As implausible (and redundant) as this is beginning to sound, we arrived in Hungary’s capital city only to learn that our visit coincided with none other than the country’s largest annual celebration – St. Stephen’s Day. Observed each year on August 20th, the occasion commemorates the founding of the Hungarian state under the esteemed rule of Stephen I, who was proudly crowned the nation’s first king in 1000 A.D. Over Stephen’s forty-year reign, until his death in 1038, he was seen largely as a peaceful ruler, who strived to organize the country and to establish strong relations with Western Europe. Perhaps his most notable accomplishment, though, was establishing a Christian state. Forty-five years after his death, in 1083, Stephen was canonized as the Patron Saint of Hungary. Thus, Hungary’s ‘National Day’ was born, and was celebrated annually until 1943, when the presiding Soviet leadership prohibited the public remembrance; the yearly event wasn’t resumed until 1990, following the fall of the Communist state.
The city of Budapest puts on quite a spectacular program of festivities to honor St. Stephen, and we were eager to take part in the various celebrations. We awoke early to wander some of Pest’s deserted streets en route to the Parliament Building, as the iconic Chain Bridge (connecting the cities of Buda and Pest, which were united in 1873) and some of the other main thoroughfares were closed to vehicular traffic – a peaceful contrast to the normally crowded asphalt. Around 8:30 a.m., we arrived at Parliament to watch the flag raising ceremony at Kossuth Square. Already the most spectacular Parliament House I’ve ever seen, the square-facing façade was now ablaze in towering, ceremonial draperies bearing the country’s colors. As troops saluted and the national anthem played, the flag was lifted proudly into the cloudless, blue sky, eventually managing a fleeting wave in the trifling breeze.
From the opening ceremony, we headed across the Chain Bridge to Buda, where countless food vendors and local craftsmen lined Lánchíd Street and Adam Clark Square, their enticing stands stretching along the Danube’s western bank in front of Buda Castle. The ‘Street of Hungarian Flavor’ offered an insurmountable selection of local fare – from intricately-frosted gingerbread cookies to roiling vats of goulash to local wines and handmade cheeses to towers of kifli, strudel, and marzipan candies as far the eye could see. While Stephan managed to eat his way through a fair number of cherished Hungarian foods, clearly we should have fasted for a solid week before endeavoring to indulge in all of the local favorites.
Two of the festive items we were most excited to try were the ‘national cake’ and the ‘new bread.’ As the holiday originated as a feast day, each year a special ‘St. Stephen’s Day bread’ is selected and enjoyed by seemingly everyone in the city. An afternoon parade even showcases the starchy star, with participants dressed in local garb marching the patriotic loaf (this year a natural spelt) through the streets of Buda. Similar to the ‘new bread,’ another highlight of St. Stephen’s Day is the contest for the ‘national cake.’ Local bakeries conceive ideas for unique confections, with the winner being selected as the year’s ‘national cake.’ 2016’s winner was the Green Gold of Őrség, a patriotic pastry with layers of green (almond flour and pumpkin seed oil), red (raspberry jam), and white (white chocolate ganache) to celebrate Hungary’s flag. I’d read online that the cake cutting was a favorite of festival-goers (obviously, right?), and that it was prudent to locate the cake early, as it usually draws a long wait. Indeed, we arrived 20 minutes ahead of the cutting of the ceremonial cake, and local bakers were already furiously slinging samples. While we waited a mere five minutes for our slice, when we walked past an hour or so later, the line extended halfway up the street.
By early afternoon, the main festival area of downtown was pretty well packed and, frankly, we were ready for a break from the ever-swelling crowds. Thus, we headed about a kilometer south along the Buda side of the Danube to the Citadel stop Gellert Hill. It was an absolutely gorgeous day, and we were hoping to take in some nice city views. Indeed, after a short walk up the hill, we weren’t disappointed. The lookout provided a pretty spectacular panorama of the city – from Buda Castle on the river’s western shores, across the Chain Bridge, to the pointed spires of Parliament and the lofty domes of St. Stephen’s Cathedral.
Later that evening, we returned to the riverfront for the festival’s famous fireworks show over the Danube. With three nearly-identical displays set off from neighboring locations – the Chain Bridge, Elizabeth Bridge, and Gellert Hill – it seems there’s not a bad spot to enjoy the impressive thirty-minute display. Fortunately, our little apartment was only a block from the river, just south of the Liberty Bridge. We arrived about 30 minutes prior to the 9 p.m. start time, and easily grabbed a spot only a few hundred meters south of the bridge. Although we couldn’t see the iconic Chain Bridge from our vantage point (we weren’t interested in pushing through the masses or waiting hours for a coveted spot), it wasn’t overly crowded, it was a scant five-minute walk from our apartment, and we were easily able to set up the tripod without disruption. We consider that another win… and a fortuitous AirBnB find, considering we had no idea it was the national holiday.
