HISTORIC, PROUD AND ORNATE; RELAXED, RETRO AND BOHEMIAN… THERE ARE MANY WAYS THE OLD HUNGARIAN CAPITAL PRESENTS ITSELF AS A CHIC CITY WRITES JENNY CASPERSONN.
It’s our last night in Budapest and I am yet to taste some goulash. The time has come. The small gypsy orchestra is in full swing – violin bows oscillating at superhuman speed delivering Brahm’s Hungarian Dance No.5 - and the tuxedoed waiters have taken orders. The catfish paprika goulash and homemade cottage cheese-filled is on its way while Gundel’s specialty dessert crepe will follow. Gundel, Budapest’s oldest and most famous restaurant, was established in 1893 and it reflects much of what Budapest is about. Historic, ornate and proud, yet it’s a curious juxtaposition in the modern world.
Budapest is the capital of the republic of Hungary located in the Carpathian basin in Central Europe. To its north lies Slovakia with Ukraine, Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia to the south, Austria to the West and Romania to the East. Budapest, with a population today of 1.7 million people, is both one of the oldest and youngest cities in Europe. Roman settlement occurred in the 1st Century AD but Budapest had its more recent beginnings when Obuda (old Buda) and the elevated historic fortress of Buda, on the western side of the River Danube and Pest, on the industrial plain on the eastern side of the river which today forms Budapest’s commercial heart, were united into a single city in 1873. Over the centuries Hungary has been coveted, conquered, occupied and valued for its strategic location in Central Europe. Alongside Prague and Vienna, Budapest is regarded as one of Central Europe’s most beautiful cities and attracts about 2.3 million visitors each year. Thankfully large chunks of the city are acknowledged World Heritage treasures. The Parliament building for example, reminiscent of London’s Westminster with its neo-Gothic architecture and striking river frontage, was constructed between 1885 and 1902, and was for some time the largest parliamentary building in the world. Its 691 rooms and staircases stretch for more than 20 kilometres and an elegant 69-metre cupola crowns the building. One of the most spectacular views of the Parliament is from the western bank of the Danube in the Buda Castle district. Here, in the ancient town where the 700-year-old Matthias Church stands, architect Frigyes Schulek completed the enchanting structure of the Fisherman’s Bastion on the medieval castle walls in 1902. From the Bastion’s stone arches and zig zag stairs visitors are treated to glorious views across the river to Pest.
Andrassy Avenue, an iconic boulevard of Parisian grandeur, dates back to 1872 and is lined with spectacular neo-Renaissance townhouses and is also the site of high-end shopping, restaurants, cafes and theatres. Andrassy Avenue meets Heroes’ Square at the Millennium memorial flanked on one side by the Museum of Fine Arts and on the other, the Art Gallery. Beneath Andrassy is the oldest underground subway in Continental Europe, still carrying passengers after 125 years. Along Andrassy Avenue is the glorious Budapest Opera House, inaugurated in 1884, and modeled on Vienna’s Opera House. Very accessible to the public, we were delighted with our excellent seats for Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet. Another beautiful structure is the neo-Gothic Central Markets building that was inaugurated in 1897.
Other highlights of Budapest include the labyrinth of geothermal springs beneath Budapest’s surface. Budapest’s bath culture has been thriving since the Romans with evidence of their baths still visible in the ruins to the north of the city, and travellers have spoken of the medicinal benefits of the waters for centuries. The Turks, who occupied Hungary for more than 150 years, built thermal bath-houses some of which are still in use, such as the Rudas. The Gellert Spa is considered one of the city’s most elegant, while the Szechenyi Thermal Baths are a decorative wonder with Baroque yellow walls and mosaic tiled marble columns with no less than 15 indoor and outdoor pools, as well as the opportunity for an extraordinary massage. My non-English speaking male masseuse was fair, fit and extremely firm.
Yet amid the abundance of glorious historical riches Budapest is also embracing the more contemporary trappings of a modern European city. The Palace of the Arts is Budapest’s newest concert venue, opening in 2005. The permanent exhibition of Ludwig Museum includes works by Picasso, Warhol and contemporary Hungarian artists. Memento Park is an outdoor museum of Soviet artifacts displaying a collection of enormous public statues created during the Soviet occupation that were removed from the streets and squares of Budapest after 1989.
Mention must be made of the coffee houses of Budapest. The city is proud of its café traditions such as the famous Gerbaud, established in 1854 and still operating in its original building. Recently restored, it survived the Soviet years as a local meeting place for a coffee, rich pastry or a beer. Also recently restored is the Café New York in the Boscolo Hotel as dazzling as some of the highly decorated cakes available there.
Budapest is also proud of its traditional cuisine but more modern fare is certainly there. Costes, Budapest’s first Michelin star restaurant, and the recently opened Nobu in the Kempinski Hotel are exciting additions to the culinary landscape in Budapest.
A classic example of the juxtaposition of the old and new in Budapest is the development of the ruin pubs. At the beginning of this century new nightspots began to open in tenement houses and the courtyards of disused buildings and factories. These were decorated with rejected furniture creating a relaxed, retro, bohemian ambience. Part night club, part beer garden, part cultural centre, the term “ruinpub” is the literal translation of the Hungarian name Romkocsma. Szimpla Kert is the largest and possibly best known of the Romkocsmas yet its street presence is barely visible other than a discreet doorway, belying the space inside.
The Gundel’s goulash arrives and it’s delicious. At the next table some serious-looking besuited business types are deep in conversation. Before the formality of the restaurant becomes overwhelming, we step into the cool night air and decide to head to the Szimpla Kert. From old to new; I doubt we’ll bump into the chaps from the next table there.
Where To Stay
Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest
Roosevelt tér 5-6., 1051 Budapest,
Ph. +36 1 268 6000
Rates: from 1240 (about A$339) per night for a Superior Room, to 13,680 (about A$5,210) per night for the Presidential Suite.
Qatar Airways launched flights to Budapest in January this year. The new four times weekly service from Doha is served by an Airbus A320 aircraft, and the economy class fares start from QAR4,400 (about A$1,218) and business class fares from QAR9,710 (about A$2,690) excluding taxes. The airline runs direct flights from Melbourne to Doha. Return fares start from A$2,504 for economy class and A$9,731 for business class (including taxes). From September Qatar will fly daily nonstop from Doha to Budapest, so a flight from Melbourne to Budapest will be a convenient one-stop service.
When To Go
Budapest has a temperate climate, with snowy winters, rainy springs and hot and humid summers. Hungary has one of the highest average yearly hours of sunshine in Europe, and from late April to late September the sun shines for about 10 hours a day.