Thursday, August 7, 2014

DAY 50 – 4 August 2014; Bratislava to Budapest

Avinash and his friend Sanil had come to Sheraton early in the morning to accompany us to Ganesh Utsav. We thought of dropping in at the Blue Church on the way and hence, decided to walk the not so short distance. With two youngsters to help with the bags it was not to be too much of a sweat. Just as we finished photo sessions it started raining; not the kind one could ignore. Avinash called for a radio taxi – the one you hail from the street is supposed to be expensive as they ask what they decide to! The taxi arrived in a short while and it took us to the church. We ran in for a small prayer and resumed our trip to Ganesh Utsav, the parking lot of which we had kept the car overnight. Viera and the entire team were there. More photo sessions, hugs and emotional goodbyes later we were ready to hit the highway. Avinash and Sanil came with us to that part of the city from where we could get to the highway using the sign posts. It was a short drive from the restaurant. Bratislava had given us two wonderful friends in Viera and Avinash. The others we met too were extremely nice and gracious. But we got to know Viera and Avinash better. Thanks to them we enjoyed the stay in Bratislava and experienced truly local stuff to drink and eat.
Just as I eased on to the highway to Budapest the skies opened up as we had never experienced during the journey. It rained so heavily that visibility was reduced to almost nothing; sometimes it was only the tail lamps of the vehicles ahead that guided me. The plus factor was that the road condition was extremely good and there are neither pot holes nor errant drivers to contend with. The border of Hungary was just 40 kms from Bratislava. I actually overshot the shop from where I was to buy the Toll Ticket. I parked safely ahead with the hazard lights on and walked to the shop. The lady at the counter almost fell off the chair when I told her the registration number of the car. She said that she had never encountered an Asian vehicle before! Unlike in Czech Republic and Austria the Toll Ticket was a piece of paper. The others were stickers to be put on the windshield. However, the toll tickets are convenient as you do not have to stop at toll gates to purchase tickets.
The heavy rain notwithstanding, I hit the fringes of Budapest within a couple of hours, a distance of 200 kms. The Pest part through which we drove into the City did not impress us much for comparisons with Prague and Vienna immediately cropped up. We were in for a huge surprise! We were booked to stay in the nH Hotel. It was not difficult to find the place, with the Navigator being more than useful. I drove into the Car Park and lodged the car in a convenient empty lot; it was a tight squeeze but I managed because of Lal’s assistance. The guy at the reception was extremely quick with the formalities of check in. Jithesh, the contact provided by Sirosh, was already at the reception. After freshening up we met back in the reception area to start a tour of the city.
Jithesh has been resident of Budapest for 8 years as an employee of TCS. His in depth knowledge of the City and its magnificence was a huge bonus. Besides, the driver of the taxi he hired was an exceptionally tourist friendly guy. Jithesh gave clear directions to Csaba (pronounced, Chaba) about the places to visit. The Heroes Square was the first to be reached. The central part of the square is a statue complex which, inter alia, celebrates the 9th century migration of Central Asian nomadic tribes, the Magyars, under Arpad and 6 other chieftains into Hungary, called the Millennium Monument. The column in the middle has the statue of Archangel Gabriel. In front of the memorial is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The colonnaded memorial to 14 kings starting with St. Stephen, who brought Christianity to Hungary and founded the Hungarian State in 896 AD is Romanesque. The statues in the Heroes Square have been often replaced depending on political contingencies. The central part of the square is flanked by the Museum of Fine Arts – housing one of Europe’s top collections - and the Palace of Arts – the biggest exhibition space in Hungary. The square opens out to the long and important Andrassy Avenue. The square has also been the venue for large political gatherings. Behind the monument is also the Szechenyi Baths which reportedly has curative powers. Jithesh mentioned how he went there recently to rid himself of body ache after a long journey.
A short walk from the Heroes Square is the Castle of Vaidahunyad, which was originally built of cardboard and wood for the 1896 Expo. It showcases the various architectural styles of Hungary. The imposing structures are now home to the biggest museum of agriculture in Europe. The views of the Castle from the lake and the bridge across it are a photographer’s delight. The hooded statue of an unknown writer is a favourite with visitors.
The Neo-Renaissance building of the State Opera House was built between 1875 and 1884. The electrical system of the Opera house is functional since 1895! The entrance to the Opera house is guarded by the statues of Liszt Ferenc and Erkel Ferenc. The ornate ceiling of the reception area has frescoes of Arpad Feszty. Diagonally opposite the Opera house is another Neo-Classical building that houses the Academy of Dancing.
