The streets of the Var are eerily silent, the only sounds the clattering of our feet on the cobbles and the occasional swish of a street cleaner’s brush. It is too early in the morning for many visitors to be about, so we have the old winding streets to ourselves. We stop to look at the mediaeval houses, with facades of varying colours, and examine the plaques that remind us that this has been a multi-ethnic district for centuries. Then we peer hopefully through the half-open door of a sculpture garden, but are disappointed to find it not yet open.
In Your Bucket Because…
- There are great views across the Danube to the twin city of Pest.
- The eclectic mix of architecture has been recognised by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.
- It has enough museums to occupy you for a week.
- Good for: city lovers and anyone who appreciates history and architecture.
The 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 does not last for long. We turn the corner into Szentháromság tér, and find the people. Whole coachloads of them. We manage 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 get our best view of the altar from the museum on the upper floor.
Outside again, we pass two fiddlers in Hungarian national dress playing some distinctly un‑Hungarian tunes. We climb 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
Budapest is a city of two halves. On the opposite bank is Pest, the commercial and cultural heart of the city. From where we are standing, we can look along the banks of the Danube, past its many bridges towards the Buda Hills behind the city. We can 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 Var 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 will walk along Andrássy Avenue in search of the coffee and cake that Hungary is so rightly famed for.
But for now we carry 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 note the varied architecture, and the shrines and paintings on the outer walls of houses. A small market is selling goods designed for tourists: beautifully worked Hungarian lace and packets of paprika. We decline to buy, knowing we will find better value in one of the city’s many markets.
Changing of the Guard
At noon a bell tolls and it is time for the changing of the guard outside the Castle. Soldiers stand to attention, bayonets and rifles at the ready, then march smartly across the cobbles, a riot of stamping, drumming and clacking. When they have finished, we head off down the hill in search of lunch.
In the evening we return, to admire the views again and take pictures of the floodlit skyline. The Var has returned to its ghostlike calm, until we walk past the Matyas Church one last time and see a lone group of visitors struggling to keep up with their umbrella-toting guide.
- You can walk around the Var in a morning, but allow more time if you want to visit the many museums and art galleries.
- A funicular railway runs to the Castle from Clark Ádám tér.
- The Budapest Metro will take you to the opposite side of the city and around Pest.