Buda & Pest- the charming twins on the banks of Danube

The international airport was going through refurbishing when we flew into Budapest in October 2019. We had to directly walk across to the terminal after deboarding our flight - rather literally rush in the face of soft sprays of drizzles and cold wind on our way. Strange it may seem, but on our left, a long chain of passengers was moving towards their boarding gate housed in a small temporary cubicle. They were separated from us by a barricade made of wire mesh. A scene identical to images of European Jews being herded by the Nazis for deportation by holocaust trains. Outside, Mr. Gabor (one of the partners of Lichtenstein Apartments) was waiting to pick us up as our apartment was about 15 km away from the airport. Lichtenstein Apartment complex is centrally located, on a lane leading to the hub of Jewish Quarters in District 7. The apartments are cut out from century-old building interiors with very high ceilings and tall windows of French window style overlooking the street. Because of the high ceiling, the rooms are designed in duplex format – kitchenette, seating area and toilet at ground level, and bedroom with a TV, a closet, and a sofa at the upper level. There were a lot of popular pubs and eateries a little ahead of our apartment. Weekdays were quiet and normal, but weekends i.e. Friday night and Saturday night brought sleepless nights to the residents. People started flocking in from 9 pm and continued partying, dancing, singing, chatting until almost 3 in the morning. Though disturbing to the circadian rhythm of a normal human being, I have always advocated such lively gatherings once in a while. Brings about a sense of security, warmth, laughter, and happiness to humankind. Particularly in a large metropolis, where we were total strangers. 

On the first morning, we walked down to Blaha Lujza Ter metro, being closest to our apartment. We decided to try the metro first, but on second thought decided to cover the city on the first day on Hop on – Hop off service. The Hop on-Hop off stop was in front of the famous New York Hotel & Café across the wide thoroughfare of the Grand Boulevard, with high-speed tram tracks on the median. New York Café is a nineteenth-century eclectic architectural wonder. A blend of the Italian renaissance, historical Greek, and baroque styles. Seen from the plaza on the opposite pavement presents a spectacular view of the illuminated building in the night. Able to sit in one of the front rows of the semi-covered upper deck was an exciting experience, We went through some historic sites of Budapest, and alighted at the Pest end of Chain Bridge over the Danube. Chain Bridge was built between 1839 and 1849. A very important suspension bridge connecting Pest to the lower end of Castle Hill Funicular to Buda Castle. It happened to be the first permanent bridge uniting the ancient city of Buda with Pest, and thus merged to become Budapest in 1873. It, therefore, went on to become a national symbol of Hungary. The bridge was built at the initiation of Count Istvan Szechenyl after he had visited England and greatly admired Hammersmith Bridge. He hired the Hammersmith Bridge Engineer William Clarke to build the bridge. It is called Chain Bridge because the roadbed hangs in flat iron chains suspended from stone arches. The bridge was completely blown off by the retreating German soldiers in 1945 when the Soviet and Romanian forces had encircled Budapest and laid siege of the city. Only the pillars had remained intact, and the bridge was rebuilt in a couple of years. Vehicles are allowed on the bridge, but we preferred to traverse it on foot to look at the historic bridge more closely. After crossing the bridge we took a bus to the Buda Castle and were there on time to watch the change of guard which takes place with a lot of fanfare. After that, we walked down to the viewing point known as Fisherman’s Bastion. It’s a nineteenth-century fortress-like construction on the periphery of Buda Castle, made of spires and turrets. Why ‘Fisherman’? No authentic information. But ‘Bastion’ it is, as it was meant to guard the Buda Castle. The tower offers a panoramic view of the Danube and the city below Castle Hill. An eleventh-century church(Matthias Church is the oldest Church, which got converted to a mosque for a brief period under Turkish occupation in the sixteenth century), a café on the terrace where we had coffee and snacks, cobblestone paths, classical and baroque buildings, worth watching huge nineteenth-century manhole covers, altogether present a unique vista of magnificence. On our way back to the bus stand we dropped in at Houdini’s Museum. Before we entered the magician’s chamber, we were caught by another magical surprise. The pretty, young Hungarian girl who was manning the counter of the museum started speaking with us in flawless Hindi. She said she graduated in Hindi from Budapest University and had been to India a couple of times. After all the mind-boggling exposures, we headed back for Pest. This time our bus crossed the newer Margaret Bridge and entered Pest via the magnificent Parliament building.

