Visegrad and Szentendre on a rainy day

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Every time I am visiting Budapest, I rarely have time to anything but spending time in the city, socializing or visiting a new exhibition. Thus, except a very short visit to Szeged once and a little tour of the country just passing around Balaton, I never seen properly anything else. This time, I am decided to make it at least till Szentendre, the favourite weekend destination of both locals and expats. As usual, I have ambitious plans that can lead me as far as as Visegrad, 60 km. away from the capital city, close to the border with Slovakia and with the help of a guided tour I am able to make them both, by car. Otherwise, buses and trains are regularly leaving the city direction Szentendre – the ride is around 44 minutes – from where a connection by bus to Visegrad is possible. The journey from Budapest is going fine, passing near Aquaincum, a large archaeological site exploring the first capital city of Pannonia during the Roman Empire, or Kalanpark, the adventure park built on the site of a former camping park. We are following the line of the Danube, a bit on the raise after the rain. We can follow it as far away as near the border with Slovakia, a junction point that we can see from the many panoramic view near the road.

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Visegrad means upper castle or fortification in Slavic. There is at least another city with the same name in Bosnia-Herzegovina. A small castle town, it hosts the summer palace of king Matthias and a medieval citadel, built during the reign of King Bela the IVth of Hungary. For the observers of the post-communist Central and Eastern European politics, Visegrad was known for giving the name of an alliance between Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia aimed to speed-up the European integration of those countries.

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Unfortunately, the rain doesn’t seem to stop and thus, a walking till the top of the hill is out of question. Back in the car, we drove back to Szentendre, passing near an impressive number of small houses on sale. As our guide explains, many of them are on the market for almost 5 years, the reason for not finding new owners being either the limited financial resources of the population or the problematic neighbourhood with the Danube whose waters are raising dangerously.

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Most pictures from Szentendre I’ve seen are of sunny alleys with colourful flowers and busy outdoors. There are tourists and a lot of colourful merchandises displayed but there is no sun. The vivid colours of the houses or of the pottery brings more warm and make me forget about my apparent failure to see what most travellers see. Instead, I am trying to enjoy the architecture, spending as much as possible time indoors.

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There are a lot of downsides of tourism, one being an excessive focus on souvenirs and low quality products. But in small little places, where the financial and natural resources are limited, it supplies an important income. Although excessive, the traditional shopping in Szentendre is sometimes too cute to criticise it: from the lavender stuffed toys to fine jewellery inspired by Hungarian traditional models of beautiful skirts hand sewed, sold at relatively accessible prices.

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Smaller or bigger wooden boxes, with secret openings remind me of childhood, and everyone is too nice to not stay over and over in the shop trying to catch up with the language while watching new tricks about how to open those boxes.

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Small streets are leading to the heart of the maze of street, a bit far near the small hill, where people are living and less tourists are curious to go. Traditionally, Szentendre was established as a town of painters which explains some colourful facades, or just the adventurous spirit that with a little bit of attention one can notice on the streets. There are a couple of art galleries, but not directly near the main tourist avenue.

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After the first half on hour of walking, we realize that we should pay attention to every detail, look at the windows or at the doors to spot some unexpected details that are part of the picturesque spirit of the place.

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In the main square, there is a little fountain, where our guide advices us to drink from if we want to meet our other special half. Sometimes, wishful thinking can be very helpful, but I rather stay away for more water for now. Wish I can find out more details about this urban legend created around the lovers’ fountain.

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Unexpectedly, we arrive at a small house, with a sign that I can clearly read: Marzipan House. It looks like Hansel und Graetel little cottage, and I am brave enough and very much in love with the marzipan to risk a visit. From Lady Diana to Michael Jackson or characters from the Hungarian history or from the fairy tales, everything is made with care and a lot of marzipan. It’s incredible how much work and how many details can be done. Mozart’s violin took 25 hours of work, we read, while  in some other cases, the amount can reach 336 hours or more. Here is a short video of some of the sweet beauties from the museum. Of course, I did not miss the opportunity for a tasting: it’s a bit less sweeter than the one I had in the German capital city of marzipan, Lübeck, nutty, with smell and good taste of vanilla. I buy some for the later sweet tooth from the local shop, and move forward for more walking in the rain.

