My first time was Budapest. Hungary was the place I got bit by the travel bug and since then the itch to see the world has only gotten worse. Each time I scratch it, with a visit to family in Ukraine or a trip to the States with a friend, I settle my wanderlust. But then usually within a year, I feel the tingling sensation under my skin again, urging me to go somewhere, anywhere. This started in the quiet streets of Budapest.
Budapest is divided in two by the river Danube, on the western bank lies Buda and on the eastern bank is Pest. The World Heritage Site of the historic Castle District can be found in Buda, on the hill overlooking the waterfront. Beneath it, the old city stretches out in a messy sprawl of cobblestone streets and red rooftops. The buildings crowd along the shoreline, pressing against each other brick to brick, and between them poplars reach high above the clamour. Balconies are lined with potted geraniums that match the roofs like necklaces of coral beads.
My father and I stopped in Budapest on our way over to Ukraine and our hotel was located at the foot of the Castle District. The back of the parking lot alleyway opened up onto the steps of an old church with a tall bell tower. Before heading out we had a simple breakfast in the quiet downstairs diner. Hungarian cuisine is generous with meat dishes so naturally breakfast was an assortment of deli meats and pickled vegetables. I find that it is a good way to start any day, drinking a steaming cup of coffee while looking out onto the quiet morning streets of a foreign city.
A small park surrounds the Buda Castle District and we chose to walk along the old fortifications until we came out to Adam Clark Square. Budapest’s famous Chain Bridge is located at one end and at the other the road disappears into a huge tunnel that runs deep under the Castle District. Beside it is a beautiful old funicular that goes up to the top of Castle Hill. Like a gateway through time the funicular transports you to a romantic village of patchwork eras.
Castle Hill has been home to royalty since the Middle Ages and the history of the area lives on in its roads and buildings. The layout of the medieval town still echoes through the streets that closely traces where the old roads used to meander over the hillside. There are very few cars on the streets because it is closed to all traffic except those that live there so you get a feeling of strolling through history.
Beneath the city lies an extensive network of caves called the Buda Castle Labyrinth which date back to the Roman era. They were still in use during World War Two as a base of operations for the German army and today it is possible to tour them with a guide. Having only a day we decided to visit the Royal Palace instead. Known more commonly as Buda Castle this building hosts the National Library and Art Gallery, as well as the Budapest History Museum. Although we didn’t go inside we admired its grandiose structure from the elevated promenade and even threw a couple coins into the Matthias Fountain.
The Hapsburg era left its own imprint on Castle Hill in the form of Baroque architecture and today many of the residential homes are housed in these elaborately decorated buildings. There are cafes nestled in the old courtyards while in some areas restaurants perch on stone balconies overlooking the Danube.
This hodgepodge of history, spanning more than 800 years, felt almost surreal. I remember strolling along the ruins of a medieval castle that sat in the shadow of the Royal Palace while a girl in a white dress busked for spare change on her flute. The wispy notes of Greensleeves carried over the cobblestone, a haunting melody of a bygone era. It is unplanned moments like these that make a travelling experience really memorable.
After lunch we visited the 700 year old Matthias Church, the setting of numerous coronations over the centuries. The coronation that gave birth to the Austro-Hungarian Empire took place within its walls. It is impossible to just walk past it, even if you don’t know the history the distinctive rooftop would stop you in your tracks. The church roof is covered in a mosaic of multicoloured tiles that give it the appearance of speckled dragon scales.
Behind Matthias Church is the lookout point of Fisherman’s Bastion where you can get a good view of both sides of the Danube. The western bank slopes gently towards the river, not as dense as the downtown east its lush green hills are liberally peppered with red roofed houses. Across the Danube the gothic turrets of Budapest’s Parliament pierce the air like dozens of needles sticking out of a pincushion. Its formidable yet delicate structure dominates the eastern shore with the sheer beauty of its architecture.
This romantic atmosphere is not confined to Castle Hill and it suffuses the entire city with a timeless charm. During the summer weekends, Chain Bridge is closed off to traffic and it becomes the site of a weekly festival involving musical and theatrical performances. The Chain Bridge was the first bridge to link the two sides of the Danube River and every year people celebrate its birthday with music and dancing. Along the Danube street vendors sell food and beer while artisans display their beautiful handmade crafts, one of the most popular items being papier-mâché roses.
We were fortunate to stumble onto this celebration as dusk began to settle and the crowds spilled out onto the lit up bridge. Pulsating with the throngs of people and lively music the bridge takes center stage as the night falls and its glow spreads out over the water. Having spent the entire day walking around the old streets of Castle Hill we were happy to slowly make our return to the hotel as the noise from the festival carried on behind us.
Budapest had always been a layover point for me on the way to Ukraine and only now looking back on it I understand its significance. My trip taught me that often the most memorable travel experiences come from wandering about a city and letting the moment guide you.