Take a dip into Budapest
Steamy spas, gorgeous parks and cool coffeehouses left Chrissie Russell smitten with the Hungarian capital a second time around
It had been exactly 10 years since I last visited Budapest. I had travelled on the night train with three other friends who I’d been teaching with in Prague as part of a gap year. We were reaching the end of our time abroad — and the end of our tether when it came to dealing with each other on a 24/7 basis.
One of my travelling companions had developed a penchant for reciting improvised poetry inspired by our journey together through the bowels of central Europe — a trait that didn’t become any more endearing over the course of the seven-hour journey in a cramped, sweaty carriage.
Pulling into Keleti railway station, we stepped out to find Budapest baking in a heatwave. With temperatures higher than 36°C, we spent the next four days racing round the city at dusk, having spent the previous eight hours lying under the cool canopy of trees in the park on Margaret Island.
But despite the fact that I was one of eight people sleeping on the floor of a fellow teacher’s flat, in roaring heat and with company whose appeal was rapidly waning, I still loved Budapest, and for a decade it remained a city I was determined to revisit one day.
And so I did. This time I jetted in. Rail journeys might be hailed as the romantic way to travel, but flying is more timely, climate controlled and comfy. My Aer Lingus flight from Dublin took less than three hours and a bus transfer into the city centre had me in the heart of the capital half an hour later.
Returning a decade on, I was pleased to discover everything was much as I had remembered from those brief glimpses years ago. The city is a captivating mix of cultures, blending aspects of east and west. Bustling wide boulevards such as Andrassy Ut are reminiscent of avenues in Paris or Barcelona, while the ceramic-plated roofs, baths and mosques ooze the more exotic influence of the city’s time under the Ottoman Empire.
The dazzling mix of Roman, Gothic, Turkish and Communist architecture is testament to Budapest’s turbulent past and makes it a great city to walk around aimlessly, knowing that quite literally anything could be round the next corner.
The city comprises two halves straddling the Danube, with bustling, urban Pest on one side and the more opulent, residential hills of Buda rising on the other. The main bridge used for crossing from one side to the other is the Chain Bridge. It’s the city’s oldest crossing point and a landmark I remembered from my previous visit, when I learned that legend says the stone lions guarding either side of the river will roar when a woman of virtue passes over.
They didn’t roar then, nor did they do so this time when I crossed from flats of Pest into the cooling foothills of Buda, heading for the city’s castle.
In the tradition of European castles, Buda castle isn’t one single fortress but a complex made up of ornate buildings, interlocking back streets, tree-lined squares and enchanting 19th-century residential buildings. It’s easy to spend a day wandering contentedly around the grounds.
Dominating the skyline is the 700-year-old Matthias Church which, according to folklore, was actually started years earlier by the saint and founder of the Hungarian state, King Stephen I. King Stephen pops up everywhere and a statue of him on his horse overlooks the city at Fisherman’s Bastion, a panoramic covered terrace where stone arches frame scenes over the Danube below.
Outside the palace the views are equally spectacular, and in September the city’s wine festival is held in the surrounding gardens, with stalls for wine tasting, children’s entertainment and local cuisine, such as flat breads, meats, cheeses and stuffed cabbage.
After ambling around the castle I descended to the cooling terrace of Manna Lounge (manna lounge.com), where I indulged in a hefty bowl of goulash and a mouthwatering, pan-fried red mullet while gazing over the city.
Budapest is a food-lover’s paradise catering for practically every taste and budget, and even during the limited options behind the iron curtain it remained a hot spot for foodies.
The traditional fare isn’t for the calorie conscious, with hearty soups, spicy meat stews, dumplings and potato pancakes dominating the menu.
The waistband will also suffer at the wealth of coffee houses that sprung up around the capital as meeting places for the intelligentsia. Among the most popular are Ruszwarm near Matthias Church, Café Gerbeaud overlooking Vorosmarty Square and The Central Cafe on Károlyi Mihály utca 9.
You might be less likely to sidle up to a famed poet or musician, but the calm coffee houses remain excellent spots to rest weary feet and indulge in oozing slices of cake and ice creams after pounding the city’s streets.
