Budapest

October 4, 2006

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They say Budapest is “the Paris of the East”, a moniker that I’m sure causes French Parisians to bristle.  But, the truth is that it’s a worthy title.  Despite being a former Eastern Bloc capital, Budapest has somehow managed to retain its fin de siecle style and glamour.

As most folks are aware, the current city of Budapest resulted from a merger between the cities of Buda and Pest in 1873.  This odd historical conjunction resulted mostly from the building of the Chain Bridge (shown above) which was the first bridge to span the Danube, thus linking the two cities together forever, and cementing Budapest as the trade capital of Eastern (well, Central really) Europe.

Nevertheless, even after 130+ years, there are still stark contrasts between the Buda and Pest sides of the city.  For one thing, Buda is incredibly hilly, with winding roads and cliffs that soar straight up from the river.  Pest, on the other hand is perfectly flat, with ample space for tree-lined boulevards and open squares.  The Buda landscape is dominated by a hilltop castle and lots of expensive homes set into the hills.  The Pest side is where you’ll find the dense urban city with designer shopping and palatial hotels.  Buda has a funicular railway, and Pest has about 90% of the subway system.

Speaking of subways, Budapest has one of the oldest in the world.  The original #1 line still has oak-paneled platforms and wooden train cars with turn-of-the-century brass and leather fittings.  The other two lines were built during the Soviet era and look exactly like you’d expect: cold, metallic, monochromatic, devoid of all character.  The efficiently color-coded Soviet-era stations feature the world’s most uncomfortable plastic molded seats.  Maybe Soviet efficiency is also the reason for the swiftest-moving most-dangerous escalators I’ve ever ridden on.  Then, when you exit the station, your ticket is checked by a cadre of stout, matronly women wearing “official ticket inspector” sashes and looking like they really enjoy catching out the odd fare evader.

One of the highlights of any trip abroad is trying out the local cuisine.  Sometimes this is a test of will.  Scotland comes to mind here.  But, Hungarians love good, strong, no-nonsense home cookin’ (as it were).  “Paprika chicken” is the standard dish you’ll find on every menu, and it’s absolutely delicious.  Something akin to spaetzle is also very popular, and it also is extremely tasty.  We had a couple of off nights (I would suggest you follow the guidebook tip and avoid any place that advertises a “tourist menu” because the food there will be markedly inferior.), but on the whole, dining in Budapest was a treat.

Budapest is also world-renowned as a spa town.  Centuries ago, the ancient Romans discovered mineral hot springs, and a local industry was born.  Today, people come from hundreds of miles in every direction to soak in the “healing” waters.  For the locals, visits to the baths might be as common as eating dinner.  And, the baths are beautiful.  Huge palatial buildings were constructed around them in the 1890s, complete with Bernini-like fountains and overblown baroque decor.

There’s a whole etiquette built into the Hungarian spa-going experience, and Derek and I tried to study up.  Do you wear a bathing suit?  How do you pay?  Do you have to bring your own towel?  How do you move between the various pools?  Is there a path you’re supposed to follow around the complex?  What about the dreaded tipping question?  And, finally, which baths do you go to?  There are at least 15 major spas in central Budapest.

Ultimately, Derek and I opted for the largest and most elaborate spa, the Szechenyi Baths, named after Count Istvan Szechenyi, a 19th century Hungarian politician who has the sort of reputation that, say, Franklin Roosevelt has in the US. (The Chain Bridge is also named after him, and his picture’s on the money.)  Sadly, after we got there, we seemed to lose all memory of our etiquette research, and I’m sure the locals immediately pegged us as idiot foreign tourists.  The baths themselves however did not disappoint.  They were absolutely breathtaking, and the warm, mineral-rich water felt luxurious.  There were indoor pools and outdoor pools, each with it’s own regulated temperature, ranging from freezing cold to boiling hot (thankfully, most were in a nice comfortable hot-tub-ish warm range).  Old men sat playing chess on boards fixed to marble pillars in the water.  Families with kids splashed about.  Inside, a classful of middle-aged women performed graceful water aerobics.  But, mostly people just sat and relaxed.  And, it was very relaxing.  I nearly fell asleep a few times.  A picture is worth a thousand words, so click here.

The relaxing baths were a welcome relief after days of hurried sightseeing.  Budapest has lots of amazing landmarks (too many to name here), but my favorite was the Fisherman’s Bastion.  It’s really a completely useless building (a “folly” as the Brits would say), a huge white marble sandcastle of a structure that wouldn’t be out of place in Disneyland.  That’s probably why I love it.  And, from its perch atop Castle Hill on the Buda side, it has the most spectacular views of the city.

By the end of the trip, Derek was exhausted, so I let him rest while I checked out two of the city’s most dubious attractions: the House of Terror and the World’s Most Beautiful McDonalds.  No, I’m not kidding.  About either of them. 

The House of Terror is a museum detailing life in Budapest under the two successive totalitarian regimes that controlled that country: first the Nazis (under the banner of the Arrow Cross party), then the Communists.  It’s housed in a building that was used as a headquarters (complete with a basement full of torture cells) by both camps.  Oddly enough, it’s smack in the middle of Andrassy Avenue, which is sort of the Champs-Elysees of Budapest.  Inside, the experience is supposed to be a bit like the Museum of Tolerance or the Holocaust Memorial Museum, where you chronologically journey through the harrowing rise and fall of fascism and communism.  But, in reality, it feels more like a trip through the Museum of Design or maybe the Knoll furniture showroom.   It’s like a very elaborate, very stylish modern art installation.  Instead of making the regimes look horrific, the museum makes them look, well, sexy.  Which is almost as horrifying as the horrors the museum purports to be exposing in the first place.

At the extreme opposite end of the cultural spectrum, there’s McDonalds.  It turns out that Budapest has a giant tri-level American-style mall (complete with a TGI Friday’s and a multiplex).  The mall is next door to the central train station, a masterpiece of brick, steel and glass, built in part by Gustave Eiffel (of the eponymous tower fame).  Attached to the station is the famous McDonalds.  Well, it’s not that famous.  Honestly, I’d never heard of the Budapest McDonalds before I came here.  But, once I read about it, I had to see it.  I mean, how do you pass up seeing “The World’s Most Beautiful McDonalds”?   (Five words I’d never seen strung together before, and probably never will again.)  And, the verdict?  Yes, it was very beautiful.  (Click here for a picture.)  I imagine it once used to be a lounge or booking hall for the station that’s since been restored to it’s original glory.  It is the only McDonalds I’ve ever been to with chandeliers and gilt plasterwork on the ceiling.  And the food?  Well, a Big Mac is a Big Mac everywhere.  I recommend sticking with the paprika chicken.

More info: Budapest

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