Monday, 24 February 2014

Budapest I: Hungary for more,

Stepping into Budapest (pronounced as Buda-pesht) felt like I stepped into the dusty pages of a vintage fairytale. Perhaps it was the snow that blanketed the city in a white wash or the amazing architecture of the former Austro-Hungarian empire that shone through the white specks, Budapest indeed has a peculiar charm that is majestic yet soft-spoken. Much like a golden silence, but I can't quite put my finger to it. Walking down the wide cobbled streets and ascending creaky wooden staircases, it's easy to pretend that you're transported back in the days - and I love it. The central European feel hit a cultural sweet spot for me (especially since prior to this I was in touristy Brussels) so it was very intriguing the city acclaimed to be one of the most beautiful places in Europe.

Historically, Budapest was originally a Celtic settlement before the Hungarians arrived in the 9th century and took 
over the lands. The word 'Budapest' is a composition of the two cities of 'Buda' and 'Pest', which later were united in 1873 to form the capital of Hungary we know of today. This is easily distinguishable by the Danube river, which flows right through the center of the city and divides the hilly Buda and flat Pest. I'm also told that while they differ geographically, they both have differing cultures as well. Buda, houses the grand Buda castle and heritage site and has an imperial aura of settled wealth, and offers gorgeous panoramas on Castle Hill. On the other hand, Pest seems more commercially populated and 
also seems to house most of the famous landmarks of the city. It offers a wide array of restaurants, bars and cafes to try the Hungarian cuisine from.

Renting an apartment in the heart of the city on 24 Nádor street, we stayed on the side of Pest. This was walking distance of Lajos Kossuth Square and the Hungarian Parliament Building, and a stone's throw away from St. Stephen's Basilica and Széchenyi Chain Bridge. Albeit slightly chilling to step into the interior dilapidated courtyard and dingy surroundings, 
it was quite a comfortable stay.

Unfortunately, my camera lenses were damaged from the Barcelonetta beach sand and had to be sent for repair. Hence, the pictures below were all taken by a secondhand iPhone4, pardon the vignette as my phone cover was coming off and often blocked the lenses. Such a mistake to have left my film SLR back in Singapore, couldn't really get used to R's Olympus.

Switched on the television and was rather bemused by a live psychic reading programme where viewers could call him in real-time to seek 'enlightenment' on life woes and issues I presume. The psychic would then proceed to flip a few cards and fiddle with his candle before making certain predictions.

The Hungarian Parliament was just round the corner, opposite which there were old school telephone booths and ATMs to press money from. We spent a great deal of time trying to work the money machines because the machine got jammed and sucked our card in - I later went to google our situation and found that many foreigners had the same problem too. Nonetheless we managed to get the card back (without our bank security breached as we played it safe and called the bank), the bank rates were much better than the money changer exchange rates!

St. Stephen's basilica was a majestic sight as it was one of the tallest building in the city at 96 metres, matched by the Hungarian parliament building to represent the equal importance of governance and spiritual thinking, or so a travel journal I read recently scribed. The church which was named after St. Stephen I the first Hungarian king, spots a Neo-classical architectural style and has a designed floorplan of a Greek cross. The two bell towers at the side of the building makes it stand out from the other European churches and demands an attention-seeking presence from far away.

A gripe of travelling in winter (apart from the biting cold) is that the snow may be rather hazardous. Despite the wide avenues that Budapest has, clumps and blocks of snow alike kept sliding off the top of many buildings....and potentially onto ignorant passerbys. While there were warning signs erected below certain buildings, there were many others that were left precariously hanging to prey onto an unknowing passerby.

Recognized as one of the World heritage sites, Andrássy avenue is iconically graced by the line of trees on both sides of the pathway and features shophouses and cafes. Walking along, you can find Neo-renaissance styled residences and luxury boutiques. The oldest metro line in Budapest, Line 1 can also be found on the avenue and is in itself a valued UNESCO world heritage site.

