Budapest. Two ancient cities, now forged as one. Fifteen bridges span the Danube these days to link flat, blue collar Pest to leafy, patrician Buda. Joined physically for the first time by the Chain Bridge in 1849, the city became the joint capital- with Vienna- of the over blown, ultimately doomed, Austro-Hungarian Empire.
What history it has seen since that time. Over eighty per cent of its buildings were destroyed or damaged in the bitter, three month battle and siege of 1944-45, a campaign every bit as bloody as Stalingrad. Smothered behind the Iron Curtain post war, Budapest was the scene of the poignant, 1956 Hungarian uprising that was so brutally snuffed out.
Today, the great city has been largely restored to its pre war, imperial Art Nouveau splendour. Cafe society rules here in this huge city of two million people, the first in Europe ever to have a working underground system. Pest has many broad, leafy thoroughfares, smart shopping along Vacy Street and Andrassy Avenue, and no shortage of cake rich old cafes and restaurants, with huge, heroic chandeliers suspended above acres of dark wood panelling and mirrored walls.
But Pest is also very Bohemian; check out The Ruins, a quirky run of bars that resembles a cross between an Egyptian bazaar and a Mad Max film set. Every bit of furniture and decor is made from recycled material, and the wall ‘art’ consists largely of graffiti in a lexicon of different languages. Fun it is; genteel, not so much.
A huge city, Budapest is still relatively easy to navigate, thanks to a vast, extensive network of buses, trolleys, trams, and the famous metro, which currently has three main lines. Hotels are often elegant, old world affairs straight out of an episode of Poirot, and come suffused with that air of polite geniality so typical of the old, pre- world war one era.
The food is world famous, and with good reason. Hotel buffets offer chocolate cake as part of the breakfast spread; and the infamous goulash originated in Hungary. Budapest is the town of paprika and the fiery, not to be taken lightly palinka, the local national drink that varies in consistency between perfection and paint stripper. An acquired taste that you may- or may not- acquire. But Budapest is not a beer town; the city is far more enamoured with local Hungarian wines such as the vibrant, delicious Tokay. But whatever your tastes, you’ll never go hungry or thirsty in this city.
Budapest is a late night town as well. Sultry jazz bars and cafes line the banks of the Danube, and it is not at all unusual for them to still be open at four in the morning. On a warm summer dawn, you could emerge from one and walk straight into the first rays of daylight as the sun rises over the ancient, rolling river.
Some of the most magnificent buildings and memorials line the banks of the Danube like a series of stunning exclamation marks. On the Pest side, the Hungarian Parliament is topped by a massive cupola dome, and bears more than a passing similarity-intentional, as it turns out- to the Palace of Westminster.
Further along, you will see the pitiful, open air display of several sets of cast iron shoes. This is a poignant memorial to the Jewish victims of the fascist Arrow Cross, butchered here in the last days of the siege of 1945. It’s sobering, harrowing and unforgettable, and a stunning work of art in its own right.
Over on the Buda side, you’ll see the fabulous National Museum up on Castle Hill, as well as the seven, Disney- esque spires of the famous Fishermen’s Bastion. The world famous Hotel Gellert is also here, and it contains one of the best sets of spa baths in the entire city. If you want a spa town, you’ll find that Budapest has some of the best and most extensive anywhere in Europe.
Downstream and in mid river, Margaret Island gives the city a green, verdant lung; a kind of Central Park on the Danube, if you will. Today it is a serene spread of open lawns, nature trails, bikes for hire and children eating ice cream in the searing heat of a Budapest summer. It’s all a long way removed from 1945, when the island was the scene of some of the most desperate hand to hand fighting of the entire battle for Budapest.
Chock full of agelessly elegant Art Nouveau avenues, lined with houses sporting intricate lace balconies, and flanked with beautiful, wrought iron street lamps, Budapest is a city brimming with a wealth of mind blowing sights; one hidden for too long under the damp overcoat of the Iron Curtain. The entire city is an open air theatre, full of light. life and sound. From the plaintive mewing of a violin in a street underpass to the lush, rolling strains of a Strauss waltz performed by a full orchestra. the ‘Queen of the Danube’ will get under your skin, and stay there. A singularly wonderful city.