“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
~Jack Kerouac, On The Road
The sun was in full splendor as we headed down Andrássy Avenue toward Heroes’ Square. It was our last morning in Budapest, and I was both excited and relieved with the way we had patched together an extra day in this grand city. With tickets for the early afternoon train to Vienna, we would be able to explore another part of Budapest and be back on the Crystal Mozart in time for dinner and our flight home the next morning.
It’s about a half-hour walk down Andrássy Avenue from its starting point at Erzsébet Square to where it spills into the park surrounding Heroes’ Square. Known as Budapest’s main luxury shopping street, Andrássy is a leafy boulevard that dates to 1872. Beautiful mansions, foreign embassies, stunning architecture and the Hungarian State Opera House – under renovation when we were there – line its sidewalks.
The vast Heroes’ Square with its Millennium Monument was built for the 1896 celebration commemorating the 1000th anniversary of Hungary. As you approach the square, a center column topped by the Archangel Gabriel holding the Hungarian Holy Crown first comes into view. Two curved colonnades displaying statues of key Hungarian historical figures flank the column. The Museum of Fine Arts and the Hall of Art sit nearby. The rest of the square is open space.
An intriguing-looking castle surrounded by a lake lines the street across from Heroes’ Square. Curious about what it was, we stopped at the Visitors’ Center and learned that both the castle – called Vajdahunyard – and boating lake were also built for the Millennium celebration. The castle was designed to represent several landmark buildings from different parts of Hungary, including Hunyad Castle in Transylvania, now Romania. Today Vajdahunyard houses the Museum of Hungarian Agriculture.
The Great Synagogue
Our next stop was the Great Synagogue on Dohány Street, the largest synagogue in Europe. Along the way, we veered off Andrássy Avenue through side streets, passing by interesting-looking gated villas that house offices as well as outdoor art installations.
New York Café
Our last stop was our final coffee break of the trip. The New York Café bills itself as “the most beautiful and most beloved coffee house in Budapest,” a claim that would be difficult to dispute. Built at the turn of the 20th century, it feels as if you’re stepping back into the Belle Époque era of grandeur. Gilded walls, frescoed ceilings, intricate brass light fixtures and red velvet chairs set the scene the minute you walk in the door. The café was a popular meeting spot for writers and editors, and the city’s most influential newspapers were once edited in the upstairs gallery.
We were seated next to a couple from outside of London who also were having a coffee break on the last day of their trip. The four of us had a great time sharing stories and comparing notes on where we’d been. It was one of those wonderful serendipitous travel moments of connecting with people you otherwise would not have the opportunity to meet.
The End of the Journey
Back at the hotel, we collected our bags and grabbed a taxi to the Budapest Keleti Railway Station. The lovely old station, built in the early 1880s, was easy to navigate and a much less dramatic experience than our train travel from Prague.
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And so our trip along the Danube was ending the way it began, coming full circle by train to Vienna. The Hungarian countryside was speeding by my window in a green and golden blur, a country that was disappearing from my world as quickly as it had arrived. Herb and I were unusually silent for a while, but somewhere past the Austrian border, between bites of the plastic-wrapped sandwiches Herb brought us from the dining car, we tried to piece together the moments of the past two weeks.
My image of river cruising may be a little less romantic than when we began this trip. Now when I hear the word “Danube,” the first thought that comes to mind might be water levels. But I also know that what will quickly follow will be the golden glow of the Hungarian Parliament Building shimmering at sunset along the river, the taste of the most incredible honey-walnut cake in a city I never even knew existed and the path of a river boat making its way along the water as I look on, wondering what lies around the next bend.