Despite its current contemporary outlook, the key to Budapest lies in its history, marked by alternate periods of great wealth and prosperity and devastating eras of political and social upheaval. The Magyars view their history not in black and white but in gold and silver. The first Golden Age coincided with the reign of Renaissance King Matyás (1458-90). The second Golden Age was symbolised by the 1896 millennium celebration in City Park and the Silver Age was the 20th-century inter-war period, when the likes of Evelyn Waugh and the Prince of Wales frequented
Budapest's spas and casinos.
Balanced against the good times, however, there is the Hungarians' defeat against the Turkish in 1526 (with the ensuing rebuilding of Buda as a Turkish capital); the Hapsburg rule that continued to deprive Hungary of its autonomy until 1867; the devastation caused by WWII; and Russian control, only lifted in 1989. These significant events have turned the Hungarians into a flexible and resilient race, proud of their national heroes.
Modern Budapest was born in 1873, when Buda, Óbuda and Pest were officially joined. Today, the city is composed of 23 districts (kerületek), each designated on maps, street signs and addresses by Roman numerals (I to XXIII). Buda and Pest still remain distinct, however, creating a fascinating west bank-east bank contrast.
The Chain Bridge (Széchenyi lánchíd) is the central point of Budapest. Hilly Buda in the west is laced with narrow cobbled streets and packed with a mixture of medieval and neoclassical buildings almost totally reconstructed after WWII. Flat Pest lies to the east, its wide boulevards and art nouveau structures testimony to the boom Budapest experienced in the years before WWI. In between are remnants of Turkish and Communist occupation, creating a crazy mosaic of mismatching styles.
A steep climb in the Sikló, the 19th-century funicular, leads to Buda's Castle Hill, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where many attractions are clustered. Nearby is the mosaic-roofed Matthias Church, with the best views of Pest.
The busiest spots in Pest are the shop-lined Váci utca, the Vörösmarty tér square and the Gerbeaud pâtisserie. The most grandiose monument, Hosök tér (Heroes' Square), is reached via Andrássy út. The Museum of Fine Arts and Palace of Art border the monument and City Park is just behind it.
Warm vapors rising from underground hot springs swirl up into the square, which is much favored by teenage skateboarders. Moving closer to the Danube River lies the Dohány Synagogue, the second largest in Europe, as well as the small Jewish quarter (district VII).
Thermal Baths in Budapest - The Rudas »
The Rudas Thermal Bath is one of the oldest baths in Budapest. According to an inscription on the wall of the bath, the foundations were laid down by the Turks sometime in the 15th century. In other words, it is a very old bath.
If you do go to the Rudas, you soon discover that it is a men only bath and women are not allowed within the bathing area. However, not too many foreigners know that there is a so-called family bath service which will not only allow you to enjoy the thermal water but even get a special kind of service. The family bath consists of a private chamber with a huge basin, a shower room, and a sauna.
It is truly a unique experience to bath here. The water in the basin is the same thermal water as in the main pools, coming straight from underneath the ground. The tap is huge so the large basin fills up in a matter of minutes. By the way, the basin is enough for 3-4 people.
If you are tired of the thermal water, you can go into the sauna or take a shower. There are even two massage beds with clean sheets.
All in all, this is a great experience and something out of the ordinary. And all this is for less than $20. To get the family bath, you should ask the cashier for a "Csaladi furdo" (chalah-di furdo). They will assign you an hour and half time slot. (It is not always easy to get in.)
Exploring Hungary through its wines »
During your stay in Hungary, to accompany the traditional paprika dishes you should by no means miss the world-famed Hungarian wines, many of which come from two vine-growing regions in the North Eastern part of the country.
Tokaj-Hegyalja on the South edge of the Zemplen Mountains has served as an extensive vineyard since Celtic times well before Christ. The settling Magyars continued the trade, and from around the 11th century onwards, Hungarian kings were wise enough to invite Italian and other West European settlers. These settlers brought along not only their vine-growing know-how but also new types of vine, and so the range of wines produced was further extended, to include for instance the Tokaj furmint.
Ever since the beginnings Tokaj wines have been adored by dozens of politicians, emperors and artists. The French King Louis XIV's menu described his favorite nectar as "The wine of kings - the king of wines".
What makes this excellent bouquet? It is the combination of favorable climatic conditions, volcanic soil and extraordinary amount of sunshine that is responsible for the unique taste. During the long and dry autumn the grapes have enough time to ripen to maturity, and if their skin bursts apart, some of the juice evaporates and their sugar content increases even further.
