the day – it was Fathers’ Day, so it was the perfect time to take Ted’s parents out to dinner. There’s a whole street of restaurants there, and we ate at the St. George, right across from the previous night’s Pest-Buda. (The Hilton was luxurious, but the location was our favorite thing about it!) This time I had pike perch, a local fish that we’d been seeing on menus across town. It was OK, but apparently where fish is concerned, I am no gourmet – I’ve concluded that white fish is white fish, and the only real difference is if it’s more or less firm. It was a good dinner overall, though and a nice end to the weekend.

We walked Ted’s parents to the bus stop, and said goodbye to them and to Budapest before our flight out in the morning.