When you get only one day in a city as sublimely beautiful as Budapest, especially as a crew member, this becomes a “see you at pick up” layover. My very senior crew (40+ years of flying...) wanted to do only two things: stroll through the village leading up to Fisherman’s Bastion, and eat dinner at Café Kör. I, on the other hand, wanted to do everything. I wasn’t sure I would be back to Budapest any time soon, so I opted out of the crew plans for the layover and hit the ground running. Driving along the Danube river on the crew bus the morning of arrival, looking at the beauty of Buda through rain streaked windows, I knew this was a layover that was going to be short on sleep.
Budapest is a deceivingly vast city, and undeniably breathtaking. The former Royal Palace of the Hapsburg kings (Buda Castle built in 1265) looms in grandiose style at the peak of Castle Hill, high above the Danube; Pest is gifted with the striking Gothic Revival style of the Hungarian Parliament building, hugging the Danube in dominant fashion.
The Danube is wide and flowing, with its flat bottom boats and barges moving like chess pieces up and down the river. The afternoon proved sunny and warm; I walked as much was possible in my limited one day layover. I started my afternoon making the trek across the landmark Széchenyi Chain Bridge to catch the Castle Hill funicular up to the Royal Palace. The amount of pedestrians, bike riders, tourists, cars, and photographers on the Chain Bridge was constant movement. Crossing the bridge and seeing Budapest’s sweeping beauty was exhilarating, intoxicating - the beauty of is, at every turn, astounding.
My dinner at Művész Café ("artist café")
was as old world Hungarian as I could hope for. This traditional coffeehouse, wrapped in dark wood, baroque, chandeliers, and red velvet was a reflection to 1898, the year it opened. It was easy to envision dark suits and bustle dressed patrons sitting all around me, conferencing over coffee their vision of the future that I am a part of in the 21st century. My dinner entree of fettuccine alfredo was colored with a few red-ripe tomatoes and slices of shaved parmesan cheese. I picked a light, crisp rosé wine to savor with my fresh pasta - a dinner and drink the anthesis of traditional Hungarian sustenance. I am convinced the pasta was hand rolled and prepared the minute I ordered as it was as near perfect and fresh as I could wish for in Rome. I ordered an Irish coffee afterwards, and with the first deep pull wished I ordered three more as it was also - perfect. I asked the bartender about walking back to my hotel alone along Andrássy út (avenue), late on a Sunday night. He assured me I would be fine and confidently waved me on, with a broad smile, and he was right.
The cafés along the river boardwalk were full of life and patrons, even at midnight, having their last bites of dinner or sips of coffee. I walked in solitude; the cool, evening weather and ambiance transported me to a Budapest that had in earnest shed the shackles of Communism. I listened to laughter and conversations, and walked beside couples holding hands.
As much as I tried to pack into my one day, I didn’t even make it to the many of the major sites: the Gellért thermal baths, the Gellért Hill cave church, the Freedom statue, Fisherman’s Bastion, the Parliament, a glass topped/flat bottom boat ride, the Great Market Hall food market, a Tokaji Aszú wine tour, or Margaret Island. Not even a bike ride along the Danube. But, I did see the Art Nouveau artistic and architectural renderings of the Gresham Palace (now a Four Seasons Hotel), the majesty of St. Stephens Basilica, listened to a violinist playing in front of the Royal Palace-Hapsburg gate, a Pest man showing his British girlfriend the view of his city from the Castle Hill funicular, and in a serendipitous moment, a young couple kiss with a view of Parliament behind them.
The pictures are really the story as Budapest is a city rife with iconic images, a photographer’s dream.