Bu­dapest: Judy Bai­ley vis­its this gra­cious old city

Strad­dling the Danube River, Bu­dapest is a city of gra­cious charm, bat­tle-scarred from re­cent his­tory, but stand­ing proud with much ap­peal for to­day’s vis­i­tors, says Judy Bai­ley.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

Bu­dapest is a de­light. I am cap­ti­vated by this gra­cious old lady of Europe. I think it’s the heady com­bi­na­tion of his­tory and the prom­ise of things yet to come. Pre­vi­ously a corner­stone of the great Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian Em­pire, the city suf­fered ter­ri­bly dur­ing the bomb­ing raids of the Sec­ond World War, and post-war per­haps even more so, as it came un­der the rule of an op­pres­sive com­mu­nist regime. But Bu­dapest is now emerg­ing from the shad­ows to re­claim its iden­tity as the cul­tured cap­i­tal it once was.

Var­i­ously de­scribed as the “Paris of the East” or the “Pearl of the Danube”, Bu­dapest has all the his­tory and grand ar­chi­tec­ture of much of Europe, yet, while it is def­i­nitely on the tourist radar, it still hasn’t been over­run by vis­i­tors. Go now!

There’s a vi­brancy about the place that’s pal­pa­ble as you stroll its laneways and lux­u­ri­ate in its many ther­mal baths. This is an an­cient spa town. The Celts and Ro­mans chose to linger here more than 2000 years ago, soak­ing away the pain of bat­tle.

We do the same, although our pain is just from sit­ting in a plane for around 23 hours to get here! A good long soak in a ther­mal bath is just the tonic for our jet-lagged bods.

Sun­light is an­other proven cure for jet lag, so we de­cide to stroll from our ho­tel be­side the Danube to the splen­did neo-baroque Széchenyi Baths. Our route takes us through quiet, cob­bled back­streets to the soar­ing

The fa­mous Danube flows through the city, sep­a­rat­ing Buda from Pest.

grandeur of He­roes’ Square. The square is dom­i­nated by the im­pos­ing Mil­len­nium Mon­u­ment, which com­mem­o­rates his­toric con­quests.

The baths sit ma­jes­ti­cally in the vast leafy ex­panse of the City Park be­hind the mon­u­ment. They boast two big out­door pools and nu­mer­ous smaller in­door ones. What’s more, they reckon they have the hottest ther­mal wa­ter in town at 39°C. Spa bathing is some­thing of a rit­ual here. Bu­dapest lo­cals will tell you they’ve “per­fected the art of re­lax­ing and do­ing noth­ing”, although you will some­times see them hunched over float­ing chess­boards in the out­side pools!

We have booked a mas­sage. It’s not the scented can­dle, med­i­ta­tive mu­sic kind of mas­sage. Big, brawny blokes dressed head to toe in white – rather like the staff from an asy­lum – come to sum­mon us to our in­di­vid­ual, flu­oro-lit, white-tiled cu­bi­cles. They turn out to be su­perb masseurs even if the am­bi­ence is a lit­tle lack­ing.

Like many cities in Europe where the lo­cals live in rea­son­ably small apart­ments, café cul­ture is an im­por­tant part of daily life. Hun­gar­i­ans view their lo­cal café as an ex­ten­sion to their liv­ing room. In com­mu­nist times though, most of the cof­fee houses that had sur­vived the war were closed down. They were seen as hot­beds of dis­sen­sion by the Soviet-backed govern­ment, a gather­ing place for rad­i­cals and rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies to spread their “poi­son”. Thank­fully, some of the best sur­vived and are now go­ing through a re­nais­sance.

One of our favourites for peo­ple­watch­ing was the art nou­veau Cen­trál Kávéház. Re­cently re­lo­cated, it has long been a hang-out for po­ets and writ­ers. It oozes his­tory. The staff have thought­fully pro­vided sheets of pa­per on the ta­bles for us to con­jure up our own po­ems while we watch the world go by. Cre­ativ­ity eludes us, so we set­tle for an ice-cold lager and a slice of Do­bos torte, the tof­fee-topped cake for which the Hun­gar­i­ans are so fa­mous. Give me beer and cake over bad po­etry any day!

Hun­gary is not known for its cui­sine, although the lo­cals would dis­agree. Lo­cal del­i­ca­cies in­clude cat­fish stew and cot­tage cheese pasta, not to men­tion Hun­gar­ian goulash – sim­ple, hearty fare, with lib­eral quan­ti­ties of that most Hun­gar­ian of spices, pa­prika. “We’re not afraid of choles­terol-rich food,” we’re told. Per­haps that is why they also in­sist on a daily dose of red wine.

