Budapest, Hungary deserves several days on any itinerary, but Viking only gave me the better part of two days, so I had to make the most of every minute. While I wanted to don my walking shoes and start exploring the city, I dutifully boarded the Viking bus and went on the City Tour included in my cruise. I can tell you this, if I can ever manage to do it, I am going back to Budapest!
Our guide for this tour was overly humble about his city. He found it appalling that while a city as grand as Budapest was virtually bereft of victories, they chose to call one of their primary tourist attractions Heroes Square. My research had given me a little different view of it.
The seven Magyars tribes had shown up in Budapest about 896 and terrorized Europe for over a hundred years. Then they protected the Holy Roman Empire from the Tatars and Turks for several centuries, until in 1867 the Hapsburgs created the Austro-Hungarian Empire, acknowledging they needed the Hungarians in order to keep their empire intact. During the second half of the 19th Century, Hungary came into its own and for a while was the rock star of Europe. When the World Wars came along, Hungary was dealt a difficult hand, but I really didn’t understand our guides underdog attitude.
Still, as we made our way along Andrassy ut, the main boulevard of Pest (pronounced Pescht), our underdog-leaning guide apologized his way past a number of spectacular sites. Rick Steves calls Andrassy ut “the Champs-Elysees and Broadway rolled into one.”
My favorite sight along Andrassy ut was the Opera House. During the Austro-Hungarian portion of Budapest’s history, the Holy Roman Emperor might have been Emperor everywhere else, but he was only the King of Hungary. Good old Koing und Kaiser Franz Joseph agreed the city needed an Opera House (What else was he supposed to do for fun when he was in Budapest?), so he provided half the funds needed for the building of the theater, with one teeny tiny stipulation. The opera house in Budapest had to be smaller than his opera house at home in Vienna. The architect followed the letter of this stipulation, if not the spirit of it. In every way except size, the Hungarian State Opera House is supposed to be very much grander than its sister theater in Vienna. Bully for Budapest!
At the end of Andrassy ut is Heroes Square. Though I had never heard of him before this trip, György Zala became one of my favorite sculptors. The 14 sculptures populating Heroes Square were created by him and I think they are gorgeous. In fact, the whole thing is gorgeous. It certainly deserves to be seen by one and all, but I wish we’d had time to see more of the city park which surrounds the square, especially Szepmuveszeti Muzeum (Museum of Fine Arts). It’s probably a good thing the museum has been closed since last year for renovation or I might have slipped away from the tour for a peek and never been heard from again.
While the Square is very beautiful and quite impressive it is very much a tourist trap. You will see millions tour buses and you need to plan on being harassed by bevy of Hungarian ladies hawking sweaters that very much look as if they were made in China. As you stroll around gaping at the impressive monuments, you will most likely bump into the other ten billion tourists (mostly American) who have also been dumped on the Square out of the tour buses.
While I didn’t get enough to time wander off from the tour, we were given plenty of time to explore the square. Then we were herded back to the bus, shown a smidgen of the park and then whisked away to Castle Hill over in Buda. I’ll be back next week to tell you about that, but in the meantime, enjoy the work of my new favorite sculptor.