The streets of the Buda Castle Hill were eerily silent, the only sounds the clattering of our feet on the cobbles and the occasional swish of a street cleaner’s brush. It was too early in the morning for many visitors to be about, so we had the old winding streets to ourselves. We stopped to look at the medieval houses, with facades of varying colours, and to examine the plaques that reminded us that this has been a multi-ethnic district for centuries. Then we peered hopefully through the half-open door of a sculpture garden, but were disappointed to find it not yet open…
The Castle Hill (or Var) is a huge walled area – around 1.5 km long – on a plateau above the Danube. It is packed full of history, with extensive fortifications and a massive palace. Beneath the plateau lies a labyrinth of caves and nuclear bunkers. This is part of the “outstanding urban landscape” of Budapest, whose varied architecture has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our solitude did not last for long. We turned the corner into Szentháromság tér, and found the people. Whole coachloads of them. We managed to escape into the Matyas Church ahead of a guide brandishing a yellow umbrella. This church was conspicuously maintained by the Soviets to demonstrate their sympathy with Hungarian culture, and today, despite the scaffolding and restoration works, it has a magnificent interior. We got our best view of the altar from the museum on the upper floor.
Outside again, we passed two fiddlers in Hungarian national dress playing some distinctly un‑Hungarian tunes. We climbed the Fishermen’s Bastion – a huge white rampart with turrets and stairways, built purely for decorative purposes – for our first view of the other side of the Danube.
UNESCO World Heritage of the Buda Castle Hill
Budapest is a city of two halves. On the opposite bank is Pest, the commercial and cultural heart of the city. From where we were standing, we could look along the banks of the Danube, past its many bridges towards the Buda Hills behind the city. We could also see the magnificent Parliament buildings, constructed in the 19th century in the Gothic Revival style.
This is all part of the UNESCO inscription: as well as the Buda Castle Hill it includes the Banks of the Danube, with its architectural legacy dating back to Roman times. It also includes Andrássy Avenue, the grand Parisian-style thoroughfare lined with pavement cafés and smart shops, that runs through Pest towards the Városliget park. Later in the day we planned to walk along Andrássy Avenue in search of the coffee and cake that Hungary is so rightly famed for.
But for now we carried on to Buda Castle (the former Royal Palace), passing intriguing signs to museums such as the Hospital in the Rock (a section of the underground passages that was used as a wartime hospital) and the Golden Eagle Pharmacy Museum. Again, we noted the varied architecture, and the shrines and paintings on the outer walls of houses. A small market was selling goods designed for tourists: beautifully worked Hungarian lace and packets of paprika. We declined to buy, knowing we would find better value in one of the city’s many markets.
Changing of the Guard
At noon a bell tolled and it was time for the changing of the guard outside the Castle. Soldiers stood to attention, bayonets and rifles at the ready, then marched smartly across the cobbles, a riot of stamping, drumming and clacking. When they had finished, we headed off down the hill in search of lunch.
In the evening we returned, to admire the views again and take pictures of the floodlit skyline. The Var had returned to its ghostlike calm, until we walked past the Matyas Church one last time and spotted a lone group of visitors struggling to keep up with their umbrella-toting guide.