Culture In Depth, 18/04/2020

How to Have Something to Look Forward to After the Plague

Dear Kharkivites,

“Greetings from Budapest,” even if this gesture comes across as being somewhat hollow and this travel article seems inappropriate at this given time. But for the sake of overcoming the current global plight and boosting one’s morale, it’s important to stay positive and creative. And to reassure that travel and tourism, as well as everything else, will return.

It was marvelous to visit your city in February this year and discover as much European flair and atmosphere as elsewhere. I shall return.

I am originally from York, England, and, for all it is worth, here is an introduction to my adopted city of Budapest, which is a two-hour flight from your end. The Hungarian capital is a renowned “river city,” and by now it has been my locale for much of my life. I have family here and write mainly cultural articles for the English-language “Budapest Times” magazine.

The renowned Buda with its greener ambiance and Pest with its inspiring architecture are divided by the delightful River Duna, and all together are a splendor. I can honestly say that this is one metropolis that lives up to its expectations and a swirl of tourist puns, clichés and truisms without being either too overrun or overrated.

This city that crept up from Cold War darkness is once again a top destination alongside London, Paris and Rome, and deservedly so. It is as it once was more than 100 years ago in the Austro-Hungarian Empire times until the nation’s fall after World War I. But that bygone era is another matter altogether. What is most significant now is that in Budapest, business and tourism are generally on the rise. This is the ideal time to see this great all-year-round wonder before it gets too overcrowded, such as Prague, Krakow and many other European destinations were before the current crisis hit.

For me, when I got beyond my early days of wanderlust around the city’s main tourist trails, then and only then did my real life in Budapest begin. It took roughly two years to get to know the capital, be accepted by the locals – who are known as Budapesters – and overcome culture shocks and differences. My most difficult task was driving my “GB” car, designed for left-side driving, on the “wrong” side of all roads in Hungary and elsewhere. But finally, I “made it” as an honorary Budapester despite immense language difficulties, still apparent today.

These telling matters are chronicles themselves for another time. But for those Kharkivites in optimistic “preparation mode,” your eventual visit this end, perhaps for the first time and no matter how brief, is still in waiting. And I dedicate this introductory article to you.

There is so much on offer here – the difficult part is fitting everything in. Consider the many museums, the world-famous spa baths and entertainment venues as well as great quantities of history and general research. I will leave this matter to you to figure out, but if you want recommendations, my favorites are the lesser-known Magyar Szecesszió Háza (the House of Hungarian Art Nouveau) at 3 Honvéd Street, near Kossuth Lajos Square Metro, also the Vígszínház (Comedy Theatre) and the Gellért Baths at the Gellért Hotel. The first two are in Pest and the third is easily sited by the Buda riverside.

These venues carry artistic early 20th-century atmospheres, while the range of comforts and general tourist information is in free-flow everywhere. Check out www.budapestinfo.hu and many other helpful online tourist information sites.

Day 1. Birds-Eye Budapest

If time is short, I recommend seeing the best landscape views of the center before all else. To achieve this essential matter requires making a circle around central Buda and Pest. But first, go to the Vörösmarty riverside promenade in downtown Pest and take a Duna boat ride, as the river flows directly through the city, as does the River Dnipro in Kyiv. There are many excursions available day and night.

When cruising, not too much explanation is required other than “It’s fabulous!” Most obvious and immediate sights relating to Buda on the one side and Pest on the other will come straight to immediate attention. This very pleasant voyage is high on the atmosphere and will also lend some orientation to these nearby attractions you will want to explore further afterwards.

One is the unmistakable “pudding-esque” Neo-Gothic domed Országház parliament house. This one-off architectural gem, on the Pest side, will impress anyone with eyes for irregular architecture. To get there from the main boat terminal is either a delightful 20-minute walk or take the number 2 tram northwards, both proceeding along the river shoreline.

Having seen the Országház, directly opposite is the distinct and renowned Buda Castle District containing the National Gallery, Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion. The best way to reach this dainty district is by taking the Red-Line Metro from outside Parliament to Széll Kálmán Square. Then either proceed up the escalator to the Castle bus, take a taxi or walk up the immediate hill until completion.

Alternatively, from the Országház, complete the number 2 tram to its end stop at Margaret Bridge and from this picturesque premise take either the number 4 or 6 tram over the bridge. Then, as above, get off at the end stop Széll Kálmán and carry on by bus, taxi or foot.

Although this particular neighborhood is very “ritzy,” it makes essential sight-seeing. Take to walking around the walls of the fairytale-esque Halászbástya (Fisherman’s Bastion). At this stage, one’s mind is buzzing due to the remarkable scenery. When finally fulfilled, make your way to other nearby attractions, ranging from museums to galleries and tea shops. Finally, you will notice the number 16 mini-bus, which travels downhill to the river and over the Chain Bridge, thus returning you to the Pest embankment and completing this full essential circle.

But for art enthusiasts, the abundant National Gallery in the former Royal Palace is a must. However, this takes several hours to see all. To complete this run-around itinerary (without this venue) will easily take a day.

Day 2 and beyond

Now I have started you off, take all else in your stride. A list of highlights is easily pinpointable on complimentary maps, found at tourist information booths everywhere.

For another recommendation, enter St. Stephen’s Basilica (near the Pest boat terminal) and after looking around inside take the stairs to the top. Should you have children, there is a Ferris wheel nearby, similar in scale to the one at your exclusive Gorky Park. When completed, I highly recommend strolling along the grandiose and lengthy Andrassy Street, Budapest’s equivalent to your main Sumska Street boulevard.

Here, one passes the Opera House, various cafes, book shops, museums and embassies before reaching Hősök Ter (Heroes Square). This is a distinct wide, open area that speaks for itself with its imposing monuments, though not as spacious as your Maidan Svobody. Evening entertainment programs then follow.

Should you wish to slow the pace and need some quiet, a visit to Margaret Island fits the bill. It’s reachable on the number 4 and 6 trams from Oktogon (also found on Andrassy Street). With its shady parkland scenery in mid-river between Buda and Pest, it makes a perfect getaway from the city.

Then, if you want to abandon the tourist scene head towards the more residential Buda Hills. Should trains be of interest, I recommend the fabulous Children’s Railway, accessible by the number 21 bus end stop from Széll Kálmán Square. When at the peak, these mini trains are easy enough to find, and they tootle through the hilly forested areas fairly frequently during peak times. See https://gyermekvasut.hu for a thrilling outing among the Buda valleys.

Tips

A fairly common local tip is to see Buda by day and Pest by night.

Public transport will get you to all the main points of interest. To save on time organizing tickets, as well as money, I suggest purchasing day, weekend or weekly passes, which are valid for the entire Budapest transport network, including the airport.

Should cycling be more preferable, there are opportunities for bike hire. Then you can cycle along both sides of the Duna on the designated lanes. This I do often and it is always most exhilarating.

As for taxis, I advise phoning them in advance. Like many taxi services worldwide, if you stop one on the street it’s a gamble as to what the eventual price will be. Most drivers are generally good-natured and courteous but caution is required for the occasional “mathematically challenged” ones who will give you a hard time if you don’t “agree” to their rules (and whose meters may be similarly roguish). Check that the price is reasonable before stepping in.

Pick and choose from a wide range of restaurants. But as a loyal Budapester, I definitely recommend Hungarian cuisine, which is fairly similar to Ukrainian, albeit a little lighter. Fish here is a specialty, as well as wine. This should follow with a visit to the cukrászda tea shops, which are just about everywhere. Hungarian cakes are delicious, fill you up and see you through each day of rigorous sight-seeing – and still one (hopefully) remains slim.

There is a Ukrainian Embassy on the Buda side plus a Ukraine congress and community center on the Pest side, very near the Opera Metro stop. Both are contactable on hungary.mfa.gov.ua and ukrajinci.hu

A note of strong warning: I don’t recommend changing Ukrainian hryvnyas into Hungarian forints, or the other way around, in Budapest unless absolutely necessary. This is something I never want to do again, as the very few bureaus that accept your currency are hard to find and offer a shocking rate of exchange. The last time I did this it was an overall 33 percent loss. I advise traveling either with euros, which are easy to use and can be changed anywhere at better rates, or use a credit card.

Finally, Kharkiv with its university and industrial complex is similar to Miskolc, a northern Hungarian city half-way between Budapest and Uzhhorod, and as alluring as yours. See my Miskolc article. And make inspiring Miskolc a possible addition to your forthcoming time here.

Until then, keep safe, keep well.

Text, photo: Alexander Stemp