The elegant pearl is a mythical symbol of wisdom gained from experience – an apt description for Budapest.
In our final blog from Budapest, we share our favorite discoveries on Margit-sziget or Margaret Island, an island in the Danube River located midway between Buda and Pest, as well as a few last gems we found.
We spent quite some time exploring Margaret Island, a 238 acre, 1.6 mile (2.5 km) long island, and were surprised to discover this seemingly large island is just ¼ the size of another favorite park of ours; Stanley Park in Vancouver, Canada.
Although primarily parkland with pathways, ancient trees and fragrant rose gardens, Margaret Island also has a large swimming pool with thermal baths, tennis courts, an athletic centre, a fantastic 3+ mile rubber-coated running track that encircles the coastline of the island, two hotels and a small handful of restaurants and bars.
There are also 13th century ruins of a Franciscan church and a Dominican church and convent. A couple were having wedding pictures taken during our visit and her white wedding dress and his navy suit looked stunning next to the stone ruins.
During the early Middle Ages, the island had been dubbed Isola Leprorum, or Isle of Lepers, as the place where people with that disease were sent to live separated from the rest of society. Over time the first letter ‘r’ was dropped, and the island became Isola Leporum, or the innocent name of Isle of Rabbits.
When the Mongols invaded Hungary, the King vowed to send his yet-unborn daughter to the nunnery on the island if he was able to retake the country from the Mongol invaders. As promised, when the island was finally reclaimed, King Béla sent his 11 year-old daughter, Margaret, to the Dominican convent. There is a interesting story, considered an important piece of Medieval Hungarian literature, about Margaret’s life (1242-1270) and her eventual beatification and canonization, called “The Legend of Saint Margaret”.
Up until the 16th century, nunneries, churches and cloisters were the primary buildings on the island until the nuns and monks were forced to flee the island by the invading Ottoman forces.
The Musical Fountain (Zenélő szökőkút), is a protected UNESCO fountain that shoots water into the air making interesting patterns that are accompanied by a wonderful variety of either classical, pop or Hungarian children’s music. The cool spray from the fountain was a welcome respite from the heat. The fountain performs on the hour every hour throughout the summer with a dancing laser show added to the curtains of water at night. The musical fountain is located at the southern end of the island’s Margit Bridge.
A lovely Japanese Garden, built in the 1970’s, invites the visitor into a peaceful and harmonious sanctuary. We entered the lovely garden by crossing over a small wooden bridge and meandered along the serene lush green pathways. We came across a waterfall, ponds full of goldfish, adult turtles and hatchlings, ducks and delicate water lilies in bloom. A statue known as “The Little Mermaid of Budapest” or “Sitting Girl” can be seen in the centre of one of the ponds. There are plenty of places to relax on the classic Japanese-inspired red and black benches around the park.
The Bodor Fountain or Musical Well looks like a bandstand. Six tall columns are capped with a dome and a striking statue of Poseidon standing atop the dome. This is the island’s original “musical well”. Péter Bodor built the structure between 1820-1822 and had it installed in Romania, which at that time was part of Hungary. After it was torn down in 1911, a replica was reconstructed in 1936 and erected on Margaret Island. Recently renovated the hidden speakers are now working and each hour a melody of old Hungarian classical music can be heard. The Bodor Well is located at the northern end of the island near the Árpád Bridge.
Budapest Summer Festival
From mid June to the end of August Budapest’s summer festival offers the symphony, opera, ballet, musicals, dance performances, popular music concerts and children programs on Margaret Island. We were lucky to get tickets to an evening open-air opera, Turandot. Opera seating is in the shadow of the historic water tower facing a covered stage and orchestra pit. The evening temperature dipped down to a pleasant 75°F (24°C) as we enjoyed the excellent performance.
Margitsziget Water Tower
One of five beautiful water towers in Budapest, Margaret Island’s octagonal 187 foot (57 meter) tower is the city’s oldest and tallest and has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built in 1911 and has recently been refurbished. Today it no longer holds water but the space is used for art, theatre and history exhibits. There is access to the balcony where you can see 360° views of the landmarks and hills of Budapest. The Margitsziget Open Air Theater has been operating at the tower since 1938 and jazz concerts are held each weekend in the courtyard.
