Pest for life
ARRIVING IN THE CITY on a warm evening, Budapest is at its most beautiful. Its domes, spires and towers glow in the hazy late sunshine, and young people drive through the streets in rusty old eastern European cars, windows down, music thumping. There’s the scent of lilac blossom, cigarettes and suntan oil in the air.
This is a lively city with endless possibilities for a fascinating long weekend away. Time seems to pool and stand still in the grand cafes, where you can easily spend an entire afternoon sampling cakes named after Hungarian princes, a delicious reward after a morning in the museums and galleries. Or take a long, restorative soak in a thermal bath: you’re certain to emerge feeling refreshed and rejuvenated.
And that’s before you step out into the legendary, kaleidoscopic Budapest nightlife.
Yet for all its elegance, grandeur and charm, there’s an indefinable sadness about Budapest. You can never quite put your finger on it, but it’s there all the same, in the soot-blackened baroque buildings, in the little shops selling wool or old postcards or quaint Soviet-era ladies’ fashions, and – most especially – in the bullet holes left behind by the horrors of the second World War and the upheaval of the 1956 uprising. This is a city that has endured tremendous suffering, within living memory, and that lingering sorrow is still, in places, an almost palpable presence.
Searching for somewhere to eat on our first night, we wandered down a dark back street behind the synagogue, in the Jewish quarter. Piano music was floating from a doorway; inside, an elderly pianist was playing all the old, best-loved songs – Moon River, Lili Marleen – and the place was packed with locals tucking into vast platefuls of Jewish-Hungarian comfort food. Cafe Spinoza – to which we returned again during our stay, for the chicken schnitzel, the Hungarian steak and spiced letchko potatoes, and the divine homemade apple strudel – is more than a restaurant. It’s also a gallery and theatre, and the aim of the place is to recreate the vibrant atmosphere of the old Jewish quarter before the second World War.
Food in Budapest is an Irishwoman’s dream – if you, like me, are the kind of Irishwoman who loves her meat and potatoes. Though there are more sophisticated options – if you want to dine like the Habsburgs, by all means go to Gundel, founded in 1894, and sip iced honeydew-melon soup – most food in this city is rustic, substantial and carnivorous. (Though vegetarians can dive into one of the many hummus and pitta bars.)
Apart from the omnipresent goulash, goose meat is particularly popular, featuring on almost every menu, from clear goose soup to smoked goose sandwiches. Even the vegetables are likely to come with a roast goose leg on the side. And meat is available at all times: while we stuck to coffee and croissants for breakfast in the romantic Gerlóczy cafe, we could have gone for a full “lion-hearted breakfast”, including “two sizzling Vienna frankfurters”.
But you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the price: although fumbling with Hungarian forints is confusing – they quickly run into thousands – you can eat royally in Budapest for less than €15 per person. It’s not all stodge either: in spring and summer, cold sour-cherry soup – hideg meggyleves – is a delight. And the asparagus soup I tasted in the Centrál Kávéház, in the downtown Belváros district, packed an extraordinary depth of flavour.
Budapest is, in fact, two cities, Buda and Pest, separated by the wide span of the Danube. We spent most of our time in busy, buzzing Pest, although leafy Buda is home to two of the city’s most remarkable spas. Grab a bag of newly picked cherries from the Nagycsarnok (Great Market) on Fõvám Tér – it’s also a great place to pick up cheap paprika (Hungary’s “red gold”) and saffron; the more squeamish may want to avoid the live fish market in the basement – and munch them as you cross Liberty Bridge to the Gellért thermal baths.
Budapest’s spa culture is well documented, and justifiably so, so don’t miss it. The art nouveau Gellért is simply glorious; with its ornate columns, mosaics and stained glass windows, it really is like stepping back into another century. For an extra €14, treat yourself to a half-hour aromatherapy massage. Lying mother-naked in a room full of milky sunlight, being expertly pummelled as water softly trickled in the background, I was in heaven. The ancient Rudas baths, built by the Turks in 1566, are a different experience – how you might imagine bathing in a pagan temple would have felt. The sulphuric eggy smell is odd at first, but your skin will thank you for a dip in these healing waters.
Museums of every imaginable kind abound in Budapest: the Asian gold museum; the Franz Liszt memorial museum; even the Electrical Engineering Museum, with demonstrations of the old alarm system of the barbed-wire fence between Austria and Hungary.
We visited the powerful House of Terror museum on Andrássy út, a grand, leafy boulevard which leads to Heroes’ Square. No 60 was once the party headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis; then, between 1945 and 1956, the ÁVH, the communist secret police, took up residence. The museum dramatically chronicles the atrocities perpetrated on the Hungarian people by both the Stalinist and the fascist regimes: a tank stands in the entrance hall, against the backdrop of hundreds of images of victims, many of whom were tortured or executed in No 60. Inside, one of the most poignant photographs is of the beautiful Chain Bridge, left in ruins in the Danube by the departing Nazis.
In the basement, close to the dank prison cells, with their walls of double thickness to muffle the screams of the inmates, is a “perpetrators’ gallery”: photographs of the spies and torturers responsible for this vicious state oppression, many of them still alive. “The victimisers’ lives before or after do not acquit them from their individual responsibilities,” reads the uncompromising sign. The House of Terror has several choice examples of garish Soviet-era propaganda paintings – grinning, red-cheeked farm workers and so on – but for the full socialist-realist theme-park experience, head to Memento Park, across the river in south Buda.
Get there, stay there
Get there:We flew from Dublin to Budapest in May with Aer Lingus, arriving early Friday evening and departing late Monday evening. The total cost for two people came to €254. Ryanair also flies to Budapest. See aerlingus.comand ryanair.com.
Stay there:Cheap hotels are everywhere. If you’re looking for a bargain, or if you want to save your forint for the baths, the museums, the opera or pálinka, a room at the Ibis Budapest City costs about €50 a night. For something a little more atmospheric, take a stylish room with a claw-footed bath above the beautiful Gerlóczy cafe for €90, plus €12 if you want breakfast (highly recommended: they bake their own bread and pastries every day at 7am).
For personalised recommendations on all aspects of Budapest life and culture, see the independent site welovebudapest.com/en.