On our last full day in Budapest, we were up early; and we had a full day planned! We started with a two hour private Segway Tour, followed by lunch and then a six-hour private walking tour. During our total time in Budapest, we had a total of four guides, each with different information and perspective to share. I particularly enjoyed the guides we had this last day!
Peter, who had a great sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye, was our guide for the Segway tour. We zipped along the streets, up and down curbs, zigging around the pedestrians on the street. I was sure the word "slow" was not in Peter's vocabulary! Peter stopped at many stops along the way to share some historical or cultural stories, including the Opera House, the Dohány Street Synagogue (details to follow), Fashion Street, a panoramic view of Buda, the Parliament (just a photo stop since we had already taken the official tour), and a square with special significance - a statue of Ronald Reagan, the American embassy, and the last remaining soviet communist monument. It was particularly interesting, as both the Reagan statue and Soviet monument are purposely situated between the Parliament and Embassy.
Our tour ran a bit longer than planned, so we rushed off to lunch. Our walking tour was in just an hour, and our guide, Gabriella, was picking us up at our hotel. Here is the beauty of having a private guide…. the first thing we did was tell Gabriella about all the tours we had done and the places we had already seen; we also told her of the three remaining spots we still wanted to get to. On the spot, Gabriella came up with the perfect route based on not only locations but closing times for each as well.
By this time we had been traveling/touring for twelve days and the natives were getting squirrelly (especially the three men). Gabriella, who is also a secondary school teacher, did a great job of keeping everyone focused. Not only did she inform us on history, and point out unique architectural elements, but also painted a picture of growing up in communist times and how it differs from life in Budapest today.
Our first stop was the Gerbeaud Cafe to see the "best" chocolate cakes that the tourists go gaga for; followed by a stop at the bakery were the locals actually buy their cakes from. We sat and had a treat, then proceeded to the square with the Reagan statue, as one person in our group chose not to do the Segway tour that morning and we wanted to show her the special sights, as well as the fountain along the way. Gabriella added to what we had learned from Peter, telling us more about Cardinal Mindszenty who spent 15 years of political asylum in the American embassy.
Next up was St. Stephan's Cathedral. We had definitely seen our share of cathedrals during our trip, and each was beautiful in its own way. Much of our time here was actually spent outside, up top. As we climbed stairs and rode the elevator up, we at one point could see a "dome inside of a dome" (we were in between the inside dome (ceiling seen from inside the church) and the outside dome. It was a really cool! Once we reached the highest point outside, we had an incredible 360 degree view of the entire city! We could easily spot the landmarks, while Gabriella pointed out the neighborhoods, including those in the former communists housing projects where families live in a 400 square foot space. Hard to imagine and a reminder of just how fortunate my family is.
Next stop on our walk was the Dohány Street Synagoguethe largest in all of Europe. With Peter we stopped on our Segways to see the outside... this time we went inside. Gabriella introduced us to an 83 year old holocaust survivor who runs a gift shop inside, then we made our way into the synagogue. Two especially unique facts: this synagogue was built by a Christian, so it resembles a church in many ways, and it has a cemetery on the property (which is traditionally forbidden by Jewish law). We viewed the tree of life, commemorating victims of the holocaust; and visited the museum, where Gabriella shared her perspective and knowledge of the horrific times of the past.
The final part of our tour consisted of a ride on the subway to the Széchenyi Thermal Bath, Budapest's most famous mineral spa. Gabriella helped us purchase changing rooms (one per couple), and gave us other important instructions, like where to schedule massages and how to get back on the subway (should be a no-brainier, but really isn't). We said goodbye to Gabriella, scheduled our massages, then went to find our private changing rooms. Two people could barely fit inside! After our massages, we spent a short bit of time in the pool. By this time it was about 9:15, we hadn't had dinner yet, and we needed to pack and be up at 5:30 in the morning. My impression.... I hoped the mineral water was truly magical, because otherwise I had just gone swimming at an old-school YMCA! In all honesty, though we were hungry and tired, we were all relaxed and rejuvenated as well.
We kept saying all through the trip, "we'll sleep when we're dead".... back on the subway and off to search for a dinner spot! Mission accomplished, we found a great place on Andrássy Avenue, So after dinner, drinks, laughs, and a walk back to the hotel... we started packing at 12:30 a.m. We took one last look at the illuminated sights along the river from our hotel room, and finally got to sleep at 1:00 a.m., hoping for a good, solid 4 1/2 hours before saying goodbye to Budapest the next morning.