Jewels of Bohemia September 2016 blog 10
Two hours after leaving Gyor we arrive in Budapest a huge city bustling with traffic, full of people, and with a haze of smog drifting above the skyscrapers of the city. Budapest is cut in half with Buda situated on the west bank of the Danube and Pest on the east bank of the mighty river. Waessik winds through the busy streets of Budapest and turns down a narrow street where our hotel is situated. There are cars parallel parked on both sides of the street which hardly gives our big bus room to squeeze through. A problem arises when to our right a small sedan hasn’t parked properly and is sticking out into the street a few inches and our bus needs every inch it can get to continue down the street. Waessik eases up to the poorly parked car and shakes his head at our demise. Waessik gets out of the bus and tries to push in the rearview mirror on the car to our left hoping this maneuver will give him a much-needed extra inch or two. Unfortunately, the mirror is fixed so our driver’s common sense idea doesn’t work. Waessik climbs back into the bus and continues to slowly ease the bus forward. I stare open-mouthed at the parked car to our left, certain that we are going to scrape if not pull the rearview mirror off. Ms. D can’t even bear to watch and ducks down in her seat. When no screeching of metal on metal is heard and we safely pass through the bottleneck, a collective sigh followed by nervous laughter rolls through the bus. Another round of applause please for our superb bus driver!
We unload in front of the K+K Hotel Opera, enter the hotel, and collect our electronic key and go to find our assigned rooms. Paul, me, and three other members of our group are in one corridor having problems in getting the door to our rooms open. We finally figure out that the handle we are trying to turn to open the door is only there for looks! Boy, do we all feel silly after tugging mightily on a handle that doesn’t move. When our group meets back in the lobby everyone admits that they too tried to open the door using the fake door handle instead of the little knob below it. Weird.
Tonight, we walk to a restaurant that is several blocks from our hotel for dinner. On the way, we step into the Opera house that is situated near our hotel, hence the name K+K hotel Opera I suppose. We can only stand in the foyer of what is considered one of the best Opera houses in the world, to admire a small portion of the beautiful interior because if you want a full tour you must pay for that. As we return to the street we hear a motorcycle engine revved up to a whine and soon the cyclist appears imitating Evil Knievel as he travels by us and beyond doing a spectacular wheelie. I must admit my mouth fell open in admiration at the driver’s stunt :).
We reach the restaurant and just before entering there are a few of us snapping photos. Across the street are several men, they have had a bit too much to drink I would guess, who make snide remarks about we tourists and our picture taking. We ignore them but I must say this is the first encounter we have had on our trip of people deliberately being rude and mouthy. Milan has tables reserved for us of course, and we settle into our chairs. The restaurant is busy and noisy but the food we are served soon makes us forget this. The wait staff serves us chicken which is placed on top of what our waiter calls potato stew. We have had wonderful food on this trip in my opinion but the potato dish tonight is at the top of the list.
When we have finished eating, Milan leads us through a part of the city which was once the Old Jewish Quarter which has now been converted to bars and restaurants. The area is full of people, mostly young folks, and it is still early. I can’t imagine what the crowd will be like later this evening. Milan points out an entrance to a popular roof top bar and says it has a great view of Budapest. Many of our group expresses an interest in checking it out but Paul and I aren’t one of them. Going to a crowded, loud, smoky bar just doesn’t appeal to us. We all return to the hotel, where Paul and I wish the others fun tonight, and then we retire to our room.
We have a leisurely start to the day as we don’t leave the hotel until nearly nine o’clock. Milan takes us to the metro and reiterates the importance of validating than keeping our tickets until we leave the underground system. I had written in my first blog that the metro escalator in Prague was so fast that it was difficult to get on and off. Actually, I got mixed up on the metros, as it is the old yellow line, (built in 1896), in Budapest that has the fast escalator and was not situated so deep under the ground. When we exit the old metro, we go deeper beneath the earth to catch a ride on the newer metro that takes us to our destination.
Emerging above ground again, Milan takes us to the Parliament building, (this building is huge and is touted as the 3rd largest in the world), to meet our local guide for the morning. Milan introduces us to the elderly gentleman who then leads us to wooden benches in front of the beautiful Parliament. Once our group is sitting down we listen to our guide relate history about Hungary, particularly the 1956 revolution. This man, I forget his name, was eleven years old when the Hungarians, led by workers and students, revolted against the Russians who occupied Hungary in a fight for the country’s freedom. It was in this very square where peaceful protesters were fired upon by the government which killed several people and wounded many others. This incident was what escalated the revolt of 1956. I can’t relate the history of the short-lived revolution without writing pages about it. To put it very simply the Hungarian people amazingly had success against the Russians for a few days but then the Russians brought in the big guns so to speak and the Hungarian people were crushed, many of the revolutionists fleeing to Austria to save themselves. A great book to read about this incredible story of ordinary people going up against a military giant is James Michener’s nonfiction book called “The Bridge at Andau”.
