Once upon a time, Budapest was the Roman settlement of Aquincum, a military camp turned general settlement. Even in those early days, thermal spas were part of the culture as the area sits on over a hundred natural springs. Today the baths attract locals and tourists alike. After the many, many days of walking and being on the go, Dave and I were ready for a soak.
In the morning we went to the Great Market Hall, just a couple blocks from our hotel. The largest and oldest indoor market in Budapest, vendors on the first level sell produce, meats, baked goods, liquor and spices like paprika. The second floor has a wide variety of souvenirs, while the basement level has fish, butcher stalls and various pickled items. I loved walking from stall to stall, comparing the different goods and seeing the more “exotic” items like a pile of pigs feet!
After exploring the market, we took the oldest metro line #1, which was completed in 1896 and is designated as a World Heritage Site. It was much different than the newest line we took the day before from the main train station to our hotel! Soon enough we were at our stop for the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath.
Getting in was a process, and would have been confusing if not for a detailed description in Rick Steves’ guide book. We still got lost in the maze of complex hallways from the entrance to the “locker rooms” to the actual pools, of which there are 18. (The locker rooms were an experience in and of themselves – I saw more than enough wrinkly Hungarian body to last me a couple lifetimes!) Each pool ranges in temperature and some have minerals that made the water stinky or green … or both! We opted to go to the outside spa area first and got comfortable in the warm pool. It was really warm so we quickly moved over to the cooler pool and enjoyed the people watching. Eventually we got up to get a drink at the bar and then decided to check out the inside. I really wanted to try the smelly green pool but was wearing a brand new cream colored swimsuit and I wasn’t sure the outcome would be favorable so chose a tub with odorless, colorless healing water instead.
We left the baths and walked through City Park toward Heroes’ Square, partially following another of Rick’s self-guided walks since we were actually working backwards. At the center of Heroes’ Square is the Millennium Monument, dedicated as it says “To the memory of the heroes who gave their lives for the freedom of our people and our national independence.” We passed by the Museum of Fine Arts and then began our walk down Andrássy Avenue, a sweeping boulevard reminiscent of les Champs-Élysées with its luxury town homes, gourmet cafes and chic designer stores. Impressed by the “Iron Curtain” monument in front of the House of Terror, we paused to read the quotes and take photos. Even though we were both alive at the time of the fall, I wasn’t of an age to really have an awareness or understand what it meant. For Dave it was a bit of a different experience and he had more of an appreciation of the significance.
Further down Andrássy is the Opera House – more on that later – where we cut over to the Jewish Quarter for a late lunch. We ate at the 400 Bar serving Serbian food in an alley off Kazinczy utca, which coincidentally is the start of Rick’s “Ruin Pub” District walk. Sitting outside sipping our beers and filling our bellies, we couldn’t be happier! Or so we thought.
Then we happened upon the truly fantastic Doblo wine bar where we tasted several Hungarian wines and I think that truly was the epitome of happiness for the afternoon. Two that I made note of were Gajdos Bikavér BULL’S BLOOD 2009 Eger and Vylyan Cabernet Franc 2009 Villány. Like I said, it has become my mission to find Hungarian wines in DC. Hungary has produced wine since the Romans inhabited the region and it was apparently well-known until World War II when the government took control and things went downhill. They are starting to make a comeback though as families begin to recover ownership of the lands and produce in the ways of their ancestors. So keep your eyes open and go out on a limb to try one if you see it on a menu or in a store.
Along the way to our next stop, we also passed the garden behind the Great Synagogue and had a great view of the Tree of Life. On each of the over 4000 leaves of the metal weeping willow is the name of a Holocaust victim, another beautiful memorial of such an ugly period of our history.
A little further into the district is Szimpla Kert (translation: simple garden), the old condemned factory turned ruin pub. Szimpla has several different rooms, each with a theme and continues into an open courtyard with odd tchotchkes covering the entire place. After a drink we made our way back to the hotel to get ready for the evening.
That evening we took a river boat tour at sunset and enjoyed views up and down the Danube while listening to the audio guide and sipping champagne. I became obsessed with the bridges, which were all so different from each other. After the cruise, I climbed up to my favorite one and nearly stepped in traffic to snap a pic. It was another full day and we were sad to realize we had only one more full day left on our trip.
On a very different note, today is the one year anniversary of closing on the house and we are headed out to West Virginia with our realtor, now a very good friend. The plan is to stop at wineries and pumpkin patches while enjoying the beautiful fall foliage along the way. Happy Friday, friends!