When we weren’t reveling in the single-day festivities, we spent the majority of our stay wandering the city streets, taking in as many sights as possible, and getting a feel for the local culture and cuisine – the usual. We found the central market to be quite impressive – offering fresh meats, cheeses, produce, and baked goods on the first level, and a miscellany of handiworks and souvenirs on the upper floor. Budapest’s Inner City also boasts a number of striking cathedrals, including the Inner City Church, near the span of the Elizabeth Bridge, and St. Stephen’s Basilica, the country’s most important cathedral. In addition to its elaborate interior, the basilica houses one of Hungary’s most revered relics – the right hand of King Saint Stephen. Church accounts explain that when St. Stephen’s remains were exhumed for reburial in a more protected tomb beneath the basilica, his right hand was, startlingly, found undecomposed. Thought to possess miraculous powers, the hand was excised and is now safeguarded in a small side chapel of the hallowed church.
Peppered with a variety of artistic sculptures and dedicatory memorials, the city’s most controversial is the recently-installed German Occupation Memorial, which many say misrepresents the country’s role in the deportation of Hungarian Jews (and other minority groups) during the 1940s. Dedicated to Hungary’s German occupation, the imagery of a German eagle attacking an innocent and unsuspecting Hungary (represented by the Archangel Gabriel) is thought to portray the nation as a passive target, thereby deflecting Hungary’s close alliance with Nazi Germany. Consequently, citizens (including Holocaust survivors and descendants) have set up a ‘living memorial’ of personal effects and memorial stones alongside the contentious sculpture, to more respectably honor the more than half a million Hungarian Holocaust victims.
The Hungarian Parliament Building is also a notable feature of the city, and undoubtedly one of the most spectacular buildings I’ve ever seen. Constructed at the end of the 19th century, the dimensions of the incredible Gothic Revival building are 403 feet by 879 feet, with the central dome soaring 315 feet high. For what we considered to be the best views, we headed across the river to snap some photographs of the breathtaking structure.
Also across the river in Buda, we made a quick tour of Buda Castle and Fisherman’s Bastion. Perched atop Castle Hill, the original royal residence was completed around the middle of the 13th century. Today, the oldest remnants of the medieval fortification are a series of foundations dating back to the 14th century. Fisherman’s Bastion, a battlement of decorative turrets and terraces atop Castle Hill, was built in the 19th century where some of the original fortress walls once stood. Its name honors the guild of fishermen who helped to courageously defend this portion of the city during the Middle Ages.
Of course, what’s a city tour without a short blurb about local fare? Between the aforementioned festival and central market, you’d think Stephan would have been stuffed to the gills with kifli, retes (the Hungarian strudel filled with poppy seeds and fruit), goulash, and other delectable pastries. Alas, this was not the case. Fortunately, as his official meat-and-beer-seeking wench, I located an adorable little restaurant, Töltő, that offered a dazzling display of local sausages (kolbász) and microbrews. The sausages were presented as little works of art, and included flavors such as (left to right in photograph) chili and paprika pork sausage (with spicy tomato jelly and kumquat), lime ginger chicken sausage (with ponzu sauce, coconut balls, and purple radish), and rosemary pork sausage (with fig Dijon mustard and apple chutney). Needless to say, Stephan was, as usual, duly impressed with the meat-finding prowess of his veg-head girlfriend. The local IPAs were also surprisingly tasty – both averaging a grade of A-, for those loved ones who anal-retentively spreadsheet craft beers with us.
Finally, we dedicated our last day in Budapest to checking out the city’s famed thermal baths. Often referred to as the ‘City of Baths,’ Budapest rests on some 125 thermal springs. The water’s high mineral content is regarded for its curative properties, and the city claims more therapeutic water than any other world capital. While a number of the baths are more recently constructed, and several of the older baths have undergone extensive renovations for a more spa-like experience, we opted for one of the oldest and most historic in the city, the Kiraly Baths. These traditional Turkish baths are more than 400 years old, built during the 16th century (beginning in 1565) during the time of Ottoman rule. The baths were significantly reconstructed in 1796, and again during the Soviet era in 1950, after sustaining damage during WWII. Today, the baths look very much as they did then – a large domed roof towers above the original, octagonal pool (characteristic of Turkish baths), with a few small openings that allow narrow beams of light to filter through, bouncing off the dark, steam-filled, rock-walled chamber. Kiraly offers four pools, the main pool at 36°C (97°F), and three smaller pools with temperatures of 40°C, 32°C, and 26°C (104°F, 90°F, and 79°F, respectively). The pools here are fed from water that is rich in magnesium, calcium, sulfate, and fluoride – thought to ease joint and nerve pain. The facility also boasts a steam room, and two saunas set at 50°C (122°F) and 60-70°C (140-160°F). We thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and were so relaxed by the end we could hardly stand upright on the tram back to Pest. While some bathers aren’t fans of the whole ‘rustic, unrenovated, Communist-era’ feel to the baths, we thought it was just fabulous and enjoyed the more authentic vibe that Kiraly offered. In sum, a great way to close out a wonderful visit to Budapest.