Day 1 Checkpoints and Ferris wheels
We are saying goodbye to the ship this morning. The Danube has risen even more during the night, and our bus begins its long journey across Serbia to Budapest. This, of course, necessitates crossing the Serbian Border and also the border of Hungary. Being now experienced in the way of border crossings, I take my book and vow to be calm through the ordeal. The usual passport gathering goes on in Serbia, and the bus glides into the neutral zone between these two countries.
But when the Hungarian authorities demand that we get off the bus and personally present ourselves and our passports, something happens. For a moment I feel as if a dark cloud has descended, and I see the scene not as a too well fed tourist grumbling about a long bus drive but as an elderly woman trying and to somehow escape from a war-devastated country into relative safety. Will these suspicious border guards accept my papers and allow me to pass, or will they pull me aside and send me back? If they do, I’m lost…
The chilling feeling passes quickly, but as the smiling official stamps my passport, I am still a little off balance. A writer’s imagination? Of course. But that eerie sense of desperation and fear lingers. Perhaps it comes from the fact that this has been an odd sort of holiday—more of a learning experience than a vacation. To linger for even a few days in countries which have been subjected to centuries of violence makes me realize how much I take for granted in my comfortable, insulated world.
But—“Welcome to Hungary,” calls our cheerful guide, and we roll forward past beautifully kept fields edged by banks of poppies and wildflowers. A modern highway leads us to Budapest, a city made up of two cities, Buda on the right bank, and Pest sprawling eastward, home to 2,000,000 people.
We enter the city late in the afternoon, check into the Meridian Hotel and unpack a few things in our spacious room, then go in search of adventure. We find it at once in the park across from the hotel… a huge ferries wheel called “Your Point Of View.” In a cage that holds six, we rise high in the air and look down on Budapest… and while going up and down, chat with some young Hungarians who speak excellent English. One of the topics—the hundred year record of the Danube’s rise!
From then to dinner. We have had been fed a paprika hot goulash for lunch—a prelude to a horse show on a large farm full of horses—and so opt for an upscale restaurant which serves elegant fare on the terrace. The ambiance is so different from what we have experienced in the Slavic countries that it seems as if we have crossed a great divide. And, going back to the hotel, we see that the towering buildings bordering the park are blazing with light.
Day 2 A day packed with memories
Jo reggelt! Good morning.
We have one day to do everything we possibly can do in Budapest, so we start early with a walking tour.
Our guide tells us that Hungary, too, has had a turbulent past. A crossroads between east and west Europe, its fertile plains invited conquest. Along with the Romans, Magyars, Austrians, Germans and Soviet troops, it was also invaded by Attila and his Huns in the 4th century. “At that time,” our guide informs us, “Budapest wasn’t the capitol city. King Bella IV decided that in order to hold off invaders, he needed a city he could fortify—so Budapest was chosen.” Now free of its difficult past, modern Hungary has an elected president, a prime minister, and a National Assembly.
We cross over the IronBridge, and I notice how far the Danube had risen in past days. Streets were awash with water only a few days ago and the ground is still damp, but now the waters have receded. “The IronBridge was built to link Buda and Pest,” our guide says. “It’s said that a prince wanted to see his ailing father on the other side of the river and built the bridge.”
The day is full of sunshine and the walk is easy as we climb Castle Hill to take in a view of MatthiasChurch. High up on the elaborately tiled roof of the church I spy a raven with a ring in its mouth. “King Steven was once imprisoned by his enemies,” our guide explains. “His mother, wanting to know whether he was dead or alive, sent a raven with a note in its beak. The prince took off his ring and sent it by the raven—so his mother knew that her son lived.”
So many legends…
Which is true and which folktale?
It doesn’t matter.
As we climb Fisherman’s Bastion for a view over the city, we hear more legends about the city. There are many. One is about a maiden whose lover died a sudden death. She goes to the devil and begs him to return the man to life, and the devil strikes a bargain—he’ll do so if the maiden finds him eighteen roses by morning. She can’t find any roses (I assume that it was winter) so she embroiders eighteen roses on a cloth and hands it to the astonished fiend, who has no choice but to honor his side of the bargain.
Budapest has streets lined with upscale shops as well as spots where we can buy souvenirs, and we explore these for a while before cramming ourselves into a small city bus that rattles us back to the hotel. Time for a quick lunch, then, for in the afternoon we are going to the GodolloMuseum, once a royal palace built in 1760. After the formation of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in 1867, it became a summer retreat for Emperor Franz Joseph and Queen Elizabeth, widely believed to be the most beautiful woman in Europe.
A life-size figure of Queen Elizabeth greets us as we enter the building, and she really is lovely! Scarlett O’Hara would have envied that tiny waist, I think, but our guide, Agnes, says that Her Majesty was probably anorectic. This didn’t prevent her for being a crackerjack equestrienne, and there are many photographs of her on horseback.
I feel a great sympathy for Elizabeth. She dearly loved her children and wished to take care of them herself but was prevented by her Gorgon of a mother in law, who said that servants had this duty. Later, she lost two of her children… one to death and one to suicide. “Her son wanted to marry a lady he loved but was forced into a match he hated,” Agnes explains. “He and his love shot themselves in a hunting lodge—and Elizabeth was broken hearted.”
Rain has begun to fall as we walk through the palace. Many of its original riches were looted by the communists, who made a nursing home out of the palace, but through donations and discoveries many period artifacts have been returned. There is porcelain stove in the corner, but… why is there no opening in the front for wood and coal? “Ah,” says Agnes, “there was a narrow passageway that lead to the opening in the back of the stove. Small boys would have to crawl through the passageway and feed the fire from the back.”
Surfeit with information, I fall asleep on the bus ride home but awaken renewed and ready for the last event of a busy day—a river cruise. We eat at an outdoor café in the park near our hotel and watch folk dancers perform to a happy crowd. Then we stop at Szamos, most famous for its pastries. The Hungarian pastries, I note, are more dense than the ones we are used to. But good? Oh, yes.
Finally, we make our way through the crowded park to the river bank. Our cruise starts at 9:30, and the swell of the great Danube is dark and somehow primeval. We lean out of the boat’s window and watch the buildings along the river bank… brightly lit buildings which are pointed out to us as we pass. The sight is breathtaking.
It seems incredible, as we drift along in the boat that tomorrow we will leave this lively old city and fly back to our ordinary lives. All things need to come to an end, I think, but I will remember this day for a long, long time.
And besides, there is the lengthy trip back home. Our voyage is not over yet.