Want a novel way to surprise a loved one for their birthday or other significant date? Take them on a surprise trip to a romantic Eastern European city, for the weekend. Budapest ticks all your geek boxes, and food related boxes too – history, architecture, politics, bars in tumbling down ruins, chocolate, glorious little unpretentious restaurants and some really awesome heated healing spa pools.
I was kept guessing for the whole week leading up to the trip and only finally twigged our destination when we got to the airport. We flew from Luton Airport with Whizz Air and arrived at Continental Hotel Budapest in the centre of Budapest around 2am, just in time to fall into bed and get just enough sleep for a big day ahead of us tomorrow.
Although it was the beginnings of spring, it’s worth noting that it’s still not going to be warm all the time, so a light down jacket that can be easily packed away is an essential item on a trip like this if you don’t want to lug around a full winter coat when the sun comes out. As with many European city weekend breaks, a hop-on-hop-off bus tour of the key points will give a decent run down of the location’s top attractions and sites. While this is really only ‘scratching the surface’, it will still give you a well-rounded impression of the city if you’re only there for the weekend, and of course, you can make plans to return to cover the areas you didn’t get to do first time round.
BUDA OR PEST
With traces of early settlement dating as far back as the Stone Age, as well as many barroque and neo-gothic architecture, Budapest oozes history, but not in the joined-city form of Budapest we know and love today. Budapest was originally formed of three cities – Buda, Pest, and the lesser-known Obuda (or ‘old Buda’), divided by the Danube river. It wasn’t until 1873 that these three ‘component’ cities were brought together to form the Budapest we are all familiar with.
Our first stop was Buda Castle Hill; hopping off the bus at Chain Bridge, we took one of the many paths to the top. If you’re feeling lazy, and touristy, you might take the Funicular (or “Siklo” if you’re trying to practice Hungarian) which takes around 3 minutes, but be prepared for a lengthy queue. Geek Fact: it was completed and first opened its doors in 1870 to the clerks working in the Castle District at the top of Buda Castle Hill. On reaching the top you are rewarded with a picture perfect 360 view over the whole of Budapest, including the grand Hungarian Parliament Buildings, but you also get a chance to explore the Royal Palace and Buda Castle which are both worth a look around.
The first indication of a royal residence on this hill was in the 13th Century (1265 to be exact) shortly after the Mongolian invasion. The building then became what was thought to be the largest the largest Gothic palace of the Middle Ages. Construction recommenced in the latter part of the 15th Century after the marriage of King Matthias Corvinus to Beatrix of Naples in 1476. The new queen brought many Italian style artists and craftsmen with her, introducing Buda to the Renaissance style as a result (Remember at this time Buda and Pest were still two separate cities). Devastatingly, this whole palace as well as both towns Buda and Pest were destroyed when they were liberated from the Turks in 1686 by a Christian army lead by the Holy Roman Emperor. As the towns rebuilt themselves, in the 18th Century a small baroque palace was built in its place, which was very well used during the Austro-Hungarian empire, frequently hosting lavish parties and ceremonies to symbolise peace between the dynasty and the nation. Despite all the lavish partying, the palace was still not ‘finished’ and building work wasn’t completed until 1904. Unfortunately, as if cursed, this beautiful building was badly damaged during WWII, being re-built once again, in Neo-Gothic style this time, with as many original parts as were usable.
(Sadly) no more lavish parties and ceremonies are held here any more and the building is now home to the Budapest History Museum, the National Gallery and the National Library. Weather permitting, it is well worth a wander round the grounds as well, where you will find the Lions Courtyard, a grand bronze statue of King Matthias with his hounds, and, overlooking the river and Chain Bridge, a great bronze statue of the mythical bird of the Magyars, the Turul bird, preparing to take flight with a giant sword clasped in its claws…well, what else would you expect from a Turul Bird?
TURUL OR NOT TURUL
According to the origin myth of the Hungarian People, the Turul bird is a divine messenger and likes to perch atop the Tree of Life with all the spirits of unborn children (who are in bird form, obviously). The Turul symbol became a symbol of strength, power and nobility for Hungarians, still used even today in coats of arms by the Hungarian Army, Counter Terrorism Centre and the Office of National Security. Well, who wouldn’t want a giant mythical bird wielding a sword on their coat of arms?
