Grand European River Cruise Part 2 – Budapest, Hungary
With our cruise running Oct 7-21, we maximized our first European visit by adding extra days to explore our embarkation city, Budapest. We were glad we did, since our 6AM connection in Amsterdam had been canceled due to bad weather and we lost the rest of the day waiting for another flight. Fortunately we had booked our air travel through Viking Cruises and they had done the rebooking for us. We were eventually rerouted through Paris and arrived in Budapest at midnight instead of 10AM. How awesome that our Viking driver was still at the airport waiting for us! Although we lost a day of exploring, the episode gave us our first good impression of Viking’s first class service (here is the first installmentdescribing our cruise). Advice to cruisers – ALWAYS add at least a day to the beginning of your cruise in case this happens, or your stress level will be through the roof as you start your cruise. And if everything goes well you’ll have a day or two to explore a new city in relaxation!
Budapest is Hungary’s capital city, truly a riverside beauty and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It straddles the banks of the Danube River, making it a combination of two cities, Buda and Pest, united into a single city in 1873. Buda is the historic half, sitting on the hilly west bank, and the livelier and more modern Pest (pronounced “Pesht”) covers the plains on the east bank. The two halves of the city are connected by 15 bridges, several of them very beautiful and architecturally interesting.
Our first day of exploration began right next door to our digs at the very nice Hilton Hotel. The Hilton stands within the walls of the historic Castle Hill district on the Buda side, which we realized during breakfast when our window seat view was one of the turrets of Fisherman’s Bastion. Along with Buda Castle and Matthias Church, it comprises the castle complex that resides on a large hilltop that was once home to royalty here.
From Castle Hill we ambled down to the banks of the Danube River, walking through several residential streets. We crossed the Chain Bridge and continued onto the Danube Promenade, feasting our eyes on the multitude of riverfront attractions.
Our first included excursion was a guided panoramic tour of Budapest, beginning along elegant Andrassy Avenue. It is recognized by UNESCO World Heritage, and is the reason why Budapest is often called the Paris of the East. The entire stretch is filled with luxury shopping and culture such as theaters, the Opera House, villas and mansions, embassies and dozens of cafés and restaurants.
A sampling of eclectic architecture:
Dracula castle – real name is Vajdahunyad Castle
A more modern building
Original building facade
Museum of Arts
We also booked an optional guided walking tour to get a taste of the city on foot. We were taken inside the pompous interior of Hungary’s largest building and the third largest parliament in the world, the Budapest Parliament Building. I took hundreds of pictures of this building, let’s see what’s inside:
The inside was as impressive as the outside. It houses one of Hungary’s greatest and most closely guarded treasures, the Holy Crown of St. Stephen (no photography allowed of the crown, orb, sceptre and Renaissance Sword display), which is more than a thousand years old. The docent shared that this was the coronation crown used by the Kingdom of Hungary for most of its existence, and in Hungarian history over 50 kings were crowned with it.
The ceilings are inlaid with 22K gold
Numbered cigar-holders for visiting politicians
We were led on a short walk from the Parliament building to Liberty Square, where our guide pointed out buildings of architectural value that flank the pleasant green area.
We stopped and browsed the produce at Bejaras Market, where we tasted local sausage and “pogacsa”, a salty scone. We finished our tour with a bowl of goulash soup and a delicious strudel.
Outside the city limits we were driven to Szentendre, a colorful village of galleries and artists. The guide informed us that what we saw today was the foundation that the Hungarian-Serbian community laid down in the 1500’s. Churches, museums, galleries and cafés in Baroque settings symbolize this lovely town. We walked along narrow, picturesque streets and browsed galleries that displayed folksy souvenirs and the works of local artists.
Finally, we explored Skanzen, a reconstructed version of an old Hungarian village. Here we learned to prepare goulash, the most celebrated dish in Hungary. I discovered that paprika is considered the national spice of Hungary and is the main spice in goulash.
Ingredients of Goulash
Of course I stepped up to stir the goulash!
Yummy as a soup, we also had goulash stew while here
Some facts we learned here – Hungary is part of the European Union but does not use the Euro as its currency (they use the Forint). Budapest was also our initiation to paying to use restrooms in Europe (called toilets or water closets here), between 50 cents and 2 dollars Euro. A Euro was $1.18 U.S. during our visit.
On embarkation day, we noticed that our ship, the Viking Bragi, was docked side by side with another Viking riverboat. The guests of the other ship had to access by walking through ours. In terms of security it seemed like an odd arrangement, but it was used several times during our journey where 2 or even 3 ships were moored at a single dock. We looked at it as yet another way to meet new folks!
We thought the two extra days we included would be enough to explore one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, but we could have easily spent a week here! With so much to see and do it was Steve’s favorite stop on our itinerary.
Striking bridges, a majestic Parliament Building, spectacular Art Nouveau palaces and picturesque castles are some of the sights to see by day. But when nighttime falls Budapest comes alive with lights and color, turning it into a romantic city of lights where all of the monuments and bridges shine: