Thursday 28th August – We head off towards Baja, an old town on the Danube, passing through fields of sunflowers and the occasional isolated village.
The river is wider here and the flow is slower. The Danube divides into channels and there a several islands which are accessible by bridge from Baja. There are plenty of grassy river banks so you can sit by and swim in the river. There’s even some newly developed cafes, walkways and beaches. It has been a popular place for people from Budapest to have weekend houses since before the Second World War.
After a night in Baja we head to Bugac, which is on the edge of the Kiskunsagi National Park, where the landscape of the original Great Plains is preserved; sandy grasslands with juniper and black mulberry trees. The land is not completely flat and has alternating sand dunes and flat wind furrows where in the past wetlands formed. Only about a 10th of this area is left in its natural state. Most is now used for forestry and arable farming. Unlike ‘national parks’ elsewhere, there is almost no access to it. The limited dirt tracks are usually private and there is virtually no parking – I suppose that’s the idea – It keeps it natural. Not very handy for a Heidi spot though!
Within the National Park is the Bugacpuszta, which has a few traditional herder dwellings, sweep wells and a Herder Museum. In the past, the majority of the Plains were grazed by large herds of cattle and sheep ‘managed’ from horseback. The horsemanship skills of the herdsmen developed to an extraordinary level and they’re attempting to keep that alive in a show for us tourists. An impressive spectacle where they race one another bareback playing games; carrying (and not spilling) glasses of beer, knocking down skittles with their wips… and where one csikos(herder) gallops five horses at full speed while standing on the backs of the back two. There seemed surprisingly few visitors considering this is surely ‘high season’. It is miles from anywhere though.
After lunch under the trees (It’s mid 30’s here in the full sun) we follow the cycle route to the ruins of a 13th Century monastery, finding wild grapes on the way.
Apart from a few reconstructed foundations there’s not much to see, but we enjoyed exploring the countryside in the sunshine.
On Sunday 31st August we pay a brief visit to Kechskemet, before heading North along the Danube towards Budapest. By early evening we’re parked up next to the Danube on the outskirts of Szentendre 10 km North of Budapest. Monday it rained and rained all day so a part from brief trip to do the shopping we stayed indoors.
Tuesday brought sunshine so we cycle along the Danube to the old centre of Szentendre, and visit our first Serbian Orthodox Cathedral and Museum (Here because they were escaping the invading Ottomans) complete with hundreds of icons. Lots to look at, but to our eyes, all very similar. Orthodox Christianity and Icons – another area of life we know virtually nothing about!
We then try some local fare at a café. Peter being very brave chooses a cheese and mushroom toastie while Elaine has a Hortobagyi Palacsinta – a savoury pancake filled with mince meat and topped with a sour cream and paprika sauce. Hmm, She’s not rushing for seconds!
Wednesday morning we drove along the river and into Budapest and surprisingly easily find Haller Camping, which is just a few kilometres from the city centre, so the perfect location to spend the next three days exploring the city. The price of the campsite included the use of their washing machines, so by early evening we had two loads of washing, washed and dried and had made full use of the unlimited hot showers! The campsite manager was very friendly, spoke excellent English and gave us lots of information on Budapest, making life much easier than anticipated.
On Thursday we set off with our two-day Hop on, Hop Off, tourist bus tickets, and hop on the bus to go and visit the Castle Hill District of Buda, the west side of the Danube. The first stop is the neo-Gothic Matthias Church, where King Matthias was twice married and where the coronations of other Hungarian monarchs took place. The inside is extremely intricately painted on all surfaces and the roof is decorated with tiles from the Zsolnay porcelain factory in Pecs (the Zsolnays were the first to develop metallic finishes for porcelain and there work ordains many of the finest buildings in Hungary). There were great views from up here across the river and the rooftops of Pest.
