As significant a building as any London terminus, inside Nyugari Plyaudvar station it’s almost forlorn, quiet, with one or two trains randomly parked part way up their respective platforms. But it’s worth the detour on a trip to Budapest for two reasons. It was designed by Gustave Eiffel (and you know what he built) and then constructed by his company. From here the first Hungarian train made its journey in 1846. And in 1990, when it was need of some TLC, McDonalds came on board as the investor, and they occupy the massive, vaulted ceiling 19th century dining room, with the original decoration restored, making it by far the poshest fast-food restaurant in the world.
Just down the street though are restaurants worthy of that description (in other words they fulfil the basic requirement of someone coming up to the table to take your order). Fish soup as a main dish, with a loaf a bread as accompaniment, a chicken and potato dish which incorporated virtually the entire bird, and three pints worth of bottled beer came at a price - just £27. This is a city not for the gastronomically faint-hearted. Which is why we venture just over one of the bridges crossing the Danube to the Buda part of the city, to a building little changed over the last hundred years. Uj Sipos Halaszert is a single-storey restaurant extending to one whole side of a square, made up of a number of separate dining rooms, and apart from a violin, bass, and cimbalon combo, it’s deserted. We stand just inside the door, transfixed by the cimbalon, which is like a piano without a keyboard, played by striking the strings with two small beaters.
After a couple of numbers, the cimbalist gestures us to a table. The violinist of this ‘virtuos gipsy band’ and I’m quoting from the CD they sold us, sashays over to serenade us with a Fritz Kreisler number. Later a waiter appears and seems surprised to see us. What did we order? Pancake filled with wild goose with paprika sauce, vegetable sponge stuffed with tuna cream, strawberry cream soup with cottage cheese dumpling; there were eight varieties of fish soup, and instead of the interminable sea bass served in our restaurants back home, we were offered pike, catfish, perch, shark, and zander.
Travelling around Budapest can be cheaper than advertised. At the airport you can go to the booth for the heavily promoted seventy-two hour Budapest Card which gives free use of the metro, bus, and tram lines, plus free entry to some museums and other discounts for £31. Or go to the desk selling theBudapest 72-hour Travelcard for £14 with just covers the transport. Thing is, a number of the museums don’t charge, and if they do, it’s maybe a couple of pounds or so tops.
The metro escalators are so fast moving they make their London Underground counterparts seem like static stairways. Most of the trains were made in the Soviet Union, although the CCCP metal plate above the connecting doors of each carriage has been removed on the refurbished stock. There’s actually a museum of the underground railway, not that you need to visit it if you simply travel on line one instead, the oldest in mainland Europe, with its restored tiled platform walls, the wooden fittings, and the distinctive narrow yellow coaches.
Back in the Pest part of the city and to Heroes Square, a little like Trafalgar Square without the lions and fountains, and with a statue of the archangel Gabriel rather than Nelson atop the column. To one side, instead of the National Gallery there’s a grander architectural presence housing the Museum of Fine Arts - it was shut for two years of refurbishment. Which is when we discovered late summer might not be the best time to visit cultural attractions, here or at any major city. Most of the galleries were between exhibitions, the opera was closed, symphony orchestras on vacation or on tour, and the Capital Circus of Budapest, the only permanent big top in Europe was, well, I don’t need to tell you.
On the other side of the square though is the smaller scale but equally doric columned Kunsthalle, home of the Institution of the Hungarian Academy of Arts, which did have a show on. It was an exhibition of puppets by Ilona Nemeth, an actress, costume designer, and designer of puppets for theatre, deploying them not just for children but adult. “They come to life not only in the hands of puppeteers, but they are also alive when they are simply seated somewhere: they look at you, and if you let them, they will speak to you without words,” was the slightly un-nerving introduction by the curator.
Close by is one of Budapest’s numerous thermal baths, said to be good for the circulation and to relieve joint pains, and the water, high in calcium, magnesium, and hydrogen carbonate, ranges in temperatures up to 40degrees. The art noveau Geillert Baths has eight pools.
What Budapest makes you realise is that what is happening is so much of our environment is becoming homogenised, that the individual character of our towns and cities is being sacrificed to standardised, methodised design which have no spiritual or aesthetic link to its location. Commodification is happening a-pace to our urban landscape.
But this isn’t an old fashioned city. There’s a virtual reality shop where you can don a headset and play for an hour at a time, maybe negotiating your way down from a mountain top. Instead of that, an actual climb up to the Buda hills for a spectacular view of the whole city doesn’t require prior gym training. The journey starts with the cog railway (which enables the train to ascend without having to go round and round) which starts in a non-descript suburban park. A two-car train sits at the solitary platform, without any suggestion of where it might be going or when it might be leaving; indeed, the only indication it’s in service is that the doors are open.