I love walking aimlessly through a strange city in summer time, the heat radiating off the walls and pavement, the sound of traffic and all the smells that make you feel as if you’re somewhere foreign and exciting.
The Pest side of the city holds a wealth of exciting sites, such as the majestic Hero Square, St Stephen’s Basilica and the State Opera House. Visitors should also try out the latest addition to Budapest's arsenal of sightseeing vehicles, the River- Ride Bus. The amphibious bus offers the best of both worlds and takes away the need to choose between taking a coach or boat trip during your stay. Starting from the Pest side of the Chain bridge, it winds round the inland city sights before plunging into the Danube for a view from the river in a unique two-hour tour.
But after the sweltering heat of the city — temperatures were hitting 28°C — it was wonderful to retire to the chilled-out haven of the Kempinsky Hotel Corvinus. My lodgings were a significant step up from that sleeping bag on a floor a decade ago to a spacious, comfortable room, with a relaxing bar, excellent restaurant and luxurious spa all on hand.
After exploring the city, it was heavenly to return to my wellplaced base for a full-body massage and a glass of chilled, locally produced Pinot Grigio.
There’s plenty to keep visitors occupied in Budapest but, if you want to be a traveller and not just a tourist, it’s good to step outside the capital and take in some of the stunning countryside and picturesque towns nearby. T
he ancient city of Pecs lies two hours south of Budapest and is easily accessible by train or via hire car on the newly completed M6.
The city’s been named a 2010 European Capital of Culture and, as a result, has had major investment in its public spaces and landmarks.
Like Budapest, there’s a wealth of interesting architecture and unique sights, such as its ancient Christian burial grounds, the country’s largest Turkish monument and ancient city walls.
After the hustle and bustle of Budapest, the charming university town offers a breath of calm.
Sitting in a picturesque square in a foreign city, sipping a cup of coffee and watching the world go by has to be one of the most blissful moments of travelling.
As I basked in the sunshine, even the sweaty seven-hour train journey of my bygone days started to make me smile, but it will take at least another decade for the terrible improvised poetry to acquire a rosy glow.
NEED TO KNOW
Aer Lingus (0818 365 000; aerlingus.com) flies five times a week from Dublin to Budapest. One-way fares start from 50 including taxes and charges. A taxi to the city centre shouldn’t cost more than 25. The journey takes about half an hour and you can pay in euro or Hungarian forint (HUF). Budapest operates bus, tram and underground networks. Hop-on and off with the Budapest Card (budapest-card.com) from 6,300HUF (22) for 48 hours.
A double room in the centrally located Kempinski Hotel Corvinus costs around 129 with offers on the website (0036 1429 3777; kempinski. com). A clean, cosy double room at the mid-range Carlton Hotel (0036 1224 0999; carltonhotel. hu) starts at 50. For backbackers in search of a friendly oasis in the city, the Marco Polo Top Hostel (0036 1413 2555; marcopolohostel.com) offers beds from 12 and breakfast for 3.
FIVE GREAT THINGS TO DO
while Gellert Baths, with its marble columns, mosaics and statues is one of its most beautiful. Check ahead — some spas have unisex days and nude-only days. On cooler days, watch out for gents playing chess while they soak.
Ditch the tourist buses and make like a local by jumping on tram No 2 as it winds its way along the Danube. As Europe’s second prettiestpublic transport route (Venice is number one), it takes in all the major sites at the bargain price of 320HUF (just over ¤1).
The Danube is only supposed to look blue if you’re in love, so get romantic and cosy up on one of the many dinner cruises along the river and see how long it takes before you break into humming Johann Strauss’s water-inspired waltz.
Work off all those cakes and pastries gorged in the famed coffee houses with a hike up 370 steps (or cheat with the lift) at St Stephen’s Basilica. The view’s as spectacular as that on the Castle side and there’s a chance to check out the 900-year-old mummified hand of St Stephen himself.
Raise a glass of local wine or risk a shot of Hungary’s national spirit, Unicum, made with a secret blend of 40 herbs in a black bottle with a foreboding cross on it.