Fun, pure fun for several days in a row, was something I thought I would never experience again. The plague had taken away any idea that there could be any fun to be had. Living on prison island, I had almost forgotten how liberating fun can be until I joined the Sour Cherries Tour of Budapest.
A very dear friend from another life who now lives in London, invited me to join the Sour Cherries Tour of Budapest during my first escape from prison island in the Antipodes after covid. I had not previously visited Budapest, and I had never attended a Christmas market in Europe, so I jumped at the opportunity.
Three sour cherries assembled at Heathrow, where much toasting to the success of the tour occurred. More toasting on the flight to Budapest ensured a very happy relaxed arrival in Budapest, where the fourth sour cherry was awaiting our arrival.
Having grown up with the Blue Danube Waltz – even performing as a skater in a school version, I had been somewhat disappointed to discover that the Danube in Vienna was far from blue. I was so hoping that the Danube in Budapest would be blue. Well, it was and it wasn’t. I got my Blue Danube at night. During the day it was many shades of grey.
The four Sour Cherries were a diverse group, all very different, in age and nationality, and not one of them lives in the country of their birth. Chief Sour Cherry is an Australian who lives in London. Deputy Chief Sour Cherries are variously a New Zealander living in Sydney, but whose heart is in London (the elder of the tribe), an Irishwoman, living in Oxford and a New Zealander, living temporarily in Germany, but based in London. By way of explanation, the Chief Sour Cherry is the “Chief” as he was the organiser. The Deputy Sour Cherries are “Deputies” as we were very enthusiastic participants.
The elder of the tribe and the Irish Sour Cherry were staying in the same hotel in Pest, in an obviously touristy street
The Central Market Hall, the main produce market in Budapest, was located at the end of the street close to our hotel, so was an obvious first destination. The ground floor was the foodhall – I never knew that there were so many varieties of paprika. The fruit and vegetables all looked superb. The first floor is more touristy, and the contained a vast array of stuff that only tourists would buy, such as the I (heart) Budapest mugs, caps and T shirts. There were numerous leather goods stalls, some of which stocked items of a reasonable style and design. Some of the glassware was lovely, and there was a great variety of ceramics. I acquired a beautiful blue crystal champagne glass to replace a broken glass. I could have sworn it was identical to the set it was joining. It was not, but it didn’t matter. As the Chief Sour Cherry remarked, far more interesting than a matching set. One stall contained “Herend” porcelain. If I was planning to acquire Herend, I would have visited the Palais Herend, and undoubtedly would have paid a great deal more, but I would actually have acquired Herend.
I was looking forward to my first experience of Christmas Markets in Europe. Whether or not the markets in Budapest are up there with the best, they were certainly magical for me. A smorgasbord of of food, Gluhwein, Hungarian arts and crafts, and some of the loveliest festive lighting I have seen. I indulged in Gluhwein – nothing better to bring on the fuzzy, warm and happy experience of enjoying Christmas markets with friends.
The festive lighting, was quite innovative in some areas – cars and shoes in one area. Shop fronts were decorated, some with changing coloured lights, and there were so many Christmas trees of all shapes and sizes.
Just a few of the many Christmas trees.
Wandering around the Christmas markets, the wild cherries came across a ferris wheel. No, not me, I don’t do ferris wheels. So pleased that the majority ruled, and we boarded the ferris wheel. Budapest by night from the ferris wheel was magical.
Budapest has a lot more to offer than Christmas Markets. Walking around Buda and Pest is easy, give or take a couple of rather steep Hills in Buda, and walk we did, generally only occasionally resorting to a bus or taxi when running short of time.
I have read a lot about the Holocaust and visited many Holocaust museums and memorials over the years, but I had little specific knowledge of the fate Jewish people in Budapest. A visit to the Dohany Street Synagogue, with its memorial gardens and Holocaust Museum in the basement, and to a memorial on the banks of the Danube, sent me on a journey of discovery. I found that prior to World War II approximately 200,000 Jewish people lived in Budapest. In the early years of World War II around 5,000 Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria arrived in Budapest, and from 1942, approximately 8,000 Slovak refugees sought haven in Budapest. Until the German occupation in March 1944, they remained relatively secure. A ghetto was established in November, 1944. From December 1944 to the end of January 1945 it is estimated that up to 20,000 Jewish people from the ghetto were executed on the bank of the Danube, and thrown into the river.
