My son, in his wisdom, gave us his best travel advice when my husband and I travelled to Budapest: Don’t Go Hungry in Hungary.
Ah, the raving puns of an almost nine year old boy. He proved, at least, his hard work on understanding euphemisms is paying off. #proudautismparent
We did not go hungry in Hungary. Not only did we love sampling foods from the Budapest Christmas market, but we also toured (and nibbled) in the Great Market Hall. Little did I know that paprika is a national treasure.
Budapest is a fascinating city.
The modern city straddles the Danube River, the second largest river in Europe, and the inspiration behind The Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Struass II. I first heard this wonderful piece of music in the Looney Toons cartoon, A Corny Concerto: Waltz of the Geese.
Budapest was once two separate cities across the river from each other, Buda and Pest, each with rich history and diverse politics. Empires rose and fell on the lands now united in modern times as the city of Budapest.
Unfortunately, the complex history of the capital of Hungary also makes Budapest a difficult place to visit for ancient history geeks like me. Little remains of the original foundations of the city, or its medieval ancestry. Budapest certainly knows its share of devastation.
During WWII, the Siege of Budapest was one of the bloodiest known during the war, destroying the “Pearl of the Danube.” All of the bridges connecting the two halves of the city had been destroyed and much of the city levelled. Remains of buildings crown the majestic Castle District. Here, I stumbled upon the changing of the guards in front of the Presidential Palace.
30 years of Soviet military occupation after WWII meant Hungarians experienced violent conditions for generations. The last communist troops left in 1991.
The Underground Hospital
In the Castle District, Buda Castle sits atop a high hill overlooking the
rejuvenated city. Beneath this World Heritage Site is the Hospital in the Rock (Sziklakórház), a former WWII hospital and nuclear fall out shelter.
You must tour this facility. 10 Km of natural cave systems used during the Middle Ages had been extended in 1941 as an air raid shelter and treatment facility. Originally meant to serve 94 patients, the wartime needs exceeded triple capacity. Patients laid on every flat surface and doubled up where possible.
The museum requests no photos, which I respected. If you get a Budapest City tourist card, you get a discount on the tour. The tour lasts about an hour, in various languages.
We saw the surgery, x-ray room, and treatment spaces for the hospital, as well as kitchens and dorms. The tour also includes the still-functioning original equipment for electricity and ventilation. One of the vents reaches a space near the Jamie Oliver Italian restaurant. You’d never know you’re eating above a keystone of national history!
During the cold war, the facility was retrofitted as a nuclear fallout and decontamination treatment centre. The tour includes is a heart-wrenching display about the atrocities of modern warfare and nuclear arms race. Photographs are not permitted on the tour, but there is a booklet available with photos and historical details.
Beat Up, Not Beaten
Budapest feels like a city proud of its heritage and of its recovery from centuries of political turmoil. City officials continue to rebuild structures to their original state of beautification. Memorials and statues stand testament to the stalwart nature of its people. Budapest has the allure of an old European city with the modern touches (i.e. hop-on-off bus tours, Starbucks) attractive to Western tourists.
Instead of heading to the familiar green mermaid, we enjoyed coffee (HOT CHOCOLATE!!!) at a Gerbeaud, a local chocolatier since 1858. OMG SO GOOD!! My apologies for the caps, but this was the best chocolate I had on my entire Christmas holiday. Rich chocolate infused with cherry brandy, how could I not fall in love.
In case you’re wondering, it’s fairly easy to get around the tourist areas without speaking Hungarian. Hungarian is a tricky language used only within the country. However, we accomplished our usual goal of learning how to say please, thank-you, and “two beers.”
The only time language was a problem was when Bruce tried to tip the driver we’d pre-arranged to get the hotel. The man was charming, despite his broken English. His vehicle and service impeccable. We arrived at our hotel and Bruce signed the form authorizing payment. He previously looked up taxi fares and tipping etiquette.
However, he forgot the amount to write down. So when the man politely questioned the amount, Bruce responded, “That’s the average, isn’t it?”
Turns out, Bruce was waaaaay under tipping. We rectified everything with the hotel concierge before the man was ripped off by us bloody tourists!
I hope to see more of our trip to Budapest on Urbanmommies.com (stay tuned!).
Next time, this little gal hits Budapest’s steam baths and the surrounding countryside. Well worth a repeat visit!