Four Days in Budapest:
This was our first visit to Budapest, a beautiful 19th century city, in a striking setting on the Danube River. The history of Buda and Pest can be traced back thousands of years. Their merger only took place in 1873, a few years after the establishment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That Empire would fall in 1918 with its defeat after siding with Germany during World War I and Hungary would become an independent nation. A right-wing government would follow, as would Depression, occupation by Germany during the latter part of World War II and further subjugation within the orbit of the Soviet Union. Only in 1989, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, would democracy
once again be established.
Today, this beautiful city is thriving, so much so that it was difficult to get an
accommodation for the four night stay at our first choice hotel, The Four Seasons Hotel
Gresham Palace. Our travel agent, Jenni Lipa (212-717-7666) came through. She found
a hotel that had not made it into our guidebooks, as it had opened less than a year earlier.
This was the New York Palace—no, that’s not a typo. It is a Boscolo Hotel, centrally
located rather than, like the Four Seasons, located on the Danube. But the hotel itself, once a palace, was beautifully appointed, with friendly and capable staff. The Four Seasons had agreed to provide a pick-up at the airport, though we would not be staying there for the firsts two nights. A twenty-five minute drive from the airport and we were at the New York Palace. While my wife rested, I took a long walk to the Hungarian State Opera where I purchased two tickets for a ballet performance of Giselle on the following night. Prices, I’m happy to report, were less than half of those in New York. For our firsts night dinner, we arranged a table at Gundel, a Budapest institution and we were not disappointed. Established in 1894 in a palace in the City Park, the restaurant was restored to greatness in 1992 by famed New York restaurateur, George Lang. Beautiful décor, excellent service, a gypsy ensemble and solid dining combined for a lovely evening. If your cholesterol permits, be sure to try the foie gras. We started with Dumplings with salmon and salmon roe, went on to a Fisherman’s soup (sweet water fish) and the Foie combo (foei potage, sliced goose liver on spice bread, goose liver with red fruit), Duck leg and breast, sausage and mushrooms, baked apple and cranberry. It was not light but it sure was delicious. Dessert consisted of an assortment of Strudels. We sampled Hungarian wines by the glass: Sauvignon Blanc, Tokaj, Elegance (cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot) en ding with a terrific 1982 Tokaj. Let the sommelier guide you and you won’t go wrong.
Hungarian food can be spicy, using black pepper, paprika and onions. Wherever you dine, be sure to let the waiter or maitre d’ know your degree of tolerance for spices. And don’t forget to leave room for desserts, stuffed pancakes and pastry, for which Hungarian cuisine is justifiably well known.
A good night’s sleep and we were ready to begin touring Budapest. We had arranged for the services of a guide and two half-day private tours (Strongly recommended). Both friends and our travel agent referred us to Superior-MBZ Travel At 10AM, we were picked up by Ferenc Zsiga, the manager of Superior Travel. He proved to be a superb companion and reassured us that others in his office are equally qualified.
The first half-day, we visited Heroes’ Square, created in 1896 for the 1000 year anniversary of the Hungarian state. This impressive square features statues of kings and founding tribal chieftains. We drove through the old Jewish quarter and were disappointed to discover that the Great Synagogue (Dohany) was closed. We determined to return next day. Further exploration led us to the Parliament, set beside the Danube and a magnificent example of Neo-Gothic architecture. Built in 1884 and completed in 1902 it is one of the largest Parliaments in Europe and one of the most beautiful. The dome reaches 315 feet high. Housed within it is the National Assembly. Be sure to have a look at the Hungarian crown jewels there as well. After a stop back at the hotel for a light lunch, we returned to Heroes’ Square to visit the Museum of Fine Arts, eager to see works by Leonardo, Breughel , Raphael and El Greco, as well as 20th century works by Kokoschka . We were not disappointed. We had a light dinner that evening across from the Opera House at the appropriately named Callas Bar Cafe and then enjoyed our night at one of Europe’s most elegant Opera Houses. Completed in 1884 in the neo-Renaissance style, the interior is decorated with frescos, paintings and generous laying on of gold leaf. If you don’t see an opera or a ballet, be sure to take the guided tour.
