Visiting Castle Hill
When friends come to Budapest our first stop is Castle Hill – what Hungarians call the “Var.” The Castle district is on one of the hills on the West side of the Duna (the Buda side of town.) For 500 years this was the seat of Hungarian government and the walled hilltop protected the main settlement both within and without the walls. While the major buildings are late 19th and early 20th century, and rebuilt after heavy damage during WWII, the general layout and many of the other buildings date from the 16th and even 15th centuries.
To get there
The most fun is to take the siklo (cable car) up the steep hill from Clark Adam ter. The price is about $5 for the trip up and slightly less for the trip down (a very sensible fee structure since the car going down helps pull the one going up.) As the cable car rises up the hill you get a spectacular view of view of Pest across the river.
Clark Adam ter is at the western end of the Szechenyi Lanchid, to many, the most beautiful of the bridges over the Duna. Lanchid (pronounced “laance heed”) means chain bridge and the suspension structure of the bridge is made of chains whose links are huge dog-bone shaped metal bars linked by pins at their ends. If you are coming from Pest, the walk across the bridge is pleasant and, since traffic on the bridge can be congested, likely to be faster than bus (the 16 bus goes up to the var) or cab.
You can also take the “var bus” (it has no number) from the Moszkva ter stop of the red metro. (When you come up from the subway bear to your left and look for the outdoor stairway leading to a pedestrian bridge over the trolley tracks. Up the steps, over the tracks, cross the street to the mid-block bus stop.) By the way, you are very likely to get your bus tickets checked on this route. Be sure you validate your ticket with the punch box (located on poles near the doors) as soon as you get on the bus.
Or, you can walk to the top. I'll assume that you have got to Clark Adam ter at the west end of the Lanchid. Stand with your back to the river. In front of you is the cable car going up the hill. Just to the right, the road from the bridge goes into a tunnel. (A local joke is that the tunnel was built so that the Lanchid has a place to go when it rains.) To the left is a high brick wall with the Hungarian coat of arms flanked by angels. Walk up the road at the base of this wall (to the left.) In about 50 yards you will see a very unpromising iron gate set into the wall on your right - inside a stairway goes up but you can't see to where. Don't worry. Take the stairs - a short flight, a turn, and another short flight, brings you up to the open pathway that zig-zags up the hill. Follow this path. Look for opportunities to step onto the bridges that cross the cable car tracks - great photo opportunities. Overall the path is easier if you stay to the left of the tracks.
Alternatively, if you are looking for a hard steep climb, cross the street to the right of the tunnel and look for the sloped path and steps going up. This path is called the king's steps, faster but not as nice a view as the route above.
Mátyás Templom – Saint Mathew’s Church
The rococo spire of this church is one of the easily seen landmarks of the var.
The interior is sumptuously decorated in a style which is on the one hand art
deco and yet evokes the medieval predecessors of this structure. As you enter
the church turn to the right and proceed down the right hand aisle to the front
of the church. For a small fee you can visit the underground treasury which includes
a replica of the Crown of St. Stephen -- the real crown (a 12th century object
even though Stephen was a 10th century king) is on display in the parliament building
– so if you want an idea of what it looks like up close, this
is the place to do it. Also take a look at the opulent chapel at the rear of the
church (around the corner to the left of the entrance. Be aware that this is a
functioning church and you may find that at times it is closed to visitors for
church activities or concerts.
Just to the East of the Mátyás Templum (toward the river) is the elaborate stone arcade called the “Fishermen’s Bastion.” The story is that different trades were responsible for defending different parts of the castle walls and that this section of the defenses was raised by the fishermen’s guild. In fact, the structure is a late 19th century fantasy built to add class to the area. That this is an invention does not detract at all from the attractiveness of the structure, nor from the impressive views of the river and Pest on the opposite side. The mounted statue between the bastion and the church is King Stephan (Istvan in Hungarian) the first king of Hungary (crowned about 1000.) He was declared a saint for his efforts in bringing Christianity to Hungary. He carries the apostolic cross with two crossbars – a symbol granted him by the Pope. In tourist season there is an admission charge to climb on the bastion. If you are cheap, you can visit the ground level for free, and get just as good a view, from other parts of the hill.
To the north of the Mátyás Templum is the Hilton Hotel, you can decide if the modern architecture with mirrored windows is a triumph of commercial design or a hideous blight. To the left of the main hotel entrance is what looks like the wall of a medieval church with a monument set into it. In fact it is a copy of a monument located in Belsen, Germany (near Dresden). The copy was erected by the Hilton Company. It portrays King Mátyás (15th century), the most beloved of Hungarian Kings. You can read more about the monument, or you can read one of the many folk tales told about the wisdom and fairness of King Mátyás.
In front of the Mátyás Templum is a tall column decorated with many statues – this is a “plague monument” erected by thankful survivors. (2006 update -- as of April this monument was not there, having been taken down for repairs -- but it is supposed to return in a few more months) If you turn away from the church and walk west to 7 Szentharomsag you will come to the Ruszwurm Cukraszda (in the middle of the block on your right) In our opinion this un-preposing building is one of the best pastry shops in Budapest. Stop in. Everything is displayed in glass cases and labeled – get out your phrase book or just pick something that catches your eye. (An Aside About Knowing a Little Hungarian: You may have looked at the street name Szentharomsag as a long and hopeless jumble of letters. But with just a little Hungarian it would make sense. Szent means "holy" (and is also used as the appellation for saints.) Harom is the number three. "sag" is a word ending that in this case could be translated as "-ness." So the street is simply named for the holy trinity.)
If you come up the hill by cable car you will be just north of the huge domed 19th century building of the castle which dominates the top of the hill. The sculpture of the bird just outside the cable car station is not, as you might think, an eagle, but the mythical turol bird. This bird that is a part of the story of how the Magyars settled the Hungarian homeland. This bird appeared in a dream to the wife of the Magyar leader Arpad and told her that she would be the founding mother of a new nation. You can watch the other tourists as they just walk past the statue of the eagle.
The castle building has sprawling wings and houses several museums and the national library. The art museum – enter on the river side (east) of the building under the main dome – houses an impressive collection of 19th and 20th century Hungarian art. The 20th century works are particularly interesting since you will see styles that you are familiar with from western European art, but executed by artists that you have never heard of. If you are interested in art this is definitely worth a couple of hours.
To the north of the main entrance (back towards the cable car station) is a driveway that leads through the building to the western side. Here, built into one of the walls, is a large fountain portraying King Mátyás in a hunting scene – I like the realism of the statue of one of the hunting dogs that is lapping up water from one of the streams of the fountain. To the north is a wing of the palace that formerly housed the Ludwig, a museum of contemporary art -- moved
In general the castle district is for tourists and high rent apartment dwellers. There are some classy shops, and an assortment of souvenirs but for budget shopping and eating you are better off elsewhere.
Since Obuda was our neighborhood I may be a bit prejudiced in thinking that it is worth a visit. The most striking aspect of Obuda is that from about 70 A.D. to 500 A.D. it was the site of a Roman legionary town and home to the 6,000 soldiers of the Second Legion, along with families, military suppliers, and purveyors to the legionnaires. About three miles to the north, the remains of the civilian town of Acquincum, capitol of the province of Pannonia, are preserved as a museum.
The web pages for the museum seem to have disappeared. You will find some information
if you search on the term Acquincum.
You can start your tour from the east or from the west -- I'll describe it from the east.
To get there: Directions: from downtown Pest either:
Take the Blue metro to the Arpad Hid stop, as you come off the train follow the crowd out into the concourse -- you want to bear ahead and to your right -- up the escalator to the trolley (villamos) stop (it is in a center island between the east and west bound traffic lanes.) Take the trolley (the number 1) two stops to Szentlelek Ter -- this is the first stop west of the Duna (Danube.) The trolley crosses over the north end of Margit segit (Margaret Island) a large city park. look to the south for some pretty views of the city and the river. At the stop follow the crowd down the stairs and to your left -- cross the street.
Take the Red Metro to the Batthyany ter stop (just on the Buda side of the river.) As you come up the escalator and through the doors turn to your left and follow the short corridor until it turns left to the HEV (commuter train) station. All trains make the stop you want so look at the overhead display to see which track the next train leaves from. Take the train to the Arpad hid stop (about the fourth stop, easy to recognize since it is under the bridge.) Follow the crowd across the tracks and past the buildings that front on the tracks.
At this point you will see an oval shaped road that is used as a turn-around for several bus routes (including busses to the civilian town of Acquincum.) To the south is the raised road leading to the Arpad hid (bridge) beyond the road are the spires of a Catholic and Protestant Church. To the North is the white painted building, a part of the former Zichy mansion housing the Vaserelli museum. Vaserelli was one of the fathers of the op-art movement -- this is the most complete collection of his works in the world. To the east are the HEV tracks and beyond the Duna river (it only looks narrow because you are looking at the south end of Obuda Island, not the opposite bank.) To the west is a re-creation (dedicated in 2000) of an 18th century monument to the Holy Spirit (that is what Szentlalik means) that was removed by the Communists. It features statues and relief carvings of various saints. As I understand it, this was in part funded by the government in reparation for land and buildings seized from the church by the previous regime. It may seem strange to Americans that the government would fund a religious monument, but in Hungary this is seen as a matter of history not religion. Walk towards the monument and turn to your right (north.)
As you walk the cobble stone pavement, there is a fish restaurant to your left and more of the Zichy mansion to your right. You might want to turn right and duck through the double doors to get a glimpse of the courtyard of the mansion (this is all public space, so don't be shy.) The restaurant is a perfectly nice place to eat, but if we were here we would head south to the Kehlio Vendeglo, our favorite restaurant in Budapest.
