I am an Asia guy, I have been to Asia almost 40 times, but I am somewhat limited on the rest of the world. Not due to lack of interest, more so lack of time. So when an opportunity came up to see a bit of central Europe, I jumped at it.
Budapest and the Danube, in the heart of Eastern Europe. What comes to mind? I am also a history guy. Anyone who was anyone has been through here. The Romans, the Huns, the Mongols and the Turks. Napoleon. The Austro Hungarian Empire, that sprawling, often dysfunctional family quarrel of an empire that was a player on the European stage for some six hundred years. The Iron Curtain and the Velvet revolution. Yeah, there is a lot going on here. But I did not really know what to expect. The chance to travel was in Late November into December, doesn’t the Danube freeze? Isn’t there some sort of refugee crisis in Hungary? Heavens, is Europe in general safe? So with all of these thoughts, I packed up and headed of for a bit of exploration.
I decided to go into Budapest a couple of days before the Danube river cruise. I found an inexpensive hotel in the heart of the city and booked two nights. I made no plans, I figured that the river cruise company would do a city tour. Looking at a map, I figured (correctly) that most of what there was to see would be in walking distance.
A note here on the language. Hungarian is the weird Uncle Charlie in the family of European Languages. It is not related at all to English, or for that matter to anything else in Europe except maybe Finnish. With a bit of listening, you can pick up a few phrases in German or Spanish or Italian. Hungarian has absolutely nothing to latch on to. But I had no problem, I learned to say thank you, and other than that there is enough English spoken that I got by just fine. At least it is the Roman alphabet!
I stayed at a little place called the Starlight Suiten. Location, location and location, it is right behind the Four Seasons and as close to the historical center of the city as you are going to find. Large rooms, nice breakfast, friendly staff. Basic but clean with large rooms, really all I need for myself.
So I spent two days just walking. Budapest straddles the Danube, one side is Buda, one side is Pest. The river is lined with spectacular buildings from the Imperial era, most notable the Parliament Building. These are all lit up at night, so that an evening walk along the river bank is most enjoyable. On the Buda side is a hill topped by a massive palace. This was once the site of a castle that guarded a crossing on the river, and the original city was just the town within the walls of this castle. The Buda side, which is hilly and green, is still the more fashionable side of the city. The Pest side is flat, urban, noisy, a bit chaotic, and just endlessly interesting. There are cafes, bars and restaurants, universities and museums, statues in the various parks and squares (including one of Reagan?). The Jewish community was devastated during the holocaust, but there is still a very large synagogue. Add to all of this the Christmas markets and you have a fascinating place to just poke around. I did not feel at all threatened or unsafe. It was cold, but not bitterly so, and the mulled wine at the Christmas markets helped with that. For me there is nothing better than just aimlessly wandering around a new city, and Budapest works extremely well.