24 Hours in Budapest
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(Above) Absorbing the atmos in Vaci Utca.
What I love about Budapest is that it has all the history and grand architecture of much of Europe yet while it is definitely on the tourist radar, it still hasn’t been overrun with them. Go now!
Having time here, albeit short, is a wonderful way to begin our river cruise.
The Danube, which is far from blue, runs through the city, separating Buda on the west side from Pest on the east. The two cities merged in 1873 to form Budapest.
It is of course the perfect place to end up after the gruelling 23 hour flight from New Zealand because you can do as the Romans did when they came here all those years ago, soak your weary bones in a thermal bath. This bathing is something of a local ritual. Best advice is to go early and make sure you check whether it’s a mixed bathing day or single sex ….if its mixed you’ll need togs! We chose the Szechenyi Baths in the beautiful City Park, which date from the beginning of last century. They’re magnificent, sprawling, neo baroque and spotless, with two big outdoor thermal pools and numerous smaller indoor ones. They’re reputed to be the hottest in town, literally, topping out at 38 degrees! Check out the locals whiling away their soaking time playing chess on floating boards in the outdoor pools.
We also booked a massage (just the gentle ‘stroking’ variety as advertised on their website, not fancying being pummelled in our fragile state ) Don’t expect the soft music and fragrant candles experience though, this is definitely no frills, think dark wood, shiny white tiles and fluorescent lighting. The masseuse, a huge Hungarian bloke with big hands, turned out to be a gem though and soon ironed out those tight muscles.
Feeling suitably relaxed we headed off to find a café. One of Budapest’s oldest, Café Gerbeaud sits at the northern end of the city’s main shopping street, Vaci Utca. The cafe faces onto the busy square, a perfect spot for people watching. We demolish two delicious smoked salmon salads loaded with plump juicy caper berries, washed down by the local beer and head straight down Vaci Utca to the Great Market Hall.
The hall was built at the turn of last century and you’ll recognise it from its spectacular roof of bright green and yellow Hungarian Zsolay tiles. The ground floor is given over to an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables along with a bewildering array of Hungarian sausage in all its forms.
Venture up the old wooden stairway and you’ll find ‘souvenir central’ ….. Hungarian embroidery on everything from children’s clothes to tablecloths, painted eggs for the Christmas tree and wreaths of dried paprika peppers, paprika of course a staple of so much of Hungarian cuisine. Goulash anyone?
You can also eat Hungrian street food up here. There’s a supermarket in the basement and you’ll find fish on that floor along with pickles and exotic spices.
In the afternoon we head across the Chain Bridge to Castle Hill to find Budapest’s famed Hospital in the Rock.
This turned out to be a fascinating glimpse into the city’s chequered history. There’s a labyrinth of caves under the castle used as storage for food and valuables in ancient times. In the 30’s the government saw their potential, creating a bomb safe first aid post. It proved invaluable, as Budapest suffered one of the worst bombing assaults of the Second World War.
It’s an eerie place. Chilly. You can borrow vintage grey serge military cloaks to keep you warm as you explore its many twists and turns. Air raid sirens wail and you’re transported back in time. The hospital is set up exactly as it would have been during the war. More than two hundred, impressively lifelike wax models populate the operating theatres and wards. Blood soaked gauze, a stark reminder of the horrors that confronted medical staff.
They don’t allow photos inside but we did spot these cool posters(above and below) in their shop.
Towards the end of the war during the siege of Budapest, one of the longest and bloodiest of the war, Soviet troops surrounded the city for a hundred days. A communist backed regime would rule Hungary until 1991. The stories of the siege are graphically told. The Cave Hospital operated again during the Hungarian revolution of 1956 when the castle became a rebel stronghold.
During the Cuban missile crisis in the sixties it was used as a nuclear bunker, complete with a nerve gas filter system and a decontamination unit.
The hospital tour ends with an exhibition of paintings from the survivors of Hiroshima. It was a sobering visit, given the nuclear posturing of some current world leaders.
We join our Avalon river cruise that night. Gliding away from Budapest into the inky darkness of the Danube. The Hungarian capital is decked out as if in farewell. The city’s magnificent castles and Parliament buildings bathed in golden light. We stand on deck soaking it all up. It is a fitting farewell to this grand old lady of Europe.
Tips for Budapest:
- Booking the baths on line is a great idea. It will save you time if things are busy but it also guarantees you the time you want for your massage if you’ve pre booked. We booked the baths ,cabin, massage option. (The cabin is really a cubicle but it’s big enough for two to change in.
- The on line booking entry to Szechenyi is completely different to the main entrance! You’ll find it at the rear of the building on a street frontage directly behind the main entrance. There’s a small online help desk on the right as you enter down a small corridor.
- You will be given a wrist band to wear which will give you entry to your ‘cabin’
- Remember the number of your cabin (its not written anywhere)
- You can hire towels there but they only accept cash. (Euros will do)
- At the hospital in the rock ask for the special senior rate if you’re over 62 ( but you will need ID). Tours run on the half hour between 12.30 and 4.30 during the summer months.
- The Hungarians will tell you they invented café society. One of our favourites was the Central Kavehaz on the corner of Karolyi Utca. It’s a glorious dark wood and marble confection of Art Deco. Relaxed, great wait staff, and superb food.
- Its open from 8.30 am till 11pm.
Whoops! Couldn’t help diving in before we took the shot!