There are other impressive roofs around. A smaller church nearby:
After a lunch on a terrace with views to the Buda Hills, we walk through the medieval streets to the former Royal Palace. The palace has been destroyed and rebuilt at least a half-dozen times in the last seven centuries; it now houses the Hungarian National Gallery and History Museum. Next, it’s back on the bus, via the Citadella, and then along the West bank of the Danube, before crossing the Margaret Bridge into Pest. We hop off the bus at Elizabeth Square and enjoy an ice cream whilst cooling our weary feet!
After a successful mission to find and purchase tram tickets, we get diverted to a ‘touristic market’ by following the sound of some fabulous guitar music. So we buy a beer (Dark Cherry Beer – yes, a bit odd!) and enjoy this musical interlude from our sightseeing. These guys were great! A bit on the rocky side of blues I suppose summed them up. Apparently there’s a bit of a blues history to the music here – suits us. And it’s free!
We dragged ourselves away, to more sightseeing:
St. Stephen’s Basilica was in somewhat better shape:
So what makes it a ‘Basilica’ rather than a church or cathedral? Elaine reckons there’s got to be a saint (or a bit of a saint!) buried there. They seem to have ‘the door on the side’ of the rectangular building (and in this case the altar too) rather than ‘at the end’ – any advances on our inadequate architectural knowledge?..
Having chickened out of trying an ‘authentic’ Hungarian café for dinner (maybe it was the waitress enthusing over the STARTER of “raspberry cream soup with caramel sauce” that put us off) we plump for an Italian and daringly try a pizza. Then it’s a mad rush to catch the boat for our free (included in the tourist bus price) evening cruise on the river including free glass of wine. The boat was departing as we arrive and amazingly! comes back for us. A relaxing end to a hectic day!
Day 2 of the ‘hop on hop off’ bus pass and we set off again to see all the things we missed on day one. We visit the Great Synagogue. It was Lonely Planet’s ‘top choice’ – not sure why! We paid an arm and a leg to get in, including a guided tour from someone descended from those persecuted there during the war. The majority were basically starved having been prevented from leaving the small Jewish Quarter around the Synagogue. No supplies were allowed in either. The numbers represented in the garden of remembrance were harrowing. There was also a Jewish museum, which unfortunately followed the style of other Hungarian ‘museums’ – plenty of stuff to look at but rather lacking in explanation.
Showing their resilience, there is once again a big Jewish population here and they’re not entirely happy with how history is being represented here, as we had discovered the previous evening when we came across a sculpture..
..with this reaction against it:
Whilst we stood there looking confused one of the protesters offered us the following explanation (click the link below)
It seems that Hungary’s people like much of Western Europe; have in recent years become more and more right wing in their choice of government. We were however somewhat surprised to find the BBC calling Viktor Orban’s tactics of high taxes on foreign owned companies in the country “aggressive”. Sounded perfectly reasonable to us.
This ‘drama’ sits right next to yet another cool Hungarian fountain. When you walk towards the ‘wall’ of water, it automatically stops, just for a moment, allowing you to ‘get inside’. Love it!
After another busy day, we turned down the opportunity of spending over 40euro each at one of the fancy spas that Budapest is famous for, head home to the campsite on the tram, and spend a pleasant evening at the campsite restaurant serving up traditional Hungarian fare (Goulash Soup, Pork Budapest Style..) and some more good live music. The friendly owners / staff? were perhaps a little more concerned with dancing and enjoying the music themselves than checking whether you needed another drink! but we enjoyed the night none the less.
Budapest day 3 – having decided that we couldn’t possibly do any more sightseeing (and discovered a much more reasonable thermal bath option) we head for ‘Rudas’ the oldest traditional geothermal spa in Budapest (built by the Turks in 1566) and spend hours relaxing and getting clean. They’re very popular with baths of all temperatures, saunas and steam rooms and of course ‘the cold! one’ And then it’s time to begin again..
There’s plenty more to see in Budapest including endless museums and galleries. We enjoyed the ‘vibe’ but really need a more relaxed pace and staying in the campsite was getting expensive. We’ve also missed the north-east of Hungary, a more mountainous, wine growing region, and ‘the danube bend’ where it cuts through these mountains, but as usual the weather is against us. It’s time to hit the road to Romania….
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