Letter From Laura
In my recent articles on Budapest, did I forget to mention there are trips outside of that city well worth taking? Esztergom, reputedly the most sacred city in Hungary, lies just 31 miles northwest of Budapest, travelling over good roads, past flat fields and through small towns.
Esztergom Basilica, the seat of the archbishop of Hungary, rises on a hill overlooking the Danube River, right on the border with Slovakia, literally on the border, as our guide proved by taking us across the bridge into Slovakia so that we could admire the beautiful Esztergom Basilica from afar.
Its bright copper-green cupola is definitely a photo-worthy sight. This is where King Stephen, the leader who converted the country to Christianity, was crowned.
But what for us - and you - is worth the drive northwest of Budapest is to see the Treasury. The gold and silver objects within - of both religious and royal art - are awesome, contained in an area of quiet serenity. Obviously, people in eastern Europe genuinely respect the religious relics this heritage represents.
Take the time to visit the Royal Palace and Castle Museum - some of its parts go back to the 10th century. The guided tour takes you through well-restored museum displays, elegantly presented with ancient artefacts on show. I was truly impressed with how modern the exhibition entrance area appeared and how appealing it was.
If only in Jamaica we had the backing to display the historic cultural items accumulated at the Institute of Jamaica in equally attractive and elegant encasements! If only the powers that be realised that tourism to Kingston would be increased if such a museum were built.
Driving down the hill to Viziváros, right on the Danube, we then visited the Christian Museum founded by János Simor, Roman Catholic primate of all Hungary. Emotionally riveting is the only way to describe visiting this magnificent collection, as it includes the most exquisite church art in Hungary.
Early Renaissance Italian paintings vie for room with Hungarian gothic art. The altar pieces remind us of both the power and majesty that religion and religious art held in former times. Equally attractive here is how few tourists one encounters in Esztergom as compared with Budapest. And yet it is so accessible.
Heading back to Budapest, we stopped at Dunabogdány, a village to our left, and ate at Forgó Restaurant, where I enjoyed my first taste of authentic Hungarian goulash, dining outdoors on a flower-bedecked terrace with the Danube nearby.
From there, we drove to Szentendre, a town in which Serbians fleeing the Ottoman Turks in the 14th century, and again in the 17th century, settled, just 16 miles north of Budapest. With its Baroque architecture, it is renowned for the artists who replaced many Serbs in the 1920s.
Although we walked through Fs Square, peeking into art galleries, my interest lay in the Belgrade Church and Museum of Serbian Orthodox Ecclesiastical Art.
Here we found the Hungarian seat of the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch - so the church is officially a cathedral, though much smaller than many churches in Hungary, but still a breathtaking combination of Baroque and Rococo styles. Some people still refer to it as the Greek church, even though it was built by Serbians. The museum was the highlight of the day, with reputedly 2,000 brightly coloured gilt icons, vestments and art treasures - all secluded here after their original churches were closed.
OTHER PLACES TO VISIT
Most visitors to Szentendre seem more interested in the many cafés, small galleries and souvenir shops in abundance along the cobble-stoned streets of this picturesque town on the Danube River. They might also stop at the Hungarian Open-Air Museum, two miles from Szentendre, where a reconstructed village opened in 1967 allows visitors to see traditional life from each of five historic regions of Hungary.
Another day trip from Budapest is 22 miles northeast of the city. One can visit the Royal Palace of Gödöllió, the Habsburgs' summer residence in days past. The stunning Baroque Royal Palace was built in 1741, though the Gödöllió Town Museum is housed in a building from 1661.
Margaret or Margit's Island back in Budapest itself, an island of 1.5 miles known to some as Rabbit Island, became the sacrificial home in a Dominican nunnery of Princess Margaret, whose father, King Béla IV (1242-1270), offered to God his daughter in return for the Hungarian throne. During the Ottoman Empire, it became the choice venue for a harem, but the island was eventually opened to the public in 1869.
The Water Tower, built as a centenary monument, is the most outstanding structure on the island, though like most of Budapest, there are statues throughout. Free of automobile traffic, but with bicycles and tricycles available, Margaret Island, between both Buda and Pest, is a great family weekend retreat. The rose garden was poorly maintained, but its Japanese Garden and hotels, with lovely outdoor cafés under leafy trees, were a delight.
With so much to visit in Budapest and throughout Hungary, dare I mention Székesfehérvar, Gyór, Fertőd, Sopron or Fertó-Hanság National Park? But no, I must leave you some things to discover on your own. Or with a guide whom I can recommend highly, Anna Görgey at www.personalguidebudapest.com.