Saturday, 9 June 2012

The Glorious Danube - Hungary Pt 2

Continuing our epic cruise from Romania to Austria along the Danube River voyage on the River Duchess of Uniworld...

Budapest - Day 1

Having had an intriguing first taste of Hungary, we were up bright and early next day for the sail into Budapest at 7am (above). And it was easily clear to see why they used this city as the backdrop to the opening sequence in the new Mission: Impossible film - it is simply spectacular, in an exotic, east European kind of way.

The banks are lined with classic building, both historic and modern, and one side - the Buda bank of the river, as opposed to the northern Pest side - acts as a natural amphitheatre, providing an amazing panoramic overlook of the whole vista. The stunning views are absolutely everywhere - the Chain Bridge, St Stephen's Basilica, Buda Castle, Fisherman's Bastion, the Freedom Monument and the sensational neo-Gothic Parliament building.

After another excellent buffet breakfast - featuring one of our faves in Eggs Benedict and a Hungarian sausage-and-peppers dish, proving that the chef is able to source some of the best local produce - we were eager to get out and see more, and our morning coach tour provided a fabulous overview.

Budapest is often dubbed 'The Paris of the East' and it is easy to see why, with broad avenues, classic 19th century architecture (where it has survived the ravages of WWII and the communist regime) and epic monuments, from Heroes Square and Valdahunyad Castle in City Park to the picturesque Dohany Square Synagogue (built from 1854-89 and the largest in Europe) and the vast overlook of Matthias Church.

Our tour took us through all this and more, with stops to fully explore Heroes Square (dedicated in 1900 to all those who gave their lives for the country's independence) and the Castle District, complete with the cathedral-like Matthias Church, dating back to the 14th century, and the immense terrace of the Fisherman's Bastion (below), which looks for all the world like Minas Tirith in Lord of the Rings(!), both of which have been heavily rebuilt since the War.
Then it was back to River Duchess for the now-familiar buffet lunch. Today's specialities included Porkolt, or a traditional beef goulash, and a heavenly carrot and ginger soup, as well as the Sandwich of the Day (a Croque Monsieur) and Somlai Galuska for dessert (a Hungarian raspberry roll), plus the usual appetising array of European cheeses and a glass of Gruner Veltiner to make everything go down smoothly!.

That afternoon we were free to explore under our steam, and explore we did. First stop was the Great Market Hall (below) built in 1896 and now a wonderful mix of local produce and tourist bric-a-brac, from the fine local lace and pottery to typical beer steins and 'magic boxes.'

The fresh produce in this vast 3-level Victorian labyrinth was worth going in for on its own, with a mouth-watering array of peppers, spices, sausages and salamis, pastries, cheeses, fresh fish, fruit and vegetables, plus stalls selling fresh-cooked meals and other local delicacies.

Next up was a chance to wander along the city's main shopping precinct, Vaci Street, full of regular tourist traps, boutiques, antique shops and modern designer fare, as well as being the heart of medieval Budapest and full of fascinating facades and other period architecture.

Several squares, statues, fountains and the 18th century Church of St Michael add to the charm of the area, and we finished our afternoon tour in style with coffee and pastries at Cafe Gerbeaud, founded in 1858 and still a top coffee house to this day (albeit a touch expensive at 25 euros for two drinks and a chocolate crepe-and-ice-cream thingy!).
Happy that we'd seen a good portion of the city it was time to head back for dinner, and then the big optional tour of our city visit, the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble. To say this was a major surprise would be a major understatement. We were treated to front row seats for a 90-minute performance of amazing music and dance, all in Hungarian folk costumed style, with the male dancers in particular providing a stunning and well-drilled line-up of leaping, twirling and boot-slapping splendour.

We left goggle-eyed, but still had time for a night tour of the city, including the splendid Basilica, Heroes Square (below) and fabulous overlook of The Citadel, with both parts of the city spread out in glittering panorama either side of the glorious Danube.

We had thought this would be one of the highlights of the whole cruise, but we were wrong. It was WAY better than that.

Next - Day 2 in the Paris of the East.

This ‘Imperial Capitals of Europe’ voyage can be booked at www.uniworldrivercruises.co.uk, with Titan Travel (in the UK only) at www.titantravel.co.uk or, for more on river-cruising in general, seek out the luxury cruise-agent specialists of The Cruise Line Ltd on this link.