by André Gayot
With its large avenues, handsome mansions, monuments of the 19th century, urban parks and lakes, lively streets, statues and world-renowned art, the capital of Hungary appears to us to be a smaller Paris on the Danube. Budapest even boasts an Eiffel monument: not a tower, though, but a railway station. The section of the city called Buda is separated from Pest by the Danube and reunited by many bridges, noticeably the Chain Bridge that leads to the Buda Castle, the quintessence of Hungary. The majestic royal palace with its two museums, the Matyas Gothic Church built in the 12th century and the medieval Fisherman’s Bastion are the highlights of Buda. A walk in the cobbled streets will lead you to Ruszwurm, the oldest café and pastry shop in town, or for dinner to Pierrot Café & Restaurant, a handsomely restored and snug restaurant with its garden in the back, serving Hungarian specialties beginning, of course, with goulash.
Next to Castle Hill surges Mount Gellert (named after the bishop hurled into the Danube by the pagans in 1012) topped with a tad pompous "Statue of Liberty" inherited from the communist era. At the foot sits the famous Danubius Hotel Gellert, host of the luminaries searching for a cure in water in the thermal establishment dubbed the “Temple of Bath.” Budapest indeed is all about water, from mineral and thermal, to medicinal water that was known and used by the Romans and is thought to cure many illnesses. Be sure to also see the ruins of the Roman town and bath at Aquincum.
In Pest also, many hotels have spectacular spas and several baths are open to the public such as the neo-baroque Szechenyi Bath, one of Europe’s largest, with its 18 pools filled by surging sources of different temperatures. Nearby is a pleasant relaxing place to lunch or dine on the rim of the City Park Lake on the terrace of Restaurant Robinson.
A walk from Roosevelt Square is embellished by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Gresham Palace, which is now a Four Seasons hotel. The unpretentious KOLLÁZS Brasserie & Bar serves dishes at reasonable prices. It’s a nice walk on Jozsef Attila Utca to Saint Stephen's (the founder of Hungary) Basilica whose cupola surpasses all the other steeples of the town as ruled by the church authorities.
The main artery, the Champs Elysées of Budapest Andrássy Ut, runs through the city all the way to the Opera House and the City Park along the beautifully kept mansions of the 19th century. Close by Kruth Erzsébet stands the magnificent Corinthia Hotel Budapest with its incredibly lavish bath. The shopping area — think Hungarian porcelain — spreads between Jozsef Attila Utca and Kossuth Lajos Utca, and Vàci Utca is the chic street.
In the pedestrian area, street musicians, acrobats and mimes entertain the crowd night and day. In the southern part of the city, a typical Hungarian lunch is de rigueur at the Fakanal Restaurant, nestled on the first floor of colorful Market Hall (the place to buy your paprika). A beautiful location facing the Castle, affordable rates, and well-appointed and quiet rooms are what guests can expect from the Millennium Marriott. It works well for a visit, although a few smiles from the staff would not hurt.
North, right on the left bank of the Danube stands the spectacular Parliament inspired in 1884 by the British model of Westminster. The Gothic structure shelters 233 statues. Further north, the greenest part of Budapest, Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube welcomes those who want to rest in the tranquil pedestrian-only environment, and those who want to exercise on the tennis courts, stadium and pools. Predictably enough, Margaret Island is reputed for its thermal establishments.
Back in town, the largest synagogue of Europe in ter Dohany illustrates the importance of the Jewish population in this country. On the bank of the Danube, sculpted shoes are a poignant reminder of the martyr of the Jews, who, like Bishop Gellert, were pushed in the water by the modern barbarians, the Nazis. This was a tragic episode in the troubled history of this nation, now a member of the European Union, that has seen so many invasions and devastation. After the Romans, the Huns (Attila), the Avars, the Slavians, the Magyars, the Mongols, the Turks, the Hapsburg, the Romanians, the Germans, the Russians, the Hungarians, whoever they are now, deserve the right to enjoy in peace the benefits of their miraculous waters.