It’s destination is the start of the unique line which will take us further into the hills. The children’s railway is grown-up in terms of train size, but run by the Hungarian equivalent of the scouts. Dressed in uniform, the staff are of school age. They sell the tickets, check them on board, do the signalling. It’s all under ’scout master/mistress’ supervision, and a grown-up does the driving (to comply with regulations).
As we pull out of the station, the children leave their posts and salute the train. There isn’t much of a scenic view from the carriage, but we get off close to the summit of the hills and take the chairlift down 1040 metres at a speed of four miles per hour. Budapest is spread out below us, slowly coming into focus. It’s a silent journey and very relaxing. At the end, we pass over people’s gardens almost at head height.
Catch a bus further down suburban Buda, and set between some of the more desirable properties is the entrance to the Szemlo-hegyi cave, described as Budapest’s underground flower garden, and the least physically demanding of one of 200 such caves which are under the city, with stalactites and stalagmites dating back over half a million years.
In the evening we catch the Rajkó Folk Ensemble and Orchestra, sixty musicians and dancers performing csardas and other Hungarian dances, as well as nod to former resident Franz Liszt with one his Hungarian Rhapsodies; virtuoso, almost competitive violin playing from the two soloists who stepped forward to lead particular pieces. The Duna Palota venue is a bijou version of an ornate gilded opera house, but on the first floor of a building reached by a marble staircase, and seating just 300.
There’s an extraordinary number of museums in Budapest - including those devoted to beer, flags, wine, terror, meat research, and the ambulance service - as well as landmark buildings, many of which can be taken in on a single tram ride. Route two is the seventh most scenic tram ride in the world according to National Geographic, passing alongside the Danube and the parliament building, with views of the castle.
Security is of airport proportions at The Great Synagogue, which, with its Moorish towers seats 3000 worshippers and was built in 1859. The design brief from the congregation was that it should blend in with existing places of worship., and the Viennese architect Ludwig Forster did just that, even including a pipe organ. The building was restored in the 1990s largely from private donations, including $5million dollars from Estee Lauder, who was born in New York to Hungarian Jewish immigrants.
In the memorial garden a metal ‘tree of life’ in the form of a weeping willow has each ‘leaf’ engraved with the names of a Hungarian Jew murdered by the nazis. It was funded by the foundation set up by Hollywood star Tony Curtis in honour of his father Emanuel Schwartz who left the country for New York.
It is on the banks of the Danube though that the most devastating of memorials is to be found: sixty pairs of shoes cast in iron and attached randomly to the stone embankment over a length of forty yards. Every night in the latter stages of the last world war, the Arrow Cross fascist militia which had taken charge of the country would select and then march Jews from the ghetto to the river, forcing them to remove their shoes, a valuable commodity on the black market, before then shooting them so their bodies disappeared into the water. It is estimated that 20,000 were murdered this way. Of the 861,000 Jewish people inside Hungary up until 1944, less than 30% were left after the deportations to Auschwitz and other concentration camps.
We go back to the Jewish Quarter for dinner at the Spinoza Cafe, the exterior or interior of which looks unchanged from the 1930s. The menu includes a bean stew with beef and hardboiled egg, followed by three-layer cake with plum sauce. Every Friday, dinner can be accompanied by a klezmer band while downstairs, wedged between tables, a piano player performs numerous medleys every evening.
There’s still time - and room - for rice pudding ice cream. You can’t go far in the city centre without coming across a booth selling speciality ice cream, for just £1 a cone. Handing over the money is like paying for something in Italy pre-Euro. There are nearly 350 forints to the pound.
The Danubius Hotel Helia has two thermal pools of its own (one a large jacuzzi) as well as an additional conventional swimming pool. The spa includes a salt cave, and there’s a well-stocked gym. It’s one of a number of Danubious hotels in the city, with spacious double rooms, including safe, wifi, flatscreen television, and a shower that works without the need for a PhD level qualification.
Danubius Hotel Helia is a five-minute walk to the metro and a ten-minute trip to the city centre, compensated by the facilities and impressive housekeeping - it passed the ‘skirting board, is it dust-free?’ test.
The breakfast bar includes full English (they call it American for some reason) with a local twist - the baked beans are in a paprika-spiced sauce. There are also three types of local cheeses, pickled herring, as well as an area to make up your own cereal with the addition of poppy seeds and linseeds. The banana and orange smoothie, made by the hotel is not a combo I would have tried left to my own devices, but it works.
Yes, you can order up a latte or cappucino, but delight in having an old-fashioned Cafe Creme. Eyes wide open for rest of the day that’s for sure.
A double room can start at 72 euros a night.
Flights from Gatwick to Budapest from £26.49
Municipality of Budapest Tourist Information
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