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Budapest: Hungary for more of the multifaceted city

So there I was, luxuriating in the hotel's warm, wine-scented bubble bath with classical music playing in the background. After about 20 minutes I had almost dozed off, when my blissful reverie was shattered. "Finished!" announced the no-nonsense Hungarian lady, as she yanked out the plug and extended a hand to haul me out of my bubbly heaven and back into the cruel world.

Well not too cruel, as it happens, given that I was in beautiful Budapest for the weekend. My wine (or beer, if you prefer) bath took place in the Danubius Health Spa Resort on the island of Margitsziget (Margaret Island), after I had enjoyed bubbling in the hotel's thermal baths and jacuzzis. Thermal spas are big in Budapest, and while mine was indoors, I saw some amazing outdoor ones at Szechenyi, where hardy souls braved the freezing air temperature to enjoy the spa's rejuvenating qualities. I was getting goose-pimples just looking at the men in their Speedos and it wasn't for any kinky reasons -- it was bloody freezing out! It was, however, that crisp, dry cold that is so much better than the damp weather we get here.

The outdoor skating rink was being erected when we arrived, and the spirit of the festive season was very much in the air. We headed straight for the legendary Christmas market at Vorosmarty Square in the heart of Budapest, which runs every year from mid-November to the end of December. The market is very pretty, with cottage-style wooden stalls and the smell of traditional honey cookies, mulled wine and cinnamon permeating the air. All kinds of lovely things are on sale.

My companions were berating me for not being dressed for the cold weather, so when I happened upon a stall selling the prettiest hand-made hats and scarves, I bought myself a set to shut them up. Knitted from cosy black wool with multi-coloured bobbles on one side of the hat and at the end of the scarf, I thought it was a bargain at €7.20. Until I realised later that I had actually paid €72 for the set -- there were 331 Hungarian forint to the euro that day and maths was never my strong point.

To recover from the shock, I had a delicious, warming hot chocolate in the famous Gerbeaud's pastry shop, (www.gerbeaud.hu). Alas, having given up cakes and sweets for 2011, I was unable to partake as my companions tucked into the most fabulous-looking concoctions -- never has my resolve been so sorely tested.

The great thing about going to Budapest for the weekend is that the Malev Airlines' flights are so perfectly timed. You could fly out on Friday morning at 7.30 and return home on Sunday on a 7.30pm flight -- all year around, seven days per week.

There is so much to see and do in Budapest. I would highly recommend the Legenda sightseeing tour by boat along the Danube (www.legenda.hu). For €16.30, you get to cruise along the extremely pretty illuminated river, while enjoying a complimentary glass of sparking wine and listening to headphones that give a guided tour of all of the sights you are enjoying.

Everyone loves the architecture in Budapest, of course, but I am more of a fan of lights, and I thought the illuminated bridges, castles and palaces were so beautiful.

We transferred to another boat for dinner afterwards, to dine at a restaurant called Spoon Cafe, where we had a lovely evening meal on board.

After that, it was back to our gorgeous hotel, the very centrally located four-star Danubius Astoria, which has an underground train station just outside its door. We went downstairs to the bar for a nightcap, and it was as if we had stepped back in time as men and women waltzed and tangoed around the dance-floor.

It was like something out of a film, we decided, and as the dance partners seemed to change pairings frequently, we had great fun trying to work out who was actually romantically involved!

Dinner the following evening was at Gundel (www.gundel.hu), the most prestigious restaurant in Hungary. Very beautiful, it has played host to the likes of Pope Benedict, the Queen of England and a host of celebrities.

Having nosily inspected the gorgeous rooms available for private functions, we sat down for a sumptuous dinner in the lavish dining-room, where we were serenaded by a group of classical musicians. They decided to throw in a few Irish jigs towards the end of the evening when they discovered we were from Ireland, and soon everyone was up dancing and doing what can only be described as a dubious version of Ballai Luimnigh. I would safely say that the good people of Gundel had never seen the likes of it in their lives!

After this debacle, we went to Szimpla Kert, one of the city's famous Ruin pubs (www.ruinpubs.com). Ruin pubs were established at the beginning of the 21st Century in the tenement houses and factory buildings doomed to destruction. They were equipped with the rejected furniture of old community centres, cinemas, and private flats, and became popular social haunts among the youth of Hungary. We loved Szimpla, where there was so much to look at and take in, from a black-and-white film showing on a screen suspended from the ceiling, to food vendors, all sorts of crazy-looking decorations and statues. From the very posh Gundel, to this most enjoyable madness, it was safe to say that there was something to suit all tastes in Budapest. Which kind of sums it up really -- no matter what it is that you are looking for, Budapest is the place that will provide you with the answers.


Andrea travelled to Budapest courtesy of Malev Airlines, The Hungarian Tourist Board and Danubius Hotels. Malev operates flights year round from Dublin to Budapest up to seven days a week. Promotional fares from Dublin to Budapest start at €149 return -- for full details see your travel agent or visit www.malev.com

Prices for the four-star Danubius Hotel Astoria, until March 31, 2012, are from €69 for a standard room and €79 for a deluxe room, including VAT and local taxes. Special offers of "Stay 3, pay 2" or "Stay 4, pay 3" are available during this period with the following extras: (1) free admission to one of three historic spas (Szechenyi, Gellert, Rudas) (2) Budapest Card -- for the price of a 48-hour card, you get a card for 72 hours. www.danubiushotels.com/ astoria or contact +36 1 889 6061

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