It seemed it was a rather war-themed day for us, punctuated by grand bronze statues. Our next stop, a little further south from Buda Castle Hill was Gellert Hill. Home of the Citadel, and the grand Liberty Monument statue, built in 1947, originally to pay homage to the Soviet soldiers who liberated the city from Nazi rule in WWII
It was actually around 100 years previously when this area of the city first became significant. The Citadel itself, sitting on the Gellert Hill, was built by the Austrian Hamburgs around 1850-54 to better control the city after suppression of the Hungarian War of Independence. But when the Hamburgs eventually left the city (a result of the ‘Austro-Hungarian Compromise’ of 1867) the Citadel returned to the city’s rule. The resulting excitement caused part of the wall to be torn down to symbolise victory against the Austrians, a wall which was rebuilt when the Citadel later housed Hungarian soldiers.
During WWII the Citadel was actually used as a base by the German SS regiment who held the city. Exploring the Citadel we discovered many original features of it’s WWII use are still present today, including the Citadel Bunker, which you can visit. Entering down the steps into the belly of the Citadel, you are hit by the damp musty smell traditional of underground bunkers and caves throughout the world (I would know, for some strange reason I’ve been to quite a few!). Replica scenes of soldiers are arranged in little alcoves, indicating with a bit of guess work what life may have been like in the bunker, as, although the bunker was built around WWII, no one actually knows what it was built for.
Upon resurfacing we were relieved to find it wasn’t all barracks and war. There is a great little stone church up here as well, and when looking over the walls of the barracks in springtime, you get a beautiful view of the city below, flanked by pale pink cherry blossom – so it’s not all doom and gloom.
It’s easy to spend a sensible portion of the day here on top of these hills as the view really is spectacular, but we decided it was time to catch the bus back down to town, sitting at the front of the bus to take in the sites of the classic old streets, with their multy-storey grand fronts.
EAT LIKE A LOCAL IN THE HEART OF PEST
All this historical exploring had made us rather hungry, so after a quick freshen up at the hotel we were back out again, this time for my surprise birthday dinner, in one of the most magical little restaurants I have ever been to!
Zellar Bistro, in District VI, in the Jewish Quarter of the heart of Pest, is not that obvious to find. Hidden down a flight of stairs on a nondescript street masquerading as a quaint little local restaurant, quite unassuming from the outside. But once we took our first step down and felt it’s warmth drawing us in we are promptly greeted by one of the worlds’ friendliest waiters. It transpires he is Peter, one of the owners who swiftly offers us a glass each of home made elderflower sparkling white wine (made by his mother on their farm) which we waited for our table. I could tell this was the start of what was to become a wonderful evening.
As we browsed the menu, Peter took time explaining the various different wine regions of Hungary (of which there are many) to help us choose our wine. Some are produced by his parents on their farm and vineyard in the Hungarian countryside, some are from other vineyards with which they have connections. They are very hot on local produce here at Zeller as each dish also has its own story, with Peter giving us detailed information on which meat is smoked on his family’s farm (the beef carpaccio for example) and for how long, to develop the flavour. It’s not just the star of each dish that is locally sourced, as much of the accompanying ingredients as possible is also from local farms and the local countryside.
While we waited for our food we soon realised the ‘table cloth’ was in fact sketching paper, and the pencils in pots (we thought were for keeping small children entertained) were in fact for us to let our creativity out. The best drawings were then displayed at the back of the restaurant, amongst the carefully potted plants in little wood frames.
The whole meal was just insane, expertly prepared with fine complimentary flavours. Served with flourish and interesting facts about what we were about to eat! We finished the evening with a chocolate souffle and they even took the time to detail my plate with ‘Happy Birthday!’. What I write here can’t possibly do this restaurant justice, anyone planning a trip to Budapest, just take my word for it and make this place number 1 on your list, tho I would advise making sure you try booking before you arrive in Budapest, as this place is popular with both locals and tourists alike, and it’s clear to see why.
LET’S GET RUINED
Budpest is famous for a selection of bars called the ‘Ruin Pubs’. And it was here, with the help of some traditional Hungarian spirits, that the night took a wild turn and really kicked off. The first of the Ruin Pubs was created about 10 years ago, in a disused building on a low budget and has now become a trend, with a whole district full of abstract gardens and unique artistic interiors to each pub. As we wandered we discovered pubs with underground rooms dedicated entirely to ping pong, others proudly advertising the nations favourite spirit – UNICUM and bars with spirits even stronger than UNICUM, of which we are invited to try several of.
Before we knew it, somehow we ended up outside a takeaway shop, trying desperately to clear our heads and remember what country we were in and where the hell our hotel was. But we knew regardless of how our heads would be in the morning, the prospect of thermal mineral baths, saunas and ice rooms would soon quell any intentions of even the meanest hangover…