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For those less keen to have some rainy walks, there are plenty of restaurants, mostly serving traditional Hungarian food and sweet pancakes or icecream.

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Beautiful pottery, adorned with local motives or national symbols are displayed everywhere. The visitors looking for something more elegant for their tables, can find maybe what they are looking for at the local Herend shop, selling traditional Hungarian hand painted porcelain.

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It’s hardly anything that you cannot find here: metal keys or bells, or antiquities, clothes or shoes, jewellery or some dried paprika. A little tour only will help you to have a serious overview of the Hungarian folk traditions.

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The same can be said for the architecture, with the small colourful houses in yellow and white, with some touches of blue for the most courageous builders.

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Back to Budapest, with the boat, I sum up that the day might have not been a success in terms of photo opportunities, but I finally made it there and I spend some enjoyable hours in a small colourful settlement. With some sweet marzipan bonus. Not bad at all for a short one-day trip.

My dedicated Pinterest boards can show you more pictures from Visegrad – http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/visegrad-hungary/ – and Szentendre – http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/szentendre-hungary/.

A tour of Jewish Budapest

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Budapest, and Hungary in general, used to have a very active intellectual Jewish life, and an equally interesting Jewish religious life. Most of the Jews were killed during Shoah, and the survivors who chose to stay in the country, had to fight, not always successfully, against the pressure of assimilation and frequent outbursts of anti-Semitism during the communism. Anti-Semitism is back now and life keeps being complicated. In and around the Jewish quarter, you keep seeing a lot of memorials and monuments in the memory of the innocent people murdered with cold blood and the memories of the past are always there.

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Every time I visited Budapest I went to the Jewish quarter, either for an exhibition or a visit to one of the many synagogues. But I never had a proper tour of the entire area and my memories were mostly based on stories told by friends and family. This time, I made everything more professional and booked a tour in English that explained very much the art, history and architecture of the area, with interesting insights about kosher restaurants and daily events in the life of Budapest Jewry. The walking tours, in English or Hebrew, can be booked at the kiosk near the Dohany utca synagogue and last around 2 hours. The guides are knowledgeable and familiar with the history, and equally able to explain to both the Jewish – less or more observant – and non-Jewish visitors about customs, religious detail or history.

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All the streets around Dohany utca synagogue has traces of Jewish history. Some of them are clear, like Hebrew writing and symbols some, like in the case of architecture, are only using discretely motives that can be spotted on the walls or on the old metal doors.

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The area has precious constructions from the 19th century, with 2-3 storeys, a symbol of the relative economic well-being of the Hungarian Jews at the time. The predominant style is Art Nouveau, with a choice of decorations inspired by nature and vegetation. Most of them look like carefully decorated with a lot of love and care, just to make sure that it does not contradict in any way with the environment.

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One of the most interesting discovery of this tour was the visit at the Orthodox Kazinczy Synagogue. It was built in one year, between 1912-1913, part of a larger effort to counter the Reformist movements within Judaism.  The facade, as well as the interior, seems to have some strong inspiration from the Iraqi Jewish architecture, although the construction was made by the brothers Löffler. The two brothers were very productive during 1908-1917, when they had their own architecture bureau, as they built almost most of the Art Nouveau houses in the Jewish quarter.

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The synagogue, colourfully painted, was part of a complex that also included a Jewish girl schools. Nowadays, it is predominantly used during the high-holidays, on some Shabbats and for various tourist tours. The joyous colours of the wall paintings are contrasting with the seriousness around the Torah Ark.

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The traditional Menorah that used to be in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem is represented always with 6 branches, but because the Temple is no more the menorot on the walls of this synagogue do have 5, as a message of incompleteness of our times.

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The beautiful stained glass were painted by the famous Hungarian artist Miksa Róth, imperial and royal court glass painter who also made the painted glass at the Hungarian Parliament. Heavily destroyed during the war, and even used as a stable, it was rebuilt and repainted and part of the Jewish heritage of Budapest. Especially after 2012, the street were the synagogue is situated got a new life, cultural events organized around, as well as many kosher restaurants and small Judaica shops.