 We hopped off at St. Stephen’s Basilica. A Roman Catholic church, built at the beginning of the twentieth-century and replacing the older temporary version was named after the first king of Hungary (975 – 1038 AD), an incorruptible King whose right hand is kept in a reliquary inside the church. It is the tallest building in Budapest with a height of about 315 ft. The church stands in a spacious square, where people can walk, relax, and enjoy coffee and tidbits. Budapest is a large city, but not sprawling as a modern city tends to be. Although the city of Budapest was officially christened sometime in the nineteenth century, Buda Castle was built along with fortification by the second founder of Hungary, King Bela IV in the thirteenth century. So that way it can be considered almost a thousand years old. What surprised us most during our stay was that the city had a very well planned road network. A sort of square matrix formation, with several narrow streets converging to the main thoroughfare and then again diverging to other main roads in Pest. Like from St Stephen’s Basilica in District 5, one can walk down to District 7 where our apartment was located. But one has to be extra careful in making notes of landmarks while walking, which I learned through paralytically bitter experience. We had been to Szabadsag square where a commemorative monument dedicated to all the victims of Hungary’s German occupation has been put up by the present ruling party. At the gate there is a statue of Archangel Gabriel depicting Hungary, being attacked by a German imperial eagle. It has become a site of daily protests. The protestors feel that erecting such a statue absolves Hungarians of assisting Nazis in sending some four and a half lakh Jews to their death camps. Nazi German forces occupied Hungary on 19th March 1944, and between May and July set about to decimate as much Jews from Budapest and other parts of Hungary, by deporting them to Auschwitz in Poland with the help of their Hungarian ally, the right-wing fascist Arrow Cross Party who had formed the government. The present generation showcases photographs of Jews victimized, light up candles, and places floral tributes as a mark of respect. A further walk brought us to a park. I wanted to walk down to the Parliament on the shores of Danube, but my wife decided to relax on a bench in the park. When I crossed the park, I noticed some fencing work going on at the periphery. The sight induced so much confidence that I failed to register the road I took after leaving a small circular park. So while returning from the tram terminus near the Parliament building, I drifted into a different path. The narrow streets looked familiar, but the sight of the spire of St. Stephen’s Basilica put me in a fluster. I started walking back until I arrived at the small circular park. I stood still at one of its exit points trying hard to reason with myself how to get over the impasse. Asking direction was ruled out as I did not know the name of the park. Finally and I groped my way to the spot where my wife was waiting and almost on the verge of a breakdown. Instead of throwing tantrums, she offered me water and she is the one who consoled me. The relief was so profound that at that moment I was not certain how much time had passed in a silent struggle to get over the plight of losing my way.

During our stay for the next few days, we decided to move out together in Budapest. Except on a few occasions when she preferred to stay back in the apartment. Like getting my favorite chicken balls, sweet and sour prawns, and fried rice from an eatery run by a lovely, smiling Chinese lady(a family restaurant), walking down to the nineteenth century Nyugati Railway Station for booking tickets for Bratislava, walking down to a typical Hungarian restaurant near the Opera for a smack on tempting Hungarian Goulash. Goulash is a medieval Hungarian delicacy. It is a spicy soup of meat cubes and vegetables. Served hot in large bowls with bread or rice, it is simply delectable. In the course of our stay at Budapest, we also tried some Hungarian delicacies like Beef Goulash (Budapest style), Mushroom Paprika, Torpedo Shrimps, and Draft Beer at the Drum, a famous Hungarian restaurant near the Dohany Street Synagogue.

 Walking a little further towards the Danube by following the high-speed tram lines 4 and 6, one comes to Nyugati station with a majestic façade. The station caters to a few international stations like Bratislava, Prague, Kiev, Berlin, and Paris. Most of the other international trains operate from Keleti station which is almost at central Budapest. The beauty of the nineteenth-century Nyugati station is further enhanced by one of the largest and subtly decorated McDonalds restaurant, located on the adjacent space at one of the station’s exits to the boulevard. Corinthia, a grand historic hotel is located a few steps ahead. A lot of supermarkets such as Spars are there on both sides of the road leading to the station. Walk, walk, walk-that was exactly what we did during our many outings in Budapest. In a way taking advantage of the vantage of our apartment. Like, while walking down to the Danube we crossed the junction near the House of Terror and came to the promenade where 1940 styled shoes sculpted out of iron casting are lined up as a memorial to honor the Jews, including children, killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen. 