Our guide takes us to Freedom square where a larger than life statue of Ronald Reagan stands looking as though he is out for a stroll. President Reagan is much admired here for his efforts to fight communism. Our knowledgeable guide then leads us to the Danube Promenade to see what is known as the shoe memorial. Here there are dozens of pair of iron shoes lined up along the bank of the Danube River. The shoes are a memorial to the thousands of mostly Jewish people who the Arrowcross militants murdered from 1945-46. The victims were told to take their shoes off before the fascist group shot them, shoes being valuable at that time. The victims’ bodies then dropped into the Danube to be washed away. We have seen many, (too many), memorials to Jewish victims of the war on this trip but the shoe memorial is just gut-wrenching and the one that has a lingering effect on me.
We say good-bye to our local guide and proceed to take the metro back to the hotel where we load up on the bus. Waessik drives us to the small town of Szentendre where we eat lunch in a small restaurant which is packed with patrons due to its popularity. After the tasty lunch, we hike up to a high point in the village where we look out over the town and countryside. After Milan talks about the history of Szentendre and its historical buildings, some of our group returns to the shopping area while the rest of us follow Milan to take a closer look at the beautiful buildings. We meet back at the bus at 3:00 and return to the hotel. I might add that it is really hot today!
There is a Jewish festival taking place nearly in front of our hotel so Paul, Jennifer and I listen to a young woman sing a couple of songs. Her voice is beautiful but it is so hot we retire to the comfort of our air- conditioned rooms! The three of us meet in the lobby at six o’clock and walk to a nearby restaurant for dinner. I’m feeling pretty proud of myself, having only eaten a yummy quinoa salad, but when we pass an ice cream stand on our way back to the hotel we all cave into the temptation. Our will power is pathetic!
Our group meets in the lobby at 8:00 tonight as we are going for an evening boat ride on the Danube. Milan tells us that he wants to make an unscheduled stop before catching our boat since we have plenty of time before the boat casts off. We get off the bus and join other people walking up Gellert Hill. We reach the first of many points on our uphill march where we stop to look over Budapest. The city is lit up like a Christmas tree and the Danube is sparkling due to the lights reflecting in the water. Our group exclaims with delight at the stunning view as we take photos of the scene below us. Milan who I think is tickled with our reaction to this impromptu stop, leads us farther up Gellert Hill until we reach the summit. At the top of the hill there is a statue of a woman holding a palm leaf over her head which is called Liberation Monument. The monument is bathed in floodlights giving it an ethereal glow. After admiring the sculpture for a time, Milan informs us we must head back to the bus. On our descent, we can’t help but stop now and then to soak in the sight of glittering Budapest.
Waessik delivers us near the dock where we will board the ship for our cruise on the Danube. When we reach the steps that lead down to the mooring, Milan leaves us standing behind a large group of Russian tourists while he goes down to where the boats are docked. When Milan reappears, he climbs up a few steps and gestures for us to come on down. As we cut in front of the Russians some unintelligible words are pointed our way. Milan laughs when we have left the Russians behind and says “they don’t know that I can speak Russian”. Milan doesn’t tell us what the Russians said so I guess we probably don’t want to know :).
We assumed that we were sharing a boat with the group we jumped ahead of and this was why they were ticked off. To our great surprise, our group of fifteen has a boat all to ourselves. How wonderful (and expensive) is that! There are chairs set in the prow of the boat so we have an unobstructed view of the glorious sights along the banks of the Danube. Once we are settled into our chairs, the captain casts off and we are cruising down the Danube. Milan disappears into the cabin behind us and becomes our moderator for the cruise, telling us about the sites that we are floating by.
I am having a hard time getting a decent photo and I become somewhat obsessed and whiny about my inability to capture the beauty of the buildings that are awash in lights. Jennifer suggests that I just sit back and enjoy the scenic ride and I realize that I should take her advice! I still try to take some photos, particularly when we glide by the extraordinary Parliament building, but I do sit back, relax, and enjoy the beauty of this cruise.