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A synagogue that needs a lot of restoration though is Rumbach – in Budapest, the synagogues are named according to the name of the streets where are located. The Moorish-style construction was built at the end of the 19th century by the Viennese architect Otto Wagner. It cannot be visited, but the style reminded me a bit of some similar synagogues in Timisoara and Bucharest (Romania).

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The memories of the past are everywhere in the Jewish quarter and it’s impossible to not start asking questions yourself about how and why happened. Before the war, Hungary used to have a very big Jewish community, of around 450,00 people, half of them being situated in the capital city. The prosperous economic situation and a relative tolerance encouraged Jews from all over Central Europe to move here. But the promises were short-term and illusory, and more than half of the population being murdered.

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The Dohany utca synagogue, second largest in the world, hosts also a Museum dedicated to the Hungarian Jewry, as well as periodical concerts and exhibitions – years ago I visited an impressive Chagal exhibition here. It belongs to the Neologue/Reformist movement and is hosted concerts of Franz Liszt or Camile Saint-Saens. Especially during the Jewish Summer Festival, a regular week of Jewish culture and history organized since 1998, here are organized concerts and many cultural events. Last but not least, on Dohany was born the famous Theodor Herzl, who reshaped the aims of the Jewish communities in Europe.

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Nowadays, there are around 20 synagogues of different orientations answering the spiritual and religious needs of the community as well as of the many visitors from all over the world visiting Hungary and Budapest. There is also a kindergarten, and school, as well as a Jewish center organizing various cultural events.

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What many of the Jewish travellers will always enjoy is the chance to find a little bit of homemade food prepared well according to the highest standards of kashrut. The Jewish Budapest offers a lot of healthy, good quality and kosher food to the hungry traveller. In addition, in many big food stores, as Corso Gourmet on the popular Vaci utca, there are a lot of kosher certified food, but mostly from the snacks type. After the interesting tour, we made a long stop at the Carmel kosher restaurant, near Kazinszky synagogue. It has a classical ambiance of Central European Jewish restaurant, with Judaica paintings and decorations on the walls, leather chairs or some comfy couches and many Cloisonée lamps. The menu offers a variety of Hungarian inspired dishes – veal goulash with Hungarian noodles, for instance – but I was rather hungry for a classical crunchy Schnitzel with hummus and French fries. Call it my usual comfort food when I miss my childhood.

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The fruit salad – apples, water melon and oranges – was a bit of disappointment, and the service was slow – the disadvantage of not being part of a big group of customers, but otherwise, it was good to have a stop in the air-conditioned space after so much walk.

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The food temptations brought us more often in the Jewish quarter of Pest during our stay. Another afternoon, we were back for a slice of cheese pizza at Carimama, a very small but welcoming dairy pizzeria. Is very cheap, tasty – although a bit too burned and too salty – popular among tourists on the run and with a very fast service.

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I could not have the heart to leave Budapest without at least one stop at the historical Fröhlich, the oldest kosher pastry shop in Budapest, who deliciously survived the communism to bring us today a lot of delicious sweets that I’m glad still exist. Their speciality is the flodni, a mixture of apple, walnut and poppy seeds cream stuck between dough layers and a coverage of caramel and there is also the famous Hungarian dobos, delivered kosher style. As for me, I was too nostalgic for a slice of ishler to answer the call of any other temptation: layers of nuts cream between creamy biscuits with a caramelized sweet chocolate cover. The sweetness of every bit is getting deeper and deeper. The ambiance is also pleasant, with a very friendly lady that makes you feel like you are just back in your lost home.

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Jewish Budapest quarter has a lot of stories to tell, many of them about the past. For the young generation or for those unable to learn a realistic story of their past memory benchmarks are needed. The stumbling stones – Stolpersteine – , a project started in Berlin arrived a couple of years ago to Budapest too, aiming to mention the memory of the Jewish inhabitants of the city, with a little golden-looking stone placed in the front of their former homes.

