Budapest and Vienna A tale of two cities

Well, here we are, back in Hastings – we should be somewhere else  – I’ll tell you why at the end. We’ve had four days in Budapest – our first visit, and four days in Vienna – our second visit, including an evening at the Vienna Opera. Visiting both cities together gives a real idea of how powerful the Hapsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian empire must have been  – we saw more vast palaces than you’d believe possible. Health warning – this is a long post!

View across the Danube from our hotel room
The Chain Bridge – our first night

Budapest. First thing, the weather was astonishing – unseasonably hot and sunny. Secondly, Hungarian is a very difficult language. Philosopher and I always like to learn some rudiments of the language wherever we go, but Hungarian defeated us… of course they all spoke English but why should they have to? Anyway, our hotel, the Boutique Hotel Victoria was on the Buda side of the Danube, right on the river bank, with huge picture windows in every room with fantastic views of the river, the Parliament Building and the Chain Bridge. Battleaxe would totally recommend.

Buda (except for the Castle Hill, of course),is quieter than Pest, but there were a number of excellent bar/eateries within a couple of hundred metres of the hotel, and a tram stop outside. There was a great place right next door – a Belgian bar/restaurant selling good food and, I exaggerate not, at least 100 different sorts of beer. I particularly liked Mort Subite – sour cherry.

We went up to the Castle area in an old – and extremely expensive – funicular. We had a wander round the perimeter of the truly huge Royal Palace, then were struck by the massive scale of the reconstruction works currently in progress – rebuilding, frequently from scratch, exact replicas of the enormous, ornate public buildings destroyed in WW2. The shells of the buildings looked very unattractive – like half-built luxury hotels in somewhere like Egypt – steel girders and concrete, waiting for a cladding of stone and render to be applied. I wasn’t sure if I liked the end results – the buildings looked artifical, like a film set.

The Castle area has some of the most touristy places in the city – like the Fishermen’s Bastion, which is a sort of Disneyland pretend castle-cum-viewpoint. I don’t know if it was real or reconstructed. Away from the tourist hordes though, there were quiet, attractive streets of Central-European-type painted houses.

We noticed these alternative nesting dolls in a little shop.

On the other days we crossed over the Chain Bridge to Pest. Very different, with wide streets of massive C19 buildings. Very open, very clean and atrractive, but we found it a tiny bit soulless. Visited the obligatory gilded basilica – in this case, St Stephen. They supposedly have his actual hand in an ornate case. Ugh. Battleaxe has said in the past (see this post about Porto) that after a while all gilded basilicas begin to look the same… I also mentioned in that post about the standard European city art-nouveau/Empire tourist trap cafe. Was pleased to say didn’t go into a single one in Budapest, and of course had done all the many examples in Vienna at our first visit in 2020.

St Stephen’s hand…

We went for a short river-cruise on the Danube – Philosopher didn’t want to go that much, but I felt that the Danube was such a big feature of our holiday that we needed to spend a little time on it… it was OK, pleasant, sunny. Saw lots of moored-up river cruise boats – they are very, very long. Don’t think I’d like it.

Parliament building from our river boat

We visited the Great Synagogue – one of the oldest and largest in Europe. There is a graveyard outside where over 2000 bodies that were found lying outside the Synagogue when the Budapest Ghetto was liberated in 1945 are buried, and an exhibition about the Ghetto. It was not Germans who imprisoned and murdered those Jews, but the Arrow Cross – the Hungarian Nazi party. Of course, we were contemplating that just a few days before Hamas took it into their heads to attack Israel, and unleashed yet another ferociously bloody Middle Eastern crisis on the world… don’t ask Battleaxe for a view. Am not taking sides.

We visited one art museum… can’t remember a thing about it, except as EU citizens it would have cost us nothing to get in – as it was, had to pay £27! Also found a lovely, tucked away little Art Nouveau house museum, the Ráth György-villa.

One thing we didn’t do was to swim in the famous baths – for reasons I won’t go into, Philosopher was not allowed. Annoyingly, you couldn’t even view the baths if you weren’t a swimmer.

So, all in all, what did we make of Budapest?  Pros: great public transport – we used the metro a lot, but also very walkable. Clean and spacious. Plenty of eating/drinking places. Lots of big-name sights. Cons: Language and currency very difficult. Over-run with tourists. Hard for us two to do our favourite thing of finding quiet, quirky little ways to experience the real city. No doubt we didn’t take long enough to get to know it.

