Family Travels Part 1: Budapest

We just returned from our annual family vacation, and boy did we have a good time. We went all over the place, starting off with a couple of days in Budapest (Hungary), with quick stopovers in Bratislava (Slovakia) and Vienna (Austria). Then we hopped across the continent to visit the southern Algarve region of Portugal, followed by a car ride to Seville (Spain).

Like always, to keep this post as clean and crisp as possible, I will focus on the places we spent the most time in: Budapest & Algarve.

Today’s post is dedicated entirely to Budapest, and next week I’ll cover Algarve.

Let’s jump right in. After reuniting with the family at the Budapest airport, we spent more than 30 minutes in line waiting to catch a cab. Our hotel was conveniently located right in the center of the city. Over the next few days, we thanked our lucky stars because being centrally located allowed us to do and see sooo much more. The name of the street we stayed on was Váci Utca and I’d strongly recommend finding a hotel on or around it.

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Large parts of the center are pedestrian only, and hence make for a great place to spend time. Apart from the frequent tour providers trying to get you to sign up for their tours and forcing you to “try” their Segway, we really enjoyed Budapest. Most of the pedestrian areas are lined with all kinds of shops (brands, chains, souvenirs, local trade, etc.).

There is certainly no shortage of restaurants either. Since this is a heavily tourist area, beware of restaurants that get away with serving horrible food and charging high prices. I’d recommend you look them up on TripAdvisor before entering. I must admit that the city center seemed to be overrun with tourists, and has perhaps lost some of its charm. However, given that travel and tourism contributes over 11% to the country’s GDP and is expected to rise, it doesn’t surprise me.

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The Budapest that we know it today was originally composed of 2 cities-Buda & Pest that were combined into a single city in 1873. We mostly walked everywhere, but I’d also recommend using public transportation which includes a very good network of buses, trams and a very comfortable underground metro.

Here are some sight-seeing & activity recommendations, ordered by my personal favorites:

Gellért Baths: Originally built between 1912-1918, the complex was damaged during the Second World War and rebuilt. The complex contains a number of pools, saunas, and wellness related services. The entire facility, although old, is built-in an art-nouveau style. I’m certain I can’t do justice when describing the splendor of this place, but I’m going to try. From the moment you enter, the grandeur hits you straight in the face. The imposing high ceilings, the beautiful fountains, the mosaic tiles on the walls and the floors, the statues, the colors, every single thing here astounds with its majesty and magnificence. The closest comparison I can think of is bathing in a cathedral.

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The thermal waters contain calcium, magnesium, hydro-carbonate, alkalis, chloride, sulfate and fluoride. The properties of the water are said to help with various conditions like joint illnesses & inflammation, spine problems, vertebral disk problems, etc. The temperature of the water is between 35 °C and 40 °C. In fact, references to the healing properties of the mineral hot springs at this location can be found dating back to the 13th century. If you visit Budapest, this place is a must visit and should be at the very top of your list.

The Liberty Statue: Built in 1947 at the top of Gellért hill, it commemorates those who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom, and prosperity of Hungary.

The Gellért Monument: Built in 1904 in honor of the 11th century bishop St. Gellért who converted the Magyars to Christianity. Below the memorial is a man-made waterfall. Legend has it that Gellért was put to death by pagans at this spot by putting him in a barrel and rolling it down the steep Gellért Hill and eventually into the Danube River.

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Cave Church: Part of a network of caves within the hills, it is often referred to as St. Ivan’s cave. St. Ivan was a hermit that who lived there and is believed to have used the natural thermal water from a muddy lake next to the cave to heal the sick. It is likely that this same water fed the pools of the old Sáros fürdő (“Muddy Baths”), now called Gellért Baths.

The church has an interesting history and was sealed with a thick concrete wall by the Soviet Red Army in 1951. It wasn’t until the fall of the former Soviet Union in 1989 that the wall was brought down and the church restored.

Hungarian Parliament: Completed in 1904, it is the largest building in Hungary, and the tallest in Budapest. About 100,000 people were involved in its construction, during which 40 million bricks, half a million precious stones and 40 kilograms of gold were used. Interestingly the architect went blind before it was completed, never being able to see his completed work.

Heroes’ Square: Completed in 1900, this it is one of the major squares of Budapest and includes a number of grand statues of past leaders, and among other things the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Although the square itself is very large and magnificent, it didn´t quite live up to my expectations. As a European square, I was expecting it to be filled with life, lots of people and cafes. However, all we found there were parked buses, empty beer cans, and rowdy tourists. Although I wouldn’t recommend penciling in spending too much time there, I would recommend paying it a visit.

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Others: Gellért Hill, St. Stephen’s Basilica, Buda Castle, Night cruise on the Danube River

All in all, we spent a wonderful 3.5 days in Budapest, but I’d recommend going with 4-5 days in hand to really get to know the city and try everything it has to offer. Food, accommodation, transport and shopping are relatively cheap compared to Western Europe, which is a good thing ‘coz your money goes further.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the Algarve region of Portugal.