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In the sea of indifference and cruelty,  little sparkling stars of humanity happen. One of them was Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomatic envoy to Budapest, who risked his own life to rescue Jews. I left Budapest, as usual, not only with the hope to return, but with the belief of hope that at least the new young generation, many of them leaving in big number the country in the last 7 years, will have more courage and determination to simply say ‘no’ to madness.

Island hopping in Budapest, can you believe it?

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Budapest has around 7 islands, the most popular by far being Margit/Margaret Island, famous as destination for various sports events and activities. The shell-shaped Margit bears the name of Margaret, the daughter of king Bela IV who lived on the Dominican convent on the island.

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The island can be reached either by boat or directly from the yellow Arpad bridge, via tram or bus. A former location for Knight of St. John in the 12th century and of various religious orders, but in the last century was used predominantly for cultural and sport activities. As we were walking on the other side of the bridge, we noticed rows of people going at the same direction, although it was the middle of the week. We assumed right that it should be a special tournament taking place: apparently it was a handball game taking place and many were hurrying up to support their favourite team.

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The sports seem to be the most frequent activity practised on the islands, and many stadium, playgrounds and swimming pool being open all round the year to the public. Bikes, including tandem ones, can be rented for one hour or more.
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However, most visitors prefer walking slowly the 2,6 km of the island or going there for the daily portion of jogging. In maximum 30 minutes, one can make the full tour of it and although the areas around the entrance can be crowded, there are still some quiet alleys left for a quiet meditative walking.

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On the island there are two UNESCO heritage sites: the water tower and the music fountain. It seems that the happiest visitors are the children, enjoying the big spaces and the many playgrounds as well as the temptations of street food and sweets that their parents and grand parents cannot resist to do not buy them something.

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Before the 14 th century, the island was called Rabbits Island, for the number of long eared inhabitants. As in the case of the Peacock’s Island near Berlin, I haven’t seen any proud representative of the animal world. Maybe all were taken to the small zoo on the island. Two hotels, one of them a thermal one, are inviting the guests to spend more quality time on the island, a bit far away from the busy day and night life in the capital city.

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One of my favourite corners are those with a quiet view over the Danube. Although the view might include some old blocks of houses, they are too far away though to bother with their daily problems and routine.

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Seeing so many people doing seriously their portion of running, I wished that at least from time to time – or maybe only when I’m on the road, which is a lot already – I am practising more sports than intensive walking and hiking.

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As we left, I praised my time spent on the island and I was glad that although nothing special was going during my short visit, at least I had some great uneventful time. From time to time, such experiences are part of the good life on the road.

Budapest, ten years after

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In the last ten years, Budapest changed a lot but still stays the same. Many of the people I used to spend unforgettable evenings talking for long hours in the bars near the Danube left the country, but meanwhile the city got new heroes and statues and the streets outside the areas of main historical – and political – interests – might look neglected a bit dirtier as before. The courageous spirit of the city is there as are the bullets from the 1956 Revolution left on the walls of some buildings though. After a long bus trip from Berlin, via Prague, I was finally back, and after a good night spent at my residence for the trip, Hotel Palazzo Zichy, I took a map and tried to revisit old places while always curious to discover some more new ones.

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Regardless of how fit and well trained for intensive jogging you might consider yourself to be, sooner or later you will need to rely on public transportation. During this trip, I used a lot the metro, the oldest metro line in Europe, which has good connections, is mostly in time and fast. Groups of ticket controllers are out on the field from early in the morning, especially at the entrance or exit from the stations, but friendly and helpful with the lost tourists. Some stations look elegant and well maintained, some – especially the old dusty trains – remind me permanently that I am in a Central European country after all that was under harsh communist control. This is a short video I made while descending on the huge stairs, that strangely reminded me both of Kyiv and of London. Using the yellow taxis is the most convenient way for those not keen to commute too much on holidays, but one must be careful to check if is using a licensed taxi.

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Whatever the good and bad changes, Budapest remains creative, and between the massive historical facelift of the city – even as a local or a person well familiar with the country’s history, I bet you will still need a lot of lectures to get the references to historical personalities and events outlined very often all over the city – the non-conformist minds left traces everywhere. Most of them do not have English translations, so all you have to do is to take notes and find the full history later on.

