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Barry Pollack's "Going Places"

Budapest, Hungary

Every great city has a story to tell. Unveiling the plot is what makes travel such a joy. Budapest, the capital of Hungary, like many great cities formerly behind the "iron curtain," is still in the process of restoring its past and molding its future. And it has a lot of wonderful stories to tell.
Budapest reveals its more romantic flare when pronounced correctly - Budda - Pesht. Two cities - Buda and Pest - have straddled the Danube for centuries. Hilly Buda on the west bank was home to the royal palace. On the eastern shore was Pest, where business thrived. They competed for culture and commerce until the Chain Bridge was built in 1849 connecting them. A few decades later these two cities become one.
Two million people, a fifth of the Hungary's population, live in Budapest. It is a city easily traversed by metro, taxi, or on a wonderful tram system with quaint, narrow yellow trolleys that run along the shores of the Danube. But the most emotional way to introduce yourself to the city is by a river boat trip along the Danube. While many of the buildings along its shores seem to be grand old edifices, most are reconstructions. Much of Budapest was destroyed during World War II - first by the Russians and then by the retreating Nazis. Nevertheless, the "renovated" city is beautiful. Hungary's Parliament, a neo-Gothic building modeled after the London's Parliament, dominates the Pest shore. The Habsburg Royal Palace, with its prominent dome, sits prominently atop the Buda hills on the opposite shore. Take the champagne tour of the Danube at night when the city, its castles, churches, Parliament, and bridges are ablaze - sparkling with glamour, romance, and history.
We stayed at the grand Kempinski Hotel Corvinus (www.kempinski-budapest.com). This modern glass and marble hotel with 365 rooms is perfectly located in the heart of Budapest, just steps from upscale pedestrian shopping on Vaci Street and the charming promenade along the Danube. Rates are remarkably reasonable for a luxury hotel - from as little as 109 Euros for a standard room in the winter. I had never stayed in a Kempinski hotel before my sojourn to Eastern Europe. It is, I learned, the oldest chain of luxury hotels in Europe. While the hotel was comfortable, convenient, and luxurious, its service was especially superb. Sightseeing aboard a riverboat one day, my eyeglasses fell overboard. I spent two days unsuccessfully searching local stores for some inexpensive non-prescription reading glasses. When I mentioned my visual dilemma to the Kempinski's concierge, he quickly brought out a selection of free loaner designer glasses. Ready to cater to a guest's every need, the Hotel Kempinski Corvinus gets my personal five stars.
You can buy a Budapest tourist card that includes discounts to museums, restaurants, and free public transportation. A three day card costs 4950 HUF (Hungarian florins, 240 florins = $1). But we made little use of the card. A personal guide, car and driver for an entire day cost only 30,000 HUF ($125).
Interestingly, the first stop that our guide took us to in Budapest was not Buda Castle, a landmark to its royal heritage, nor Parliament, the symbol of its new democracy, but to Budapest's Great Synagogue in the former Jewish ghetto. Ten percent of Hungarians were Jews before 1945. And ten percent of the 6,000,000 Jews murdered in the Nazi Holocaust were Hungarians.
The Great Synagogue is the largest in Europe. It is of Moorish design and curiously there are more five-pointed stars imbedded in its décor than classical six-pointed stars of David. Our guide explained that the Great Synagogue was one of the few buildings that remained relatively intact after the bombing in World War II. It wasn't bombed by the Americans because it was a synagogue and the German's kept it intact because it housed their communication center and SS Headquarters.
The synagogue stood at the very the edge of the former ghetto. A remnant of the ghetto wall has been kept as a memorial to those times. The guided tour of the synagogue also includes a Jewish museum and an outdoor holocaust memorial where a metallic sculptured willow tree, donated by actor Tony Curtis, honors those lost in the Hungarian Holocaust. (Tony Curtis, nee Bernard Schwartz, was born to Hungarian immigrant parents.)
There are three great vista points in Budapest - the classic ones, the view from Buda Castle and from the dome of St. Stephen's Cathedral; and a contrived one, from a hot air balloon tethered in the midst of the Westend City Center, a modern upscale shopping mall and Central Europe's largest.
I skipped the hot air balloon view although I did browse the Westend mall. I didn't find much I was interested in buying in Budapest. Other than antiques or folk art, I thought the best products to buy were locally manufactured porcelains, particularly Herend.
The view from Buda Castle is a must see. We strolled across the Chain Bridge guarded by worn lions and spoiled by a lot of graffiti. On the other side of the bridge was a funicular that took us up to Buda Castle for a spectacular view of the city and its river. In the Castle District, you can walk the palace grounds, visit the Hungarian National Gallery, stroll the streets of Old Town, visit the neo-Gothic Mattias Church, and view the city from Fisherman's Bastion.
