Never having tried an exotic destination overseas on a group tour, we booked the Cox and Kings 6 days 7 nights Eastern Europe tour at a mouth-watering Rs 75,000 per person, but with a lot of trepidation. The deal included not only airfare, hotel accommodation, breakfast, dinner and sightseeing, but also Schengen visa — which itself comes to over Rs 5,500 and overseas travel insurance!
And when such a deal pops up on your computer screen for days, with a travel option that coincides with Khatri (dog days) when the mercury goes to a real sizzling high in May in Chennai, it is even more attractive.
So even though some of the destinations — such as Vienna and Prague — we had done before, the prospect of visiting two new cities… Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia and Budapest, that of Hungary, was a good bait. So in the first week of May, we set off for Mumbai, from where the budget airline FlyDubai would take us to Bratislava, armed with very modest expectations.
Organised group tours are purely luck of the draw; if you end up with people in the group who are cribbers, habitual latecomers, loud mouthed, or pushy and aggressive, your entire trip can be ruined.
Organised group tours are purely luck of the draw; if you end up with people who are cribbers, habitual late comers, loud mouthed, or pushy and aggressive, your entire trip can be ruined.
From a hot and humid Mumbai to a relatively cold Bratislava was the first bonus. The weather was perfect, and the group, a mixed one really, from Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai, Kochi, Kolkata, Ahmedabad and Surat, was a pleasant one. No spoilt, yelling kids, no pushy, arrogant people. Of course, the stragglers were there… but then Sameer, our tour guide, was always able to round them up and get the coach moving with only modest delays.
The green and picturesque Budapest, Hungary’s capital, is made truly stunning by the bifurcation of the River Danube into two districts — Buda and Pest. Buda is more visually appealing as it has a mountainous terrain, whereas Pest is mostly on flat ground. You can move from Buda to Pest and vice versa through the Chain Bridge, a suspension bridge which is an important landmark in the city, built in the nineteenth century. Our tour guide told us that the Chain Bridge was the first permanent bridge which crossed the Danube in Budapest. Before that people had to use a ferry or go as far as Vienna for the nearest bridge!
A funicular runs up the Castle Hill to Buda’s Old Town, where the Budapest History Museum is located. It captures for the tourists the city’s history from Roman times, but when you are in the city on a whirlwind tour — with just two nights and one day — as we were, there wasn’t time to visit it.
The central pillar at the Millennium Monument, on top of which stands Archangel Gabriel, holding the holy crown and the double cross
Mercifully, our tour in Budapest was planned well enough to be much more than a “panoramic view of the city” — which translates to driving around the city in your coach, and coming home with loads of pictures but imbibing hardly anything of the city’s culture, ethos, what makes it special or unique, and above all, is its food.
St Stephen’s Basilica
This is one of Budapest’s most beautiful landmarks and like most iconic churches of Europe, dazzles you with its stunning architecture, the stained-glass artwork, the exquisite frescoes and mosaics. About 150 different kinds of marble are said to have been used to decorate this basilica, which exudes such an aura of divinity, peace and calmness, that it compels you to take one of the benches and sit down to pray, irrespective of what your stated faith might be.
Situated on the Pest side of the city, it took 50 years to build and was completed in 1906, and the long years it took to build are said to account for its “eclectic style of the architecture”. It is named after King Stephen (975–1038), the first king of Hungary. From the top of the tower — which you can access for a fee — the view of the city is spectacular.
We drove past the imposing Parliament building, and were given time to spend at two attractive spots, the imposing and mammoth Hero’s Square and then a quaint spa facility, which has made us determined to return to Budapest to experience it at leisure. One entire day in a city like Budapest is just not enough, to soak in its magnificence.
About 150 different kinds of marble are said to have been used to decorate the St Stephen’s Basilica.
This is easily one of the most imposing squares for which Europe is well known and the largest one in Budapest. It was put up in 1896 to mark the thousandth anniversary of Hungary. We are here on a balmy day in early May and the weather is perfect to walk around the place where a plethora of vendors are trying very hard to sell their wares, varying from women’s clothes and artificial jewellery to curios and artefacts to take back home. Adjacent to the Museum of Fine Arts, the square has a striking Millennium Monument bang at the centre. And at the top of the central pillar stands Archangel Gabriel, holding the holy crown and the double cross of Christianity. Chieftains of the Magyar tribes and statues of kings and other important historical figures are erected on this monument, where clicking a picture is a must.
As recorded by Wikipedia, “when the monument was originally constructed, Hungary was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and thus the last five spaces for statues on the left of the colonnade were reserved for members of the ruling Habsburg dynasty.” But later the Habsburg emperors were replaced with Hungarian freedom fighters when the monument was rebuilt after World War II. In 1989, a huge crowd of about 250,000 gathered at the square for the reburial of Imre Nagy, former Prime Minister of Hungary, who was executed in 1958.
