If your image, like mine, of Hungary is of folk dancing, goulash and men with big moustaches, then it is time to reboot your image bank.
Hungary has shaken off all the invaders of past generations and having survived two terror regimes, it is now rebuilding its heritage buildings, independent culture and future. Budapest is the cultural centre of Hungary and now hosts festivals all year round. It calls itself the City of Festivals. I am here to experience the Spring Festival.
I began on an indolent Sunday. People are strolling along the banks of the Danube (which by the way is not blue), faces are held up to the almost warm sunshine, trees were in blossom, trams trundled by and there I was zooming around taking an urban expedition on a Tuktuk.
This is a familiarisation tour with a difference, great fun and the young driver/guides are multi-lingual, friendly and resourceful (we broke down!).
Budapest is an architectural paradise. In warm weather I can think of no better way of seeing the sights, as with the top of the Tuktuk down you can look up and appreciate the magnificent exteriors of grand palaces and brightly coloured ceramic rooftops.
The Spring Concert offers 2 weeks of concerts, theatre, opera and exhibitions in splendid venues across the city. When walking around the famous Opera House I caught snatches of Aida from the rehearsal rooms, it is quite magical. Be sure not to miss a coffee stop at Muvesz (Artists cafe) which is full of character and you may spot an actor or musician taking a break. A ticket to a performance at the Liszt Music Academy is a must too. This is the most prestigious concert venue of Budapest. Its current building, the third in its history, is one of the most important Art Nouveau landmarks in the city.
I went to the modern Budapest Music Centre to enjoy a medley of Rossini, Brahms, Liszt and Bartok played by a young 17-year-old pianist with choir. I saw a play at the Budapest National Theatre marvellously choreographed and translated into English and German on side screens. Unfortunately the scripts in different languages are not always synchronised and the positioning of the screens detract from the action on stage.
In the evenings the city comes alive. Heritage buildings along the banks of the Danube are romantically floodlit. People stroll through the many green spaces, wandering across one of the eight bridges from Pest to Buda and back. Music lures you into squares lined with cafes and bars. One evening I spotted a group of people all dressed as if stepping out from an evening with Louis X1V – flash mobs pop up all over town during festival time.
During the day I was spoilt for choice of places to visit. Travelling around both day and night as a single female Silver Traveller was easy and completely safe. The transport system is very comprehensive. I had a 72hr Budapest pre-paid card which allowed me to hop on and off buses, trams, metros and gave discounts to museums and river trips, well worth having.
Metro 1 is the second-oldest underground railway in the world (the first being the Metropolitan line in London). It was the first on European mainland, built 1894-96 and is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Silver Travellers should note that there are no escalators, nor lifts on this route, only stairs.
Hearing that this land-locked country makes the most of water and thermal springs I went up to the City Park to find the SzechenyiThermal Bath and Swimming Pool which has 21 pools, saunas and a water gym. The building is beautiful, but as this is one of Europe’s largest bathing complexes it was not peaceful. Men, as brown as berries, sat around playing cards, and I was told in the summer they sit in the pool playing chess.
The walking tour of Art Nouveau buildings was a treat for me. Here you walk with your head up in the air so as not to miss the Gaudi like decorations above you. Examples of this fine architecture can be seen in the Four Seasons Hotel, Paris building, Continental Hotel and Gellert Bath and Spa.
My guide took me into some residential buildings to have a glimpse of how city folk live. Behind those big impenetrable wooden doors on the street are cool courtyards surrounded by apartments. Celebrities are already buying up these decorative properties as filming in Budapest is popular, inexpensive and no doubt tax deductable.
Every house has a story and ‘Mumlek’ plaques tell of atrocities committed on these now quiet streets over which a sheen of sadness hangs.
Near to Parliament buildings, on the embankment, there are a row of shoes – a memorial to the Jews who were shot here and dumped into the Danube.
600,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to their death during WWII – it is heartbreaking, but they are still remembered.
Never Hungry in Hungary
Most restaurants and coffee houses in the tourist areas are full of character and ambience. Be sure to pack elasticated trousers for the food is truly delicious.
I learnt that you can put anything into a strudel, from poultry to cream cheese and cherries. Garlic soup comes with a big donut filled with sour cream and cheese. Noodles and paprika play a big part in menus and the Porcini-mushroom pappardelle was just mouth watering.
Palinka is Hungarian fruit brandy and there are wonderful names to choose from such as Whistling apricot. I read that in Transylvania, Palinka is used for snake bite, medical reasoning being kill or cure. Talking about Transylvania, when visiting Buda Castle and Palace you will find that Count Dracula was imprisoned up here for 10 years and I don’t think he was drinking Palinka.
My feet ran out of steam before the sights were exhausted. There is so much to see in this city.
Lo and behold, on my last night in Budapest, whilst waiting for a tram, I spotted a man sporting a big moustache!
• Budapest Card
• Oldest Strudel Restaurant Elso Pesti Reteshaz
• PestBuda (near the Buda Castle)
• Menza Restaurant
• Szechenyi Bath
• Novotel Budapest Danube