Tuesday 1 September 2015

Miles from Budapest

Hungary, 27th – 30th August 2015

The view from Gellért Hill
We’re currently parked up in Tihani on the northwest side of Lake Balaton, having just spent four great days in Budapest.  Our original plan was to only spend two nights with one day visiting Budapest as we’re not really city people and we wanted our stay in Hungary to be under the weekly budget to make up for the next country—Croatia—which we expect to be expensive.  However we found ourselves quite taken with Budapest, and after the two days we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave when there was still so much more to see.

For our stay, we travelled into the city from Visegrad (via a Lidl, where we were excited to find real bacon for the first time since the UK!) until we reached Camping Haller (GPS: 47.47610, 19.08364, 6900Ft, approx. £16/€22, including electric, WiFi and washing machines, every 4th night is free).  There were a few campsites in our
ACSI book including some that had already started offering discounts for the low season, but this was the most central site and the machines called out to our backlog of laundry.  Whilst we were entering the campsite we spotted another Dethleffs just pulling out, and after another quick glance we realised it was Colin and Ro, the Aussies who we’d met at Bucharest two weeks ago.  We chatted to them through the van windows (until another car pulled up behind and we had to move) and found out they’d been in Budapest for eight days.  It’s unfortunate they happened to be leaving when we arrived, although they were heading for Lake Balaton next so we’ll have to keep our eyes peeled in case we bump into them again!

The Parliament building lit up at night
Thoughts on Budapest itself: it’s probably our favourite city so far.  There is a very comprehensive public transport network of trams, buses and metro lines that make it very easy to navigate, and you can get a 24hr pass that covers unlimited travel on all three, as well as a few boat lines on weekdays, for the equivalent of around £4/€5.30 (single tickets and 72hr passes are also available).  The place is clean and attractive, with lots of places to see and things to do.  We were constantly getting the cameras out because the city is just one of those places that demands to be photographed.

The city is divided in the middle by the river Danube.  The west side (Buda) is home to the very attractive castle district and Gellért hill, whilst the east side (Pest) is home to the Parliament building and city centre.  The city is very rich in history and if—unlike Matt and I—you are museum people, you will find plenty of museums to visit.  We took an evening cruise on the first night (provided by the campsite for €4) to acquaint ourselves with the city, which followed the river past all of the main bridges and showed a lot of the main landmarks lit up and included a free glass of wine.

A few of the bridges on the Danube lit up at night - I'll have to double check their names when we're on a WiFi connection 

The Castle District
On our first day we visited Castle Hill, which as well as the castle is also home to the Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion.  Partway between the church and the castle is Sándor Palace, which is the main residence of the Hungarian president and certainly a lot more appealing than Downing Street, being surrounded by gardens and a fantastic view out over the city.  An even greater view can be found if you’re willing to travel to the Liberty Statue (easily accessible by bus) at the top of Gellért hill, built in 1854 next to the Citadel.

Margit-sziget (Margaret Island)
One of our favourite places was Margit-sziget (or Margaret Island), which is a stretch of land in the middle of the Danube in the northern area of Budapest that was home to St Margaret in the 13th century (the convent she lived in is now ruins).  The whole island is now a public park and a rather beautiful one at that, as well as a fantastic refuge from the heat with lots of trees and drinking water taps.  We arrived at the island to the sound of music, which upon following to the source we discovered to be coming from a fountain with synchronised music displays, the likes of which I haven’t seen since a childhood trip to Vegas.  The fountain has hourly shows with four songs, but later during our trip we returned at 9pm as there is a longer illuminated display at this time that lasts nearly an hour.

The fountain at day and at night

The Millenial Monument in Heroes' Square
We also visited City Park, but weren’t quite as impressed with it.  The park itself is nice and is worth a wander around, but after Margaret Island it had a lot to live up to.  As well as Budapest Zoo, it is also home to Vajdahunyad Castle and Heroes' Square, where there is a statue of the archangel Gabriel surrounded by smaller statues of figures from Hungarian history.

We spent one night in the city centre and in our pursuit to find Matt a mojito, we stumbled across his perfect bar.  MINI Bar Budapest is in the square in front of St Stephen’s Basilica, and the whole place is MINI themed, with chequered flags and Union Jacks decorating the walls and floors, and MINI tags stitched into the seating like the car seats have.  Even if you’re not into your cars I’d still give it a visit; their Ultimate Mojito is quite possibly the best mojito I’ve tasted.  I think it’s safe to say that our student days are behind us however, as we called it a night and started heading home a little after midnight.

The campsite was very busy during our stay, in large part due
to a Smart car gathering taking place across the city.  We
happened to be in the city centre when the police guided a
convoy of hundreds through (thankfully not all of them
staying at our campsite!)
We met some great people while we were in the city.  On our second night, we decided to give the campsite’s restaurant a go but there were no tables free when we arrived; a German couple invited us to join them at their table, and although we never quite caught their names we ended up spending the evening with them chatting and drinking Palinka (the Hungarian equivalent of Ouzo or Grappa) until the restaurant was closing.  The man had learned English years ago when he spent six months travelling through America.  He had to get there via a cargo ship that took several days, which really makes you appreciate how easy we have it in this day and age when we can just hop on a plane to any part of the world.  On our final night we met Mike and Marie (hello if you’re reading this!), the first British couple we’d spoken to in over two months, who had visited Bratislava and Prague before Budapest.  Matt initially popped over to say hello but before we knew it we’d been chatting away over some lager for a couple of hours, returning to our van only when the need for food and refuge from mosquitoes grew too great.

Overall we’ve had a great time in Budapest, and it has certainly softened our outlook on going near cities after our visit to Bucharest (which we found rather lacklustre).  It’s certainly somewhere we’d think about maybe coming back to in the future on a city break.  We’ve arrived at Lake Balaton now, so we’ll be spending a couple of days exploring this area whilst our Hungarian vignette is still valid.  We could potentially stay in Hungary a little longer than this (if we either renew the vignette or attempt to stick to the non-vignette roads), but for now we’re going to enjoy our last couple of nights before crossing over into Croatia.

- Jo

Plenty More Photos of Budapest:

St. Matthias Church and its colourful tiled roof

A few more shots from around the Castle District

Sandor Palace - the official residence of the Hungarian President

Two views from the castle area and an interesting sculpture near Szell Gellert metro station

If you don't want to walk, the Funicular will take you up
to the castle (or you could just get the 16/16A bus,
which has none of the queues or huge price tag)
The Zero Milestone - dotted around the circle on the
bottom are the distances to some of the main places
in Hungary
Shoes by the Danube - a memorial in honour
of those shot into the river by Nazis
St. Stephen's Basilica
Left to Right: The gardens on Gellért Hill, Vorosmarty Ter, and Chain Bridge - the first permanent bridge joining the city

The Metro Stations varied from the basic dingy commuter stops to the modern grandly decorated with impressive entrances (as with Szell-Gellert Tér above)
The Liberty Statue on Gellért Hill
A church in the castle grounds in City Park
Some more shots from Margaret Island
A partially covered food market in the Jewish Quarter
The Garden of the Just, behind the Great Synagogue - names
of holocaust victims are engraved on the leaves of the statue

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