We had barely set foot on the Lif, when one of the concierge staff asked us if we wanted to join a Budapest “welcome walk” that was leaving in just 15 minutes. Heck, our bags hadn’t even made it to our room yet, and we were still in the same clothes we had flown in overnight (I’m making a bit of a scrunched-up face as I recall it), but we thought “why not?”, and off we went. We grabbed a City Centre map (see below) for reference and met up with one of the independent guides that Viking hires to take their passengers on well-planned daily excursions.
Looking at the map above, the Lif was docked just to the right of Szabadsag Hid (Liberty Bridge) seen in the top right corner of the map and the tour we embarked on covered roughly four square blocks in the immediate vicinity of the ship.
I must confess that a lot of what Josef (our guide) said on that walk did not stick with me due to travel fatigue plus I wasn’t quite ready for full-on note-taking just yet. I can tell you that he was very entertaining, extremely knowledgable, and very clearly happy that his native Hungary had been freed from communist rule.
The inner city is largely free of cars, and people rely heavily on getting around via foot, bicycle, and on trams that serve as the backbone of a mass transit system. The bright orangy-yellow and white vehicles very much resemble the older versions of the street cars that I grew up riding in Toronto (also very similar to those Mary and I have ridden in Boston and San Francisco), and these things were really moving!!
Josef told us to not assume vehicles were going to stop for us, and that we needed to be on full alert. He wasn’t exaggerating, and we stood back and watched as several rocketed by. However, once we crossed over the main road that ran parallel to the river, we were into more pedestrian-friendly territory. Josef led us to Vaci utca the most famous street in central Budapest, and, the main shopping destination for all who come to the city.
Terraced cafes line both sides of the street and the first section (starting from Vorosmarty ter) is definitely geared toward tourists, so the shops are a bit overpriced. There are also a number of squares along the way which add to the charm of the street and I’ve posted pictures of statues that are central to three of them below.
From let to right they are: the Fountain of the Fishmonger Girls, The Hermes Fountain, and the Nude Boy.
Vaci utca runs for several blocks from north to south, ending at the Central Market Hall, and almost exactly in the middle is the Church of Saint Michael, a Baroque temple dating back to the mid-1700’s. Founded by the Dominican Order and still in use today, the church is also a popular venue for classical concerts, being well-known for splendid acoustics and offering an intimate setting.
No story about Hungary would be complete without a nod to one of their national dishes, and that of course is Goulash. It is a stew consisting of meat (according to our tour guide, it can be made from beef, veal, pork or lamb) and soup vegetables (carrot, parsley, bell peppers and celery) usually seasoned with paprika and other spices (oh my gosh, Hungarians love paprika). Its name originates from the gulyas or herdsman who are credited with its creation around the 9th century. As we wandered the surrounding neighborhood where there were more “mom and pop”-style restaurants, it was readily apparent how much of a featured item goulash is, even to the locals.
As we neared the end of our 75-minute introductory walk in central Budapest, we emerged from the narrow side streets into an open space at Fovam Square, and directly in front of us was the historic Central (Great) Market Hall. Considered to be one of the most beautiful buildings representing Hungarian-style architecture in the city, it is home to a 10,000 square foot indoor market with stalls crammed into every available space on three floors.
At the time of its construction in 1897, barges full of goods were floated from the Danube through underground canals directly under the market hall. It was also the final stop of a freight railway line, making it the most important shopping destination for the citizens of Budapest.
Today it is frequented by tourists and locals alike. Most of the stalls on the ground floor offer produce, meats, pastries, candies, spices (lots and lots of paprika), and spirits. The second floor has eateries and row after row of tightly-packed souvenir stalls. The basement contains fishmongers, vegetable stalls, and a few specialized butcher shops.
On the right side of the hall is a huge Neo-Renaissance palace – the Main Customs House (see below), built between 1871 and 1874. Its original purpose was to act as a clearing house for all goods arriving on the river (and via rail), and it was used in this manner until World War II. Similar to the Central Market Hall, ships and barges could go directly into the basement of the building through four locked tunnels. The building was heavily damaged during the war and was on the verge of demolition for many years. Eventually, plans were developed to repair and reconstruct the building, and today it is home to the University of Economy.
From Fovam Square, we were just a short two-minute walk from the ship and we were more than ready to get into our room, unpack our bags, and most importantly, get ready for our first visit to the dining lounge. After a quick shower and a welcome change of clothes, we headed to the lounge for a short Welcome Briefing & Port Talk. These port talks were a nightly event and they served to set up the story-line for the next day and tell the passengers what they could look forward to.
Dinner was from 7-9 every night and on this first evening, the chef was offering a traditional Hungarian dinner (in addition to regular fare that was on the menu most nights). First up was a tasty salad featuring cut-up pieces of pork, and it was noted that all the ingredients had been bought that day at the Central Market Hall we had just visited. The main course was Perch with mashed potatoes and carrots, and last but not least, desert consisted of a chocolate sponge cake with ice cream and smothered in chocolate syrup. So, so, good.
You’d think that we would be ready to crash after an overnight flight, an afternoon of walking the city, and an amazing (and filling) meal, but we had one last adventure left in us for that first day, and I’ll tell you all about it in my next post.