Highs and lows in Budapest

Budapest, Hungary

It was kind of nice to sleep in this morning after three jam-packed days in Vienna. When we did venture out, the air was wicked cold and a thick cloud of pollution hung above the city. The Sofitel looked a bit nicer last night than it did in the daylight — perhaps we’ve been a bit spoiled — and it’s clear that the hotel’s recent remodel focused on some areas (lobby) and not as much on others (room furnishings). Not to say that this is slumming it, and to the Sofitel’s credit, the concierge and front desk have been fantastic.

Adorned in hats, mittens and scarves, we arrived for a breakfast of museli, fresh fruit and lattes at Negro, one of the city’s new breed of modern cafés. It did the trick and at $15 bucks for the two of us, sure beat the 29 euro (per person) offering back at the hotel. The café was in the same square as the Basilica of St. Stephen, the city’s cathedral, whose Baroque interior, with its stained glass, was impressive. We really enjoyed checking out St. Stepehen’s petrified hand, enclosed in a glass case in a back chapel, while surrounded by Asian tourists frantically snapping pictures.

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On our way to Independence Square, featuring one of the city’s few remaining memorials to the Soviet army, we passed a Mercedes SUV that might have made a slight wrong turn a few miles back.

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Next, we crossed four busy lanes of traffic to see Shoes on the Danube, a memorial to the Hungarian Jews who were shot and thrown into the river by the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party. Sixty shoes, cast in metal, line the river and offer a poignant reminder of past atrocities.

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There was a really long line for a tour of the Hungarian Parliament, an imposing building on the river’s banks, so we huddled up with the masses to wait for a ticket. An hour later, we were freezing, but had nearly made our way to the front.

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Just five people stood between us and a peak at the Crown of St. Stephen, a Hungarian national icon housed inside. Wouldn’t it be just our luck that moments from warmth, a fur-hat wearing guard would spin around and plop down this sign, which curtly read: “There aren’t any tickets left for today.”

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Defeated, we walked to a nearby café for a cappuccino. With hot fluids coursing through us again, we set out for the Great Synagogue, the second largest in the world. Completed in 1859, it can seat 3,000 worshippers. Thankfully, there was no line, so we spent some time checking out the sanctuary, a museum and a Holocaust memorial — a metal tree with victim names inscribed on leaves — in the back courtyard.

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The stop got us hungry for Jewish delicacies, so we headed to nearby Carmel Prince for matzo-ball soup and an Israeli salad sampler.

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Back at the hotel, we hit up the gym, which was kind of small and outdated. The pool was overrun by far too many Speedo-clad tourists. Having left mine at home, we passed. Our late dinner at Dio was a contemporary take on traditional Hungarian food. The pork chops with fresh herbs & cheese potato pancakes were delicious; the sour cherry strudel for dessert didn’t taste like sour cherry and was missing sugar. We would have been better without it.

With the wind whipping up and the pollution cloud rolling in, we high-tailed it back to the hotel and were welcomed with a warm blast of air after passing through the revolving doors.

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