Daily Archives: 5 December, 2009

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Budapest Day 1 – An Excursion to Castle Hill (Varhegy)

11th Hour Cinema Hostel

The first day of my holiday dawned bright and early. The entire hostel was sound asleep as I showered in the cold morning, getting ready for the day ahead. In Budapest, I stay at 11th Hour Cinema Hostel, a nice, centrally located hostel has its own three storey building with a lovely courtyard (perfect for a smoke break and that pint of beer) and dimly lit common room. The focal feature, of course, was the projection room where you can watch a movie with your fellow hostelmates when the weather is to severe to go out.

Christmas Market Outside Moszkva ter Metro Station

The plan for the day was to visit the Castle Hill, a must-visit tourist spot for anyone who visit Budapest. To get to the hill (the clue is in the name, see?), I had to take the metro to the Moszkva ter Station where, to my surprise, I encountered my first Christmas market! It was the first of the many, many markets and fairs I will encounter during my trip in Europe. For some reason, I don’t recall seeing any during my trip last year to Turkey and Greece. Perhaps it was too close to Christmas then.

Christmas Market Outside Moszkva ter Metro Station

Christmas markets (or fairs, whatever you want to call it) in Europe are rather typical, but festive. You have the obligatory food stalls – sweets, confectioneries, BBQ meat, mulled wine – and gift stalls of all sorts. Wood carvings, wind chimes, winter clothings and – of course – Christmas tree!

Towards Castle Hill

I didn’t linger long at the Christmas market, as my intention was to make my way to Castle Hill! Which was more of a challenge than I thought it was. The map in Lonely Planet was confusing, and the direction from the station attendant (in halting English no less) confused me even more than I was. But in the end I figured out the direction, and when I saw I was on the right route, my bubbling excitement was hard to contain!

Towards Castle Hill

Castle Hill, also called the Castle District, is a 1km-long limestone plateau towering 170m above the Danube. It contains Budapest’s most important medieval monuments and museums, and is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

View from Fisherman Bastion at Castle Hill

The walled area consists of two-distinct parts, the Old Town to the north, where commoners lived in the Middle Ages (the present-day owners of the coveted burgher houses here are anything but “common”); and the Royal Palace, the original site of the castle built in the 13th century.

The Vienna Gate at Castle Hill

My entry point of choice was Vienna Gate, the medieval entrance to the old town, rebuilt in 1936 for the 250th anniversary of the retaking of the castle from the Turks. It’s not so big but loquacious children here are told by their parents: “Your mouth is as big as the Vienna Gate!”

The National Archive at Castle Hill

The large building to the west of the gate with the superb and very colourful maiolica-tiled roof contains the National Archives. It is not open to the public, but you can take in its magnificent facade right from the outside.

Burgher Houses at Castle Hill

On the west side of Vienna Gate Square, which was a weekend market in the Middle Ages, there’s an attractive group of burgher houses. The photo above is of No. 8, with a curious round corner window.

Lutheran Church at Castle Hill

To the east across the square is a Lutheran church, with the words “A Mighty Forest is Our God” written in Hungarian. Here’s a video I took of the area around Vienna Gate Square.

Tancsics utca is a narrow street full of little houses painted in lively hies and adorned with statues. In many courtyard entrances you will see sedilia – stone niches dating back to the 13th century – which some historians think were used as merchant stalls; others believe servants cooled their heels here while their masters (or mistresses) visited the occupants.

Tancsics utca

It was also here I started my disastrous attempts at taking my own photos without a tripod (I got one later on), and the resulting photos were as bad as you can imagine. Thank god for camera shops and friendly Hungarians who saved my first day in Budapest!

Lajos Kossuth Prison at Tancsics utca

Farther along the road to the southeast of Tancsics utca is the house where the leader of the 1848-49 War of Independence, Lajos Kossuth, was imprisoned from 1837 to 1840.

Music of Music History at Tancsics utca, Castle Hill

As I walked along Tancsics utca utca, I stumbled upon the Museum of Music HIstory, with an exhibition of Haydn. I had a great time here, exploring the large exhibit as probably the only visitor during that time. There was an old lady who was guarding the exhibitions, but she had no objection of me snapping away in the museum. In fact, she even took some photos of me!

Berry Tree Thingy at Garden Market, Castle Hill

Right after the garden, I ventured into another nook of the street, and bumped into this gorgeous looking Garden Market, where I snapped a couple of shots of this berry tree. It sure felt like Christmas already!