Next morning, bright and early, I grabbed a cab for a visit to the Synagogue, assuming it would be open for Sabbath service. Not so. Services would be held later in the morning. Back to the hotel, packed for transfer to the Four Seasons Gresham and picked up by Ferenc, we made the move. Completed in 1906, the hotel began as a luxurious apartment residence. Clearly, no money was spared in recruiting the finest artisans to create a breathtaking example of Art Nouveau/Secession architecture. Stained glass windows and ceramic tile mosaics abound. Travel and Leisure rated it as’No 2 Hotel in Europe’ in 2006, a well-deserved honor. From the window of our lovely, well-appointed room, we looked out on the Danube, the Chain Bridge and the Buda side across the river. Plan ahead and book early so that you have an opportunity to stay at this fabulous hotel. The hotel has a nice gym and spa and we enjoyed an end-of day massage.
With Ferenc’s guidance, we toured the Buda side and visited the Royal Palace on Castle Hill. Built in the 13th century, it was severely damaged during the Second World War, and reconstructed from the 50’s to the 80’s. Within the palace is the National Gallery (Hungarian paintings and sculpture), the Budapest History Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art. We walked to the Matthias Church founded in the late 13th and 14th century, following the Mongol invasion. From the Buda side, we enjoyed a magnificent view of the Parliament, visited the previous day. A shift of itinerary took us back to the Great Synagogue and this time, we gained admittance during the last portion of Sabbath services. The second largest synagogue in the world, the Dohany seats up to 3000 people. It emulates the ornately decorated 19th century monumental buildings in Budapest. Ference shared with us the chilling fact the fact that in 1944, Adolph Eichmann, to further humiliate the Jews of Hungary, occupied the synagogue as his headquarters. Housed in the adjoining Jewish Museum is a memorial to the Hungarian Holocaust.We thanked our delightful and well-informed guide for his services and spent the remainder of our day relaxing in Budapest. A short distance on foot from the hotel is the impressive St. Stephen’s Basilica, its dome matching the height of that of the Parliament. Though under restoration it is still very impressive.
We ended the day with a fine dinner in the Four Seasons Pava Restaurant (Italian orientation). It featured curls of foie gras with fig marmalade (accompanied by a Tokay); a Risotto with Green Asparagus and Summer Truffles (with a first-rate Hungarian Pinot Gris), Challon Duck Breast, orange and honey glaze and a glass of Szekszardi (a combination of Cabernet Franc and 2 Hungarian varietals).
On our final day, we paid a visit to Terror Haza (House of Terror). Within these walls, the Hungarian Nazis carried out their cruel acts. The building was known as the “House of Loyalty.” Then, between 1945 and 19565, the Stalinists picked up where they left off. While the museum commemorates victims (the torture cells are intact), it serves as a useful reminder of the consequences of dictatorships which we have known all too well in the 20th century. The building proudly proclaims both the sacrifices and the emergence of freedom from tyranny.
Looking back, we could have used another two or three days in and around Budapest. In the city, there is Margaret Island, in the middle of the Danube, boasting more than 10,000 trees; if you are a fan of the Secession, try the Museum of Applied Arts. An hour outside of the city is Szentendre, an artist’s colony—winding streets, galleries, churches; Grassalkovich Castle; and two hours away is Lake Balaaton, Europe’s largest freshwater lake, and northeast of Budapest lies the Hungarian wine country—taste away oenophiles.
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Where to Stay:
Four Seasons Hotel
Gresham Palace, Roosevelt Ter 5-6;
New York Palace, Erzebet Krt, 9-11;
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Where to Dine:
Gundel - reservations are advised. Concierge can arrange.
Jackets required at dinner time
Gerbeaud - Vorosmaraty ter 7.
This bustling café is a good choice for light lunch or coffee and dessert.
Callas Bar Café - BP Andrassy uT 20
Pava- Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace, Roosevelt Ter 5-6,
Tel and Fax: See above
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Nandorfejervar koz 1
1117 Budapest, Hungary
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