St. Stephen's is Budapest's grand cathedral, dedicated to St. Stephen, or Istvan, Hungary's first Christian king. After perusing the inside of the church, take the elevator, rather than walking 300 steps, to the base of the dome for a fantastic 360 degree vista of the city. The plaza in front of the church is a great place to rest, have lunch in an outdoor café, and watch passersby.
The most impressive building in Budapest and the largest building in the country is the Parliament. We took Tram #2 to the Parliament building one morning and sat in a nearby bistro for our time to tour. Tours in English occur just a few times a day and cost 2000 HUF, about $8. The tour was brief, even somewhat hurried, as our guide took us up the opulent main staircase to view the nation's crown jewels. Set beneath a great rotunda and under protective glass were the king's crown, orb, and sword. A pretty tacky collection of crown jewels, I thought. We zipped through some anterooms and the assembly chambers, had a brief moment to gawk at great paintings and sculptures, and found ourselves outside again waiting for Tram #2.
The tram took us then to the Great Market Hall, a cavernous three-level marketplace where locals, often in traditional costumes, sell every variety of Hungarian food. This is a sausage lover's heaven and the place to try hot sausage, mustard, and langos, Hungary's traditional light fried flat bread. And don't leave without buying paprika. Hungarian cuisine is defined by paprika and the best and widest variety of this spice is found here. There's hot paprika and sweet paprika and a myriad of grades of pungency.
The year 1896 was the millennium anniversary of the Hungarian nation and for that celebration great monuments and buildings were built in Varosliget, or City Park. In this northeastern part of the city is Heroes' Square. Millennium Monument with Hungary's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier dominates the center of the Square. Around it are the Museum of Fine Arts, fairytale Vajdahunyad Castle, the city zoo, and the grand Szechenyi Baths, the largest spa in Europe, with hot springs reputed to have special healing power.
After one morning browsing antique shops, we stopped for lunch at the Central Café. The restaurant is famous as a gathering place for writers and intellectuals, with well dressed waiters catering to that clientele. We fit right in. I had beef crepes covered in, what-else, paprika sauce, and a dessert of apple and berry strudel covered in a sugared crème sauce. Fantastic.
I commend another restaurant. Next to the Kempinski Corvinus is the British Embassy and next to the embassy is the Arany Barony Etterem. An "etterem" is the Hungarian word for restaurant - the one word in a rather difficult language that I found easy to remember.
The Hungarian State Opera House is an impressive façade built to rival those of Paris and Vienna. And so I thought it de rigueur to attend an opera in Budapest. What difference could it make to hear an opera in Hungarian when I can't understand a classical Italian opera anyway? Nevertheless, it was bizarre listening to an opera in Hungarian with German subtitles above the stage. Suffice it to say, I loved the setting and the sets.
On our last full day in Budapest, we met our guide early and set off for our final destinations in Hungary, the charming towns of Szentendre, Visegrad, and Estergom along the Danube Bend. While it is possible to take a more romantic hydrofoil or ferry boat trip to these towns along the Danube, where the river "bends" northward, the river was at low ebb during our visit and no tour boats were in service.
Szentendre (St. Andrews) is a 13th century artist's village. There's a small central square, the requisite old churches, and a maze of narrow cobblestone streets with surprisingly interesting art galleries, souvenir shops, and etterems. It is the definition of "quaint."
Our second stop was Visegrad, a hilltop fortress castle built in the 13th century and destroyed in the 18th century. It is still in the process of being rebuilt but it is already a busy tourist attraction. There are great views of the Danube from its heights. This town was the furthest settlement of the Roman Empire in central Europe and Roman ruins at river's edge are still visible from the heights of Visegrad. If you go, have lunch at the picturesque Renaissance Restaurant at the foot of Visegrad. Here waiters are dressed in Renaissance garb and the specialty is venison stew.
Our last stop on the Danube Bend was Estergom, the most sacred city in Hungary. A great cathedral overlooks the town. Rebuilt in the 1850's, it sits on the same sight where St. Istvan, Hungary's patron saint and king, was crowned in 1000 AD. Inside are the crypts of Hungarian bishops, the most famous of which is Joseph Mindszenty, the archbishop of Hungary who was given asylum from the Soviets for 15 years in the U.S. embassy in Budapest.
Many societies and armies have trodden upon Hungary during two millenniums. In its capital, there are the ruins of the 2nd AD Roman town of Aquincum. The Turks made Budapest home for a few hundred years and the city's many grand bath houses are relics of that settlement. Napoleon was a conqueror, the Nazi's, and, until 1991, the Russians were occupiers. It is a city with a lot of stories to tell and a place well worth a tourist's own conquest.