Hilton Budapest

Farther up the road, the contraversial Hilton Budapest, which incorporates parts of a Dominican church dating from the Middle Ages, and a baroque Jesuit college.

Statue of Holy Trinity at Castle Hill

Southwest, there’s a statue of the Holy Trinity. another one of the “plague pillars” put up by grateful (and wealthy) Buda citizens in the early 18th. The most amazing sight, however, would be the two main attractions of Castle Hill, dominating the square: Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion.

Matthias Church, Castle Hill

Matthias Church is a neo-Gothic creation with a colourful tiled roof and a delicate spire (although a massive protracted US$20 million restoration kept the landmark tower under wraps). The interior, famed for its stained glass windows and wall decoration by Romanian painters, was out of bound for me as I walked away quickly to the burgeoning crowd at the one and only entrance to the church! A big part of it was under some kind of restoration work, as of most attractions in Europe during the winter months.

Fisherman Bastion at Castle Hill

The Fisherman’s Bastion is a neo-Gothic masquerade that most visitors and Hungarians believed to be much older. But who cares? It looks medieval and offers among the best views in Budapest. One photo would not do it justice, so I took some videos to show how grand the entire place was.

While I was there, I was fortunate enough to see a Chinese couple doing their wedding shoot there with an entourage of at least ten people. It must have cost them a fortune! The bride, despite wearing a dress totally insufficient for the chilly weather, was looking absolutely radiant. I guess if I was in her heels, I would be, too. Imagine, what a shoot that was!

András Hadik Statue at Castle Hill

Southwest of the square is the mounted statue of Andras Hadik, a Hussar field marshal in the wars against the Turks. See the steed’s shiny brass testicles? According to my Lonely Planet, it’s a student tradition in Budapest to give them a stroke before taking an exam.

Ruszwurm Cukrászda at Castle Hill

Anyone worth his salt on Castle Hill will recommend you to try the excellent spread of coffee and cake at Ruszwurm Cafe. What they failed to mention was how tiny the place is. Only a couple of tables and the place was overcrowded beyond imagination. Certainly no table for a lone ranger like me.

Lunch at Cafe Mira, Castle Hill

So of I go to Cafe Mira, a charming corner cafe with a nice menu, where I spent a happy hour eating, blogging and immersing myself in the decidedly artsy crowd. I spotted an Asian dude, probably university age, in some decidedly funky hairdo and speaks (what I presumed to be) fluent Hungarian. It was amazing. I wish I have language ability like that!

Former Ministry of Defence, Castle Hill

Walking along Uri utca, you’ll come face-to-face with the bombed-out former Ministry of Defence, a casualty of WWII and NATO’s supposed nuclear target for Budapest during the Cold War.

Downtown Summer Folkfair, Castle Hill

It was around the bullet-hole-ridden building that I stumbled upon the Downtown Summer Folkfair. A sure tourist trap, but hey I was a tourist too, ain’t I? So off I go exploring its stalls and being voluntarily relieved of a few Euros in exchange for some Hungarian artifacts.

Sandor Palace, Castle Hill

Farther south on the left hand side is the restored Sandor Palace, which now houses the offices of the president and is heavily guarded at all times. On the front facade, there were some wonderful classical reliefs and friezes.

At Sándor Palace, Castle Hill

By the time I am done exploring the vast compound around the palace, it was past four and the drop in temperature were definitely noticeable. I was hesitating if he should spend HUF500 (about EUR2) on a plastic cup of warm wine… but in the end I caved in. It was an experience to behold. Imagine walking around a complex of castles and museums hundreds of years old in the biting chill of Hungarian winter, immersing yourself in the laughter of delighted visitors conversing in many languages. It’s only when you travel alone that you notice these things vividly.

Ráday utca, Budapest

After a short rest back in the hostel, I walked my way to Raday utca. This street is a famous place for bars, restaurants and cafes in Budapest. Mainly the road is not accessible for cars, just for pedestrians.

Raday utca

A bit bummed out that the whole street seem deserted… until I see almost all of the eateries were packed with people. Randomly chosen one, Voros Postakocsi at Ráday utca, which seemed to have the most locals and thoroughly enjoyed the food.

Dinner at Voros Postakocsi, Ráday utca

And of course I tried the Hungarian beer, Dreher. A pint on an empty stomach is almost guarantee to a great dinner.

With that, I ended my first night in Budapest well fed with food, sight and contentment :)

Click here for more photos taken during my first Hungarian day in Budapest, particularly at the Vienna Gate, Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion.