It wasn’t quite the way I’d envisioned arriving in this grand city on the Danube.
But with water levels precariously low, our river boat couldn’t safely make the trip from Bratislava. Instead, we set out by bus, a two-and-a-half-hour journey that took us past flat green farmland, small vineyards and rows of hard-working windmills. We crossed the Slovakian border into Hungary without any notice, the two countries blending seamlessly, one into the other.
Herb and I were traveling with most of the Crystal Mozart’s 150 passengers. About thirty people had chosen not to make the trip and were returning with the boat to Vienna. The rest of us were divided into groups based on the hotels where we’d be staying. When we arrived, Crystal had arranged lunch, a bus tour of the city and a visit to the “Buda” side of Budapest.
Buda and Pest – pronounced Pesht – developed as separate cities on opposite sides of the Danube and didn’t merge until 1873. The hilly Buda lies on the river’s western side, where Buda Castle looks out over the city. Our bus wound its way through the Castle district’s cobblestoned streets, dropping us off near Fisherman’s Bastion, a seven-towered expanse built in the late 1800s that offers sweeping views of Pest and the Danube.
Our next stop was Matthias Church, one of the most interesting houses of worship I’ve visited. Built in the 13th century, it was remodeled and expanded in the Gothic style by its namesake King Matthias Corvinus in the 15th century. During Budapest’s Turkish occupation from 1526 to 1686, the church became a mosque. It was later transformed back into a church, and in the early 19th century it was restored to its original Neo-Gothic style.
When I learned of Matthias Church’s unusual history, I immediately thought of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Also an original church-turned-mosque, Hagia Sophia is now a museum that reflects both religions. And although I remember its interior having a darker ambiance than Matthias Church, both structures are filled with an extraordinary display of colors and patterns.
With about an hour remaining before returning to the bus, Herb and I took a short walk through Castle Hill. We passed the neighborhood post office just before closing time, and despite my lack of Hungarian words, I was able to pick up some stamps for postcards. Our street soon merged with another and spilled out into a large terrace. Nearby, guards were standing watch at the Buda Castle, which I later learned is also referred to as the Royal Palace. The Budapest Funicular sits at the edge of the terrace, taking passengers to and from the river level to Castle Hill.
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We may not have sailed into Budapest the way I had planned. And our first day there may have been more of an afternoon than a full day. But despite the river’s challenges, we had made it to Budapest.
And in the end, that’s really all that matters.