Waking Up In Budapest

By Kathi Kovach Koenig

It’s just before dusk as we slowly head into the city. Suddenly, our driver takes a quick turn, skirting traffic. Circling a flower-lined roundabout, he stops in front of a glistening hotel set in a centuries-old backdrop.

I’m immediately struck by the beauty of fading light and color, the mix of old and new, all playing off the reflection of the river Danube. It’s taken years of planning, but my brothers and I are finally here — ready to discover our hometown heritage of generations before us.

Waking up in Budapest is a travel moment to remember.

Looking across the fairy-tale scenery from the hotel’s picture window, there’s a sense of elation being in Hungary’s capital city. The feeling is contagious, as our extended Arizona family gathers on the ground floor of the sleek hotel. We’re on a mission. With no time to waste, we split up to explore the massive Buda Castle, the Gothic Revival designed Parliament and St. Stephen’s Basilica.

Budapest is a tale of two cities. Buda and Pest lie on either side of the Danube. The two towns merged into one over a century ago. We are staying on the Buda side, directly across the historic Széchenyi Chain Bridge that connects to Pest. Our Hungarian grandparents spoke about its significance as one of the city’s most famous landmarks — yet its beauty and setting are beyond description. Impressive stone lion statues guard both bridgeheads, carved by sculptor János Marschalkó back in 1852.

A delicious mix of languages flow through the air — yet everyone seems to understand one another. I recognize the eyes of my grandmother in women along the streets — and can almost hear the hearty laugh of my grandfather drifting from a local café. All so vaguely familiar, yet not quite understood. To our delight, sounds of Hungarian rhapsodies are still woven throughout the districts, and my brothers and I nod to each other, affectionately remembering our grandfather playing his violin for us as children.

The extraordinary beauty of the crown jewel of Europe shows up in its historic buildings and sculpture that skim the landscape. Walking through the city lost in thought — my past sits before me like an Old World painting in the Hungarian National Gallery — which itself is a work of art.

The gallery is located inside the massive Buda Castle, where you’ll find the finest panoramic views offered in the city.

If Budapest is a truly a feast for the eyes, it’s also a fabulous choice for foodies. They say one of the strongest forms of memory is taste. Must be true, because it takes us three great restaurants to discover our grandmother’s Chicken Paprikash (chicken and dumplings) recipe. With one bite, we’re all transformed back to her dinner table. Paprika is a staple here. Hungarians put in on just about everything.

Colorful architecture, cobblestone streets and cafés line each side of the river along with a lively mix of locals and tourists. The landscape can be sun-drenched and rain-soaked all in the same day.

At twilight, while cruising the Danube, the landscape transforms again with the stunning lights of Pest shining like glittery jewels along the shore. We talk about our Hungarian past — our late parents and grandparents — while taking it all in under the spell of a deep sapphire night sky.

At the end of a perfect summer evening, it’s time to head back across the Chain Bridge to our hotel. I may be 6,000 miles away from Arizona, but it feels like I’m finally home.

Kathi Kovach Koenig is a former television and print journalist who continues to write about her travels.

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