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I must confess that lost in testing various foods and enjoying the very warm summer time, my artistic activities were very limited this time. As during previous trips I marked all the important permanent exhibitions and museums this time I was, as usual, hungry for something new. However, I could not resist the temptation to go to Toulouse-Lautrec retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, the first extensive display of the works of Lautrec in Budapest in the last 50 years. While walking to Oktogon area, one of the city’s major interections, on Andrassy avenue where the museum is situated, I passed by the controversial Terror House, hosted in the former headquarters of both the Nazi and communist secret service, offering an interpretation of communist too much infused by political opportunism, as well as many galleries and a good collection of Asian Art. Old Italian looking palaces situated on this street were either in various stages of decay or put on sale. 
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Close to the Oktogon  it is situated the Museum of Agriculture, hosted in Vajdahunyad Baroque Castle, built at the beginning of the 20th century, on the occasion of Millenium festivities, celebrating 1,000 years of Hungarian presence in the Carpathian basic. The Castle is surrounded by a garden, near a lake offering boats to rent during the summer and ice skating possibilities during the winter. Those interested in learning fast about Hungary, can visit also the Museum of Popular Arts.

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The Oktogon square is not only an important junction, but equally a crossing point of attractions. Besides the allegorical historical complex from the main the square, aimed to outline the strength and lineage of the Hungarian influence in the area, the Zoo is only a couple of steps away, and so are the Szechenyi thermal baths.

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One of the things I haven’t done before was a trip on the Danube. While returning from Szentendre and Visegrad – more about this trip in the next posts – I took a ride on the water which offered the possibility of a new perspective over both Buda and Pest. Here is a short video of this new adventure. The Parliament, which can be visited through various guided tours, was built in 18 years and is the largest and most famous building in Hungary. Those interested in the more or less recent history of the country should definitely book a tour.

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I wish I could have found an extensive guided tour into the architecture of the city. In order to catch up as many beautiful building as possible, it is very important to be very careful to all the details and look always high for spotting unexpected statues and details. All those pleasant surprises are part of the mysterious way in which Budapest makes itself loveable with the same charm to the first or 10th-time visitor.

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When history has a sweet wrapping, it tastes even better. At the fancy Vorosmarty square I went directly to the famous Gérbeaud, where Sissy, the sophisticated wife of Emperor Franz Joseph and queen of Hungary used to treat her sweet tooth. Created in 1858 by Henrik Kugler, it was sold to Emil Gérbeaud belonging to a long line of Swiss confectionery artists who turned it into one of the finest coffee house and pastry shop in Central and Eastern Europe.

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The sons of Gérbeaud left the country in 1945 after the installation of communists and the shop was took over by the state. In 1997, it was dramatically renovated and embellished, and new wood panels and typical decorations were added. A new restaurant, Onyx, was created in 2007 who is a proud owner of a Michelin star since 2011. The coffee keeps selling the traditional Sacher torte and Dobos torte, as well as macarons of all colours and flavour combinations.

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Convinced that I can keep my head clear and my objectivity not influenced by rich historical evidences, I decided to have a tasty stop here. The prices are high, and the service is a big disappointment, although we arrived there 40 minutes before closing. I ordered Gérbeaud’s slice, that screamed pure sour cocoa from every bit. The layers of nutty and fruity cream were re-establishing the sweet balance. So much concentration of cocoa gives the feeling of full satiety. If I could not finish it is only my fault, I know.

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Either if I was looking for new architectural surprises or checking the gossips that a lot of vegan and vegetarian shops and restaurants were opened in the last year, the same feeling of surprise kept me company. Sometimes I felt that at a certain historical time, architects got together and decided to introduce into the life of the city all their dreams, fantasies and desires. The rest of us, talking pictures, passing by or even living in those buildings, we are just part of the constant audience of their secret life, without being left with a dictionary for translating this secret language.

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The Danube is crossed by 14 bridges, connecting Buda and Pest in many points. Most of them were built at the end of the 19th century, and still are important characters into the tourist and daily life of the city. The bridges enforced the new unity of the city that was achieved administratively in 1873.

