10 May 2011

Day Trips to the Danube Bend

South of Bratislava, Slovakia, the Danube, generally a north-to-south flowing river, makes a wide sweeping eastward turn. For some 80 kilometers or so, the river flows in this fashion until forced by rising hills to make first a brief southward turn, then a turn north before rounding the final hills and heading back south, straightaway to Budapest, some 50 kilometers further downriver. This bit of U-turn is known as the Danube Bend, and it is a fine place to spend a few days, out of the hustle and bustle that is the capital of Hungary.

The guide books (in this case The Rough Guide and Bradt), state that there are three ‘must-see’ sites in this area. From upriver to downriver they are Esztergom, Visegr??d, and Szentendre. Each one is a day trip from Budapest and since we did not have our car yet, were relying on public transportation, and only had two days to spend in this area, we selected the two closest destinations. That left Esztergom – the old ecclesiastical center of Hungarian Catholicism – for another trip and another time.

Szentendre, our first daytrip destination, is a mere 20-plus-change kilometers upriver from Budapest. We walked from our apartment on the lower Pest side of the city to a small H??V commuter train station below the Buda castle. The ticket agent in the station complimented me on my Hungarian (she spoke quite good English) and wanted to know where I studied it. I pointed to my phrase book and we had a good laugh. The ride was a relatively quick 40 minutes and soon we exited the rather dismal station in Szentendre.

The Brandt guidebook, and to an even larger degree, The Rough Guide, were effusive in their praise of this small town. I could see the promise, but for me, the reality fell short. It all seemed rather tatty with massive amounts of graffiti adorning walls and buildings. It probably didn’t help that there was some sort of street ditch-digging that contributed a coating of dust to much of the town. The main town square – F?? T??r – was small, angular, sloping and seemed a singular place with its crowding of old burgher houses. We enjoyed a light lunch on a bench watching the tourists, but frankly I found nothing in the square to photograph. Wandering uphill we found two unique church yards that offered a study in contrasts. The Roman Catholic church, creamy yellow and dirty white, sat in a large, open flat hill upon Templon T??r partially surrounded by skeletal trees that made for some interesting compositions. The Belgrade Cathedral – a Baroque Serbian orthodox church – is located in a beautiful enclosed park crowded by bright green, tall trees. The church itself is painted in ochre and pale mustard and the grounds made for a nice cooling spot to sit out of the warm mid-day sun. Photographing the church through the dappled greenery made for some challenging fun, though the end results don’t quite live up to the initial promise.

Historically known for its large Serbian population (now almost extinct) and more recently as an artists’ colony, I do believe that Szentendre was once as charming as the guidebooks paint it. Perhaps it is the recession – signs of which are everywhere – perhaps it is the tagging – again, signs of which are everywhere – aided by the guidebook build-up – that now seems more hyperbole than fact – but, I was underwhelmed and even disappointed by Szentendre.

Two days later found us in the Gustave Eiffel designed (so we were proudly told by a Hungarian woman who also kindly pointed us in the right direction) Nyugati train station where, with seven minutes to spare, I ordered our tickets from a distinctly unfriendly non-English speaking agent. (Though I surprisingly found a high proportion of Hungarians speak quite good English, there were the occasional few who did not. In most cases they were very pleasant as we worked our way through our discussion, pointing, drawing, pantomiming as needed. Very rare was the rude Hungarian.) ??Tickets in hand, we rushed to our train and with the help of our ticket puncher, 45 minutes later we debouched at Nagymaros. On the east bank of Danube, we made our way through the sleepy village just in time to jump aboard a funky ferry for our brief ride across the river to Visegr??d. The ferry consisted of one barge being pushed and pulled by a small tugboat. The barge could fit perhaps 8-10 cars (or, as we would find on our return trip, one large semi-truck!) and however many pedestrians.

The village of Visegr??d is not much to write home about, but we weren’t there to tour the town. High up on a hill overlooking the Danube is a commanding point that has on-again, off-again been occupied as a fort since Roman times. Sometime in the distant past, Slavs named it Vy??ehrad, or ‘high castle.’ The Hungarian spelling has stuck ever since. Below the perched fortress, a monastery was built in the 11th century to be followed by a palace complex that was enlarged over the centuries. Surprisingly, the royal seat was moving from Buda in the 14th century until the Ottomans occupied the lands in the mid-1500s. Over the years the palace disappeared and fell into an almost mythical status, until excavations in the mid-20th century revealed the foundations of the once glorious complex. Much of what one now sees in both the castle and the palace are tastefully executed restorations.

Wandering through the partially restored Royal Palace, you can only get a hint of how large it once was. Apparently there were over 350 rooms in the 600 meter long complex, replete with gardens and fountains and courtyards. One of the later features a few stone benches and lovely shade trees: the perfect place for our picture lunch, with a view out to the Danube. Exiting the palace you continue on foot downriver until you reach the lower castle structure of Soloman’s Tower. It’s a very large Romanesque keep from the 13th century but was unfortunately closed on this particular day. Now heading up a very steep – but fortunately well-shaded path – our destination was the high castle itself. Panting, the work was worth it as glorious views unfolded of the flowing Danube below us and the B??rzs??ny Hills distant. Enough of the castle has been reconstructed to not only afford views in all directions but also to give a visitor a good impression of the size and strength of this fortification. As a bonus, two rooms provide well-accoutered displays of the history and armaments of the castle and its occupants. Another trail through the woods brought us full-circle back to the little town of Visegr??d where we awaited our return trip across the river and back to Budapest.

Where Szentendre disappointed, Visegr??d exceeded. It’s clear that the Danube Bend offers variety: old history, quiet villages, dusty roads, steep trails, and through it all the flowing Danube. If you find yourself in busy Budapest for a few days, you should venture into the countryside around the Bend to
experience a different kind of Hungary: slower, more gently paced, quieter and even peaceful. The old of the country not far from the modern of the city.