Oh my word, the Parliament is shining so brightly that there are a flock of seagulls circling above the vibrant building, the poor birds must think the sun is coming up. At some point on our tour, Paul quips that Hungary could supply the whole country with power for a month with the energy it takes to light up the buildings along the Danube for one night. Hmm, he could be right but boy is all that “wasted” energy a feast for the eyes.
The terrific Danube cruise comes to an end and we thank the captain before disembarking from the boat. On our way to the bus all of us express our gratitude to Milan for treating us to such an exhilarating evening. This was definitely a highlight, (among many), of our Jewels of Bohemia adventure. A very happy and satisfied group of people are delivered back to the hotel about ten o’clock.
Paul and I are up early as he wants to use the hotel computers to print out our airplane tickets for our very early flight tomorrow. After Paul has our tickets in hand we go to breakfast. Soon after breakfast we leave for a city tour with our local guide, Helga. As we drive through Budapest, Helga points out various buildings and recites the history of them. Our blonde guide also remarks on how restoration is still ongoing in Budapest so it is possible to still find bullet holes in the facades of various buildings. We arrive in the parking lot adjacent to Hero’s Square and Helga snaps an order that we should try to be off the bus in two minutes. Whoa, I think our guide is channeling a past life as a drill sergeant. We do manage to get off the bus in the specified time and we march behind our guide, across the street onto the impressive Hero’s square.
Helga maneuvers us near the tomb of the Unknown Soldier where we listen as she identifies the various people who are represented in the many statues here. The center sculpture is topped by the Archangel Gabriel and below him are representatives of the seven Magyar tribes that settled this part of Europe, all of them astride horses. Helga continues moving through Hungary’s history and at one point talks about the German occupation of Hungary. Oops, Milan has already discussed with our group how Hungary seems to be trying to rewrite their history by saying that Germany occupied them when in fact the two countries were allies. Our guide’s body language shows that this statement doesn’t set well with him but showing his class, he says nothing to refute Helga. Before Helga is finished speaking to us, we are becoming increasingly uncomfortable in the heat and there is a bit of grumbling about where we are standing. All the other groups are situated in the shade of the memorial walls that house the statues of various kings and prominent leaders of Hungary’s’ past. We are not quite sure why we didn’t join them in that shade. Once the history lesson is over, we are given time to peruse the solemn statues and take photos before returning to the bus.
From Hero’s Square, we venture on to St. Stephens Basilica for a tour of the enormous church. The Basilica is gorgeous with beautiful marble columns, stained glass windows, and of course stunning frescos on the ceiling. Helga escorts us to a room where we join a line of people waiting to see the hand of St. Stephens. Soon it is our turn to view the mummified hand which is contained in an ornate box. Helga gives the caretaker of the hand some money and he illuminates the box so we can look at the sacred hand of St. Stephen. Personally, I can’t make a hand out of the dark object that sits in the box but frankly I don’t really care because I find this a bit gruesome. However, St. Stephen is so admired by Hungarians that every year on the 20th of August, the hallowed hand is presented to the people via a parade in the city.
Our next stop on our tour with Helga is Castle Hill which is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Helga informs us that the famous Castle Hill is still a residential area with many people living here despite being such a popular tourist destination. We follow Helga through the old town until we reach the Matthias Church where another statue of the renowned St. Stephen stands in front of nearby Fishermen’s Bastion. Helga fills us in on some more history about Castle Hill then we are given some free time. Before we break ranks Helga suggests we use the restrooms in the Hilton, but also adds that “you didn’t hear this from me”.
Once we are on our own Paul, Jennifer and I wander around in the heat admiring the fantastic buildings, esp. the 700-year-old Matthias Church, and enjoying the view from the Fishermen’s’ Bastion. Jennifer and I need a bathroom break but Paul decides to take a seat on a bench rather than walk down to the Hilton with us. What a relief when we walk into the lobby of the plush hotel and cold air rushes over us. Jennifer and I run into Mr. B and Ms. A who direct us to the restrooms. We encounter more of our group on the same mission as us who also heeded Helga’s advice. Jennifer and I decide to take a cue from Mr. B and Ms. A and we sink into a couch in the lobby and enjoy the cool air since we aren’t due at the bus pickup zone for a while. Paul probably is wondering where the heck we are! The two of us reluctantly leave the comfort of the Hilton and Paul is still sitting where we left him. The three of us stroll to the bus stop where many of our group is already waiting and the rest of them soon show up. There is no shade to be found here so all of us are very happy when our bus arrives.