Budapest was liberated in February 1945 by Soviet forces.
There are numerous memorials in the garden. The one I found very moving was a sculpture of a life sized weeping willow, designed by Imre Varga. Each leaf has the name of a person murdered during the holocaust. Descending into the basement of the synagogue felt a little like descending into hell. The graphic photographs and commentaries accompanying them of Jewish people murdered in the streets was extremely confronting.
“To the memory of Victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-45” is the sign on an an extremely evocative memorial on the banks of the Danube. Around 60 pairs of women, men and children’s shoes, made of iron, were scattered along the promenade. I felt the despair of wearer’s of those shoes. I felt the evil of the militiamen – murdering men, women and children because they were Jewish. I felt despair that there are people today who deny the holocaust ever happened. To read more about this memorial go to yadvashem.org/articles/general/shoes-on-the-Danube-promenade.html
A day in Buda, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, commenced with a walk over the Liberty Bridge, constructed in the art nouveau style and a visit to the Castle Hill District. Catching the Castle Hill Funicular to the Royal Palace saved us a walk up the hill. First things first. The large cauldron’s full of hot aromatic Gluhwein, accompanied by a very large sausage could not be resisted.
Fortified and feeling fuzzy, warm and happy it was time to explore the medieval Castle District with its narrow winding streets, The Royal Palace is comprised of several buildings. The first castle was built on the site in the thirteenth century. The Baroque Palace, which now covers most of the site was built in the 16th century. I know little of the history of Hungary and its Kings and Queens. I am not generally interested in the interiors of places once occupied by royalty – I don’t wish to see the opulent manner in which these people lived. I do enjoy viewing the architecture, and love to see the monumental sculptures commissioned by the various occupants of these places. The Castle Grounds contained a satisfactorily large number of sculptures.
Walking from Buda Castle along the banks of the Danube towards the Fishermen’s Bastion, the Wild Cherries were proposing various theories as to what fishing had to to with a Bastion high on a hill. Maybe it was a fish market in earlier times, although that did not seem logical – why would people lug quantities of fish from the river up to the top of the hill.
The Bastion of today was built between 1895 and 1902, and is in reality a viewing platform, although the architecture is in the style of early medieval times. The original Bastion was part of the defence of the Castle, and was named after the fishermen’s village below.
Entering Holy Trinity Square after climbing what felt like several hundred stairs, we found ourselves surrounded by the Bastion with its fairytale towers to our right, and St. Matthias Church slightly to our left. The Square also contains a large statue of St. Stephen astride a well dressed horse. Refreshments were required before any further exploration could possibly be undertaken. Hooray for the Gluhwein stall.
Above Left: The final staircase to the Bastion. Top Right: St Stephen on his well dressed horse. Below Left: Gluhwein stall.
The panoramic views across the Danube to Pest are magnificent – The Hungarian Parliament looking beautiful by day and night is a standout. As the evening got darker, the little lights draped over all of the Bastion Towers and walls started twinkling and glowing, completing the fairytale look.
St Matthias (Matyas) Church was erected on the site of an earlier church, and was rebuilt in 1470. Over the centuries the church was the site of coronations of Hungarian Kings. It was converted into a mosque by the Ottoman Turks and utilised as such for around 150 years until reverting to a catholic Church. Architecturally St Matthias is a traditional gothic church. The interior is rather more exotic. Stunning frescoes, in tones of orange/brown decorate the walls from floor to ceiling.
After all that splendour it was time for cocktails.
Wherever I travel, I seek out images of St George killing the dragon. Budapest did not let me down. I found two, a tiled one being in the street I looked along, from my hotel room, on the wall of Saint George Martyr Serbian Orthodox Church. The other was a statue by the stairs to the Fishermen’s Bastion – a replica, the original is in Prague. To read about my obsession with St George images, and the places I have found them go to Myths and Legends – in search of St George and the Dragon. What has fascinated me has been the way in which artists from many countries over many centuries have depicted the dragon.
The sour cherries had some memorable meals due to the research efforts of the Chief Sour Cherry. We also found ourselves in fabulous cocktail bars, and sampling local wines. In order to repay this meticulous effort, the two kiwis’ became the entertainment one evening by performing a very creditable Haka.
So on that note, Part 1 of the Sour Cherries Budapest tour ends.