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  • Writer's pictureRuth Mcbride

Back in familiar territory!

Day 2, Viking Grand European Christmas Markets River Cruise. Sunday December 17, 2023


Ah! Heroe's Square, Budapest. Not yesterday of course, but back in May 2019 when we visited Budapest for 4 days on our own!

Yesterday our morning started early! An alarm even! I hate alarms when I'm on vacation, but since we only had the day to explore in Budapest it was an alarm or miss our 8:30am included tour of Budapest called "Panoramic Budapest". There was no option for a later tour as the entire ship full of guests was split up into 4 groups - A,B,C, & D - to jump on 4 coaches for the 'panoramic' tour of Budapest.

From our World Cruise with Viking whenever the word 'panoramic' tour was mentioned we knew it would involve sitting on a bus and looking at the city through the bus window. Unfortunately that was what our tour was all about today. Oh well, the bus was a means of transportation and got us around the city having 'glimpses' of the historic sights of Budapest and still allowed us the chance to have the afternoon to ourselves.

The bus also gave us the opportunity for us to remember our bearings of how to get around in Budapest. When we were in Budapest 4 years ago we did a lot of walking, riding the subway and we also did 2 Trip Advisor walking tours, so we were pretty familiar with getting around the central area of Buda and Pest.

Our ship was docked in Pest and our bus initially took us around Pest whisking by the Jewish Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe:

Grand Synagogue, Dohany Street, 7th district, Budapest (photo taken through the bus window)

We also drove by Heroes Square (our photo above from May 2019). Heroes Square features the 7 chieftains of the Magyars and other important Hungarian national leaders.

Budapest is divided into 23 different districts. Buda (the hilly side) and Pest (the flat side) divided by the River Danube were only united into BUDAPEST in November 1873. Budapest is 203 square miles, and is the capital of Hungary. Budapest has a population of 5.9 million people. Budapest also has 9 bridges which span the Danube uniting Buda and Pest.

Hungary joined the European Union on May 1, 2004 but still has not adopted the Euro as their currency and instead uses the Hungarian Forint. Public debt to GDP is extremely high in Hungary at over 80%. The exchange rate from Forints to Euros is 384.15 forint equals 1 Euro. Currently relations between Hungary and its western partners are strained because the government of Hungary has maintained relations with Russia despite Western sanctions against Russia, due to its 2022 invasion of Ukraine. We did not want to exchange any money to get Forints as we wouldn't be using them anywhere else on this cruise, so anything we would be purchasing today would be using credit cards.

Our bus tour around Pest was interesting but looking at buildings through bus windows is really not our thing! We were glad when our bus went over to the Buda side of Budapest and stopped at the Castle Hill district so we could get off the bus and stretch our legs for close to 2 hours.

Matthias Church, District 2, Buda, is a Catholic Church (also known as The Church of the Assumption of the Buda Castle). Opened in 1255, the church has beautiful gothic and gothic revival architecture.

Once our guide had walked us up to the Matthias Church and through the Fisherman's Bastion, we were given 1.5 hours of free time before we had to be back to the bus at 11:55am.

View through the Fisherman's Bastion to the PEST side of Budapest. The Danube River, with the Hungarian Parliament Building is in the middle of the photo.

We also saw a hot air balloon hanging out on the Pest side, so I tried to get some photos of the gorgeous panoramic landscape with the hot air balloon in the photo. taken from Fisherman's Bastion.

Fisherman's Bastion, Buda, Budapest.

Fisherman's Bastion on Castle Hill, now a UNESCO world heritage site, was built in the 19thC from 1895-1902 to serve as a lookout tower for the best panoramic views of Budapest. The 7 turrets represent the 7 Hungarian tribes who founded the present day country in 895.

We saw that there was a small Christmas market set up outside of the Matthias church and as this was our first experience with a Christmas market, we wanted to see what it was all about.

I love MARZIPAN! And anything Chocolate too! So when I saw there was a marzipan chocolate place in the market I had to stop and buy 2 chocolates. I had forgotten to look up the exchange rate from Forint to CAD dollar before I left the ship and since we do not use data when off the ship, I was buying 2 marzipan chocolates blindly without knowing the price. Never a good thing! It turned out that each chocolate was $11.35 CAD! OUCH!!! The chocolate was very decadent though and we shared one, keeping one for a special treat on the ship.

I might not have been enjoying this tasty delight so much had I known what I had just paid for it! YIKES!!

The market had a nice mix of craft items and food. I wanted to wait to buy souvenirs when we visited the larger Christmas market on the Pest side of Budapest later in the day.

The smell of delicious, homemade food cooking in the market was driving us crazy though!

Those kebabs look delicious!

We saw all of these food items and decided that we had to try a cabbage roll since we knew they would be very authentic given we were in Hungary!