From Castle Hill, we proceed to the Covered market. I can’t recall when Helga left us but I’m sure we all thanked her profusely for her time. I do know that Milan has taken charge of us again when we walk to the market. Paul and I have been to many markets around the world so we had some idea of what we were about to experience. Upon entering the large structure, Milan informs us that the floor where we are now is where vegetables, meat, etc. is sold while the second floor is where crafts, clothes and food stands are located.
Since we are all hungry we make a beeline for the second floor. Milan has recommended trying langos (sp?) since they are a traditional Hungarian dish so Jennifer, Paul and I settle on langos for lunch. When we find the stall that is selling langos we join a line of people waiting to place their order. Langos appear to be a version of fast food as you tell the vendor what toppings you want placed on the flat piece of bread and pay per items you choose. There isn’t a lot of room to sit but a young man who is standing at a table nods to me and I see that there is room for us at his table. The three sisters also end up at our table which livens up our lunch! We enjoy visiting with this polite young man from Romania who came to Hungary to run in the marathon yesterday. He is delighted to learn that Paul and I have visited his fascinating country. He informs us that he has tried to obtain a visa to the USA three times but his requests were denied. The fellow says that he really wants to see America but due to the time and cost involved to try to procure a visa he has given up his dream. How sad is that.
After lunch, (the langos were tasty but very hard to eat), the three of us return to the lower floor to look at the various stalls piled high with all varieties of vegetables. The meat cases have items we would not see in our part of the country such as duck legs and duck’s heads. Yikes. Jennifer wanders off to do some shopping and Paul and I spend a lot of time taking photos of the interesting displays of food. I do join Jennifer on her quest to buy some paprika, Hungary is famous for paprika, as I want to take some back to Connie. Once that task has been fulfilled we look around a bit more before we must converge with the rest of the group at the allotted meeting time to return to the bus.
Our group has gathered at the entrance where Milan is waiting for us. Milan pulls out a sack of candy from that magical satchel and urges us to try the popular Hungarian sweet he has bought for us. The candy is quite tasty and I believe some people have a second piece, Paul included. Milan gives us the choice of riding back to the hotel on the bus or walking. Mr. D and Ms. C opt to walk but the rest of us climb into the air-conditioned bus. We return to the hotel mid-afternoon where Jennifer, Paul and I agree to meet in an hour or so to explore a bit more of Budapest, and to also have a beer :).
Once in our room Paul and I do most of our packing and then rest for a bit. We meet Jennifer in the lobby and walk down to the main street. We turn down streets that we haven’t been on before and just wander. Paul discovers some bullet holes in a building along with chunks of stone missing here and there, which is probably war damage too. We stop to watch a film crew at work across the street and run into the three sisters who are also out exploring. Settling at an outside café to have a beer we are waited on by a young man who takes time to visit with us. Again, we hear the story of trying to get a visa to the USA but he too did not have any luck. He intends to try again and feels like he may have a better chance this time. We wish him well. We return to the hotel to freshen up before dinner. We do have a short meeting before we leave for dinner in which Milan tells us the time most of us will leave for the airport, (our flight is at 6 a.m.), when to have our luggage out, and so on. He also asks us for any suggestions for this trip and most of us say we would have liked to have another day in Bratislava. We all express our delight with the trip and with our guide and Ms. J does an exceptional job in thanking Milan for all the extra work he does that we aren’t aware of. Everyone then hands Milan a more concrete form of appreciation for the spectacular job he has done and he tucks the envelopes containing the tips into his black satchel.
This evening we again walk several blocks to the restaurant where we are having our farewell dinner. Milan has arranged for us to be serenaded throughout the meal with gypsy music which entails a violinist and a pianist. Ms. A is thrilled with the violinist since she used to and perhaps still does play the violin. Ms. A requests a piece of music that she played at her recital as a youngster and to her delight the musician plays it for her and plays it beautifully! The meal is delicious with way too much food to eat as usual. It was a great farewell dinner that everyone thoroughly enjoyed.
Upon our return to the hotel we say goodbye to the energetic sisters and to Mr. D and Ms. C who are not flying out of Budapest at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m.! The rest of us will say our goodbyes at the Budapest airport although Ms. D is on the same flight as we Kansans back to the states. It has been a wonderful trip through fascinating countries, with a fun and interesting group, lead by one of if not the best guide Paul and I have ever had. Until our next adventure, Nancy