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Anniversary Weekend in Bologna

After a long hiatus, we finally resumed our travels. To celebrate our wedding anniversary, we took a long weekend trip to Bologna, Italy.  It is the 7th most populous city in Italy with a population of just over a million. Apart from the extraordinarily large number of tourists and foreign students, the city is also home to a lot of cultural history and boasts numerous historical landmarks, in addition to the world’s oldest university.

Following my guide to saving on air travel, we scored a really good deal on flights to and from Bologna. Upon arriving early in the morning, we got lucky and managed to get checked-in early at the hotel. We grabbed a Cornetti (croissant filled with different types of creams, etc.) and hit the city’s center for some sight-seeing. We spent a lot of time eating and drinking (and you should too). Nonetheless, we did try to get in a fair amount of sight-seeing. As always, to avoid a meandering post, I’ll focus on our top 5 highlights.

1. Piazza Maggiore, with the San Petronio Basilica and the City Hall: The city’s definitive center, this massive plaza is flanked by the incomplete but beautiful San Petronio Basilica, the city’s town hall and beautiful heritage buildings with cafés and restaurants.

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The Basilica is the 10th largest church in the world and dominates the plaza. During the hot summer days, we joined other tourists and took respite from the sun sitting on the stairs under the massive shadow of the basilica. In the evenings, its a good place to sit and people watch and enjoy the activities going on the in the Piazza Maggiore.

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We also spent a lot of time sitting in the various cafés under the porticos of the many heritage buildings enjoying a cold beer or a refreshing lemon Schweppes. I should point out here that most cafés will overcharge you for drinks (c. € 4), but this includes some complimentary snacks. So, don’t make the mistake of ordering drinks and snacks, ‘coz they won’t tell you in advance.

2. Neptune Fountain (Fontana di Nettuno): This imposing bronze structure stands just a few meters away from the Piazza Maggiore. Since the fountain was undergoing major restoration, it was completely covered by scaffolding. However, we managed to get on a tour that took us inside the scaffolding and allowed us to view the statue up close.

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As our guide explained, in one hand Neptune holds the trident calming the waters, and with his other hand, he is gesturing to calm the wind. I always wondered about the difference between Poseidon and Neptune. Upon investigating, I found that “Neptune is the ancient Roman god of the sea, and Poseidon is the Greek God of the sea. They look similar in depictions, and some consider them to be the same God with two different names. Many people believe the Romans adopted the Greek God Poseidon and changed his name to Neptune.”

3. The 2 Towers (Due Torri): These two tall stone towers are amongst the few remaining and without a doubt the most prominent of all the towers that once dotted the city’s landscape. Built by wealthy families during the 12th century to keep a watchful eye over and defend their property, they eventually became symbols of a family’s status within the society, and families would compete to build the higher tower.

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These 2 towers are named after the families that supposedly built them-Asinelli and Garisenda. Believe it or not, these towers have developed a considerable tilt, making them very comparable to the world-famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. Once again, we were unfortunately not allowed to climb these towers as they were closed for restoration.

4. Archiginnasio of Bologna: As impressive as the building is, what is even more breathtaking is what it houses. Built during the 16th century, it was once the seat of the world’s oldest university- the University of Bologna. This building now houses the Anatomical Theater and a beautiful grand library, among other things.

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The Anatomical Theater was used for anatomy lectures. It is made entirely of wood and is shaped like an amphitheater, lined with statues of famous doctors and anatomists. The ceiling is also wooden and has a statue of Apollo, the God of medicine, in the center which is surrounded by various constellations. At one end, the room is overlooked by an ornate seat for the professor topped by two naked and skinless men knows as “gli spellati” (the skinned ones). In the center of the room stands a marble table, used for the dissection of humans and animals. This structure was almost completely destroyed in an air raid during the Second World War. It was then rebuilt meticulously using all of the original pieces recovered from the building.

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As tourists, we were denied access to the library. However, we were able to pay for a tour of the rest of the building, and get a glimpse of the library from one of the side doors. The library is a grand old room, decorated with paintings, coats of arms and statues. It is impossible to do justice to the beauty of the library, so let me just paraphrase the way a friend described it to me: “When you see the library, you will want to study there.”

5. The Middle Market (Mercato di Mezzo): A three floor market, here you can get a sampling of traditional Bolognese food. There are a number of kiosks that offer a variety of meats, fish, cheeses, fruits, breads, wines, beers, etc. There are also a couple of restaurants with limited seating. After a number of years of being abandoned, the market was finally brought back to life after a major renovation in 2014. 

Others: Without going into detail, I’d also recommend visiting the University, the Santa Maria Basilica, the San Pietro Cathedral (and above all its bell tower where you can learn about how the bells are rung, how dangerous it is and how it makes the tower sway), the Pescherie Vecchie, the tons of local restaurants for fresh pasta, and so much more!

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Overall, I’d say Bologna is a great city to visit during a long weekend and would recommend it. It has a rich cultural and gastronomical history. If you’re a history buff, I’d recommend a few more days. There is more than enough to do, see, eat and drink. Notwithstanding, we probably won’t return for a second visit- not because there is anything wrong with the city- but because we enjoyed our previous trip to Florence much more and would rather revisit there.

 

Arrivederci!