By Dominique Wellington
A city that graces both sides of a legendary river, crossed by a succession of regal bridges. At night, the lights on the monuments and bridges gleam in the dark like jewels. Grand, tree-lined boulevards and neoclassical buildings from the 19th century. Neighborhoods with winding, narrow, cobblestone streets from medieval times. Antique-filled flea markets, fascinating book stores, inviting cafés with strong coffee and sweet confections, museums and concerts to delight the eye and ear. Paris? No, Budapest.
A name that conjures up an image more exotic and mysterious than any other Western capital. A stop along the fabled Orient Express. Inaccessible behind the Iron Curtain for nearly half a century. A city destroyed many times by invasions and wars - most devastatingly and recently during World War II. And lovingly rebuilt every time by a proud and creative people, who give the place its tremendous warmth and singular charm.
Budapest offers the sophisticated traveler the familiarity of European culture with a tantalizingly distinctive Hungarian flavor. You see it in the domed baths, originally built by Turks during 150 years of occupation, and in the Eclectic style of turn-of-the-century architecture throughout the city. You taste it in the complex cuisine influenced by the Magyar founders from Central Asia, Turks, Serbs, Austrians and French (see Year of Wine and Gastronomy, p. 12). You hear it in the folk music and unpronounceable language, unlike any other. (In Budapest, though, you will find many who speak English, particularly among the young.) And you especially feel it in the verve, the humor and the sparkle of the people.
When you visit Hungary, you not only see monuments and reminders of the past, you are actually witnessing history in the making. As it seeks to weave a new richer tapestry of Hungarian culture, the nation is reviving the traditions of the pre-Communist era - some as fundamental as religious instruction, others as frivolous as the glittering New Year's ball. It's exciting to watch a country creating a new future and asserting a new self.
Hungary - unlike many former Communist bloc nations - did not destroy its Soviet monuments. The Liberation statue on the Citadel - commemorating the defeat of the Nazis - remains where the Communists erected it. Other colossal statues in Socialist Realist style were moved to a fascinating open-air Statue Park Museum (just a cab ride outside Budapest), dedicated exclusively to these relics of Soviet domination. When you return, stop and have a drink and a chuckle at a café that spoofs Communism, called Marxim (a cross between Marxism and Maxim) in Buda, near Moszkva tér whose name also recalls the recent past.
The city known as Budapest is actually three cities: Óbuda, the oldest section, with Celtic and Roman ruins, on the Buda side of the Danube; Buda among the gently rolling hills on the western bank, famous for its historic Castle Hill and beautiful residential area; and bustling Pest with its shopping, government and commercial districts on the flat plain of the east bank.
A City for Walking
United in 1873, Budapest is ideal for walking. And exploring the city on foot is the best way to burn off all the calories from the delicious food and wine you'll be enjoying. Afterwards, there is no more rejuvenating way to relax than in one of the city's many soothing spas - fed by 80 thermal springs.
Start by strolling along the winding streets on Castle Hill, where the medieval character of Buda has been best preserved. The entire panorama of the two banks of the Danube all the way from Margaret Island - Budapest's green Central Park in the middle of the river - to Gellért Hill and the Castle District has been designated a World Heritage preservation site by UNESCO.
At the top of Castle Hill visit the Royal Palace, which houses the Budapest Historical Museum, Hungarian National Gallery and National Library. The 700-year old Matthias Church with its Gothic spire and multi-colored tiled roof is where the nation's kings were crowned and now the site of organ and choir performances. Be sure to catch sunset at Fisherman's Bastion, with its view of the river, Chain Bridge, Parliament building and Pest spreading out across the horizon.
For a view that takes in sights on both sides of the river, go up Gellért Hill to the Citadel. The hill is home to three famous and historic spas: the Art Nouveau-era Gellért and the 400 year-old Rudas and Rác Baths, the latter two built by the Turks.
City of Caves
It is a cave on the southeastern side of Gellért Hill which gave the city half of its name. Seeing the hollow in the hill, and the other caves that underlie the Buda Hills, the Magyar conquerors from Asia - with no word of their own for cave - borrowed the Slavic word, 'pest,' from tribes living in the area. They named what is now Gellért Hill 'Pest Hill' - or hill of caves. In 1926 a lovely chapel, known as Rock Chapel, was built inside the hollow of Gellért Hill and can be visited today. The miles of caves under the city are the inactive vents of hot springs, the source of thermal water for all the city's spas. Sections of the labyrinthine cave system may be toured, for example Castle Cave at the corner of Országház and Dárda streets. Many caves have served as wine cellars and air raid shelters.
If you're looking for antiquity, Óbuda (Old Buda) is the place to see excavated ruins of the Roman city of Aquincum. An amphitheater once holding 16,000 seats, discovered under the houses in Királydomb, is considered one of Europe's largest open-air arenas. Relics from the Romans' occupation are on display in the Aquincum Museum.
If you cross the Danube from Buda to Pest on the Margaret Bridge you enter the enchanted oasis of Margaret Island, Budapest's largest park, where no cars are allowed except an occasional taxi. Explore on foot, by rented bicycle or minibus the gardens, medieval church and chapel, game reserve, swimming pools, spa-hotels, tennis stadium and 10,000 trees that make the island in the middle of the river seem miles away from the bustle of a modern city. Originally housing a convent (still being excavated), Margaret Island was turned into a harem by the Turks!
Stepping back into the urban action on the Pest side, you can stroll along Andrássy Boulevard, very much like the Champs-Elysées, and admire the mix of neoclassic, Romantic, Art Nouveau and uniquely Hungarian Eclectic style of architecture in the buildings - mostly from the turn of the century.
Outstanding examples include the Opera House, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Post Office Savings Bank, Museum of Applied Arts, St. Stephen's Basilica and, of course, Parliament, which you have seen at sunset from the Buda side across the river. At the end of Andrássy you will find the magnificent Heroes' Square with statues of Hungary's greatest leaders from the founding of the state to the 19th century.
At the National Museum, you will learn about the saga of Hungarian history and see the legendary crown jewels of King Stephen. Although they post-date the sainted Stephen by several centuries, the crown jewels nevertheless have a spectacular history, having been lost, stolen or misappropriated at various times since the Middle Ages.
After World War II, fleeing Hungarians brought them to the United States for safekeeping. Jimmy Carter returned them to Hungary in 1978.
Worth seeing for both the building itself as well as the exhibits inside is the Museum of Applied Arts, a fantastic combination of traditional folk elements with Art Nouveau, Islamic, Hindu and Persian motifs. The roof is covered with ceramics from the famous Zsolnay factory in Pécs. The spacious white Victorian interior with glass dome overhead seems a complete contrast to the multicolored Oriental exterior. Exhibits include furniture, textiles, metalwork, ceramics, porcelain and glass.
The superb Museum of Ethnography originally served a different purpose. Its designer was the first runner-up in the turn-of-the-century competition for the Parliament building, and it housed the Supreme Court and Chief Prosecutor's Office. Go inside just to admire the frescos on the ceiling and the splendid staircase.
To make it easy for visitors to see museums and all the city's sights, the 3-day Budapest Card allows the purchaser to travel free on all public transportation, visit most of the city's top museums and provides discounts on guided tours, at selected restaurants and shops. You can buy the Budapest Card in the US or upon your arrival in Hungary at the airport, at hotels, museums, travel agencies and metro stations.
Budapest had the first subway on the European Continent. That first line is still in operation, along with the modern lines built after World War II.
One area that must be explored on foot is Erzsébet Town, the charming old Jewish quarter. The Byzantine-looking Dohány Street Synagogue was recently restored to its original grandeur. With 3,000 seats, it is Europe's largest synagogue and the world's second largest after New York's Temple Emanu-El.
In the courtyard is the moving Holocaust Memorial in the form of a weeping willow, its metal leaves engraved with the names of victims. Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism, was born nearby. Wander through the courtyards connecting residential buildings, forming a protective cocoon for the quarter. Then stop for pastry or lunch at one of several kosher restaurants and cafés.
Give in to the temptation of shopping for antiques, Herend or Zsolnay porcelain, intricate needlework with folk art motifs, fine Hungarian wines and liqueurs, as well as goose liver pate and a variety of paprikas. The most elegant and popular shopping areas are Váci Street, Petõfi Sándor Street and Vörösmarty Square. For the largest selection of merchandise, check out the many shops along Károly Ring and Kossuth Lajos Street.
If you want an insider's tip, go south on Váci past Elizabeth Bridge. There you'll find excellent shops and galleries for browsing Éand fewer tourists. At the end of the lower section of Váci, recently converted to pedestrian-only traffic, stop in the splendid and colorful Central Market Hall overflowing with food and folk art stalls. A true sensory experience. On Saturdays, tour buses leave from the Central Market for the Ecseri Flea Market - a shopping and bargaining paradise.
Some of Budapest's best restaurants on both sides of the river offer music as well as fine food. Be serenaded while you dine at appropriately named Bel Canto near the Opera House, or by Gypsy violins in Kárpátia Restaurant. Try the Fél 10 jazz club or Café Pardon, where you can hear live music every night.
Other outstanding restaurants to sample: Légrádi Antiques, above a charming antique shop; Mûvész Restaurant with piano music and dark royal blue walls; Múzeum Restaurant with Art Nouveau tilework and stained glass; Fortuna Restaurant on Castle Hill; legendary Gundel Restaurant in City Park, which has hosted Habsburg weddings, or its less formal sister restaurant next door, Bagolyvár (Owl's Castle), staffed entirely by women and serving home-style Hungarian cuisine.
You'll also notice a multitude of boats docked on the Pest side of the city. You can take a daytime or evening sightseeing cruise - and drink in the view with a cocktail in hand. Some cruises also include a dinner and dance music.
All year round, there are concerts, opera, operetta, ballet, modern dance and folk dance performances throughout the city. Listen to the works of Hungary's native sons - Ferenc Liszt, Zoltán Kodály, Béla Bartók, Ferenc Lehár - in the land and city that inspired them. And don't be surprised if Budapest, the Pearl of the Danube, inspires you, too.