Welcome to Budapest, Hungary! Our quick vısıt to Budapest coincided wıth Hungary's Natıonal Day, August 20th (Hungary's equıvalent to Amerıca's Independence Day). Our visit included monuments, fireworks, goulash, a sacred crown and a mummified right hand. Clıck the lınk to read more.
Beth and I had a long bus and traın journey from Zakopane, Poland to Budapest, Hungary (passıng through the entirety of Slovakıa ın the process). When we arrıved ın Budapest, we were hungry. Thıs was fortunate, because, as ıt turns out, you won't go hungry ın Hungary.
As a pıcky eater, I had lıttle hope for Hungarıan cuısıne. But my opinion of Hungarian cuisine skyrocketed after trying a bowl of delicious goulash. Beth enjoyed her taste of Langos, which is a Hungarian specialty made of fried flat bread with sour cream and cheese on top.
One of the biggest culinary treats of our visit to Budapest had nothing to do with Hungarian cuisine. We came across a Chipotle-like burrito restaurant and had our first taste of Mexican food in over seven months. Although Mexican food can be found in seemingly every town in America, it is hard to find in Asia, Africa and even Europe. Beth and I can attest that Mexican food tastes extra delicious when you haven't eaten it for seven months.
We began our tour of Budapest early on August 20, which is St. Stephan's Day, the celebration of Hungary's founder. Above is a photo of St. Stephen's Basilica in Budapest in the early morning hours. You can see a stage being erected on the steps of the church.
This is the inside of St. Stephen's Basilica. In 1000 AD, Stephen I was crowned the first king of Hungary, and he zealously pursued a policy of converting the populace to Christianity. For instance, when his uncle expressed reservations about adopting the new religion, King Stephen had his uncle quartered and sent the four pieces of his uncle's body to be displayed in the four corners of the kingdom to illustrate the fate of all of those who resisted conversion to Christianity. On King Stephen's deathbed in 1038, the King held the Hungarian crown in his right hand and asked the Virgin Mary to become the Queen of Hungary. In 1083, King Stephen was canonized as a Confessor King (the first such canonization), and his body was exhumed. According to the legend, Stephen's right hand (the one that held the crown) was in perfect condition 45 years after his death. The incorruptibility of his right hand was interpreted by the Hungarian people as a sign that the Virgin Mary had accepted Stephen's request to be Queen of Hungary, and she is still referred to as the Queen today. Despite the hand being seen as incorruptible, the authorities decided to mummify Stephen's right hand as a sort of insurance policy against decay. Stephen's right hand was housed in St. Stephen's Basilica, and remains there today.
Above is a photo downloaded from the Internet of St. Stephen's mummified right hand. We were not able to view it up close because we visited on August 20, St. Stephen's feast day, and the most important day of the year for Stephen's right hand. Stay tuned; Stephen's right hand makes another appearance in this post.
We visited Heroes' Square in Pest. (Budapest began life as two distinct cities separated by the Danube River, Buda and Pest, and the distinction between the areas remain.) The photo immediately above shows the ancient god of traveling light, and I am lifting up my daypack in hopes that the god will look down with favor upon my lifestyle.
Above are some photos of Budapest landmarks we visited: the Opera House (arguably more ornate than its more famous contemporary in Vienna), the Great Synagogue, Matyas Church, the Chain Bridge spanning the Danube, and the Parliament Building facing the Danube. Most of these buildings and all of Budapest's bridges have been built (or rebuilt) since the end of World War II. By the end of the war, 80% of all buildings in Budapest, along with every bridge spanning the Danube, had been destroyed. Remember the Hungarian crown that King Stephen held in the air during his deathbed prayer to the Virgin Mary? That's currently housed in the Parliament Building. At the end of World War II, the crown was recovered by U.S. forces in Austria. The Hungarian Crown Guard requested that the crown be transferred to the U.S. in the aftermath of the war in order to keep it safe from the Communists. The crown stayed in Fort Knox for 30 years until President Carter finally agreed to return the crown to Hungary based upon an agreement meant to ensure that the crown stayed with the Hungarian people rather than the Communist government. After the fall of Communism, the crown was moved to the Parliament Building, where it has been housed ever since.
On one day each year, the doors of the Parliament Building are opened and the public can enter free of charge and view the crown. That one day is St. Stephen's Day, the day we visited. Above is a video meant to show how long the line was to enter the building to glimpse the crown. The video does not do justice to the extreme length of the line, which stretch around the building. I could have waited in the line, but we then wouldn't have had time to see anything else in the city.
One of our favorite spots in Budapest was City Park, the first public park in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park features a castle, a zoo, amusement park, museums, swimming pools and extensive grounds. The photo above shows the moat of the castle, and Beth is barely visible wearing a pink shirt on the bridge. The park also has a beautiful chapel which is a favorite spot for weddings. Notice the photo of the wedding party above; there was another wedding party waiting to use the chapel as soon as the pictured party departed.
Tucked away in one corner of City Park was even a statue of George Washington.
We were visiting on August 20, Hungary's equivalent to America's 4th of July, and we took one of the oldest subways in the world to visit the festivities. This metro line from the 1800's is barely below ground (notice the short flight of steps in the photo), in contrast to the very deep modern subway lines seen in other cities.
The festival featured traditional arts, crafts, foods, and, of course, crowds, as you can see in the above photos.
The lucky Hungarian children got to put on their swimsuits and play in the water. The unlucky ones had to put on traditional Hungarian garb and play music for tourists.
The most unlucky Hungarian child had to stand on a hot stage and sing an a capella version of an interminably long song; only a snippet of the song is shown in the above video, but after watching it, I'm sure you will agree that I filmed enough.
Each year, bakers from across Hungary compete for the right to bake that year's version of Hungary's "birthday cake." The winner then gets to bake thousands of cakes and sell them to the eager populace. Beth is shown above with this year's birthday cake--poppy seed--and a local beer. What a combination!
During Communist times, the overtly religious St. Stephen's Day holiday was morphed into a celebration of the harvest. Now, the harvest bread, shown above (which was heavily guarded by security for some reason), is an integral part of the celebration.
In the late afternoon, a large outdoor mass was conducted at St. Stephen's Basilica in honor of St. Stephen's Day. Above is a photo of me standing in the square outside the church in the morning, and a photo of the same square just before the mass.
Above is a close-up of the stage where the outdoor mass is conducted. See the silver box on top of the white table in the center of the stage? That contains Stephen's mummified right hand. On August 20 each year, the hand is brought outside and paraded around the church, and then placed on the pictured table, where it enjoys a front-row seat of the mass.
After the sun goes down, the Hungarians end St. Stephen's Day with a bang. Actually, many bangs. As you can see from the series of photos above, fireworks were shot from three separate locations along the Danube (on either side of the Chain Bridge and off the Chain Bridge itself). The final two photos were taken during the grand finale, during which it appeard the Chain Bridge might not survive the explosions. Thankfully, when the smoke cleared, the bridge was still standing.
Above is a video which shows the three fireworks locations and hints at the large number of people gathered to watch the fireworks.
After the fireworks show finished, we walked with a few thousand of our new Hungarian friends back home, having enjoyed a good fireworks show and a great day in a great city. Thank you for joining us on Hungary's National Day!