Story and photography by Barbara Angelakis
The magic number seems to be 7 – the 7 hills of Rome, Athens, Madrid and Istanbul, the Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome were just 1 short of the ubiquitous 7 - and there were 7 tribes of nomadic Magyar tribes that settled in the Carpathian basin in 896. The Magyars were known also as Hungarians and were, and still are, the only people to converse in the Hungarian language (Finland's linguistic claims to the contrary).
First there was Óbuda, Buda on the hill, and Pest across the Danube. Eventually the towns became unified with Óbuda and Buda on the West bank and Pest on the East bank of the river. Every time I return to Budapest, I discover new treasures in this capital city of Hungary, one of the largest and surely one of the most beautiful in the European Union. Whether on your first trip or your fifth, the World Heritage site of Castle Hill like a magnet, draws you to the Buda side from which there are wonderful views of the city undergoing a renaissance in building and beautifying. Currently the old Jewish Quarter is being revitalized and is becoming one of the trendiest entertainment neighborhoods in the city.
We flew Air Berlin via Berlin and a quick plane change brought us to the Ferenc Liszt International Airport, named of course after the most famous Hungarian composer. The hotel during our stay was the opulent 5-star Corinthia Hotel Budapest and Royal Spa; a truly luxurious old world property but with all the amenities, restaurants, meeting areas and services that are necessary to our modern culture. We were fortunate to have as a guide a native of Budapest, Gyémánt Balázs. Tip: In Hungarian the first name is written after the family name. Balázs has a perfect command of the English language and was knowledgeable and flexible, a delightful guide.
We dropped our bags at the Corinthia and made a beeline to the World Heritage Castle District. There are so many exotic and quixotic medieval, 18th and 19th century buildings to visit. Tip: Note the colorful geometric tiles on the roofs that are characteristic of Hungarian design. Buda Castle was originally a medieval enclave with an underground labyrinth constructed by the residents to hide from marauding bands. Over the centuries and various occupying cultures the area grew, so from the neo-Gothic Matthias Church to the Fisherman’s Bastion with a turret representing each of the original 7 tribes, there is much to see and enjoy.
After a well earned night’s sleep we put on our walking shoes to explore the Pest side of the Danube and began with the stunning neo-Gothic symmetrical Parliament building. Parliament Square is possibly the only square in the world to boast 3 Parliament buildings. There was a competition during the late 19th century to design a building worthy of Hungary’s world-class standing with the 3 winners commissioned to construct their entries. The building completed on time was the ultimate winner and across the square are the two losers (sic) now a Federal Reserve building and a Folk Art Museum, both architecturally worthy competitors.
The Parliament has recently added a new visitor’s center on the far right side of the building (towards the river) from where you can visit the absolutely dazzling building reconstructed to the original design after the devastation of WWII. Throughout the building over 20 pounds of gold was used to decorate the ceilings and the walls are hung with precious works of art. You can also visit the Hungarian Holy Crown which is kept under guard but still used in state ceremonies. Tip: no photographs are allowed in the crown room but there are no restrictions elsewhere in the Parliament building. The Crown may or may not have been sent by the Pope to King Saint Stephen according to tradition, but it is the Holy Crown in which the divine force resides to rule the lands of Saint Stephen, not in its wearer. No king was considered legitimate unless he was coroneted wearing the Holy Crown.
Behind the Parliament Square on the riverbank is a moving tribute to the memory of the Jews killed in 1944/45 by the Hungarian Arrow Cross Militiamen. Referred to as the “Shoes on the Danube Bank” it speaks volumes about those that were forever silenced. We also visited the Holocaust Memorial Center which was established by the state to focus on Holocaust research and education. It is well organized and gives a historical account of the Jewish heritage of Hungary. Of course no visit to Budapest would be complete without a stop at the Great Dohány Synagogue. Synagogues in Budapest are named after the streets on which they stand and the Dohány is the largest in Europe and the second largest in the world, after Temple Emanu-El on New York City’s upper Fifth Avenue. The building was designed in the Moorish Revival style, with twin onion-shaped cupolas embellishing the roof. The interior features Islamic decorations along with Church style details including a Gothic Rose window over the Main Entrance. Music was introduced in the Dohány in the form of an organ behind the Ark… to be played of course by a non-Jewish musician. Franz (Ferenc) Liszt himself played at the opening ceremony.
A fun interlude was a visit to the Great Market Hall, a collection of food stalls on the ground floor and craft objects for sale on the first floor (for Americans, it is the second floor) along with Fakanal (Wooden Spoon) Restaurant where we ate lunch. The lunch was typical Hungarian food featuring goulash (a meat soup with vegetables) stuffed cabbage, veal schnitzel, dumplings, and for dessert, cherry and cheese stuffed strudel. We were entertained during lunch by Roma musicians, a really lively spot where natives and tourists alike go to shop and eat.
Another must-do in Budapest, known for its natural mineral springs, is to pay a visit to the Széchenyi Thermal Baths. It’s a well organized family friendly operation with outdoor and indoor hot and cold mineral baths. You can rent a locked changing room and towels but it is suggested that you bring or wear a bathing suit and skid-free slippers. Once inside you can spend as much time as you like visiting the various baths and its fun to try several. Like the Great Market Hall, this is not strictly a tourist attraction but serves the community, so you have an opportunity to talk to natives, but be mindful; some of the younger couples use the baths as a place for romantic assignations… wink, wink.
After dinner in the well-known Spinoza House in the Jewish Quarter where roasted goose leg is the house specialty, we went to a performance by the annual Jewish Summer Festival. The Jewish Summer Festival is a big part of the revitalization of the old neighborhood but certainly not the only one. The hot trend is turning an unlivable tenement house or factory or even an empty corridor between buildings into a “ruin pub”. Many use bits and pieces of discarded chairs, tables and artifacts (even part of an automobile) as furniture and add a bar or two, and they’re in business. Sunday is traditionally market day and one of the largest ruin pubs, Gozsdu Udvar that runs between Király and Dob Streets, is turned into a flea market only to re-invent itself at night as a bar. We also visited Szimpla the oldest ruin pub in Budapest at 14 Kazinczy Utca during the day for their market vibe and returned at night for the bar scene. A stylish newly opened Mazel Tov & Hummus Bar at 47 Akácfa Utca, is not strictly a ruin pub since they serve food as well as drinks but it’s a lively scene that is well worth a visit.
Our farewell dinner was held in the lovely atrium restaurant at the Corinthia Hotel Budapest and it was a feast of boletus (mushroom) cream soup with pumpkin ravioli; pan fried red mullet with girolles mushrooms, beetroot and brown beer foam; sous vide beef with white carrot puree, seared potato dumpling and black garlic and thyme jus; with selected wine pairings of Haraszthy Vallejo Savignon Blanc 2013, Etyek-Buda; Racanati Chardonnay 2011; and reds of Sauska Caabernet Sauvignon 2008, Villány; and Noah Cabernet Sauvignon 2011. Fennel flavored crčme brűlée served with Royal Tokay Cuvée 2012 completed the sumptuous meal.
IF YOU GO…
For information on Budapest visit the Hungarian National Tourist Office www.gotohungary.com
Air Berlin Airlines www.airberlin.com
Corinthia Hotel Budapest www.corinthia.com/budapest
Holocust Memorial Center www.hdke.hu
Széchenyi Thermal Baths www.szechenyibath.hu
Jewish Summer Festival www.zsidonyarifesztival.hu
For information on ruin pubs www.ruinpubs.com
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