Our first full day in Budapest began with Mary enjoying a coffee on the Aquavit Terrace at the front of the ship, followed by an early breakfast. Our first “included” excursion was scheduled for the morning with an 8:30 bus tour departure planned, and safe to say that just about all of the 188 guests who were on board participated in that first outing.
The morning tour was called “Panoramic Budapest”, and the highlight of the was going to be a stop at the Castle District. But, to get there, our bus was going to take us on a 90 minute journey through and past some of the main sites of the city, most of which we would (sadly) not have enough time to visit. The first building of significance that we passed was the Hungarian National Museum which was founded in 1802, and is the home of most of the important pieces of Hungarian history, art and archaeology. (side note: scenes from the movie Evita starring Madonna as Eva Peron were filmed here).
Not long after that, the bus slowed to a crawl to allow us a glimpse of the temple of Hungary’s new wave Jewish Community – the Dohany Street Synagogue. It is the largest synagogue in Europe, and the third largest in the world. Built in the 1850’s, it contains more than 3000 seats, and we were told that it is architecturally stunning inside.
In 1944, the synagogue was on the western border of the Pest ghetto. Almost 70,000 people were squeezed into the blocks of the ghetto, and the synagogue’s garden became a cemetery of martyrs at that time. Victims died of illness, hunger or the brutality of the Nazi occupation. Today a weeping willow made of steel stands there to commemorate their lives, and on the leaves are the names of the Holocaust victims.
Leaving the Jewish district of Budapest behind, we turned onto Andrassy Avenue, described as the Champs-Elysees of Hungary. It is part of a UNESCO World Heritage area that covers several blocks culminating at Heroes’ Square (see below)
There are three sections to this elegant and very wide avenue. The first consists of a number of 5-6 storey town palaces built next to each other. Originally homes to rich nobles, today many of them house Embassies, theatres, and luxury boutiques.
The next section of Andrassy Avenue includes a number of interesting historical buildings such as the communist State Police Building, the State Puppet Theatre, the Academy of Fine Arts, and the former music academy founded by noted Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (he was a favorite of my piano teacher and I was given several of his pieces to play as I progressed through conservatory lessons as a teenager).
The third distinct section of Andrassy Avenue is the one that directly leads to/ends at Heroes Square. The palaces and boutique apartments are separated along here, and it feels more like a suburban neigbourhood. That said, the most striking building was the Hungarian State Opera House (below) decorated with statues. It was built between 1875 and 1884 at a time when opera was considered the most popular form of entertainment among the “society snobs” of Europe. Our driver told us it was built to satisfy the wealthy citizens of Budapest who did not want to travel to Vienna when they felt like listening to opera.
Heroes’ Square was described by our tour guide as “a history book made of stone”. It was built in 1896 to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin, and the foundation of the Hungarian state (I had to use a stock photo below as the ones taken from the bus were blurry and full of reflecting shadows).
The centrepiece of Heroes’ Square is the 110 foot tall monument adorned with the Archangel Gabriel on top – the symbol of victory. Around the base are equestrian statues of the seven conquering leaders. In the semi-colonnades to either side of the monument, there are statues of Hungarian Kings and Transylvanian princes and governors (note: for several centuries, Transylvania was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but at the end of World War I, it was proclaimed by Romania.) The statue of Liberty that I mentioned in an earlier post is just beyond the trees behind the monument and colonnades.
We were now very close to Castle Hill where our bus tour would end, and we would set out on foot through the Capital Hill district, paying a visit to the 700 year-old Matthias Church.
As our bus approached the base of the hill, Mary captured the following two images of Matthias Church and the marble staircase at Fisherman’s Bastion, from the road below. They lend a great sense of perspective to the hill on which it was built.
While we were heading to the top of the hill in our cushy air-conditioned Mercedes-Benz tour bus, we passed by a more interesting way of getting to the top of Castle Hill – the Buda Hill Funicular.
First built in 1870, it was destroyed during the second world war, and did not reopen again until 1986. There are two cars that can carry up to 24 passengers on a 1 1/2 minute ride up or down the hill. One-way tickets cost roughly $4. Below is a stock photo from Buda Castle’s web-site showing what the Funicular cars look like.
Shortly after 10 AM, we arrived at the drop-off point for our walking tour of the Castle Hill District. We were told that it contains three churches, six museums, and a host of interesting buildings, streets and squares, all packed with fascinating history, and from my writer’s perspective, worthy of a blog onto itself!