The train left Belgrade at 6:45 in the morning, and I was really glad to have excellent reading material. See, we didn’t have the paperwork for registering with the police, which you are supposed to have…I had heard horror stories of steep fines, but had also heard that 95% of the time it is okay. It was a huge relief when the border guards stamped us out of Serbia without batting an eye. Phew. And now we were in Hungary! Home of spicy food in Europe! We arrived in Budapest, whisked ourselves to the hostel, and took ourselves for a pretty walk out to the river to drink in our first views of both sides of the Danube.
The next morning, we had fresh legs and eyes and were ready to face this labyrinth of history. As we were staying on the Pest side of the river, we decided to tackle that first. We headed out without a real plan, just a map and a vague desire to get to the vegan restaurant that came highly recommended from the hostel staff by lunchtime. As we wandered along, our first major discovery was the St Stephen’s Basilica, still rather empty on a Wednesday morning. The main church gave me the feeling of a forest, with its red marble columns and hints of green everywhere, the fantastic pastel yellow dome like the sun. In the back chapel, we were able to see the reliquary with St Stephen’s hand and learn about this saint who was also the first official kind of Hungary. Upon leaving, we passed the Great Synagogue on the way to VegaCity, but decided to leave it to the next day. By the way, the vegan food was amazing. I might dream about that Hungarian pancake with paprikash for the rest of my life.
Finally fed and eager for more exploration, we followed our noses to the Grand Central Market, which was abuzz with both locals and visitors, buying all manner of fruit, veg, cheese, meat, spice, and so on. We indulged in some mulled wine before purchasing a pack of paprika labeled “Extra Hot”…which I suppose it might be if we didn’t have Korean-tuned taste buds. Out of the market, we turned left and crossed the Green Bridge into the quieter and more parklike Buda. Passing the Cave Church and the famous Gellert Baths, we headed up the huge hill to the Victory Monument and Fortress Citadel.
At the top, there were amazing panoramic views of the city, but half the beauty had been in the climb through the densely forested park that was just beginning to show its fall colors. On the way back down the hill, we got even better views of the City Palace and even found a strange little monument hidden away on the slope, as well as an ivy clad waterfall down near the Elizabeth (or White) Bridge. From there, we crossed back into Pest and retraced our steps to find the organic shop that also sold vegan sausages that were made in the same style as the ubiquitous Hungarian smoked sausages. Who would have guessed that Budapest would be a bit of a haven for veg*n types? Of course, Sangbyeong got to be the guinea pig for all the regular Hungarian streets food, from langos to chimney cakes.
As promised, our first destination the next morning was the Great Synagogue we had passed the day before. It was still early in the morning, so the line was very short and we went straight in. It amused me no end, after all the head coverings I had to wear in both mosques and Orthodox churches along the journey, to see Sangbyeong don a yarmulke. The main synagogue itself is spectacular, but oddly reminiscent of the major churches, with its naves and pipe organs. We gaped and gawped a while, then headed to the small, but extremely thorough museum next door.
The first room consisted of treasures from bygone eras. Torah crowns, breastplates, pointers, and the scrolls themselves were out on display, silver and gold glittering from each of the cases. In the next room, items representing the traditions from each of the major holidays were laid out with short descriptions about each holiday’s story and purpose. It was fun to translate all of that into Korean. The final room was dedicated to the effects of the Holocaust in Hungary, both under its own Fascist regime and during the full on Nazi takeover in 1944. Among the horror, a place of honor was also given to a bust of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swede who saved between 10,000 and 15,000 Jews before he was captured and executed.
Back outside in the Memorial Garden, there is a mass grave for over 2200 residents of Budapest’s Jewish Quarter who died when the Jewish Quarter was cut off from food and water. In one of the photos, you can see a placard, showing a photo of the courtyard stacked with bodies and the current courtyard in the background. Behind the garden are several sculptures of remembrance, most notably the Tree of Life, each silver leaf inscribed with a Budapest Jew who died. The grave of Raoul Wallenberg is also there, covered in stones, as is the Jewish tradition. Later in the afternoon, we passed another Holocaust memorial on the banks of the Danube. Shoes. Lined up where the people were lined up to be shot, so that their bodies would fall into the river.
The next day it was Halloween! Thick fog boiled up from the river as we crossed the bridge to the train station, where we bought tickets to the little burg of Szentendre. This village used to house a community of bohemian artists more than a century ago and still boasts a variety of artisans and local craftsmen. As well as a gorgeous Baroque old town to wander around on a misty, mysterious Halloween morning.
As morning turned into afternoon, the fog finally withdrew a bit and we were able to see the other side of the river and its resident ducks. Although the town is said to be very crowded in the summer, we were practically alone as we strolled up and down the alleys, admiring all the whimsical touches to the buildings. We returned to Budapest in the late afternoon, walking back to our hostel via the Chain Bridge, with its fantastic lions, and the Fall Food Festival, all decked out for Halloween.
All Saint’s Day is an official holiday in Hungary, so we got into the local spirit by heading to the nearby Margit Island, a huge green park with everything you need, from Japanese gardens to spas to a zoo. We were enchanted by the friendly ducks and storks at the zoo that would gently pick food out of your hand. From the island, we walked the long back way to City Park, where we entered its fairy tale like castle, full of street performers and statues.
Nearby, we passed through the Heroes Square, a grand monument to all the great leaders of Hungary since its inception more than a thousand years ago. Great warriors, kings, and saints stand in stern rows, while equally stern soldiers keep watch from their ceremonial positions. Darkness was falling fast, and we raced to the country’s largest cemetery to see the true All Saint’s tradition here. The place was aglow with candles, heavily scented with flowers and pine wreaths, and crowds of the living were there to decorate graves and honor their dead, both family and historic Hungarians. It felt like the perfect finish to our enchanted time in Budapest to wander in that atmosphere.
Five days flew past, but we still boarded our bus to Bratislava, ready for the next spell.