The fa­mous Danube, far from blue, flows through the city, sep­a­rat­ing Buda on the west side from Pest in the east. The two cities merged in 1873 to form Bu­dapest. The Royal Palace on Cas­tle Hill dom­i­nates the Buda side. There’s been a palace on this spot since the 13th cen­tury. The Na­tional Gallery, the His­tory Mu­seum and the Na­tional Li­brary are all housed here. But it’s a small mu­seum hid­den in a labyrinth of caves un­der the cas­tle walls that we’re keen to see.

The Hos­pi­tal in the Rock tour is as much about the Hun­gar­ian cap­i­tal’s che­quered his­tory as it is about the hos­pi­tal it­self. The caves were cre­ated by the many hot springs that flow un­der the city, and in medieval times they were used to store food and valu­ables. They were all but for­got­ten

The Hun­gar­ian beauty is decked out as if in farewell.”

un­til the 1930s, when it was de­cided they should be re-ex­plored. Af­ter the out­break of the Sec­ond World War, they were turned into a bomb-safe first-aid post. Bu­dapest, oc­cu­pied at the time by Ger­man troops, suf­fered some of the worst Al­lied bomb­ing and the in­jured from those air raids were brought here for treat­ment.

It’s an eerie place. Cold. You can bor­row vin­tage, grey-serge, mil­i­tary cloaks to keep warm as you ex­plore its many twists and turns. Air raid sirens wail be­hind our guide’s voice. The hos­pi­tal is set up as it would have been dur­ing the war. More than 200 im­pres­sive life­like wax mod­els pop­u­late the op­er­at­ing theatres and wards, “blood”-soaked gauze a stark re­minder of the hor­rific wounds that con­fronted med­i­cal staff. To­wards the end of the war, dur­ing the siege of Bu­dapest – one of the long­est and blood­i­est of the con­flict – Soviet troops sur­rounded the city for 50 days. They would later oc­cupy Hun­gary and even­tu­ally in­stall a Soviet-backed regime that kept a choke-hold on the coun­try un­til the 1990s.

The hos­pi­tal was brought out of re­tire­ment dur­ing the abortive Hun­gar­ian rev­o­lu­tion of 1956, when the cas­tle above be­came a rebel strong­hold. Many rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies died here in hor­rif­i­cally over­crowded con­di­tions. Dur­ing the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis in the 1960s, the hos­pi­tal be­came a nu­clear bunker, com­plete with a nerve gas fil­ter sys­tem and de­con­tam­i­na­tion unit.

Bu­dapest bears the vis­i­ble scars of its his­tory with pride. Bul­let holes from the revo­lu­tion­ary struggle are still ob­vi­ous on many build­ings. A piece of the orig­i­nal Berlin Wall that sep­a­rated East from West Ger­many has been in­stalled on the gra­cious tree-lined boule­vard, An­drássy Utca, a re­minder of what those pa­tri­ots fought against.

When trav­el­ling, I love vis­it­ing a good mar­ket and Bu­dapest’s doesn’t dis­ap­point. We find it at the end of the main pedes­trian shop­ping street, Váci Utca. Cen­tral Mar­ket is housed in an elab­o­rate two-storeyed brick build­ing topped off by a spec­tac­u­lar roof of yel­low and green Hun­gar­ian Zsol­nay tiles. The lo­cals shop here for fresh fruit and veg and a be­wil­der­ing ar­ray of sausage. Up­stairs you’ll find em­broi­dered tops and table­cloths, painted eggs, wreaths of dried pa­prika pep­pers and all man­ner of sou­venirs.

Our time in Bu­dapest is short – too short. We leave at night, glid­ing down the Danube on a river cruise­boat bound for Am­s­ter­dam. The Hun­gar­ian beauty is decked out as if in farewell, her mag­nif­i­cent cas­tles, bridges and par­lia­ment build­ings bathed in golden light.

The Lib­erty Statue, which stands high above the city on Gel­lért Hill, was erected in 1947.

The Hun­gar­ian Par­lia­ment Build­ing is a strik­ing fea­ture on the bank of the Danube River.

FAR LEFT: The city at dusk. ABOVE: Part of Bu­dapest's labyrinth of caves. LEFT: Cen­tral Mar­ket is a great place to shop.

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