If you have a look at the label of the aszú bottles you may wonder what 6 puttonyos means. This refers to the number of butts (puttony) of a special grape paste that is added to a 136 liter barrel of juice. The more the puttonys (from 2 to 6), the more noble the wine, and the higher the price, as you will see. The filled bottles are placed in cool cellars, where the wine is left to ferment for four to eight years. But you don't have to worry about emptying your purchased bottles in a hurry. It can be stored for hundreds of years…
Bull's blood in your vein
The other outstanding vine-growing area of the North Eastern region is Eger. Its much-loved products can be tasted in intimate, traditionally furnished wine taverns and in wine-cellars (many good ones you will find in Szépasszonyvölgye). The best opportunity to take your hold of a couple of glasses is probably at wine-parades held around vintage time. The most famous brands of the Eger region are the dark red, slightly acid Egri bikavér (bull's blood of Eger), the strong, sweet Medoc Noir and the honey-colored Egri leányka. Make sure not to miss them!
"Ghost Buildings" around Budapest - Abandoned monuments of historical Budapest »
Recently, an article on Index.hu revealed the fate of many old and deserted buildings in Budapest. Citizens and tourists alike pass by these antique monuments not knowing what will become of them and are often curious about their future. While some of these buildings will certainly be restored, others are being strangled in ownership disputes, and yet others are beyond hope with respect to utilization.
The recent demolition of the “Press Palace” on Blaha Lujza square called attention to the existence of these deserted buildings. The Blaha Lujza square complex was home to many newspapers during the Communist era but has been empty for nearly 10 years before it was pulled down in the end of 2005.
Two of the most significant “ghost buildings” on the Buda Castle Hill. One of them is the building that was formerly the home of the Army’s Supreme Headquarters. The building, located in the heart of the Buda Castle complex, still wears the marks of World War II, and has not undergone reconstruction ever since. Each government had plans to begin renovation, but actual works have never begun. In theory, such a plan is on the agenda of the current/next government too, as announced earlier by István Hiller, leader of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage.
The other well-known building of Budapest is the Castle Garden Bazaar at the bottom of Castle Hill, along the Danube. This lengthy building complex was built by the celebrated architect Miklós Ybl in 1870, and was once a major sight of Budapest. It was closed in 1984 after it began collapsing on visitors. The restoration of Castle Garden Bazaar is part of the same plan as that of the Supreme Headquarters building. During the past years private investors have shown interest in reopening the Bazaar as a shopping center, but none of them managed to obtain the necessary permissions due to the concerns of the local council.
The Klotild Twin Palace, overlooking the Pest end of Elizabeth-bridge has also been awaiting restoration and utilization for years. The twin buildings facing each other on the two sides of the street were built in 1900 and fascinated the people of Budapest, tourists, investors, and even movie directors even with their turn of the century degraded look. There have been plans to utilize the buildings as a hotel or office complex, but in the end the lack of nearby parking space always changed the investors’ minds.
A bit out of sight, but still visible from many places in Budapest, on the top of Rózsadomb, is the SZOT (National Committee of Trade Unions) Hotel. The building, along with its name typical during the Communist era, comes from the early 1970’s. The Hotel was closed in 1991 due to the lack of maintenance. The restoration of the building had commenced in recent years but was brought to a halt by a private group sworn to defend the sights of Budapest. Unfortunately, the SZOT Hotel in its current half-built form does not add much to the image of the Buda Hills either.
Although there are many more “ghost buildings” in Budapest, not all the antique and unused structures end up with such a grim fate. New York Palace, another old building near Blaha Lujza square has been sold after 10 years of unsuccessful attempts in 2001. After some hardships, thanks in no small part to Hungarian bureaucracy, this building is being reopened as a luxury hotel.
Budapest Statue Park »
The Statue Park in Budapest is becoming one of the hottest destinations for visitors. Not too long ago I had no idea about it but then tourists started asking me on the street about. Excuse me, how do I get to the Statue Park? Erh, could you tell us where the Statue Park is? Which way is it to the Statue Park? Statue Park this, Statue Park that.
And when friends from England visited us in Budapest and wanted to go to the Statue Park, I wanted to go too. First of all, I had no idea where the Statue Park is. We had to rely on their guidebook and dry out of the city to the old road #70. Just before you reach a little town called Diosd, you see a not-too-big sign announcing "Szoborpark" (Statue Park).
Although it is way out of the city, there are regular tourist buses going there from downtown (Deak Square). You buy the ride and the ticket. At the entrance of the park itself, you can see all the buses and the groups of tourists, lining up to get in.
The Statue Park itself is small gravel park with statues from the Communist period. I was immediately taken back to my childhood when some of the sculptures were around. For example, I had no idea that the sculpture of the Russian officer Ostapenko was here. It used to stand where highway #7 enters the city, coming from Vienna. In fact, that place used to be called "at the Ostapenko," sometimes we still call it like that, even though the sculpture disappeared after 1989.
And there were other scupltures I used to see daily, all arranged here in this large opendoor museum. And while our foreign guests were thrilled with the spectacular display of Communist propaganda, I was drowning in nostalgic sentiments. To me the Statue Park meant only the past, my childhood. The statues had nothing to do with Communists and the Soviets.
In any case, when people visit us, I take them to the Statue Park outside of Budapest. It is a nice place outside of the city and our visitors are always fascinated by the remains of the Communist past. The horrors of Communism. Life behind the Iron Curtain. Eastern Europe during the years of oppression. And so on...