Thursday 27 October 2016

Budapest: Rock, not Strauss, on the Danube

Christopher Jackson

Published 11/04/2016 | 02:30

The iconic Danube river that splits the fascinating city of Budapest, overlooked by the imposing Széchenyi Chain Bridge and the Royal Palace
The iconic Danube river that splits the fascinating city of Budapest, overlooked by the imposing Széchenyi Chain Bridge and the Royal Palace
The healing Széchenyi Baths make the perfect festival respite.

From castles and spas to bazaars, restaurants and festivals, Budapest is a world-class city break, says Christopher Jackson.

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It was mid-August and the temperature was over 40 degrees - one of the hottest days ever recorded in Budapest. Sweat trickled down my brow, and my jeans - already uncomfortably tight from a night filled with beer and burgers - started to cling to my damp thighs.

Matti, my Finnish colleague, was in shorts. He, much like everyone else, must have checked the forecast. I, on the other hand, just in from rainy London, had not.

I had been there less than 20 minutes and already my T-shirt was soaked through. It was too much. I made my excuses to the group leader and left my Finnish, German and Polish colleagues behind. I dashed along the hard-packed ground, ducking and diving through the topless throngs of young men and women with dark shades and toned abs, searching for somewhere that could offer some remedy from the heat.

I found a shop selling overpriced T-shirts, shorts, flip-flops and sunscreen. I bought it all and made my way to the VIP area (press credentials has its perks) where I changed in a toilet. After much scrambling about, I emerged afresh - trouser-free and ready to join the sweltering, semi-clad masses at one of the biggest dates on Europe's festival calendar, Sziget.

Started in 1993, Sziget is now one of Europe's biggest and best music festivals. Last year's festival attracted over 400,000 visitors from more than 90 countries, while in 2014 it was crowned 'Best Major Festival' by the European Festival Awards. Set on the 108-hectare Obuda Island in the Danube (the same river that inspired Johann Strauss to compose his famous waltz), the 2015 iteration featured artists from more than 50 countries performing on dozens of stages dotted all over the island.

Headliners included Robbie Williams, Florence and the Machine, and The Kings of Leon. Unfortunately I missed Florence and Robbie (although I didn't mind missing him), but I did manage to see The Kings of Leon perform to a great sea of people which swelled to a huge crescendo as they played Sex on Fire.

The 'Island of Freedom', as the 2015 festival's tagline went, had a progressive vibe to it - as it was always intended to have by its socially progressive organisers, who seemed most excited by the fact that Pussy Riot would be there. Sziget 2015 didn't just promote diversity, it celebrated it - both on and off the stage.

The individually themed stages ranged from a Blues-Irish stage (although it didn't seem particularly Irish to me) to a vast outdoor dance arena made entirely from wooden pallets and replete with a 10-foot wolf's head. Aside from enjoying the music, you could get a haircut, a tattoo, do your laundry and even play chess against locals in a dedicated games tent, while close to the main stage you could watch acrobats perform high-wire trapeze acts.

A constant barrage of sound and colour, Sziget's carnival atmosphere left me exhausted (although the heat played a part) yet wanting more.

But what makes Sziget all the better is that it doesn't take place in some far-flung field miles from the nearest town, but in one of Europe's grandest capitals. Settled by the Celts, conquered by the Romans, pillaged by the Mongols and ruled by the Turks, Budapest was already one of Europe's most storied and cosmopolitan cities by the time it became the second capital of the great Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Divided by the Danube, Budapest is two cities - south of the river is Buda, north of it Pest. They're joined by a series of impressive bridges, the most magnificent being the Szechenyi Chain Bridge.

Throughout both are reminders of its both proud and painful past. In Buda, set on the hills overlooking Pest, is the castle district, where the sprawling Buda Castle is the centrepiece of a complex of winding cobbled streets, beautiful 19th century townhouses and quaint stone churches with high steeples. A World Heritage Site, Buda is very much for tourists, and has more of a laid-back feel than the more modern Pest.

But Pest's modernity is relative. Much of it dates from the 18th and 19th centuries, and its wide avenues, flanked by ornately decorated period buildings, alludes to its imperial past - allusions furthered by its opulent squares, museums, theatres and churches, and, most of all, the fabulous Gothic Revival-style Parliament that dominates the Pest river in much the same way the castle does Buda's.

Pest is also home to Szechenyi Baths. Nestled in leafy City Park, amid stunning Baroque-style buildings, it's Europe's largest medicinal bath complex. Rich in sulphate, calcium and other minerals, its warm waters, supplied by two natural springs, are believed to remedy a range of ailments. I'm not sure if that's true, but its thermal pools, saunas and steam rooms were the perfect festival respite - although I'd advise getting there early, as it can get quite crowded.

Budapest is more than just spas (Szechenyi is one of many) and stately buildings. Lying off its back streets are charming cafes, bazaars, markets and other treats that testify to its vibrancy, many of which can be found around the old Jewish quarter.

In Gouba, a lively bazaar (open on Sundays), excited and eccentric traders tried to sell me an array of antiques and trinkets, while in nearby Szimpla, a farmer's market, I was offered thick cuts of bread, sausage and other delicacies before I discovered the rustic-chic bar in the back, where I more than sampled the local brews (pints are less than €2).

Indeed, Budapest has become something of a gastronomic destination (I recommend Baltazhar's in Buda), with numerous high-end restaurants popping up all over the city in recent years, including several Michelin Star restaurants.

When you also its consider the draw of its celebrated night-spots and spas, in addition to its cheap prices (palatial five-star hotels can cost less than €100 a night), it's easy to see why Budapest is now one of Europe's premier city destinations, with Sziget being one of just many arrows in its considerable quiver.

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