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Budapest Revisited

And a River Runs Through

It wasn"t so many years ago that traveling to London for a long weekend was limited to jet-setters. More recently, flying to Paris, Madrid or even places farther away did not seem too indulgent. Now thanks to direct 8-hour flights from New York, Budapest can be added to the list of great cities where a long weekend is a lark.
Jokai Square
(credit: Edwin Fancher)

After a comfortable overnight flight in Business Class and a short nap we went off on foot to explore the great walking city we visited in 1999 and were so taken with. From the Pest side we strolled on Szent Istvan korut, a boulevard lined with shops and restaurants affording an instant glimpse of social and commercial life in the capital, and headed toward Margit Bridge to Buda on the opposite side of the Danube. Before merging in 1873 Buda and Pest had been separate municipalities. The view of the river from the bridge is a beautiful one. Boats wait in ready to take passengers on short spins so they can view both banks or outside the city limits from which a return trip on the suburban railway is possible. The Spoon Café, a restaurant operating on a docked vessel, is visible from this point and is a lovely place to lunch.

For greener hikes than the streets permit, exit at the middle of the bridge onto Margit Island, a park dissecting the river and filled with bucolic paths. Or if you are up to the challenge you can continue to the end of the overpass, go south along the Danube to explore the very hilly Castle district. The Castle Bus transports visitors to the district. Wandering in the old quarter you discover at every turn a beautiful façade, a square or an alley filled with history. The House of Wine, Szentharomsag ter 6, stores about 450 varieties from the country"s 22 wine regions. Visitors to the cellar can taste 70 to 80 vintages.

Beneath the Castle lies one of the most interesting attractions in the district, the Labyrinth, a complex of caves whose walls are covered with copies of Europe"s celebrated cave paintings and with scenes of Hungarian and world history. Enter via the stairs at Uri u. 9. Using an oil lamp, you can tour the Nighttime Labyrinth between 6 and 7:30 pm. Our itinerary said "surprise” under the listing. In the Renaissance Hall of Rocks stands a pillar decorated with fountains from which red wine gushes. It is the real McCoy.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe most countries destroyed the symbols of that era. Rather than melt down the bronze or chop up the stone statues lining the streets and squares of the capital and other parts of the country, the new government collected and shipped them to South Buda. Here in Statue Park, an outdoor museum, one finds oversized sculptures from the communist times: Lenin, Marx and Engel"s, Bella Kun, soldiers saluting and the citizenry with their arms outstretched and waving flags.

Parliament Interior
(credit: Edwin Fancher)

The most commanding building on the Pest side of the river is the neo-Gothic Parliament looking much like a cathedral. With almost 700 rooms, most of them off-limits, it is the largest building in the country. Open to the public are the grand staircase embellished with sculptures and beautiful frescoes as well as the congressional chamber. The Crown of St. Stephen, dating from the 12th century, rests here. Legend, however, says that it was presented to Stephen in 1000 by the Pope. Many regard the crown as the symbol of the Hungarian nation.

When the communists were in power a large red star was perched on the cupola. One wall of the assembly hall is covered with the medieval coats of arms of six leading families. We wondered whether the symbols of traditional Hungary and the opulence of the building itself made the communist politicians who met there uneasy.

A large black marble stone with an eternal flame stands outside the Parliament in Kossuth Square as a memorial to the 25,000 who fell during the 1956 uprising against the Russian-controlled regime.

Symphonic city that it is, you can hear Liszt, Brahms, Haydn and Bartok every night in churches and concert halls. Our hosts strayed from the classical and took us to Jazz Garden, a restaurant with mediocre food and great music. Featured that evening were the rhythms of Brazil with an energetic band and singer belting out songs from 8:30 into the night. To hear a preview of a program log on to http://www.jazzgarden.hu

Atop our list of things to do was to attend a performance at the State Opera House, Andrassy ut. 22. We were told at the box office and during a tour of the house that seats had been sold out for many months. The opera house is a 19th-century marvel and is richly decorated like a palace with frescoes on the ceiling of Apollo and other Greek gods cavorting, playing and listening to music. With perfect acoustics, the opera is considered one of Europe"s finest. For narcissistic reasons of his own Emperor Franz Joseph, who was ruler in 1884 when the building was completed, insisted that it be smaller than the one in Vienna. Opera House tours daily at 3 and 4 p.m. Tel. 332-8197.

Our perseverance paid off. We did get to hear Othello that evening. Late in the afternoon the concierge at the hotel secured second row seats for $55 each, a fraction of what we would pay at the Met. We enjoyed the experience of being part of an enthusiastic audience, but the performance was disappointing. The sets were uninspired and the singers merely adequate. They brought no passion to their roles.

Muvesz Cafe
(credit: Edwin Fancher)

After the opera or a tour of the house stop at Muvesz, a typical Eastern European coffee shop, where artists, writers and musicians gather to socialize. Located at Andrassy ut 39, on the city"s chicest thoroughfare, its sidewalk tables are great for people watching.

Budapest"s most famous café is Gerbeau. The fine old building, dating from 1858, is known as a Konditorei and Kaffeehaus, but it also has a restaurant, pub and take-out shop in its several interconnected rooms. The two main rooms face Vorosmarty Square in the heart of the city. Gerbeau is for people who like ornate surroundings and a buzz with their baked goods.