Just across the cobble stone paved square, the yellow building to the left is the newly renovated the Obuda City Hall. Note the burley statues holding up the lintel of the front door. It is nice to see the wonderful old look of the area being kept. To the right of the city hall is the Posta Coach, another very nice restaurant. If you venture to the far right (the north east corner of the square) you will see a sculpture of people holding umbrellas.
We never found any business that we needed to do at the City Hall, but on Saturdays, especially in the spring, there is a constant stream of couples being married. Some with only one or two friends but others with elaborate wedding parties. When the weather is nice, old women from the surrounding apartments occupy the benches in Fo ter and watch the festivities.
Head for the front door of the City Hall, turn to your left and walk (west) on Korhaz utca As soon as you pass the first building on your right, turn right (to the north) and follow the sidewalk about 100 yards. On your left you will see a reconstruction of the main (eastern) gate of the Roman Legionary Camp (in Latin a camp was called a Castrum.) An engraved stone shows how the gate looked at the height of Roman power. (In fact the camp was overrun by Barbarians from the east and rebuilt several times during the Roman occupation.) Turn around, take the sidewalk back to Korhaz utca and continue walking westward.
The tall concrete apartment blocks to your right are remnants of Communist times. Politely they are called "panel flats" and less politely "Stalin blocks." Hungarians dislike them because they consider them too tall, and not soundly enough built. But you must put this in the context of a city where a 19th century building is considered "recent" to understand what they mean. We were quite content living here. If you look about you will see that the tall buildings are interspersed with low buildings housing various services and with trees and open spaces. In our opinion there are many American cities which are not nearly so humane.
Korhaz utca ends and traffic has to turn right onto Miklos Utca. If you like, you can turn right and follow the sidewalk for about 50 yards to the remains of a small 13th century Christian church on your right -- but this tour is not particularly directed towards the "modern stuff." So, instead continue straight ahead through the small paved park with planters and benches. If you walk on the left side of the driveway you will see some ruins of the Roman military baths between the new office building and the older apartment building to the west.
Continue west to the street, then turn and head down either the stairway or the ramp to the pedestrian underpass. As you walk you may notice that the walls on your right are part modern construction but also part Roman. Follow the short corridor west where it ends at the long north-south concourse. (You are at the north end so the only thing to your right is the ramp leading up to street level. This ramp takes you up to a small shopping center and the stop for south bound busses.)
Turn left and head south along the concourse.
To your left, protected by, Plexiglas partitions, are the remains of the Roman military baths. As you look, remember that the Romans built many structures with raised floors. Fires, tended by slaves, were built under the floors for heat, and ducts in the walls carried heat and smoke to the upper floors and vents on the roof.
Beyond the baths there are small shops on both sides of the concourse. About 60 yards down on your left a corridor leads up a short flight of stairs and on the left you will see the entrance to the baths. When the guard is on duty you can pay a modest fee for a tour (unfortunately only in Hungarian.) Don't be put off by the barking dog -- guard dogs are common in Hungary and seem pretty well behaved.
While in the concourse we can recommend both the bakery on the right just beyond the news stand and the Faaiker Cukraszda (sweet shop) on the left. The sweet shop is our favorite place for home made ice-cream (your choice of about ten flavors at 20 cents for a small scoop.) You can also get cake by the slice (or a whole cake) try the turo torte -- a wonderfully light cheese cake. The bakery has excellent bread, as well as a variety of rolls both sweet and not. The rolls filled with cheese or ham, or the bread-wrapped "hot dogs" make a nice lunch on the run.
The concourse, especially the southern end, has many reproductions of Roman statuary (mostly grave markers) found near the site. Unfortunately these seem to collect a lot of graffiti. By the way, we walked in this neighborhood all the time and felt perfectly safe -- we had no qualms about letting out ten year old son wander with his friends or go to the stores on his own.
Walk to the south end of the concourse and turn right to see the remains of the southern entrance to the legionary camp. Remember that the Romans liked to place temples just inside the gates so that you could pray for or give thanks for a safe journey.
If you are up to a 10-15 minute walk, continue south along the main street to the remains of the Military amphitheater. Some have compared this to the coliseum in Rome, but that is a stretch -- very little of the walls remains and it does not seem nearly as big to me. If you would rather take the bus, catch either the #6 or the #86 in front of the shopping center on the north-west corner of the intersection -- take the bus two stops south -- you will easily see the amphitheater on your right. (The #6 bus goes south to Margit hid (bridge,) and crosses the river. The first stop on the Pest side lets you catch the #2 trolley south to the major hotels while the route ends about five blocks beyond at Nyugati pu (railroad station) where you can catch the blue metro. If you want to window shop, get off on the first Pest stop and walk east. The #86 bus continues south on the Buda side of the river and will take you to Clark Adam ter and the Var (see above.) In fact, it will take you farther south than that -- consult your map.
At the south end of the concourse you can follow the branch to your left and up to street level and visit the Kehli Vendeglo (restaurant.)