Gluhwein or 'smouldering wine' as it is translated. Red wine mulled with fruit, cinnamon sticks, cloves, star anise, orange and sugar and sometimes vanilla. Cherries, oranges and lemons were added to this wine. There were no special cups to purchase the Gluhwein in so we had to drink it out a paper cup.

We had to try the Gluhwein and the cabbage roll.

I liked the delicious, meaty, cabbage roll, but I'm not sure I'm a fan of Gluhwein. Perhaps I will try it again at another Christmas Market and see if it is an acquired taste. Richard finished off the wine and enjoyed the pieces of fruit at the bottom of the cup too!

We wandered around Castle Hill a bit more feeling like we had too much free time in this area. We would have preferred to stop for 30 minutes at Heroes Square and have less time at Castle Hill, but we don't design the tours for VIking unfortunately.

After spending a lot of time near Matthias church, I walked over to Sandor Palace while Richard sat on a bench catching either a nap or some rays.

Built in 1803 Sandor Palace. Formerly 19 Hungarian Prime Ministers occupied the palace but after the palace was bombed by the Allies in WW2, it was left in ruins until the fall of Communism in 1989. Since 1989 the palace has been diligently restored and the President of Hungary now resides in the palace. I was able to watch the changing of the guards while they were switching guard locations.

I continued wandering around the Castle Hill district taking some photos of interesting buildings while we waited for the tour bus and guide to return to pick us up.

I thought this was a nice shot of a bench in Castle Hill. It was nice they had benches to rest on while we waited for the bus.

We returned to the ship via the Margaret Bridge which was built in 1872-1876 by French Engineer Ernest who worked for the company called Eiffel (yes that famous tower in Paris). The bridge is the second oldest permanent bridge in Budapest after the Czechenyi Chain Bridge (I have a nighttime photo of this bridge shortly). The Margaret Bridge has two parts with a section leading off the bridge to Margaret Island which was built later when there were sufficient funds to build this section of the bridge.

Our bus whisked us past the 'Shoes on the Danube' and in front of the Hungarian Parliament buildings. Richard had taken this photo of the very moving memorial erected on the banks of the Danube when we were in Budapest in 2019. Our guide gave a very brief overview of the memorial. The sculptor Gyula Pauer created the memorial to honor the Jews who were massacred by the fascist Hungarian Arrow Cross Party (a militia organization) during WW2. Thousands of Jews were ordered to take off their shoes (shoes were valuable and could be stolen and resold by the militia), and were shot at the edge of the water so their bodies fell into the river and were washed away. During WW2 600,000 Hungarian Jews were wiped out during the Holocaust, or every third victim at Auschwitz. I think another stop at this moving sight would have been appropriate too.

We returned to the SKADI for lunch but since lunch is not a buffet, we had about an hour back on board for lunch before heading out to get some more steps in, and see Budapest on foot by ourselves.

I love photographing street art and Budapest has quite a good street art scene. The city of Budapest is gentrifying and the street artists saw a growing number of courtyards surrounded by ugly bare walls so they decided to create some art. The 7th district also known as the Jewish district has a large number of street art pieces, so that is where we headed first.

Street art Budapest.

May 2019

The last time we visited Budapest we found a covered alley way in the 7th district where we found a lot of restaurants and bars. We tried to find the same spot again this time and we stumbled upon it without trying too hard to find it.

The same covered alley way yesterday with vendors set up to sell craft items for Christmas.

We also stumbled upon another really cool alley way which also had a free ladies washroom (the mermaid door) which was a great find! This alley was quite eclectic and felt like 'edgy' met 'grunge'. There was a wine bar hidden in a dark corner but we didn't have time for stopping since we had Christmas markets on our mind and of course limited time to find the markets, shop and get back to the ship for our 5:45pm BOB time.

As we wandered towards the Christmas markets we saw more unusual street art and interesting coloured railings.

We had heard from our guide in the morning that the Christmas market was on the pedestrian street in front of St. Stephen's Basilica so we started walking towards to the Basilica. When we stayed in Budapest in 2019 our Air BnB was on the same pedestrian street, so we were very familiar with where we were headed.

Along the way to the large Christmas Market we found an outdoor food market next to an artificial skating rink which had been set up for the holidays.

One of thee concessions at this food market was actually smoking salmon over a wood fire. It sure smelled good, but we were still full from lunch and had to keep moving.

We found the Christmas market finally!

Given it was Sunday afternoon around 3:30pm when we found the Christmas market, the place was packed!

I was on the 'hunt' for one unique ornament to bring back from Budapest for our Christmas tree which we finally hope to set up next year in Florida. It has been about 4 years since we last set up a tree given we were in Newman our RV in 2020, and 2021; on the Viking Neptune World cruise in 2022 and of course we are away again this year on this Viking Christmas Markets cruise. Next year will finally be our year to set up a tree in Florida!

