Turned Around in Budapest

St. Matthias Church

St. Matthias Church

Third in a series of posts

August 19 — Like Lennon said, “There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be…”  Even in Budapest. Or maybe especially in Budapest.

I expected we’d be up in time for breakfast to go on a longish urban hike in the Buda Hills. I wasn’t sure if it was day or night when my watch read 11:40. Room service breakfast ended at 11:30 a.m. but the hotel was nice enough to take our order. Coffee was needed. Badly.

Norbert, the concierge, helpfully provided directions to take the Metro from the nearby Deak Ferenc station. We were to get off on the third stop and from there follow the directions in my Lonely Planet guide to the snow skiing trails on the Buda side. (I hadn’t even known there were Buda and Pest sides until two days prior — my first thought was that it was a local joke.) Riding the Metro was easy, although we were momentarily foiled by the lack of a pin code for my credit card. Which sent us to the ticket office.

Though there were no customers, none of the three desk clerks looked up when we entered. I approached one booth and was pointed back to the kiosk. There we had to select the nature of our inquiry to receive a number. An electronic sign immediately flashed to tell us which clerk to approach. And so we bought four one-way tickets for 1,200 Hungarian Forints (about $3.00).

When we travel, I’m the navigator. I’m not sure if I’m better at it, or if I just need to be in charge. But my family, Todd included, has gotten used to ceding the map or the GPS. So what happened next was on me.


Though there was a route legend above the subway car door, I got impatient or confused and told Todd we needed to get off. Which put us one stop short of the Szell Kalman station. So, we crossed to the other side of the platform and caught the next train headed in our original direction.

And then we missed the Szell Kalman stop. We got off at Deli Palyaudvar, which turned out to be the bi-level terminus for local trains. By now we realized we probably didn’t have time to walk the five mile loop we’d planned. The nice lady at the station info desk gave us walking directions to the hill on which Buda Castle sits (not to be confused with the Buda Hills).

At the top of the winding staircase that climbed the hill was the tall medieval wall that surrounds Buda Castle and its village. Taking the path that follows the top of the wall, we passed the munitions museum and the National Archives, struck by the geometric tile patterns on the roof. White, red, green and gold tiles dripped from the ridgeline like the edge of a lace curtain.

Decoration obviously mattered here. Even a homely roof was worthy of decoration. Many of the homes that we passed had ornate ironwork with motifs drawn from nature. One of our tour guides later described this style as “Secessionist.” According to the Budapest Times, in the early 19th century “(a) visionary group of architects combined the organic, curved forms of this international movement with Hungarian folk art and Eastern motifs, consciously striving to create a distinctly Hungarian architectural style. Together they became known as the Hungarian Secession…”


Later we learned that the Zsolnay Ceramics factory in Pecs developed a method for creating very hard, very colorful tiles that could be used on exteriors. The Hungarians took full advantage of the innovation, turning many of their large public and religious buildings into works of art.

St. Matthias Church dominates the middle of the walled town, with an even more spectacular tiled roof and ornate Gothic towers. Plenty of selfies were in progress as we approached, and one woman “worked it” for some time — sweater on, sweater off — trying to show her assets to best advantage while her boyfriend (we assumed) patiently clicked away.


Just past the church and a statue of St. Stephen (holding the double cross that symbolized his leadership of both church and state) was a medieval-style folly of some kind. It looked like a Disney attraction, with turrets and winding staircases, and a long gallery of Gothic-arched windows framing the view. We knew it couldn’t be old — the stone was too perfect — nor could we guess its purpose. Later we learned that the complex was built in the 19th century and is called the Fisherman’s Bastion, which, far as it is from the river, made about as much sense as the building itself.

Fisherman's Bastion

Fisherman’s Bastion

Hawk handler by St. Matthias

Hawk handler by St. Matthias Church

I purchased a coral and brass wire necklace for 12,000 Forint (about $40) at the nice store near the church, Castellum Galeria. (Because, you know, they have so many coral reefs in Hungary.)

About this time I needed a toilet, whereupon I learned that most public conveniences in Budapest aren’t. A lady at the entrance collected 180 Forints, after which she tore off a ticket from her booklet, but did nothing with it. Job security. (And here’s one advantage of a Tauck tour: they work out toilet tolls in advance.)


The night before, I’d caused a scene when I doubled back to the Rappart bathroom to pee. I figured that the cause of my urgency was their beer, and even if we’d been gone for a half hour, it entitled me to use their john. The bathroom attendant, lit cigarette in hand, was just exiting as I approached. Glancing over her shoulder, she kept walking toward the bank of the river where a friend of hers — a co-worker maybe — was waiting. But she apparently wasn’t one to abandon her duties. So she hollered at me in Hungarian, pointing at the bar. “The bathroom is for customers only!” needed no translation.

I took my receipt out of my pocket and waved it at her. She hesitated, then pointed at the sign. “I know,” I yelled back in English. “I was a customer here!” She looked doubtful. “Yes, here,” I reiterated, gesturing toward the Rappart sign.

She flipped her arm over her head, like, “Bah! Get out of here!” Whatever. I didn’t leave anything in the tip basket. One American’s revenge.

Next: Our Tauck Tour Begins

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