At the end of Andrássy avenue lies Heroes square (Hősök tere), one of the major and most iconic squares of Budapest. Little did I know that it was filled with such historical and political significance, for the Millennium memorial pays tribute to the leaders of the 7 tribes that founded Hungary in the early 9th century, as well as other historical figures that had a part to play in Hungary's history. Different from the other squares that are commonly bustling with activity, the memorial grounds was dotted with visitors yet sparse to maintain the defined solemnness of the landmark. But of course it's Europe and love is perpetually in the air; so I had to stumble upon a couple locking lips at a quiet corner behind the memorial.

Surrounding the square are seemingly unassuming yet important buildings of Budapest. The Museum of Fine Arts showcases foreign art collections from all over the world while the Palace of Art has the largest modern art exhibition in Hungary.

Found an empty field of flawless powder snow surrounded by security fences, so the rebels in us started throwing snowballs in before attempting to run away after thinking that we set some alarms off....good times.

I don't advocate the philosophy of 'must-sees' during travel but the thermal baths of Budapest was definitely one of the highlights of the trip! Hailed as the land of thermal waters, there are many baths speckled over the city to fill you up wit warm bliss to chase away the gloomy winter blues and it's also the perfect solution to a traveller's aching feet ♥ I'm a huge fan of hot spring waters, having visited the public baths in Thailand, Japan, Taiwan and Indonesia - so this was definitely very exciting for me!

We visited the Széchenyi bath at 1146 Budapest, Állatkerti körút 9-11 as it fit into our walking route from Andrassy avenue and is the largest medicinal bath in Europe. Established from way back in 1913, the Széchenyi bath has a Neo-baroque architecture exterior and houses 12 thermal bath sections decorated in various themes (Roman, Classical, etc.) as well as 3 outdoor pools with temperatures varying from 30-42 degree Celsius. Some of the sections had really grand palace-like interiors, which makes you forget momentarily that you're in a public bathhouse. The outdoor pools were really satisfying because it the weather was so cold but the waters really help to warm you up!

We paid about HUF3800 for an afternoon ticket to the baths, which included a towel and locker use. There were different changing rooms for females and males respectively, but you could rent day cabins to store your belongings and change in for additional privacy. The baths are accessible via Metro Line 1.

The baths are located in the midst of the gorgeous City park, of which you can walk to the Vajdahunyad castle. The winter sun was almost setting by the time we left Széchenyi, peeking behind the silhouette of the trees and baths, so we decided to move on with our dinner plans. It was great being back in the cold but feeling slightly warmer from the thermal waters!

Of course, I had to be distracted by the aroma of freshly steamed corn on the way to the metro and we bought one to share....realized that we got ripped off (forgot how much she charged us) but it tasted exceptionally good after the baths.

Following a recommendation by E, we decided to dine at Két Szerecsento, a restaurant that was close to the Opera so we could hop over for the show we reserved tickets for earlier in the day. Paired it with some Hungarian wine (not a good idea before a long Opera show) and it was probably the best meal we had in Budapest that we even contemplated returning back the next day ♥ Price wise, it was also definitely more affordable than eating out in London, as with most Eastern european / Central european cities. This probably costed us sandwiches and drinks in London... Két Szerecsento is located at Nagymezo u. 14. 

As mentioned, earlier in the day we popped into the Hungarian State Opera house and scored some reserved tickets for an opera show that night. It was an easier process than I imagined, because we practically walked into the opera house office and one of the clerks told us that she could give us seats close to the stage for a good price in a hush-hush. I thought of the corn incident back at the entrance of the baths, and we obviosuly didn't do much research to begin with - it must have showed on our faces because she gave us another set of seats at a better price and we walked off with last minute 6 pound tickets to the night show. Does anyone know if these were worth it?

We returned back that evening after dinner for the show, and the Opera house shone in its Neo-rennaissance splendor, being lit at night. The interior was overwhelming, with its ceilings adorned with opulent frescoes and hallways laced with sculptures. Majestic chandeliers complemented with the red carpet fashion truly contrasted our lack of dressing up for the event!

The Opera show was an experience in itself, because we didn't know that it was going to be a German opera show and hence didn't understand a word spoken, and also because the locals themselves also started falling asleep one by one in the span of the 3 hours...

Will continue the travelogue in another post, ciao! ♥

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