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.
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.