Magyars, Slavs and Vehicular Misadventures: Budapest & Croatia
This year for our vacation, Rich and I decided upon visiting Budapest in Hungary and then traveling to the Dalmatian Coast in Croatia to hang out at Split. I had been wanting to see Budapest for several years, and the city of Split is built on and around the ruins of Diocletian’s Palace, which, since I’m an unrehabilitated Classics geek, is right up my alley! We flew out to Budapest on April 11, arriving on the morning of Thursday, April 12, and spent several days there before heading on to Croatia early the following Monday. By far my favorite part of the trip were those first few days in Budapest. It’s an amazing city.
Budapest was once one of Europe’s premier capital cities, and it retains much of the grandeur from its Astro-Hungarian Empire salad days. It also has a bit of a unique flare both culturally and linguistically, since modern Hungarians are descendants of the fearsome Magyars, horse-mounted nomadic warriors from the steppes of Central Asia. With its jaw-dropping, neo-Gothic Parliament building, its world-famous National Opera House, the grand Basilica of Saint Istvan and the mighty Danube, it offers many stunning sites and plenty of fascinating history. Below is a list of my favorite places in Budapest:
1. The Szechenyi Furdo: My favorite experience in Budapest! Hungary’s historical brushes with the Ottomans resulted in the locals developing a love of public baths. Rich and I decided to visit the Szechenyi Furdo, since it’s not gender segregated and, based on our trusty guide book, offers a more laidback atmosphere than the popular Gellert Baths, which is located at a hotel and tends to be frequented mainly by tourists. The Szechenyi Furdo offers both indoor spa pools of varying temperatures, steam rooms and lukewarm, outdoor pools. The baths are fed by natural springs, and temperatures can reach about 40 degrees Celsius. It was a really fun and unique experience, one which can’t be replicated in the United States.
2. The National Opera: Rich and I went for both a tour of the building and a performance of Tosca. The accoustics there are said to be second only to the opera house in Milan, and the building itself is extraordinary. Another exceptional experience and a wonderful memory.
3. The Parliament: This neo-Gothic edifice must be seen to be believed. It’s almost embarrassing in the lushness and extravagance of its details. It is both beautiful and garish.
4. The Dohany Street Synagogue and Holocaust Memorial: Located in what was the Jewish Quarter of Budapest before its thriving Jewish community was persecuted during the Holocaust, the Dohany Street Synagogue is a uniquely beautiful building. We had a fantastic, knowledgeable tour guide, witnessed a tense political debate and had the sobering experience of learning about the fate of Hungarian Jewry during a terrible time in European history.
5. The Chain Bridge: A lovely, old bridge that spans the Danube and links the quiet, laidback Buda district with the lively, modern Pest district. Rich and I walked over this bridge when we visited Castle Hill, and we took many photos of its picturesque details.
6. Castle Hill: A bit of an overrated site, since the buildings there are now museums which were rebuilt after WWII and retain very little of their original splendor. I found it most noteworthy for the Holy Trinity Square and Matthias Church, and the Fisherman’s Bastion, which, although it looks like it was constructed specifically for tourists, overlooks the mighty Danube and offers exceptional views of the city.
7. The Basilica of Saint Istvan (Saint Stephen): Along with the Parliament building and Opera House, the Basilica is often cited as the most impressive interior space in Budapest. Unlike the Parliament building, however, this grandiose house of worship is less florid. Rich and I make it a habit to visit as many of Europe’s famous churches as we can while we travel, and St. Stephen’s didn’t disappoint.
8. The Agricultural Museum and City Park: It may seem a bit strange to include an agricultural museum among our favorite sites, but this one is rather exceptional because it’s located in Budapest’s City Park, in a lovely, tranquil area, and is housed in the Vajdahunyad Castle, a replica of the baroque castle of the same name in Transylvania. It’s a great place to stroll outdoors and take photos. One of my favorite photos that we took there is one of Rich posing with the giant, bronze sculpture of “Anonymous.”
9. Heroes’ Square and the Millenium Monument: Heroes’ Square is located on Andrassy Avenue and is dedicated to famous men in Hungarian history, like King Stephen I, who brought Christianity to Hungary. The Millenium Monument is a giant column topped by a bronze sculpture of the Archangel Gabriel, a Christian symbol, and on the ground in front of it is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, topped by grand sculptures in bronze of horse-mounted Magyars. The Square is one of Budapest’s most famous and popular public spaces for both tourists and locals alike, but I found it to be fairly unexceptional among similar spaces in Europe. It was especially noteworthy to us because there was a street performer there who was blowing giant bubbles, much to the delight of my husband and the several children who amused themselves by chasing after the bubbles.
