Today I headed up to Budapest’s Castle Hill, one of the city’s “must do’s.” The Hungarians themselves say:
“The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has listed the view of the Danube embankments and the Buda Castle District – which is one of the most beautiful and romantic parts of the city of Budapest – as a World Heritage site on the 11th of December, 1987. The latter is an ancient town district, giving home to some of the most important historical monuments in Hungary. While nearly 800 years passed since it has been originally founded, its beauty still stands unparalleled, despite earthquakes, fires, sieges and world wars. The buildings themselves in Budapest bear tell-tale signs of recent and ancient history.”
All true. A small but delightful (and overpriced) funicular can carry you up and back, but cheapskates like me just take the bus. The view is, needless to say, spectacular:
Here’s a romantic graphical overview of the area:
Now, in previous visits to Budapest, I’ve taken a look a several of the usual tourist stops, so in this post I’m going to focus on some things I hadn’t seen before, so this isn’t really a comprehensive overview of the area. Be that as it may, as you enter the district from the pink dot on the right of the map above, you see:
These gently curving streets are the equivalent of meth brownies for me – I could stroll them forever. Fortunately, sooner or later something catches my eye and makes me pause a bit, for instance, the falconer:
I resisted the efforts of the charming ornithologist to be wristed with a large raptor, no matter how safely hooded, and instead turned once again to admire the view of the Fisherman’s Bastion:
This section is so named because there was indeed a “guild of fishermen that was responsible for defending this stretch of the city walls in the Middle Ages. It is a viewing terrace, with many stairs and walking paths.”
Nearby, I stepped into a lovely little bookstore featured a beautiful blue ceramic stove – working gently away on this cool March day – for a big of a thaw-out:
Tempting as it was to settle in with a 900-page book entitled “A Short History of Hungary” (joke), instead I decided to challenge myself with one of the more off-beat of Castle Hills’ attractions, the Labyrinth in the Buda Castle. The tourist magazine in my hotel room had promoted it thusly:
“Europe’s 8th most popular tourist attraction: The half-a-million-year-old tufa (limestone) isolated cave cabins have started to be linked with each other in the mediaeval (sic) ages. The cave which was made permeable this way has started to fulfil (sic) various roles after this – wine vaults, torturing chambers, prisons and hideaways during the war all harmonized perfectly next to each other. Dracula was imprisoned here too. Visit the amazing Dracula’s Chamber and Panopticum (a prison in which one can be watched) in the Labyrinth open 10-19 every day.”
When in Rome…I resolutely turned left off one of those lovely hued lanes above and walked carefully down several stories of slippery stone steps into the gloom and dank. My glasses immediately fogged over, making the ticket-buying process more protracted than usual and requiring the staff to stop me from heading off towards the exit. Soon after I caught of glimpse of what I was embarking upon:
Okay, I said. This is an attraction. It is lit. It is maintained. There is air pumped in. Hundreds of people throng through here every day. And that opera music is a little hokey anyway…
But then I kept walking….and walking….and walking….and the curving, misty, dim corridors did start to get to me.
Here’s the short version of the Dracula story. We’re told “Vlad Dracula, nicknamed Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler), who was the ruler of Walachia (historic Romania) at various times from 1456-1462. Born in 1431 in Sighisoara, he resided all his adult life in Walachia, except for periods of imprisonment at Pest and Visegrad (in Hungary).”
Hmmm. That’s interesting. The Buda Castle is in, well, Buda, which is across the river from Pest. Anyhoo, according to the information available in the Labyrinth, he fell in love with his cousin, Jusztine Szilagyi and eloped with her back to Poienari, Vlad’s castle in Romania At some point during this period, Poienari was captured by Vlad’s brother, Radu Bey, who somehow was a Turk. Jusztina threw herself out of the castle to her death, saying she did not want to be a captive of said Turks, and to add insult to injury, King Matthias of Hungary arrested Vlad because he had failed to keep his borders safe against the Ottoman invaders. (And you think you have problems.) Vlad was as a result allegedly imprisoned for ten years or so, starting in 1462. Released in the early 1470s, he was a vewry vewry angry man and did some dirty dirty deeds before being assassinated by the Turks, his head being sent to the Sultan as proof.
Okay then. I’m still wandering the Labyrinth, starting to feel creepier and creepier. It did help that roving bands of giggling college-aged students kept running past me in the mist, but when I lost their cheerful voices, I steadied my right hand against the damp wall and reassured myself I would indeed someday see my beloved Macbook Air again. Just about the point when I thought I was turning into a nervous old biddy, I turned down a hall that had monastic chant playing softly in the background. I decided I might take refuge a moment in the bosom of Christianity:
Entering the space above, drawn by the chant, I experience what my good friend J will attest to as a strong reaction to unseen forces. Just near the piece of masonry shown on your right above, directly under that light, every hair on my head and body suddenly stood on end. No shit. I stopped, walked back away from the spot about 20 feet (back to where this picture was shot), waited, and walked towards it again, same spot. ZAP! Happened again. Hair on end. Not kidding. Don’t know what it means, but there you have it.
By this time, I decided I had had enough of challenging myself with deep dark dank places, to say nothing of unexpected extrasensory stimulation. I continued my way out to the exit (total trip about a mile or so) and with great relief, stepped through the turnstile and walked back up the many stone steps to the Outside World. Deep breath. Sigh. Just to prove to you I did make it out, here’s a lovely shot of Gellert Hill from the Castle District, not far from the entrance to the Labyrinth:
From there I bused back to my hotel, bought a bag of pistachios and a draft, and have settled in for the evening. Sweet dreams, y’all! More to come.