First Stop – Budapest

At the end of long hot muggy day in Toronto, we departed Pearson Airport at 10:40 in the evening, on an Air Canada Rouge flight.  Our trip involved an 8 1/2 hour overnight flight and a time zone adjustment of 6 hours (ahead), and shortly after 1 o:clock local time, we arrived in Budapest, Hungary. We didn’t sleep much on the flight but felt surprisingly good given the circumstances.  We were also pleasantly surprised with the AC flight and the quality of the food on board.  Let’s just say that hasn’t always been the case with our “national’ carrier, but they actually outdid WestJet on this occasion!

Our first impression of Budapest was one of pleasant surprise as the airport terminal was a beautiful modern building and most of the signage included English commentary for which we were thankful.

As soon as we cleared security and had located our bags, we were immediately greeted by a Viking representative in what was the first of a series of well-organized encounters that continued throughout our entire trip. We were part of a group of 10 passengers bound for the Viking Lif who had made their way to Budapest via Toronto, but surprisingly the only Canadians. The other eight had all made connections from the southern United States.

Once outside the terminal building, we boarded a lovely and thankfully air-conditioned Mercedes Benz coach (it was 89 degrees fahrenheit), and were told that our ship was waiting for us on the Danube in central Budapest, just a short half-hour drive away.

Budapest is a river city, first and foremost, and considered by many to be the Queen of the Danube. Originally, the Romans built a city here. Then the Magyar tribes arrived from Asia around 896 and founded a castle. The coronation of the first king of the country (Steven I) in 1000 is considered to be the beginning of the Hungarian Christian statehood. For a period of time between 1541 and 1686, Turkish herds arrived, occupying and ruling the country until being driven out, paving way for a new Austrian period in the city. The city grew and flourished into a prosperous and somewhat pompous European capital and remained that way until the beginning of the 20th century. Sadly, two world wars and a communist intervention lasting 45 years badly destroyed the city and it wasn’t until the last Soviet troops left Hungary in 1991, that Budapest began to re-emerge.

The miles between the airport and our ship melted away quite quickly and it wasn’t long before we got our first glimpses of the Danube and the city.

There are eight bridges spanning the Danube as it runs through the middle of Budapest. Our route to check-in took us over to the Buda side of the river which positioned us directly opposite to where a number of Longboats were docked. As we approached our ship, the driver pointed out an unusually shaped and hard to miss building known locally as “the Whale”, a fairly obvious nickname given its design.

It is a controversial development designed by a Dutch architect and was intended to refurbish a rapidly deteriorating warehouse district. Open since 2013, it is a multi-purpose facility serving as a shopping destination, a cultural and entertainment centre, and a tourist attraction – at least that is what the city leaders wanted it to be. It’s story is still being written but fair to say that it hasn’t quite lived up to expectations yet.

On our right, we had our first look at the Liberty Bridge (built in 1894), and if you look over the bright green bicycles in the picture below, you’ll see our ship for the first time, just as we did on board the bus.

Our sense of anticipation began to increase as we realized that we were getting close to the ship that would be our home for the next two weeks, but we still had one last bridge to cross, the Elizabeth Bridge.

Like many of the bridges in Hungary, the original bridge built in 1903 was blown up at the end of World War II by retreating Wehrmacht combat engineers. It is the only bridge in Budapest that bears little or no resemblance to its original form. The bridge we crossed on this day was built between 1961-1964, and due to construction shortcuts taken at the time, tram traffic and heavy trucks were removed from the bridge in 1973 after cracks appeared in the structure. In the picture on the left (below), you can see the entrance to the bridge, and in the picture on the right, you can see 12 longboats (from various different cruise operators) moored along the banks of the Danube River. Our ship is at the very back of the pack, just in front of the aforementioned Liberty Bridge.

As we approached the spot where we would be disembarking the bus, our driver pointed out a landmark of significance to us – the Liberty Monument, perched high atop Gellert Hill.

The monument was designed by a local Hungarian sculptor and was unveiled in 1947. It originally paid homage to the Soviet soldiers who liberated the city from the Nazis during World War II, and features a palm-bearing statue of a female. At the time of its unveiling, the inscription read:

“To the memory of the liberating Soviet heroes erected by the grateful Hungarian people in 1945”.

Following the 1989 transition from communist rule to democracy, the inscription was changed to read;

“To the memory of all those who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom, and prosperity of Hungary”.

The female character was described to us as being rather “robust”, and we were told that her figure was based on an Olympic swimmer (from the 1936 Nazi Germany games) the sculptor was quite enamoured with. I also found out from one of the trip guides I purchased that the sculptor also used a local girl he found on the streets. After being convinced to cooperate, she held up a palm leaf for 20 minute periods for many many weeks.

After the fall of communism, the statue of a soviet soldier that stood in front of the monument was banished to the Memento Park on the outskirts of the city. Standing 46 feet in the air, it can be seen from all over the city.

The moment we had been waiting for was upon us. We had reached the Viking Lif and we were greeted by one of the ship’s crew who later on turned out to be one of our favorite servers (note: There were 52 hard-working crew members on the Lif and we watched them perform multiple roles during our two weeks on board).

When first arriving at a new destination, especially after an overnight flight, one is usually both over-tired and “fingers crossed hopeful” that every thing goes smoothly upon arrival. Thankfully, the whole arrival to check-in experience in Budapest was an absolute breeze. In an age where customer service is often nothing more than lip-service, we were super impressed by the friendliness and high degree of professionalism from everyone we encountered. Kudos to Viking and we were off to a great start.

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