On our last day we went to the enormous Keleti station, and caught a train to Vienna. Our train, somewhat grandly named ‘The Pride of Hungary’ left exactly on time and arrived exactly on time – what more can you say? It was comfortable but very crowded. We were both looking forward to Vienna – we loved the city in 2020 (here is the blog post from our visit) and this time it certainly didn’t disappoint.

In Vienna, we stayed once again at the lovely old Hotel Stefanie, apparently the oldest hotel in the city. This time, however, it had got a bit expensive for us – no sweeping views from our room this time! But Battleaxe would still recommend – very comfortable, great breakfast, pleasant staff, right on the No2 tram route. It is in the Jewish quarter of Vienna… many sirens outside…

On our first night, we went round the corner to a totally authentic Austrian family-run small restaurant. Don’t ask me how, but I ended up with this – what they called ravioli but was slimy suet pastry filled with what looked like cat food on a thick bed of oh yuch double yuch sauerkraut. But sometimes one’s public-school background pays off. Readers, I ate it, and expressed pleasure and gratitude to our hosts.


No gilded basilicas for us in Vienna. Last time we came we visited the Cathedral, the Stefansdom – St Stephen again, who knew. Inside it is getting on for Northern European dark Gothic.

We had a rough schedule of places to visit that we missed last time, principally the Albertina and the Belvedere.

The Albertina freaked us out. Room after room after room jam-packed with world-class art, hung in no particular order we could make out, glittering salons as well… There was an exhibition of photographs ‘American Prospects’ by Joel Sternfeld, which were just stunning. Anyway, I don’t exaggerate, after just one floor we had go and lie down in a darkened room!

Knackered in the Albertina

The next day’s visit to the Belvedere was much better. We stuck to just one building, the Upper Belvedere. It is a lovely palace, and the art was arranged more logically.  They have  many Klimt paintings, including his most famous – The Kiss. How over-exposed is that painting! On souvenirs from cat-beds to umbrellas…  I am starting to make a collection of photos of crowds gawping at famous paintings. I did one of Guernica in Madrid, and one of Primavera in the Uffizi, Florence… Here are two more!

The Kiss – Klimt
Napoleon crossing the Alps by David

I much prefer Klimt’s portraits of women and his landscapes – fortunately plenty in the Belvedere (on our first visit, we also saw lots more in the Leopold Museum).After, we walked in the Belvedere Gardens, and also discovered the Vienna Botanical Gardens, right next door. A wonderfuly peaceful place with all the trees and plants well labelled – but no time to do it justice.

We also visited the Vienna Museum of Applied Art. It is a lovely old building but sadly, it is currently a bit of a mess – being refurbished. But it had a good Art Nouveau section and an amazing modern design/installation floor – all a bit lost on us though.

Our visit to the Opera was excellent – had to book the tickets months in advance. Prices were ferocious but I snagged us two in the front row of the Gallery – gave one vertigo looking down. It was La Traviata – wonderful singing and very clever staging. It was modern, with great back projections of made up Whatsapp/Twitter messages, headlines etc…

Next day, we accidently wandered into the Burggarten, a little park beside the Hofburg Palace. We discovered a huge art nouveau conservatory, part of which was a very pleasant-looking eaterie, and part had been turned into a butterfly house. The butterflies were amazing. It never features in tourist guides…

On our last morning we went to look at the famous Hundertwasserhaus. Very well-known  building, but now, as you can see from the photos, in dire need of redecoration. A challenging task, methinks. We watched a video about the man – his vision of creating natural living spaces and communities where human creativity etc could thrive. It was only completed in the 1980s, but those ideas have got lost somehow…

Enough of this. Vienna summed up. Pros: so many. German, Euros, endless, just endless places to visit… we still hadn’t done it all. Plenty of opportunity to stray from the beaten track – some I haven’t even mentioned. Excellent public transport, plenty of eateries. I even had a real Schnitzel this time! We love Vienna – a wonderful city. Cons: touristy, but easy to escape. Exhausting.

So, here we are. I was supposed to be down in Swanage, driving a steam engine, but on our last day in Vienna I started with a sore throat… now ill. Have done two Covid tests so far, both negative, so assume it is a fluey cold. Was devastated to miss the train…. another time, I hope.





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