Discovering a Pearl
Along The Danube
Story and photos by Tom Weber
intrepid "band of merry media" and I 25 guest travel
writers and photographers invited along by Insight Vacations (Insight)
to sample its Bohemian Rhapsody journey are coming down
the homestretch of our six-day race through the Czech
And, what a finish line it is: B-U-D-A-P-E-S-T,
the Pearl of the Danube.
At first glance, it appears as if the Insight
travel planner, whoever he/she may be, saved the very best of this rhapsody
for last. If you'll be so kind as to grab my camera kit, we can begin
the final dispatch of this 13-part series.
The capital and largest city of Hungary,
Budapest is actually three cities rolled into one: Buda, Óbuda
The three communities merged in 1873 to
form one metropolis and it hasn't looked back since. As a matter of
fact, Budapest is one of the most forward-thinking metro areas in all
of Europe and doesn't lack for modern-day accolades. But, don't take
my word for it.
Hailed as one of Europe's most beautiful
cities, it's a bona fide UNESCO World Heritage site, from above, across
and alongside the Danube. According to Euromonitor, Budapest attracts
about 4.3 million tourists a year, making it the 25th most popular city
on the planet to visit and the 6th most attractive travel destination
Still not convinced?
A financial hub of Central Europe, MasterCard
ranks Budapest third on its Emerging Markets Index; the Economist
Intelligence Index (EIU) proclaims her the most livable city of Central
and Eastern Europe; and, Condé Nast Traveller places the
Buda-Óbuda-Pest triumvirate second on its World's Best Cities
As is the case with all of Insights' premium-escorted
journeys, guests are not only in the capable hands of a tour director,
but also enjoy insider information from local art-history guides at
every major stop. And, riding shotgun here in Budapest for the rest
of the day is Erica, Insights' Hungary expert, who promises to add a
bit of paprika to the itinerary.
Down Andrassy Avenue we head, the city's
main thoroughfare that sits above historic Line-1 of the Budapest Metro
continental Europe's first underground railway system
until we arrive at the first of many stops planned for today: Hősök
tere, or Heroes' Square.
Constructed in 1896 to mark the millennial
anniversary of the conquest of Hungary by the seven Magyar chieftains
and their tribes, Heroes' Square is the largest and most impressive
square in the city.
Fronting City Park, Heroes' Square is bookended
by the Museum of Fine Arts and the Hall of Art.
Back up Andrassy we go, slowing the pace
every so often to get a glimpse of some of the eclectic and historic
Neo-Renaissance palaces and houses lining the way, including one that
now serves as the House of Terror, a museum commemorating Hungarians
who were held captive, tortured and killed by the Nazi and Communist
terror regimes of the last century. The House of Terror's distinctive
entablature and blade walls combine to form a chilling effect, and rightly
so. Thankfully, we keep moving.
The iconic Chain Bridge is our ticket across
the Danube and we enter Buda's Castle District passing by the Royal
Palace until our coach comes to a full stop.
We dismount and go on foot along the elevated
cobble. Artisan shops line the way into the heart of the district where
Matthias Church fronts Stephen I on horseback and the Halászbástya
From up here where eagles dare
you can catch some of the very best views of Pest and the Danube down
Lunch is on Insight's euro at Első
Pesti Rétesház Kávéház (First Strudel
House of Pest), a cafe-resaurant that prepares and serves up sweet and
savory strudels. We're ushered into a private room for an Insight "signature"
moment as a pastry chef shows us how to make proper strudel dough. It's
worked vigorously, rolled out and stretched by hand to such a thinness
that it's almost transparent.
After the demonstration, we're served several
tasty sweet strudels and strong coffee. Mmm.
With waistlines now a bit expanded, Erica,
our local guide, leads the way over to Kossuth Lajos Square, the symbolic
center of the Hungarian state, where we gaze upon the ornate Hungarian
It's the country's most famous structure
and Budapest's tallest building at a symbolic 96 m for the nation's
millennium, 1896, and the conquest of the later Kingdom of Hungary back
Totaling nearly 700 rooms, the Gothic-Revivial
Parliament Building, with its Renaissance-Revival dome, is surrounded
by other grand public buildings and memorials, like the original Palace
of Justice (now the Ethnographic Museum) and the equestrian statue of
Francis II Rákóczi, a 16th century nobleman and freedom
fighter and a national hero of Hungary.
On the stroll back to the hotel, guess
who I run into? Ronald "Dutch" Reagan. Actually, a 7-foot
bronze likeness of the 40th President of the United States standing
cool in Freedom Square opposite the U.S Embassy. Like in many eastern
European countries, the Great Communicator was revered in Hungary for
his role in bringing the Cold War to an end.
All that's left of this Bohemian Rhapsody
is the shouting, and we do just that over the hypnotic violin strings
of the self-proclaimed "best Gypsy band in Europe" at Budapest's
world-renowned restaurant, Gundel's.
Since 1894, the house that Károly
Gundel built has been serving up quality dishes wrapped in luxury for
royalty, movie stars, a pope, and now our "band of merry media."
According to the New York Times, "the
Gundel Restaurant has done more for Hungary's reputation than a shipload
of tourist brochures."
We all agree, as our plates are wiped clean
and our wine glasses, sadly, stand empty for the last time.
For complete information on Insights' premium
and luxury-escorted itineraries, including the Bohemian Rhapsody
and 100 other journeys throughout Europe, just click HERE,
or call toll free 1-888-680-1241, or contact your travel agent.
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