Jithesh reminded us about the highly innovative and creative Hungarians who had brought home 13 Nobel prizes, the highest for any country, per capita. Vitamin C, Ballpoint pens, helicopter, telephone exchange, Rubiks Cube, etc are some of the contributions of people from the State to the world. The economy is dominated by agriculture and 30% of the GDP comes from the primary sector. The State is also where Benz, Suzuki and Audi have their manufacturing units as well as manufacture of many ancillaries. The service sector employs nearly 60,000 people in Budapest that has 25% of the Country’s population, which is 10 million. To incentivise population growth as also a part of the social welfare maternity leave is available for a total of 3 years that can be taken in two stretches of 18 months. Those on maternity leave from organisations get paid 75% of their salary by the government.
The Dohany Grand Synagogue is the largest synagogue and museum in Europe. It has a tall set of double onion domes right above the main entrance. The vast complex also houses a cemetery and a memorial. We stopped outside on the busy street for a few photos. The Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park near the Synagogue is erected above a mass grave from the 1940s. The main theme of the memorial is an aluminium willow tree with the names of victims engraved on the tree. The Memorial is guarded and is the first instance where I found the presence of policemen in Budapest. As part of the memorial is a fountain arranged in the shape of a square. The sequencing of the fountains – individual spouts – is such that it permits one to enter the fountain square and exit by holding one’s hands about the spouts. Near the memorial is the Hungarian TV building and the one that houses the US Embassy.
A short distance away is the St. Stephen’s Basilica. The building took over 50 years to complete in 1905 and suffered serious damage in WWII. The restoration of the damaged basilica was completed only by 2003. The Church commemorates the first Christian King of Hungary, St. Stephen, whose right hand is on permanent display in the Holy Hand Chapel within the church.
The Parliament House that stretches over 260 meters in length along the Danube embankment and is the most iconic of all buildings on the Pest side was partly inspired by the Palace of Westminster in London. As we were getting down from the car to visit the majestic site Csaba told us that when he had chauffeured Michael Jackson to see the Parliament House MJ reported told him that he wanted to own the building at whatever cost (I am sure every taxi driver in Budapest narrates that story to every tourist)! The Parliament house was built as part of the Millennium celebrations and is ornamented with white neo-gothic turrets and arches. Many of them look as if made in lace. The magnificence of the Danube lends the ideal backdrop to the Parliament house. The flag staff in front of the Parliament building is guarded by two military personnel. They constantly keep marching around it rather than stand in one place. In front of the Parliament House is the Ethnology Museum and is one of the oldest institutions in Hungary. The museum is a reconstruction of the disappearing values of the Hungarian culture and the neighbouring areas, for in the past Hungary included parts of present day Austria, Czech Republic and Slovakia.
The Szechenyi Chain Bridge was the first permanent bridge across the Danube linking the Buda and Pest regions. It was first built in 1849 and played a major role in the unification of the regions. It is a short 200 metre bridge which has a pedestrian walkway running parallel to the motorway. The bridge was designed by the same person who designed the Marlow Bridge across the Thames. The bridge was destroyed in the 1945 during the war and was rebuilt four years later.
The Buda Castle is built on what is referred to as the Castle Hill. The historical castle is a World Heritage Site and was the palace complex of the Hungarian kings. The views of the City are magnificent from this strategic perch. After a short tour of the Palace grounds we decided to halt sightseeing operations for the morning and scout for a place to have lunch. It was past 2 pm and the stomach would stand its neglect no more. We were joined by Mahesh, another contact provided by Sirosh in Vienna. Mahesh is a successful business executive with Crompton Greaves and is based in Budapest. After a brief ‘hunt’ we settled down in the Soul Café for lunch. I had Beef Goulash, potatoes and bread laced by Dreher draught beer and Palinka of peach and grape. The food was excellent. I do not if it was heady mix of beer and palinka, but I felt that the waiter had a strong resemblance to the pictures of Jesus Christ that I am familiar with. When I mentioned it Lal and Jithesh too felt the same. I felt vindicated. But it was only later that I realised that Mahesh was the only one who stuck to fruit juice – and he had not seconded my observation!

The afternoon was reserved for a short snooze after which we left with Francis, who works with the UNHCR in Budapest, on a tour of the Citadel on the Gellert Hill, which is among the most popular excursion sights of Budapest. The Citadel used to be a fortress which was erected by the Hapsburg kings in the 1800s. The panorama of the City from the Citadel is unparalleled. Particularly fascinating is how the city lights up gradually to showcase the magnificence of the Castle, Chain Bridge and the Parliament House. After an hour or so at the Citadel we were joined by Mahesh. We drove to Francis’ house where an elaborate dinner was awaiting us. Francis lives in Budapest with his wife and two children, a son and daughter (whose devotional songs will be released shortly). Beer, Palinka and a superb local liqueur were had on either side of the dinner. We reluctantly took leave of the family and retreated to the hotel, driven there by Mahesh, quite late by my normal standards.

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