Our train trip from Krakow to Budapest was the best yet- a first-class, two-bed compartment on a nearly empty train we scored by greasing the palm of our attendant with seven dollars worth of leftover zlotys. No, I don’t think there really was an “optional” upgrade fee. When we arrived, though, it was raining for the first time on our trip- a light but persistent drizzle. Despite the slow soaking of our clothes, we hit the wide boulevards (you can see how the city was often compared to Paris in its heyday), buzzing by the Great Synagogue and ornate State Opera House, with its Moorish staircases, as well as the Neo-Gothic, spire-happy beauty of the Parliament Building.
The first place we entered was St. Stephen’s Basilica, impressive and ostentatious like most national cathedrals that aren’t terribly old, but featuring one particularly odd memento- the shriveled, centuries-old severed hand of St. Stephen himself, the first King of Hungary. If you put in some coins, it even lights up for you!
After that, logically, it was time to eat, and we knew exactly where to head- the Central Market Hall. Above the various stalls selling ingredients, clothing, accessories, and what have you is a crowded catwalk lined with amazing Hungarian street food. It reminded me very much of a Peruvian market, which is where the really great local food is at. We had a breaded stuffed chicken and gulyas leves, which has me salivating just writing about it. The original Hungarian cowboy goulash, it’s quite unlike most dishes in the West bearing its name. Here it’s a greasy meat, potato, and carrot soup spiced with that universal Hungarian ingredient- red paprika. Dessert was somloi galuska, a chocolate cake and pudding hybrid that topped off an amazing meal.
After lunch the rain slacked off thankfully, so we crossed the Danube River to the Gellert Hill Cave, which houses a Pauline Order church that was literally carved into it. This church’s history mirrors Hungary’s- old and storied, but cast aside and neglected during Communist times only to be immediately embraced and restored after the fall of the Iron Curtain. It’s quite unlike any chapel I’ve seen elsewhere, more like Buddhist cave temples in execution, although smaller than most of those I’ve seen.
Our next stop after a long commute was Aquincum (which turned out to be a long walk from the same-named train stop). This former Roman resort constitutes the largest Roman site in Hungary, a very pretty assemblage of old foundations and columns that give you an idea of the scope of the place, along with literal tons of statuary and carvings dug up there, a replica Roman villa, a friendly evil-eyed cat, and a small but very modern and interactive museum, all well worth the visit. The best sight, though, was the twilight sun lazily illuminating the wet, red fall leaves, iridescent green grass, and centuries-old stonework… simply beautiful.
Night was falling when we got back to the city, and this when Budapest really, and quite literally, shines. We made our way to Castle Hill, full of palaces and museums and an Cathedral or two, and just took in the beautifully lit up architecture and the view of the black Danube and shimmering buildings lining it, in particular the Parliament building from earlier, now utterly, gorgeously lit up. The Fisherman’s Bastion, with its 7 towers for 7 Magyar clans, is the best vantage point, and is right next to the quite pretty Matthias Church to boot.
After soaking up this romantic view, which Jeonghee liked even more than Paris and I would have to say at least gives it a run for its money, we walked back downtown across the Brooklyn-esque Chain Bridge and headed back to the market for dinner, only to find it closed. We made tracks for the Kelenfold Train Station, figuring we’d find something to eat out there, only to discover a literal wasteland. Waiting for our second night train in a row proved to be an ordeal, but we scrounged up some cheap pizza bread, cracked open some beers, and made ready for the last leg of our trip.