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Budapest, and Hungary in general, is famous for its hot springs, well known as tourist destinations but also for their health qualities. In Budapest only, there are around 118 natural springs. One of the most famous thermal bath is Gellert, inaugurated in 1918 and added since a big outdoor pool. One of the most famous spa in Hungary, it used a water source that was known since the 13th century. The interior is at least as impressive as its history: massive Art Nouveau decorations, mosaiques, colourful stained glass windows reflecting the various natural lights.

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In the vicinity of the thermal baths building, facing the Erzsebet bridge, there is a little hill, with a natural waterfall where I climbed for a little bit, trying to find some coolness against the heated sun.

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As in many such places in Central and Eastern Europe, I discovered a small improvised shop of an old lady selling various hand made traditional Hungarian products. Although she was not speaking other language but Hungarian, she was so friendly and good hearted that was about to buy her entire shop only for a smile.

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From the top of the little hill, both Buda and Pest looked busy, ready for a new day and week of work and very serious about everything on the agenda. Busy traffic both on the highway and on the water.

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An important part of my travels is dedicated to check and discover new local products. As I grew up with so many of them – the plum jam, eventually with some hidden nuts near many layers of flesh – I like to see if my beloved recipes are still popular. On Vaci utca (utca means street in Hungarian) which become too touristic, with predominantly Hungarian gourmet expensive restaurants serving goulash and paprika based meals, I made a long stop at Corso Gourmet. A special section of this huge shop dedicated to the traditional spirits, made of plums, as well as to the famous Unicum and the many fine wines, Tokaj included.

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More than the elegant Corso, I enjoyed spending a lot of time at Vasarcsarnok, the Great Market Hall, at the end of Vaci utca, resisting painfully the temptation to buy a little bit of Kapia paprika, or some Szeged Paprika or maybe some fresh good looking melons or tomatoes.

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I left a bit disappointed and with a heavy heart, and only the beautiful ethereal apparitions on the top of the buildings near the Jewish quarter – an extensive account of the tour and Jewish life coming up next – made me feel better. In the vicinity, the Hungarian National Museum can offer to the curious visitor another long excursus in the history of the country.

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Inside the Jewish quarter, between Kiraly utca and Dob utca, the Gozsdu courts are the newest attraction in town. Formerly an abandoned area, it was turned into an attractive avenue with pubs, restaurants, small shops and workshops for creative people, as well as antiquities shops presenting, among other, old collection cars.

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Although I accepted for being out of time for too many artistic luxuries, I regretted deeply for not being able to attend this Invisible Exhibition where the participants are experiencing a small part of the daily life of visually impaired people.

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Not too much time for shopping either, although Vorosmarty Ter, with its tempting fashion avenue and shops and many restaurants calling my name for an after-shopping relaxing appeared very open in my walking plans. After my elegant afternoon tea at Kempinski Hotel Corvinus I was not very tempted to get some street food displayed there, but at least I had a look at some of the wooden traditional products offered to the tourists. When it comes to touristic experiences, although the national currency is the Hungarian Forint, euro and also the dollars can be easily used in the touristic shops or for booking guided tours. The main languages are English, German and extensively Russian.

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Late in the afternoon, when the heat is regressing, I always enjoy walking near the Danube, passing near the interesting statues or just looking on the other side of the Danube.

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On the other side of the Danube, it is the famous Buda Castle, where I was back one again, using the small mini train. It was first finished in 1265, and nowadays includes a complex of buildings from different historical stages, some archaeological sites, museums of arts, restaurants and small shops offering traditional products.

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If you were so unlucky to arrive when all the exhibitions and most of the attractions were closed, there is always something good left: a perspective over Pest, and a very good standpoint to observe the life of the city in the afternoon.

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As usual, Budapest was good to me, offering me the chance to know more of its secrets, while tempting me again to come back for finding out even more, maybe sooner than the last time. I left with the good feeling that, from time to time, it’s good to be back in places that used to be home.

For more insights from the city, have a look at the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/budapest/