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Budapest nearly gets it right for tourists

One day, Hungarians may become aware of the fact that money is not everything, and that we are possessing a great treasure living in the Carpathian basin, having our beautiful Budapest, the hills and our dear old Danube. (editor’s note)

The Royal Palace high on the Buda hills is lit up as if floating over the city. Across the Danube River, on the Pest side, the parliament building gleams in the night. Seen from the sun deck of one of the many riverboats ending its Danube cruise at this Hungarian capital, the effect is magical.

However, like Cinderella at midnight when the coach has turned into a pumpkin, in the light of day, the more than 40 years of communist rule and still remaining bomb damage from WWII reveal a more sobering tale. My husband Bill and I, both retired lawyers, have a passion for travel and have been to Europe many times. However, we had not traveled in those Central European countries that were firmly behind the iron curtain for so many years.

Beginning our trip in Prague, then traveling by bus to Nuremberg, we embarked on a cruise down the Danube River that wound through Germany, Austria and Hungary. We had looked forward to the end of the journey, and Budapest. It did not disappoint us, despite its still somewhat struggling efforts to become a destination for Western tourists. We transferred from our Viking ship to the Budapest Hilton Hotel, located on the hilly Buda side of the city, in the heart of the historic Castle District.

Actually, there is no castle on Castle Hill, but there is a Royal Palace, housing the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum. Here, wandering the winding streets on foot and taking in the Old World ambience, it is easy to imagine yourself in a different century. The Hilton, combining a contemporary structure with 13th-century ruins, has a spectacular view of the river and the city below. Rooms with a full river view are more expensive, but we felt ours was well worth it.

Over the centuries the Romans, Mongols, Turks, numerous European countries and the Soviets have left their calling card in Budapest, but the national identification seems to be with the Magyars, mounted horsemen of the Hungarian plains. The people we encountered had a reserved, taciturn quality that might be mistaken for unfriendliness, but I was repeatedly assured that this is just the national character.

We were especially interested in going to the famous Baths and Spa at the historic Gellért Hotel, which are fed by mineral hot springs and have been good for what ails you since 1918. These cavernous and imposing baths are oriental in design, with high arched roofs, ceramic tiled walls and water-spouting sculptures. The enormous main pool is flanked by marble columns and has a stained-glass roof that rolls back to reveal the sky. It is easier said than done to find one’s way through the process of getting a locker, finding a dressing room and a obtaining a towel.

Each of these costs a separate amount and is purchased from a different person, after you have already paid to get in. Everyone else seems to know what to do, but we got no help at all from the staff, who do not speak English and merely acknowledge your presence with a grunt. Nevertheless, we found it both interesting and relaxing once we got into our bathing suits and were free to roam around. The massage rooms are a hub of activity and small side pools of various depths and temperatures await down winding corridors.

The roof garden has a wave pool, a café and a hidden nude sunbathing area for the „naturalists” in the crowd. We passed on that. From the Gellért Hotel it is a short walk to the Chain Bridge, the first permanent bridge across the Danube, unveiled in 1849, connecting the green and hilly Buda with the flat and less-romantic Pest. Strolling across the bridge we found the Central Market Hall, a two-story extravaganza of fruits, vegetables and souvenirs that is one of the largest of its kind in Europe.

The typical Hungarian embroidered blouses and table linens are displayed upstairs along with the ubiquitous T-shirts and kitschy geegaws found all over Europe. A few blocks farther into Pest, we discovered a tempting array of old-fashioned coffeehouses, serving up iced coffees of every description and huge sundaes surpassed only by the pastries that accompanied them. These coffee houses were the center of intellectual ferment and debate in their heyday, but today are no place for a tourist on a diet. Speaking of food, we did not find an abundance of great restaurants in Budapest.

We thought the price was somewhat high on the meals we did eat out and searched in vain for a Hungarian goulash that was any better than our own Paulette’s in Memphis. However, we did not come for the food. The Hungarian State Opera House is a magnificent new-Renaissance-style structure, completed in 1884 and modeled after the Vienna Opera House. We were disappointed there were no performances the nights we were in town, but consoled ourselves that we would miss the large screen with English translation we have at our own Opera Memphis productions.

Instead we opted for the Hungarian Folkloric Dance performance at a jewel of a Baroque theater with a painted ceiling and statues of cherubs playing various instruments around the walls. An energetic dance troupe performed folk dances from Hungary’s past with colorful costumes and much stamping of Cossack boots and slapping of ankles and thighs. A final treat was a visit to Lázár Lovaspark, a horse ranch where customers were offered apricot schnapps for refreshment before the show. While we declined, a man next to me downed several before declaring it tasted just like moonshine. I didn’t ask him how he knew.

As we sat on wooden benches, surrounded by green rolling pastures dotted with grazing horses, the costumed riders put on a dazzling display of horsemanship including riding two horses at once while standing up, riding upside-down, leaping from one moving horse to another and expertly shooting a bow and arrow while at full gallop. Our final night, we went to a restaurant a few blocks from the hotel recommended for its gypsy music. While the service was sporadic, the violin was plaintive and haunting for the first set, a real crowd-pleaser for the mostly English-speaking patrons. However, in the second set, they lost me when they started playing „Night and Day.”

„If I wanted to hear Cole Porter, I’d have gone to New York” my husband muttered, handing out the expected tip at the end of the set anyway. This was followed by a man and woman who could have been heard unaided in the back seats of Carnegie Hall, a bit too loud for the small restaurant, and a young couple who did a series of dances dodging around the tables. The performances had that feel of being slightly off combined with good intentions, which we found all over Budapest.

They haven’t quite got it right, but they are trying. All in all, a satisfactory conclusion to an interesting glimpse into a culture more than a thousand years older than our own. As we fell asleep to the strains of more gypsy music floating on the night air from a café beneath our hotel window, we were glad we came. Only next time, we will wear our bathing suits under our clothes and bring our own towels to the spa. Karen McCarthy-Clifton and Bill Clifton live in Memphis. (original)