Budapest is a popular docking point for luxury riverboats, and it’s no wonder given that the mighty Danube runs right through the city, Hungary’s capital. From our luxury Viking riverboat we could see Buda and Pest as we faced the Chain Bridge—the earliest bridge to join the two cities.
Viking boats were in the majority, so we knew we would be in good company as we explored historical Budapest, often called the Pearl of the Danube and one of Europe’s most beautiful cities.
On the riverbank promenade we came upon “Shoes on the Danube Bank,” a touching and humble memorial to Jewish people killed by the Hungarian Arrow Cross militiamen during the Second World War. The memorial is, simply, shoes. The martyred were ordered to take off their shoes and then were shot at the water’s edge so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away.
Sculptor Gyula Pauer forged 60 pairs of period-appropriate shoes out of iron.Votive candles around the shoes and flowers placed inside them attest to poignant moments and quiet vigils. I heard the phrase “We shall never forget” many times in Europe, and this memorial attests that Budapest has not forgotten.
Stumbling stones, now all over Europe, can also be seen in Budapest. Originating in Germany, these small brass memorials are built into pavements usually in front of the home or place of business of a Jewish person killed in the Holocaust. They are not a pedestrian hazard as they lie flat on the road. But if you are looking down and see a brass square with a name, date of birth, and date and place of death, your thoughts stumble and you remember, and will never forget.
The Dohany Street Synagogue—inaugurated in 1859, heavily damaged in the Second World War, and completely reconstructed by 1996—is an oft-visited architectural wonder and a beautifully designed sacred space. The original garden wasn’t built for its present purpose, a memorial park. It is named for Raul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved 35,000 Hungarian Jews during the war, and its central feature is a weeping willow made of stainless steel and silver. On its 4,000 leaves are names of those who perished and whose surviving relatives and friends wish to remember them through this memorial.
From Somber to Spectacular
The beauty of today’s Budapest is highlighted by reminders of its haunting past. The city has overcome so much and while it does not ignore its shadows, nor does it linger in them. Viewed from the Danube, Budapest by night is illuminated by glorious castles and huge historic buildings on both sides of the river, whose glow beckons the visitor to explore.
Our riverboat cruised along this route, passing under the city’s many lighted bridges. We sat on the sundeck wrapped in provided shawls and listened to a commentary about these celebrated structures.
The next day we sought lesser-known Budapest treasures. While the city has authentic castles to explore, Vajdahunyad Castle, built to house the 1896 Millennium Exhibition, is its newest. A fantasy pastiche displaying Hungary’s architectural evolution over the last 1,000 years, it sits on its own island and is accessible by four bridges. It was constructed of wood and meant to be temporary. Its popularity endured, however, so it was rebuilt of stone and brick in 1908. It remains a unique Budapest highlight conveniently located in the city park.
Across the river is the must-see Matthias Church, restored to its original 13th-century plan that incorporates original Gothic elements. It houses the Ecclesiastical Art Museum that begins in the medieval crypt and leads up to St. Stephen Chapel. Many sacred relics and medieval stone carvings can be seen, along with replicas of the Hungarian royal crown and coronation jewels. The last two Hungarian Habsburg kings were crowned here.
As every outing should include a refreshment stop, we were delighted to happen upon Café Ruszwurm, dating back to 1827. In medieval times, it was a gingerbread shop. The cozy two-room cafe has a century-old Biedermeier interior as well as outdoor seating. Traditional tools of the old confectionery trade line the walls. The pastries are simply outstanding. We ordered the Ruszwurm cream pastry, famous throughout Europe, and Hungary’s best-known cake, Dobos Torta, layered with chocolate buttercream and topped with caramel.
The Viking Way
Budapest was just one stop along the way on our Viking riverboat cruise. Seeing the city while based in our “floating hotel” meant that the usual irritations of travel were not included in our all-inclusive cruise.
The program director was lavish with advice about what to see and when to see it, and the concierge was helpful in making on-shore dinner and concert suggestions and reservations. Guided tours were included, and maps were provided to people who wished to explore on their own. Meals were consistently good, so there was no need to go off the boat for any meal.
However, local restaurants were part of our journey. It was good to have an on-board concierge so the restaurants we visited were just what we wanted instead of one of those humorous travel memories that are not so funny at the time, such as the omelet I ordered in India that was served as two hard-boiled eggs!
Carol Stigger is a Chicago-based writer, teacher, and traveler who specializes in developing nation issues, microfinance, and leisure travel. email@example.com