View of the Hungarian Parliament from Buda.Photo by author
As the mighty Danube meanders majestically across Central Europe, an imposing city sitting on one of its bends reigns across its two banks.
Buda, regally perched on a hill and crowned by an imperial castle, and the east bank Pest, its modern alter ego with pockets of history, together make up the city aptly named the queen of the Danube.
Budapest is the perfect marriage of the Orient and the Occident. At the peak of winter, I discovered the past and the present of this great capital.
Leaving my backpack at my host Laszlo's flat, I started my visit at the iconic Halászbástya or Fisherman's Bastion in Buda. Towering above the river and dominating the entire landscape, this landmark offers spectacular views of Pest. The jewel that stands out on the opposite bank is the Hungarian Parliament. This immense white Gothic-Revival-style edifice topped with a cupola was an impressive sight despite the evening haze.
In the centre of this viewing platform is the green equestrian statue of King Saint Stephen I, the founder of Hungary. Nearby is a statue of Turul, a huge eagle that symbolises the Arpáds, the Magyar ancestors of present-day Hungarians who trace their origins to someplace across the Urals in Central Asia.
Some claim they descended from Attila the Hun who invaded swathes of Europe in the 5th century. In fact, almost everyone I met pointed out their purported Asian origins, proudly underlining their uniqueness since even their musical language has no relation to any other European language.
As the winter sun descended into the horizon, lights illuminated the city.
I climbed down the hill and reached the Széchenyi Bridge or the Chain Bridge with stone lions guarding it on each side. Crossing this historical structure, I reached Pest and wandered around the beautiful Szent István Basilica, built in honour of the first Magyar king.
First comes dessert
Not far from here is Gerbeaud, a pastry shop standing proudly since 1858. Central and Eastern Europe being famous for pastries, I couldn't resist taking a seat in the elegant interiors of this cafe to enjoy a slice of delicious sachertorte or chocolate cake before dinner.
Crossing the Danube once again, I returned to Laszlo's flat, where the heady scent of the other Hungarian speciality, paprika, filled the air. We shared a bottle of red Hungarian Eger wine, which perfectly accompanied the dish of potatoes and sausages in a red paprika sauce.
The next morning, crossing another bridge, I reached the Great Market Hall with its sloping green and yellow tiles. Apart from clothes, lace and souvenirs, the market was filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, dry fruits, meat, pastries and of course, red chillies, and at around 11 am I could smell paprika once again.
Aromas of meat and vegetables cooked with paprika wafted from several stalls enticing passersby and whetting my appetite. As it was still early, I opted for a small piece of flódni, a Jewish cake made with apples, nuts, poppy seeds and plum jam. Eating dessert before my meals was becoming a habit here.
The Jewish population of Budapest used to be so high that it was once called Judapest. The Moorish Islamic-style Dohány Street Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter is Europe's biggest.
From here I walked to the parliament, and on the quay in front of it is a poignant memorial to the victims of the Nazi era - rusted iron shoes nailed to the ground in remembrance of the Jews who were lined up by the river and shot, and their bodies collapsed into the Danube.
Staying with the historical theme, I wandered around Andrássy útca, the main avenue of Pest, and decided to visit Terror House, an eerie museum describing the horrors of the Nazi and the Soviet times. Hungarians had the misfortune of siding with the Third Reich during World War II with the aim of recovering territories it lost to practically all of its neighbours - Serbia, Austria, Slovakia, Poland and Romania. Along with land, nearly two-thirds of Hungary's population instantly turned into its diaspora. At the end of the war, Budapest was 'liberated' by the Soviet army and another period of authoritarianism ensued.
This educational tour was rather depressing, but it wasn't long before my spirits were lifted, for a group of couples dressed in traditional costumes danced to cheerful music on a small square. These little unexpected concerts in city squares are what make Europe so charming.
I continued exploring some of the architecture of Pest, and some façades with their Oriental-style arches reminded me of the nearly-150 years of Ottoman presence. I imagined camel caravans at the crossroads between Asia and Europe, walking past towering minarets, whirling dervishes and hammams. While the mosques and minarets have long disappeared, having been converted to churches, the bathhouses have survived, and this culture thrives to this day in Budapest.
The Budapest skin
As I studied my map to find a metro station, a couple of young men who were standing at the corner of the street approached me. I got slightly suspicious; moreover, I had been warned on many occasions that Hungarians were cold and unfriendly. One of them said in perfect English, "Excuse me, sir, do you need any help?" I was immediately ashamed of my own suspicion and told them what I needed. They guided me to the nearest station and I took the metro back to Buda, kicking myself mentally for falling for a stereotype, albeit remotely.
Back near the Fisherman's Bastion, I visited Matyas Templom or Saint Matthias Church, easily recognisable thanks to its colourful, sloping tiled roof. The interiors are sumptuously decorated with frescoes on all of its walls and ceilings.
In the afternoon, I picked up my bags and headed to my friend Emanuele's place. He had just returned to Budapest, where he lived, from a trip abroad. We decided to go to the stunning opera to watch Mozart's Italian comedy Così fan tutte. Since it was an opera, my Italian friend did not understand everything, and the subtitles were in Hungarian. Luckily, Aniko, a friendly doctor sitting in front of us, explained what we missed during the intermission. I thoroughly enjoyed the excellent performance and was surprised at the amazing quality of the show for the unbelievable price of four euros.
For dinner, we went to a good restaurant called Frici Papa, where I had already appreciated the national dish, goulash. This time, I had a chicken paprika dish, and for dessert savoured Gundel palacsinta, delectable crêpes smothered in chocolate sauce, a dish perfected by Károly Gundel, one of the fathers of Hungarian gastronomy.
I ended my trip with a relaxing visit to the Széchenyi baths. After sampling several saunas and various pools at different temperatures, I stepped out into the freezing winter and entered the open-air pool whose hot water formed wisps of steamy mist in contact with the cold air, wondering what it might feel like if it snowed just then.
Watching people playing chess in the water, I reflected on my days spent in the land of the Magyars, whose descendants' rough nature is often misconstrued as curt smugness. Personally, I didn't mind the brutal frankness and admired the nostalgic resilience that reigns over the Great Hungarian Plain.