I've often written about how nice it is to be living in Europe, just a short flight away from so many interesting and beautiful spots. Not that Cervinara, and all of Italy for that matter, isn't enough. It's just such a nice change being able to hop on a plane without needing to plan for nine hours of being squashed into too small seats eating rather unappetizing food and dealing with the seat recliner in front of you.
Wizz Air is the company that flies direct from Naples to much of Eastern Europe, places like the Ukraine and Romania that aren't on my bucket list right now, but also to Prague, Budapest, and many more places that I'm anxious to see. While it's not fun having to run to the plane to try to get two seats together, or to have to pay to have a carry on bigger than your purse, or to have your purse count as that free carry on...well suffice it to say that they can do pretty much what they want because they're the only game in town.
At any rate, this past month we headed to Hungary for the wedding of my nephew to a lovely young woman from Budapest. We flew over with the parents of the groom as well as one of my sisters who had come to visit for a few days prior to the nuptials. This was a week dedicated to lots of site seeing but more importantly connecting with loved ones and getting to know the new members of the family.
I have decided that Budapest is one of my favorite European cities. Maybe it was because we were there for a full week and were able to take our time with the site seeing, maybe it was because we were there for a very happy event, maybe it was because we were able to see some things not normally available to the casual tourist, or maybe it was all these plus the fact that it's an incredibly beautiful city; the bottom line is that I am in love!
We stayed in Pest, the more active and interesting side of the city. This is where the restaurants and clubs are hopping, where the baths, the opera, the good shopping and the museums are all within an easy walk or short tram ride. While Buda is beautiful to visit, there isn't as much to do beyond admire the castle, St Mathias' church and the rising hills. It would be fine for a one night visit, but if you are looking to really get a taste of the city, Pest is where it's at.
Budapest is known as the city of monuments, and rightly so. There are statues dedicated to politicians, musicians, poets and war heroes. Many of these are not simply statues standing in the middle of a square; they are artistic and effective ways of reflecting the importance of a person or event that stop the visitor in his tracks. Most poignant of these must be the Shoes on the Danube memorial. Walking along the banks of the Danube in front of the gorgeous Parliament building we happened upon a collection of shoes...ladies' heels and farmers' work boots, children's shoes and slippers, all made of iron....some with pebbles inside them, others with votive candles, dried flowers, or ribbons. This monument represents the dozens of innocent Jews gunned down in that spot , their bodies falling into the river and then forgotten. It was impossible to be unmoved by this simple memorial. On nearly every street, in every square, and even in hidden corners of town there are monuments that remind the visitor of Hungary's difficult history and their many important artists, authors and heroes.
Budapest is also known for its baths. Our visit to the Szechenyi thermal baths provided us with a relaxing and fun way to while away an afternoon in the city. We hopped on the metro line 1 and took the straight shot out past Heroes' Square to the bathing complex. The lobby of the baths is beautiful in that Belle Epoque way that evokes past elegance. The locker rooms not so much! But once changed and into the pool area we were able to enjoy a leisurely soak in the hot pool followed by a more invigorating dip in the cooler pool. We didn't head into the "serious" pool where people were doing laps back and forth. As someone who always feels the need to cover up as soon as I get out of the water, this was a very pleasant environment because the natives had no such compunctions. It was refreshing to see some very hefty women unashamedly strolling around the pool areas in very revealing two piece suits.
Budapest is also a city of cafes. The coffee culture is embedded in its very essence. One of our most elegant moments was having coffee and pastries in the Parizsi Book Store cafe. Believe me, this was not like grabbing a mochaccino at Barnes and Noble! The elegant architecture, vaulted ceilings, polished woodwork, and grand piano complemented our cappuccinos and cakes and made us feel like we were back in those elegant days of grand ballrooms and sparkling chandeliers. We savored every sip of coffee and delicious bite of cake. It was like being in a fairy tale.
Budapest is also a city with a tragic history. The buildings still marked with bullet holes are evidence of the violence of the Russian invasion. The Jewish cemetery and Memorial Garden next to the Great Synagogue remind us of the more than 2000 Jews who died from hunger and cold during the brutal winter of 1944-45. There is also a very visible population of homeless whom we saw bathing in the Danube, sleeping in parks, and asking for handouts.
Budapest is a city of real people. It has not been so sanitized that tourists do not feel that they are in a real city as much as in a Disney version of a city. It has beautiful panoramas and vistas, great museums and monuments, lovely churches and fantastic restaurants. But it also gives the feeling that it is a work in progress, that it is struggling with its difficult past and yet is proud of the progress it has made. I'm glad we made it here before it becomes too much like Prague...beautiful and yet somehow not real. I'm glad that we have seen the sometimes gritty, often poignant, but always vital and vibrant city that Budapest is today.