Monday, January 18, 2010

I'm kind of a Pesty girl! Budapest Part 1

To get a visual idea of Budapest, you first have to know that it is a city split over a river. One side named Buda and the other, Pest. Think of Longview and Kelso if it were one city. Only joined together in 1873, Buda is the older side of the city, and houses a huge castle that overlooks the flat plains of the Pest side and it's gorgeous buildings. Theresa and I managed to get our own apartment right in the center of town for only 20€ a night together! With Hungarian TV and a real Budapest apartment, we really got the feeling of the life there right from the first night.
After an 8-hour train ride from Prague, we still managed enough energy to go out and get a first impression of Budapest. Well, I guess coming in on the train, we had already established one, but the grafitti walls and drab buildings didn't do much to entice me, so we headed towards the most beautiful things in the city, starting with the Chain Bridge. Now, this bridge is pretty magnificent mostly because it was the first bridge to connect Buda with Pest in 1849. I guess before that they just took boats from side to side? Regardless of their previous city unity, the bridge is now a symbol of the city. From our vantage point, we had a perfect view of the Buda Hills and the Old Royal Palace glowing in the dark. At both ends of the bridge are two huge stone lions guarding the bridge. After the sculptor finished these decorations he was convinced he had forgotten to give them tongues and threw himself over this very bridge and drowned. Turns out, he did carve them. Whoops!
Since night was nearing we decided to save the trek across the bridge until the next day and instead started playing in the snow. In this entire trip (Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Bamberg, Prague and now Budapest) I had not had one single day of temperatures above freezing. We basically just gave up on trying to be warm and instead started throwing snowballs, making mini snowmen and eating snow (well, it was just me eating snow because for some reason I think it's delicious while most people thinks its really dirty and gross.)

The street we stayed on was called Vací Utca. Utca means street in Magyar. Speaking of Magyar, I think it was even more confusing than Czech! Now I am a big fan of eavesdropping and trying to guess people's languages, but Magyar seemed like a huge mix, which made it impossible to figure out. Some words sound English, while some are pronounced with a French accent and others with Italian innotation! Impossible! They say that there are 4 languages on the European continent that are not related to any other language on the continent. They are: Basque (yea, welcome to my every day life!), Gaelic, Finnish and Hungarian (or Magyar) as they call it. Getting back to Vací Utca, it is basically the shopping district of Budapest with streets full of all the popular chains. Casually placed between huge stores are gorgeous old buildings that seem out of place with thier impressive facades and grand features.

A quick Budapest history lesson will give you a visual idea of just how old these buildings are (or aren' decide). Founded in 1AD, Buda was ruled by the Romans, Bulgarians, Ottomans, Hapsburgs and finally in 1867 the Communist Party of Hungary ruled their own country. They ruled and development flourished until WWI, at which point Pest had become the main hub of the city. When Austria-Hungary lost the war, Hungary was declared an independent republic. In the process of becoming a country however, Hungary lost about 2/3 of it's land and inhabitants to neighboring countries. This new country was hit with even worse problems than land loss by the start of WWII. In the Battle of Budapest in 1944 and 1945, the city was badly damaged and most of the buildings and every bridge was destroyed. When the war ended though, power just transferred to the Soviets and remained until 1956, when the Hungarian Revolution finally won their own country back. It was only then that the majority of buildings were renovated and rebuilt. So, most of the buildings we were admiring we built a mere 60 years ago! Normally I am impressed with the extreme age of buildings in Europe, but Budapest has buildings that are younger than most American cities! As you walk around you see buildings that look like they were just blown up by a bomb and somewhat salvaged back together, but also you see goregous art nouveau buildings that were somehow spared from destruction in the wars. It is a construction contradiction that plays in your head as you gaze at your surroundings in this Eastern European capital.

Beautiful buildings and massive bridges aside, our most memorable part of the first night was our burners. Loaded with groceries for a feast, we stuck our huge old-fashioned key into the turn and were ready to start cooking! Turns out, these gas burners are quite fussy and after about 20 minutes of trying to figure it out we gave up and went to bed hungry. The next day we made a point to ask the hostel manager how to turn it on and it seems that each finniky burner needs to be held 'on' for about 5 minutes before you can let the switch and have it stay on. I guess thats what happens when you stay in an old building.

The next morning we got up bright and early and of course were greeted with snow. This time we made it across the Chain Bridge and at the other end boarded a funicular (basically an enclosed ski lift) that took us to the top of the Buda Hills. The views going up, although they only lasted for about 40 seconds, were fantastic, as we rose above the Chain Bridge with the St. Stephen's Basilica as the backdrop and the grand Parliament on the left. I think it is one of the most popular postcard scenes, but all of the postcards I saw showed it with a gorgeous blue sky. Our view was a bit more...gray. Grammy, this is the view that you have on your postcard that I warned I would probably put a similar photo of on the blog! Here it is! Isn't your postcard so much more picturesque?

Once at the end of our 40 seconds of excitement we were on the top of the Buda Hills, the oldest part of Buda. With foundations from 800 years ago, from the top of the hill you can see why the founders picked this as their location. With a view as far as you can see of the city, even farther had there not been clouds spitting out snow. The Buda Hills are no longer a walled city anymore and instead you can wander freely from one side to the other. We started on the site of the Old Royal Palace - a giant mansion that is now being used to display Hungarian works of art in the National Gallery. A rather drab, brown building, the Palace does boast a massive green dome that seems to bring the Gallery to life. Seeing as that it was about 10€ to get in and that I don't know any Hungarian painters, we passed on the museum entrance and instead meandered onto a different part of Buda Hills - the Old Part. While walking there we followed 3 janitors. Jolly men, they sang and kept changing walking positions the whole way, which comically seemed like they were in a musical and the brooms and mop buckets were their props.

The Old Part consists of little old shops, restaurants, an underground city of mazes, the Mattias Church and the Fisherman's Bastion. The most well-known is the Mattias Church. We saw it glowing on the hill the night before and up close you can obviously better appreciate the detail that went into the making of this 13th century cathedral. The thing that I thought gave the church it's character was the roof. Tiled with different colors, the geometric designs in multicolored shapes gave the roof a feeling of excitement, eventhough it was half covered in snow! Because the church didn't escape damaged in the wars, it now looks like a gothic church but actually has the floor plan from 700 years ago.

Directly in front of the church, two-storied and looking over the edge of the hill sat the Fisherman's Bastion. It sounds like you could buy a nice salmon there, but really it is a gorgeous terrace with 7 towers, representing the 7 different Hungarian tribes that settled in the area in 896. It is so named because it was built on the site of the old fish market and in 1895 was owned by the Fisherman's Guild, but really it has nothing to do with fish at all. The terrace, with its light-colored stone, sort of blended in with the flurrying snow all around but managed to provide a perfect view of the Pest side of town in all of its glory.

Conveniently in the Old Part there was a post office, which are pretty hard to come by in Budapest. In Prague, because I didn't assume the clerk spoke English, I made a fool out of myself by holding up my postcard, pointing to the spot for the stamps and said 'fiveeeeeeee, stampppppps (while circiling the spot for a stamp), to the UUUUSSSSAAA (while pointing to the address I had written). Basically I acted like the clerk wasn't going to know any English and she suprised me when she replied in perfect English with the price. I didn't make the same mistake again in Budapest, and instead just said 5 stamps to the USA please, and of course, she understood. Stupid Americans!
Stamps in hand, we caught the metro back to Pest and warmed ourselves up with the typical Hungarian dish - goulash soup. Now, I would explain it just as a beef stew with a little more spice, but maybe I missed something. We heard that Hungarian food is similar to that of food in Germany or Austria, but that it is a little more spicy. Hungarians pride themselves on paprika, a much-used spice and in the restaurant we visited they had it hanging off the walls, which made me feel like I was more in a Mexican restaurant with chili peppers hanging on the walls. Regardless, the soup warmed us up and we were on our way for more exploring!

Since it is getting late here, I am going to cut this one short tonight! I promise I will finish telling you all about Budapest soon!

Puszi! (Kiss in Magyar!)

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