Conceived by film director Can Togay and shaped by Hungarian sculptor Gyula Pauer in 2005, this happens to be a unique memorial. After Germany occupied Hungary in March 1944, the Prime Minister was replaced by Nazi proxy Dome Szlojay. His first act was to legalize a fascist right-wing party Arrow Cross who subscribed to the Nazi ideology of 'master races'. Unable to protect the large Jewish community, Hungary's Regent Admiral Miklòs Horthy abdicated his position in October 1944. His place was taken by notorious Ferenc Szalasi, an evil Hungarian who partnered Eichmann in scheming criminal activities. As Allied and Soviet armies closed in on Budapest, Hungary's 'Jewish Solution' started waning. Members of the Arrow Cross Party Police known as ‘Nyllas’, with the help of Nazis went on a rampage within the city of Budapest. They picked up as many as thirty-eight thousand helpless Hungarian Jews from the Ghettos, Jewish Hospitals, and houses for poor Jews. Mostly hapless and helpless Jews like women, children, the sick, and the disabled. On orders from a capricious Hungarian government, they were hunted and herded on winters of December 1944 and January 1945, taken to the Danube riverside, alleys, and ditches in the city and killed. The killing was a sort of amusement then. At the riverside, the victims were ordered to take off their shoes and shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies were carried away by the Danube. So desperate were the Arrow Cross rogues that they repeated their ghastly acts almost every day openly in a large metropolis like Budapest till the arrival of the Soviet army in mid-January. A diabolic history! Sordid tales were created by sleazy characters. Mayhem, which had a nauseating effect on me.

                                                                                                                                       ....more in Part 2

Photo Courtesy: Arundhati Sengupta

chain bridge

Chain Bridge

grand boulevard
Grand Boulevard

Budapest Parliament

buda castle guard
With Guard at Budapest Castle

View of Pest from Buda

way to castle
Way to Buda Castle

Matthias Church near Buda Castle

fisherman bastion
Fisherman Bastion 

souvenir swhop
A souvenir shop near Buda castle

manhole cover
A view of a manhole cover at Buda Castle

Houdini Museum

houdini house
Inside Houdini House

houdini house
Houdini House

Bathyany Square on the Buda side. The square is named after Lajos Bathyany, the first Prime Minister of Hungary

Another view of Pest from Buda

Near Margaret Bridge

Through Hop Bus

St. Stephen's Basilica

Heroes Square

Budapest street scene

New York Cafe building in the night

Pedestrian Park at Boulevard

Vogue Cafe menu

Vogue Cafe

Hungarian Goulash

New York Cafe illumination

Buda Castle premises

Buda Castle premises

Hungarian restaurant Drum Cafe

Drum Cafe

Menu Card of Drum Cafe

Inside the famous Drum Cafe

Szabadsag Square fountain

Archangel Gabriel and German Imperial Eagle

Liberty Square

Memorial for Jews at Liberty Square

Memorial for Jews at Liberty Square

Memorial  at Liberty Square

Memorial  at Liberty Square

A very rare photo kept at the memorial shows Jewish women driven to extermination by the Arrow Cross Party Police on Budapest's famous Andrassy Avenue in 1944. Onlookers on sidewalks watch helplessly.

Anker Palace at Diak Ferenz ter (square). It is close to Dohany Synagogue.

budapest danube
Danube Shoe memorial


Linda Michel White said…
Thank you for sharing, Biswajit, this great post... I feel like I've just took a mini-vacation & saw the sites of interest, though I couldn't taste the goulash... I do remember seeing a photo of the parliament building lit up at night... It was breathtakingly beautiful... I'm 80 years old & have no desire to travel so you provided me with this trip... I'm a fan of Tom Barabas, an accomplished concert pianist & composer who moved to the US... His music is absolutely mesmerizing... I just had to investigate his homeland... Not too difficult to see why his music is so beautiful when looking at where it originated...
Terri Pattio said…
I enjoyed reading your blog post today and look forward to part two.
Madhumita Chakola said…
What a great piece of travelogue. Packed with information, fun facts and glimpses of personal details. Feels like I’ve been around Budapest. Can almost taste the goulash. All of this prompted me to listen to The Blue Danube waltz once again. Kudos Ranada.

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