10. Cafe New York: This was one of those “touristy” things I deliberately set out to do after reading about it in our guide book. Since a “cafe culture” that thrived in Hungary before the Communist period has been gradually returning in recent years, and since I’m a devoted coffee lover/addict, I wanted to check out one of Budapest’s more famous cafes. The Cafe New York is located in the beautiful New York Palace, which is now a luxury hotel (Boscolo Hotel). The prices were a bit steep, and the clientele were nearly all tourists, but the coffee was good, and the interior space is beautiful and ornate. It’s great if you want to have coffee in unnecessarily lavish style. I thought it was a great experience, but Rich seemed rather indifferent. He just moaned that his milkshake had too much whipped cream.
After a few days in Budapest, we loaded our things into a rental car and headed down to Croatia, intending to stay overnight in the capital city of Zagreb before driving on to the coastal city of Split. We stayed at the Hotel Jagerhorn after a fairly easy, straightforward trip that took about four hours from Budapest. Zagreb is a relatively small city that sees few tourists, but we found it charming and laid-back and enjoyed our brief stay. One of the more interesting sites there was Saint Mark’s Square in the Old Zagreb district, where there stands the Church of Saint Mark on which the roof tiles are laid so that they represent the coat of arms of Zagreb and the Triune Kingdom of Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia. We also visited the Zagreb Cathedral (dedicated to the Assumption of Mary and Saints Stephen and Ladislaus) and in the evening experienced the city’s thriving cafe culture at an outdoor cafe in Zagreb Center.
The next morning we set off fairly early for Split after having breakfast at the hotel. The highway leading to the Dalmatian capital city is the recently constructed A1, which is normally a straight shot to the coast from Zagreb. Based on my research, we estimated that the trip would take us about four hours, and for the first two hours or so the drive was blissfully uneventful. The highway is new and modern, with plenty of truck stops and service stations along the way where we gassed up and bought sandwiches and snacks. Then, after encountering a toll, we found that we had to exit the highway due to an unexpected closure and were forced to drive the old, local routes to the coast. While Rich wisely felt inclined to follow a tour bus that seemed to be heading to Split, I insisted that we listen to our rented GPS device, which, unfortunately, led us right back to the closed highway. In our perplexity, we drove around the one traffic cone that was intended to indicate the highway’s closure and headed down a desolate highway toward a very large tunnel.
It’s impossible to convey how strangely eerie it was driving on a deserted highway (and the alarmed look a service truck driver driving on the opposite side of the highway gave us when he saw our little Toyota zipping toward certain doom). Just as we were about to enter a large tunnel burrowed through a mountain, inexplicably ignoring the many signs indicating to us that the tunnel was closed, we veered off onto a service road at the last minute, which thankfully looped around and put us back on the A1 toward an exit. To make a long story short, this led to two hours of utter confusion as we attempted to navigate the back roads of the isolated Croatian countryside, where no one we encountered spoke or understood English. They just kept saying, “Gracec,” so we followed the signs toward Gracec and eventually found ourselves on the right path toward Split. When we arrived, we found the Dalmatian coast cold and dreary, battered by rain and wind and thin on tourists. Even still, after we checked into our rented apartment, took a much-needed nap and regained our composure, we headed into town and found my main reason for visiting Split: Diocletian’s Palace.
In the Dark Ages, the native Illyrians fled from the countryside from the invading Slavs and took shelter in the ruins of the palace complex of the Roman emperor Diocletian, who spent his retirement in his native Croatia after a successful reign that saw the formation of the Tetrarchy and the most brutal persecution of Christians since Nero. For lovers of antiquity, Diocletian’s palace is a major treat: The emperor’s tomb continues to exist, now as the Church of Saint Dominus, the smallest cathedral in Christendom, and the Vestibule and Peristyle continue to be impressive, monumental sites.
Though our first evening in Split was dreary, it seemed that the Universe took pity on us the next morning and gave us a beautiful, sunny and balmy day. We returned to Diocletian’s Palace and also enjoyed the Croatian Boat Show, where we had the neat experience of getting a guided tour of a Croatian Coast Guard vessel by a friendly sailor who spoke English. We also sauntered along the Riva, a sunny promenade lined by cafes, where we had breakfast and later returned for hot chocolate, and trekked over to the Marjan, which gave us incredible views of the city and the harbour.
Our return to Budapest was rather uneventful until our out-of-date GPS system got us lost in the city, requiring the use of an actual map to find our way back to the Avis location to return our car. All in all, with the exception of our driving misadventures, it was a fantastic trip. Since we saw Dalmatia in the off-season, it would be great to return someday during the summer and see Dubrovnik. Needless to say, we will take a ferry or a train next time.