Metropolitan Ervin Szabó Library
Discovering old and beautiful libraries is another of our interests and finding the Ervin Szabó Library was an unexpected treat.
Wenckheim Palace was built 1886-1889 and the main building of the Metropolitan Ervin Szabó Library, opened to the public in 1931, is inside this beautiful former Palace.
Bridges of Budapest
Today there are eight bridges that span the Danube in Budapest linking Buda and Pest, each quite striking and with a story to tell. When the Germans retreated from Budapest in January 1945 they destroyed every bridge in the city.
Árpád Bridge – named after the leader of the 7 tribes of Magyars who arrived in the 9th century. It is one of the longest and busiest of the Budapest bridges and connects to Margaret Island on the north end. It was rebuilt in 1950 during the Soviet occupation and was named Stalin Bridge. As soon an the Soviets pulled out of Hungary the bridge was renamed.
Margaret Bridge – originally built between 1872 and 1876, by a french engineer, it was the second permanent bridge in Budapest. Recently reconstructed this lovely yellow bridge with its pretty ornamentation has plenty of space for cyclists, trams, vehicles and provides wonderful photo opportunities.
Széchenyi Chain Bridge – the first permanent bridge between Pest and Buda, was completed in 1849 (1949 rebuilt exactly as it was). It is indisputably Budapest’s most beautiful bridge and has become a symbol of the city. There are a pair of large crouching lions at each end of the bridge.
Elizabeth Bridge – bears the name of Hungary’s favorite queen, Elizabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary (1837-1898). Originally built in 1903 and similar in style as the Chain Bridge, but after being blown up by retreating German troops in 1945, the old bridge was not able to be repaired. A sleek white cable bridge was built instead in 1964.
Liberty Bridge – built in 1896 (rebuilt 1946) the green color of the metal and its decorations, make it truly a picturesque bridge.
Originally named the Franz Joseph Bridge, after the Emperor. (husband to Elizabeth, Queen of Hungary). On the top of each pillar is a Turul – the mythical Hungarian bird standing on a golden ball.
Megyeri Bridge – this newer bridge, built in 2008, is the longest bridge of Budapest, spanning over the Danube at the most Northern point of the city. We had glimpses of this attractive bridge from a couple of viewpoints in the city but it wasn’t until we took a boat trip on the Danube (spoilers, next blog) that we were able to get close enough to see the two pylons built nearly 1000 feet (300 meters) apart and more than 300 feet high (100 meters) each forming the letter ‘A’.
Petőfi Bridge – originally built in 1937 and rebuilt in 1952, it is named after Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849) a renowned Hungarian poet and revolutionist. Petőfi is considered Hungary’s national poet and is the author of an important patriotic poem called, Nemzeti dal (National Song).
Rákóczi Bridge – also known as Lágymányosi Bridge, it was built in 1995. Named after Hungarian leader, Francis Rákóczi, but often referred to as Lágymányosi, after the community that it connects to.
Its most noted feature is its lighting system. The bridge has five large red columns spaced evenly across the length of the bridge with two downward facing mirrors on top of each column. Lit by halogen lights placed beneath, the mirrors reflect the light evenly back down onto the roadway creating consistent visibility for drivers.
Hungarian Food and Flavors
If you were to ask us about the foods and beverages we tasted in Budapest we might mention:
goulash soup – a hearty soup made with beef, onions, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, bell peppers and loaded with paprika
chicken paprikash – delicious slow cooked chicken in a bold paprika sauce.
kürtoskalács – chimney cakes – delicious warm fresh sweet dough, sometimes filled with ice cream and/or fruit but commonly enjoyed by itself.
lángos – the original recipe tops a flattish deep-fried dough, crispy on the outside and soft inside, brushed with oil and topped with sour cream and shredded cheese. A tasty treat, but from a calorie or health perspective, maybe not for daily consumption.
Tokaji wine – perhaps Hungary’s most famous wine; a wine that is said to have once counted emperors and presidents among its many admirers. The best Tokaj we tasted was Monte Tokaj, a 2002 vintage and winner of 3 National and International awards. The label says ‘Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos’. Puttonyos is the measurement of the level of sugar and hence the sweetness of this dessert wine. It was suggested to us to only purchase Tokaji with a 3-6 Puttonyos’. We tried a 3 and it was very nice, not too sweet and less costly, but the 6 puttonyos although sweeter, the flavor was far deeper, richer and smoother. Hungarians would often liken Tokaji to an Icewine when they described it to us. In our humble opinion Icewine is generally sweeter and lighter in both color and flavor than Tokaji. We found an ounce or so of Tokaji was the perfect digestive and aid to sleep.
