Trip Start Jun 08, 2010
Trip End Aug 26, 2010

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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Modern day Budapest was actually an amalgamation of two originally separate cities named, you guessed it, Buda and Pest with the Danube River between them (three, if you count Obuda as separate from Buda). I spent today exploring the Pest side of town. I started with a stroll up Andrássy Avenue (Andrássy út) to Hero's Square (Hősök tere).

Andrássy Avenue was recently included on the list of World Heritage sites in Budapest, but my first impression of the street wasn't great. It was like when I went to Šibenik then Trogir. In this case, Zagreb had much more interesting architecture than the northern half of Andrássy Avenue. There were maybe two buildings between the Oktogon metro stop and Hero's Square that I would call interesting. In Zagreb, I couldn't walk 10 feet without reaching for my camera. The addition may have been administrative since the area of Budapest around the river (which definitely deserved it) was already on the list, maybe just adding another street for the same site had a much lower threshold for inclusion.

Hero's Square itself and the surrounding park was actually worth seeing. In addition to the typical monuments and museums, the zoo entrance was done in a playful semi-eastern, semi-classical style with animals replacing the usual figureheads. Another creative construction was Vajdahunyad Castle (Vajdahunyad vára). Constructed for a 1896 expo, it was as if the designers had tried to build the results of a Mad Lib. "Let's make a baroque, gothic, castle-church."

After the park, I boarded the metro to skip past the parts of Andrássy Avenue I had already seen. When I arrived at Budapest yesterday, I bought a 3-day pass for unlimited use of public transportation. I'm pretty sure I got my money's worth. I'm entirely sure having it resulted in me taking the metro several times when I could have just walked. It turned out the metro line I had been using, with the small cars, etc. was actually the oldest subway in Continental Europe, so that explained why it seemed a little old timey.

At any rate, this time I exited at the Hungarian State Opera House (Magyar Állami Operaház). There were tours at 3pm and 4pm. It was only around 10am, but I went back in the afternoon to get the inside scoop.

The Opera House was built in the late 1800's. Although he wasn't very happy about it, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz-Joseph's wife, who was fond of Hungary and possibly having an affair with a Hungarian count, convinced him to put up the money for the construction. His one condition was that it would not be larger than the Vienna Opera House. When it was completed, the Emperor attended the opening night. He left after 10 minutes and never returned. The Budapest Opera House was indeed smaller than Vienna, but it was much grander with elaborate interior decoration and the second best acoustics in the world (after Milan). It didn't help that they chose to stage a Hungarian opera for their first show, in their assertion of Hungary's equality with Austria.

The interior was definitely elaborate. It had all the amenities of a top opera house of the late 1800's. There was a separate entrance for "commoners", still in use today for people in the top rows because it is the only way to access those seats. In 1918, a separate smoking lounge was added to keep those guests out of the concession area. It had a royal box, which only heads of state and royalty have ever been allowed to use, with one exception. When Madonna was in town filming Evita, she (or probably her people) were somehow able to cajole the management into letting her use it.

The tour was actually entertaining. I was concerned it might be one of those tours where they just point and tell you things you things like: "This carpet is from 1892. This banister is marble from Italy." There was some of that, but mostly the tour was like "The Days of Our Austro-Hungarian Lives", focusing on the politics of opera house at the time it was built, who was there and what going out on the town was like in the days before TV and movies.

Continuing south from the Opera House towards the river, I finally started to see architecture equaling or surpassing what I had seen in Zagreb. One stand-out was the dual-spired Dohány Street Synagogue (Dohány utcai zsinagóga), Europe's largest. It was the first time I'd ever seen a synagogue built to rival renaissance cathedrals. It was closed on Saturday, but I may stop by again later to get a peak at the interior. The only other synagogue I've been inside of was the tiny synagogue in Dubrovnik.

Another building that was truly exceptional, probably the most ornate large building I've seen in person, was the Hungarian Parliament. I've never been to Parliament in England, but I'm guessing the two are on par. I don't know the story behind the building, probably similar to the Opera, with the Hungarian state attempting to out-do Vienna. There were daily tours and I'll try to get one in tomorrow before heading over to Buda.

On a more mundane note, I have seen Hello Kitty and a few adds for McDonalds, although I haven't actually seen a McDonald's restaurant. There are a Pizza Hut, a KFC, a Burger King and even a TGI Friday's close to my hostel, though. I think the Pizza Hut may serve pasta in addition to pizza, but it's possible the picture was a pizza with pasta on top of it. I do not promise to investigate...

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