Since Roman times or possibly earlier spa water has been plentiful in the Budapest. Adjoining City Park and close to the zoo, amusement park, Municipal Grand Circus, Vajdahunyad Castle and two museums, Szechanyi Thermal Baths is the largest in the city. Built in 1913 and enlarged several times since, the complex holds three swimming pools, numerous open-air mineral pools, which attract the hearty even in winter, indoor tubs and rooms for massages. Three chess boards are mounted in one pool so that guests can play and soak simultaneously. The baths are medicinal because of the calcium, magnesium and hydrogen in the carbonic sulphur water springing from the area"s deepest and hottest wells. Other popular spas are: Gellert furnished in the original Art Noveau style, Lukacs for its therapeutic water, Kiraly and Rudas with their Turkish features and Helia and Thermal Hotels on Margit Island because of their quiet locations.

On our previous trip we never ventured outside the city. Szentendre (St. Andrew) is the logical choice for picturesque and easy (30 to 40 minutes by train) excursion. Our privately arranged car passed ruins--the foundation of barracks and the remnants of a coliseum--from the days when this stretch of the Danube was for hundreds of years the northern border of the Roman Empire as they held the Barbarians at bay. Located at the Danube Bend, Serbs fleeing the Turks founded the village in the 17th century. Although, the Serbs returned home their presence remains in the architecture. In the early 1900s sculptors and painters started to move to St. Andrews. Their work appears in the many galleries, studios, and museums.

Windmill, Open-Air Ethnographic Museum, Szentendre
(credit: Edwin Fancher)

At the skanzen or the Open-Air Ethnographic Museum, about three kilometers from St. Andrew, docents demonstrate in reassembled old rural structures the techniques used by peasants to make wine, bread and cloth. Fully furnished homes are decorated with period furniture and household implements. Stables have the necessary equipment for animal husbandry. The working windmill illustrates how farmers created energy.

Before returning to the city we stopped for lunch at Promenade, a restaurant, tavern and inn close to the town center and housed in a 400-year old restored building. The kitchen serves excellent Hungarian dishes. We began with goulash, which the owner explained is truly a soup like the one he serves rather than a stew. The chicken entrée was tasty, but the true piece de resistance of the meal was dessert—Gundel palacinki, crepes with chocolate sauce and ice cream. It"s one of those desserts where after tasting one bite, you feel compelled to finish it all. Lunch ended with a tasting of local wines in the building"s ancient subterranean cellar. Hungarian wines, not bad at all. In fact, many are rather good. Futo ut 4 Dunakorzo.

Budapest on a weekend? Not bad either. No one would question a 4- or 5-day trip to Western Europe. So what"s an extra hour or two in the air?

Where to Stay

The recent lifting of American sanctions against Libya brought to an end the American embargo by U. S. companies and citizens of the Corinthia Group, owner of the Corinthia Grand Royal Hotel. Originally built in 1896 as the Grand Hotel Royal, it has been completely renovated and modernized while retaining its royal features. An empire façade, domed roofs tiled in black, a marble-floored entrance hall flooded with natural light leading to a sweeping staircase, molded ceilings, sculptured columns and gold statues, and a glass roof covering the central atrium.

Comfortable, attractive, spacious rooms, good food and outstanding service merit the five-star designation. The fitness center and spa had not yet been completed during our stay. To use similar facilities, the hotel sent guests to the sister property, Corinthia Aquincum in a complimentary car. Erzsebet krt. 43-49. Tel. 36-1-479-4000. http://www.corinthiahotels.com

Chain Bridge
(credit: Edwin Fancher)

Fifteen years after the demise of communism in Hungary, there is a rush to build more luxury hotels, the ultimate emblem of capitalism. Four Seasons Hotel Greshem Palace Budapest, an Art Noveau gem at the foot of the Chain Bridge, just opened A cadre of craftsmen painstakingly restored the original treasured features--soaring winter gardens, stained glass, mosaics and intricate iron works. Roosevelt ter. 5-6. Tel. 31-1-268-6000.

The New York Café, a Budapest institution since 1895 closed to freshen its elegant turn-of-the-century décor and remodel the top floors. The space inhabited by newspaper offices in years gone by is being converted into hotel rooms. At noontime reporters met in the café at the base of the building. Because of the New York"s traditions, the literati will no doubt return when the doors reopen.

How To Reach Budapest

Malev Hungarian Airlines flies directly to Budapest from New York leaving JFK most nights at 8:10 p.m. and arriving 11:55 a.m. local time. In New York, Malev shares Swiss Airlines lounge, which is more comfortable and spacious than it own Budapest lounge. Food in Business Class was good. The Hungarian specialty, braised breast of goose, was surprisingly tasty since it was devoid of fat, but was not dry. We try not to drink alcohol on flights, but who could turn down a chance for a private tasting of Hungarian wines--sips of two hearty reds, two distinctive whites and one sparkling from the champagne family on the wine list. All were outstanding.

For more information log onto http://www.gotohungary.com

Spring 2004