Törley wine – Champagne-style sparkling wines were immensely popular in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and in 1882, József Törley and Co. began producing sparkling wine in Hungary. The company was extremely successful and although it is now owned by a German company, we had to try another Hungarian original product. We purchased a small 12-ounce size of ‘Sweet White Sparkling Wine’ to sample. It was sweet, smooth and sparkling and we thought rather refreshing for a summer beverage.
liqueurs – J. Zwack & Co. is a company that has been making liqueurs and spirits in Budapest since the late 1790’s. The company was officially formed in 1840, but prior to that Dr. József Zwack, the Royal Physician to the Habsburg Court for Emperor Joseph II, created the specialty medicinal drink for the emperor and named it Unicum.
Now considered one of Hungary’s national drinks, Unicum is a popular 80 proof (40% alcohol) herbal liqueur. It is a corn based (gluten-free) alcohol made with a secret blend of more than forty different herbs and spices. The original bitter and bold tasting herbal liqueur is mainly consumed as an aperitif before meals or a digestif after meals.
At the current time the company produces more than 200 liqueurs and spirits and in 2013 they launched Unicum and Unicum Plum into the USA market. During the tour we were able to taste various liqueurs and our favorites were Unicum Szilva (Plum), Unicum Next and the smooth aged Unicum Reserve.
chocolate – There is a small Chocolate Museum on the top floor of Szamos Cafe in Kossuth Square, right next to the Hungarian Parliament Buildings. The scale model of the Parliament Buildings alone, made from marzipan, was worth the visit. However, it was the discovery of a new type of chocolate that was most intriguing.
Have you heard about Ruby chocolate?
Barry Callebaut, a Belgian–Swiss cocoa company, in 2017, launched this new variety, color and flavor of chocolate. There is a botanical cocoa bean now called a ruby cocoa bean. Patents, production methods and trade secrets aside, the cocoa beans are said to be a natural red-pinkish color. We tasted a 40% ruby cocoa sample. The texture was similar in creaminess to both milk and white chocolate and the flavor was mild, somewhat ‘berry-ish’ with a mild bitter finish. Different from a chocolate flavor and a challenge to describe beyond that …we both liked it and would try it again.
coffee – Gerbeaud Restaurant has a specialty coffee, we thought, was the best in town. There are many places that offer amazing specialty coffee drinks but Gerbeaud’s are made with black coffee, apricot sauce, apricot liqueur, hot chocolate, vanilla foam and walnut linzer cookie crumbs. YUM!
Ruin Bars are unique and funky bars trendy bars in Budapest. The first one opened in 2002 and truly is a must-see. It is called SZIMPLA.
Ruins bars are basically a bar set up in a ‘ruin’ of a building and decorated with crazy, mismatched flea-market furnishings. They are so gaudy, they are awesome. Following the success of SZIMPLA, in 2004, a group of friends set up multiple bars in an abandoned warehouse creating the beginnings of the ruin bar district that is so popular today.
Zugliget Libegő or Chairlift
We found an interesting and fun way to enjoy some nature and hide from the heat. The Zugliget chairlift is a 15-minute ride up János Hill to one of the highest peaks in the Buda hills. At the top are various hiking trails and even a dedicated rubber running track. It was so incredibly quiet at the top with only the sounds of birds keeping us company.
We walked the steep trail up to the 100+ year old stone Erzsébet (Elizabeth) Lookout Tower and then climbed 140 steps to the top of the tower to experience a bird’s eye 360° view of Budapest, it’s neighboring towns and the surrounding countryside.
Hungary’s most recent census shows the population to be 9.7 million with nearly 20% or 1.76 million Hungarians living in the capital of Budapest. As with all large cities, having the ability to occasionally leave the clamor behind is beneficial. Our chairlift outing was a refreshing way to say our farewells to this wondrous city.
Egészségedre from these Budapestians,
Ted and Julia