I found something simple and actually sustainable in a recycled leather Christmas heart ornament.

I paid about 4 Euros for the ornament. Lightweight and easy to pack in the suitcase!

We had seen a lot of cherry desserts in the market and we are both suckers for anything cherry. A slice of Cherry Streudel! Oh my was it good! Hungary is the second largest sour cherry producer among the EU countries, so sour cherries feature prominently in Hungarian desserts!

We decided to leave the busy Christmas Market and walk down the pedestrian street to see if we could find something that we were very familiar with on our last trip to Budapest.

The Fat Policeman otherwise known as 'Uncle Karl' is a bronze that keeps a watchful eye on St. Stephen's Basilica, while people rub his belly for good luck. Here is Richard in 2019 rubbing Uncle Karl's belly.

And again rubbing Uncle Karl's belly yesterday in the market square. Created by Hungarian architect Andrasz Elesch in 2008. I won't comment on whose belly has grown since 2019, but I will let you guess!!!

We wanted to get to Aldi's grocery store which we had heard was near our ship the SKADI, so we started walking and walking and walking; getting turned around a couple of times, and finally remembering that H&M stores offer free wifi. I went into H&M, downloaded the google map and then we finally found Aldi's around 4:45pm.

We picked up 2 different kinds of Hungarian paprika, some white and red wine, and of course peanut butter for me. I do not like the peanut butter that Viking has on their ships, so I always buy my own peanut butter to have with my breakfast. As we were in Aldi Richard told me it was approaching 5pm. We needed to get moving to make it back to the ship on time!

And of course didn't we go the wrong way back to our ship? OMG! We were almost at the Elizabeth bridge when we realized we were docked closer to the Liberty bridge and we had to quickly turn around, fight pedestrian traffic on the narrow footpath back to the ship. We were almost running and neither one of us had much energy left after all of the walking we had done!

We had done 15,000+ steps after lunch and you can see by the time stamp we cut it pretty close by getting back to the ship by 5:29pm. Not as bad as Port Klang, Kuala Lumpur when Margaret and me got back to the ship at 5:50pm for a 6pm back on board and Viking staff were calling our respective cabins checking in with our husbands to see where we were! At least on that trip we were on a Viking shopping excursion so the Neptune could not have left without us since we were on an 'official' excursion. We did hear one cabin number called today at 7 minutes before the Back on Board time so whether someone else was running late or they forgot to hand in their boarding passes (which his how Viking staff keep track of us cruisers on this river ship vs an electronic tap of our key cards when we depart or enter the ship like we had on the Viking Neptune).

After cooling down from our crazy hot sprint back to the ship we went out on our balcony to watch our sail away from the beautiful city of Budapest.

Szechenyi Chain Bridge, the first bridge to connect Buda and Pest. The magnificent Gresham Palace at the end of the bridge, now the home of the Four Season's Hotel.

We were super happy our cabin is on the starboard side of the ship as we knew that we would be on the 'right' side to see the Hungarian Parliament all lit up its glory. The temperature had dropped a lot and it was very cold as we waited on our balcony for the SKADI to pass by the Parliament. Just as were getting close to the parliament buildings though, desperately waiting for the iconic shot night shot of one of the most beautiful parliament buildings in Europe, didn't a dinner cruise, sightseeing boat get right in the middle of my shot! We really hoped our Captain would slow down so that we could get the uninterrupted shot of the Parliament buildings but we have 24 hours to get to Vienna so we kept motoring. BUMMER!

I am titling this picture "Hungarian Parliament with tourist boat" because unfortunately the darn black spot in the middle of the photo is the boat which was in my shot.

We had dinner with our Australian friends again last evening enjoying the delicious food on the Viking Skadi.

Crab cake, pumpkin soup, Hungarian goulash, Valhona chocolate molten lava cake and Creme brûlée for Richard. The food has been superb on the SKADI and so much better than on the Viking Neptune! The wine each evening is also local and has also been excellent too!

We capped off the night by watching 'The Kingsman' on our Stateroom TV which was very entertaining and a nice way to spend a night relaxing in our cabin.

Tomorrow we sail all day to Vienna arriving around 6:30pm or so which means we have (YEAH!) a SEA DAY! On the River! It is nice to be able to relax after our busy, busy day of running around Budapest and give our feet a change to rest and recover!

It sure was nice to be back in familiar territory today in Budapest. I'm definitely glad we had been there before or I think I would have felt a bit 'ripped' off with the included excursion we took this morning. That is why sometimes it is good to go in early to a destination and do a pre-cruise exploration of the departure city if you have never been there before.

And tomorrow .......Vienna at night!

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