Like in any city of the world, do beware of tricksters while in the Hungarian capital.
Like in any city of the world, do beware of tricksters while in the Hungarian capital. Our guide cautioned us not to enter into any bets as she walked us to a picturesque spot on the Buda part of the city which provides a glorious view of Pest, particularly the impressive Parliament building. There, in a round enclosure was operating a gang of thugs; they invite you to place a nail inside several folds of a belt. You had to bet if the nail would be within or outside a fold when the belt was unfolded. If you won, you got three times what you had betted.
It was basically a sleight of hand; when his accomplices bet Euros 20 or 50, they always won, trebling their money. But when an unsuspecting tourist did so, he won maybe the first round or two, but lost subsequently as he increased the bet. Many people in our group, especially those from Mumbai, were fascinated, but luckily decided to hold on to their purses!
But for a tourist like me, for whom a daily swim is like a slice of paradise, the most memorable part of our trip was the visit to one of the public baths, or spas, for which Budapest is famous. We were taken to one named the Bodyrelax Terapiak (studio). There was a long queue to get inside, but the tour operator managed to swing us past in a minute.
A unique feature of Budapest is that it sits on a patchwork of about 125 thermal springs and visiting one of these baths is almost a regular ritual for many of its residents.
A unique feature of Budapest is that it sits on a patchwork of about 125 thermal springs and visiting one of these baths is almost a regular or weekly ritual for many of its residents. For tourists, of course, this is a major attraction. The plethora of baths — which are essentially spruced up, beautified and well-maintained pools of water, the temperature of which is maintained from warm to hot — is said to contain several healing and soothing minerals.
So visiting a Hungarian bath, a legacy of Roman times and a hangover certainly from its Turkish occupation, is a huge attraction for tourists. Apparently, those with medical problems such as rheumatic arthritis, stiff joints or skin problems can benefit immensely from swimming in these waters.
At most of these baths, some of which are spic and span, luxurious spa facilities, trained masseuses are available to give you massages. Many of these facilities come equipped with steam rooms, saunas, ice-cold plunge pools and whirlpools designed to treat various ailments.
Visiting a Hungarian bath, a legacy of Roman times and a hangover certainly from its Turkish occupation, is a huge attraction for tourists.
Sophia, our local guide, is 55 but barely looks 40, tells us the reason why she did not take a seat for most of the time in the coach as the vehicle made its way across Budapest. On a recent trekking trip to the Himalayas in India, she had a bad fall which caused a grievous injury to her back. “When I returned home to Budapest, I could barely walk or sit down. But I have been swimming regularly in one of these thermal baths, where the water is not only warm but filled with healing minerals, for the last two weeks and I am getting better every day with my muscles and stiff joints healing slowly.” Relief from pain, swellings, loosening of stiff joints, etc are a given at these baths, she tells me.
Each magic place I have travelled to has given me at least one compelling reason to return.
We are not prepared for a swim, and haven’t been told to bring our costumes, as there isn’t enough time to experience the bath, Sameer tells us sheepishly. But the clear deep blue waters look so tempting, that anybody going to Budapest on a leisurely visit must have this experience.
Each magic place I have travelled to has given me at least one compelling reason to return; in Santorini in Greece it was the most spectacular sunset I had ever seen; in Istanbul it was the magic of the Bospherous river; in Budapest it will be a leisurely visit to its thermal pools. They hold out a promise of relaxation, therapy, massage and much more.
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat and Pervez Bhagat
Hungarian goulash, apple strudel
What is a trip to Hungary without digging into its world famous beef goulash, considered a national symbol? The goulash is basically a stew of meat and vegetables, seasoned with paprika and other spices. Originating from medieval times, this is a popular meal all across Central Europe. I have tasted mouth-watering beef goulash in Vienna and Salsburg too, but to dig into it in its place of origin was a special treat. The meat was soft, succulent, juicy, and the dish was surprisingly spicy, and reminded me of the lamb dish or raang that we Bohri Muslims make on festive occasions such as Eid, marriages, etc. The only thing that was missing was slices of boiled eggs and birishta (fried onions) ladled into the dish.
The Hungarian goulash has an interesting history that dates back to the 9th century when shepherds used to make and consume such stews. In those days, the meat, flavoured by spices, was dried with the help of the sun and packed into bags produced from the sheep’s stomach. They needed to add only water to this to convert it into a meal.
In Budapest, you also have to try their apple strudel, a pastry that is associated more with Vienna, and the rest of Austria, but has emerged from the era of the Austro Hungarian empire. Basically a layered pastry with an aromatic filling of cooked apples, the USP of this delicacy lies in the way the dough is rolled — not too thick, nor too thin. The one I tried had a very soft and flavourful apple filling; the outer layers were both flaky and soft and it was so delicious that you simply had to finish the rather generous portion that is usually served in restaurants… of course with a dollop of cream! Sinfulness at its best!