Wednesday 22 November 2017

Travel Extra: A tale of two cities

Divided by the great Danube, Budapest will charm every visitor, says Lorraine Courtney

Chain Bridge in downtown Budapest. Photo: Thinkstock
Chain Bridge in downtown Budapest. Photo: Thinkstock

Lorraine Courtney

Hungary's charmingly eccentric capital has appealingly peeling façades, Ottoman remains, wild violins and fiery soups. It's also a tale of two cities divided by the Danube.

Buda is dreamy and hilly while urbane Pest is the city's beating heart. Start out by crossing the iconic Chain Bridge to the Buda side where a trudge uphill to the Fisherman's Bastion gives dazzling views including the spiky houses of parliament which one poet described as "a Turkish bath crossed with a Gothic chapel".

The Fisherman's Bastion itself is all medieval solidity, like something out of King Arthur's court. Beside it is the Matthias church with its roof-like marquetry.

This is one of the places to sample the coffeehouse culture of central Europe and while it may be touristy, Ruszwurm is an institution that has to be experienced. It's been serving coffee and salty pogácsa scones in the Castle district since 1827 and still has some of its original cherrywood fittings.

Otherwise, the gilded and swagged interior of the New York Café in Pest make it one of the biggest, glitziest cafés in all of Europe. It was the hangout for Budapest's literati and playwright Ferenc Molnár once stole its keys and threw them into the Danube so that it would always stay open.

Pest is laid out in Haussmannesque Parisian lines but with more central European flourishes and flashes of fairy-tale whimsy. The flamboyant and flowery patterns and gold-inlaid art deco designs are perfected in the landmark Four Seasons Gresham Palace Hotel and in the Former Royal Post Office Savings Bank.

Váci is the main high street, Andrássy is the luxury boulevard and the Design district is a co-operative of shop owners who promote traditional and contemporary designer goods. Pick up embroidered tops, rugs and paprika in prettily coloured tins as souvenirs.

Sandor Petöfi was the poet whose stirring National Song galvanised the ill-fated uprising against Habsburg rule in 1848. He was killed one year later at just 26. It wasn't in vain though and Budapest went on to become a joint partner with Vienna in an Austro-Hungarian empire that controlled great swathes of central and eastern Europe.

A weekend break is probably not long enough to come to terms with the Hungarian language since it seems to consist of words that look like bad hands at Scrabble. But Petöfi reads well in translation too and the literary museum on Károlyi Mihály utca is well worth an hour of your time.

Obuda is a charming suburb that's home to the Victor Vasarely gallery: the inventor of Op Art. Vasarely's geometrically complex monochrome abstracts play havoc with your vision across two floors and there is an excellent interactive room for little ones. Otherwise, check out the Hungarian National Gallery for local works or the Museum of Fine Arts for paintings by Renoir, Goya and Raphael.

This is a city of bathhouses with its natural underground thermal pools. Bathing options run the gamut from the Art Nouveau Gellert Baths to the racy Király Baths that host rave party nights.

But you really can't go wrong with all of them consisting of a thermal pool, steam bath and sauna to soak away stresses. Before you leave, visit the Szoborpark. It's crammed with Soviet-era sculptures and movingly transforms these iconographies of communism.



Getting there

Aer Lingus flies from Dublin to Budapest. Fares from €171 return. +353 0818 365000,

Staying there

The Hilton Budapest Hotel is designed around a 17th-Century facade. +36 889 6600, Many of the rooms have courtyard views and all have the creature comforts you would expect. Rooms from €130.

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