Budapest

24 Jun

20130412-181459.jpgAs supportive as I was of the Gathering initiative I still came to the decision that this year I was going to get the hell out Dublin for New Years Eve. Many of the close friends who I have traditionally spent the evening with had already beaten me to it and left. So, free of sentiment those of us that remained decided to seize the opportunity and go and spend it somewhere else. So which cities throw a good party? As expected a search for the top cities in which to see in the New Year threw up its fair share of predictable suggestions. With neither the time or finances to visit New York, Sydney or Rio de Janeiro there was only one other real contender that kept popping up, Budapest. Having visited Budapest once before and loved it I was still a little surprised to see it mentioned again and again but my arm was sufficiently twisted. Any excuse to return really.

It’s funny how even the mundane airport experiences become exciting again when travelling on the last day of the year. I am not a big fan of Christmas or airports but this trip was already starting to be a fun. Quick and efficient service in the restaurant, (everybody has somewhere to get to), short boarding queues and four emergency rows between the four of us? Happy New Year all.

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We arrived at our apartment on Raday Ucta and were met with the keys by Giovanni who looks after arrivals for the apartments owner. An extremely friendly and helpful guy he showed us everything we needed to know about the place and a lot of other information such as where to eat, new year opening hours and a number for a taxi which he assured us would cost no more than a few euros wherever we went in the city. The apartment was situated on the fourth floor of a typical Budapest block but it’s interior was anything but. Whilst it retained its historic feeling with parquet flooring, stained glass dividing doors and stuccoed ceilings there was also underfloor heating, marbled showers and the biggest 3-D tv I have ever seen, glasses included. One bedroom comes with a very deep bath behind frosted glass doors which, like the shower in the other room, comes with continuously changing mood lighting. The kitchen is fully equipped right down to a selection of coffees for the nespresso machine. The street itself is renowned as a ‘restaurant mile’ of sorts and has massive signage adorned with cutlery at either end to attract tourists. But with the clock ticking and our stomachs rumbling we ignored this fact and Giovannis advice and headed straight to the restaurant next door. Big mistake. In fairness I’m pretty sure it’s typical of the quality of service to be found of any gastronomical tourist trap, 31st of december or not but what’s not fair is being served medallions of pork passed off as duck. Once more I got the feeling that the thoughts of those working in the service industry on this day of the year are elsewhere. Nevertheless it was our mistake and one I suggest you don’t repeat. There are great little places on Raday Utca for a beer and a bite but far more awaits you if you look beyond.

A short distance away on Ferenczy Istvan we decided to spend midnight in Csendes bar. A historic feeling place its reminiscent of a pre-war speakeasy, high ceilings with small tables decorated with odd bits of cloth, chandeliers and a very strange collection of paintings and graffiti adorning the walls. We settled into a few beers followed by some very warming honey schnapps. These little babies worked a treat as outside it was freezing. Inside though it was very cozy yet there seemed to be very little going on for 11:45p.m on New Years Eve. Then as midnight approached there was a countdown from ten to… the Hungarian National anthem. As we sat back down in our seats many of the other people there seemed to leave. Not quite the same as the usual celebrations in Dublin, the strike of midnight seemed to signal the end of the evening for some. It had been a long enough day anyway so with a couple more schnapps under our belt it was time to brave the cold and head home for the evening.bar1

The next morning on our quest for breakfast we once again found ourselves at the mercy of the holidays and options were few. It’s probably best to skip the details and focus on what the city did have to offer us that day but all I will say is that our first meal of the day consisted of a cup of instant soup and ‘warm’ sandwiches. A five minute walk from the apartment will bring you to Fovam Square which is home to the magnificent Great Market Hall. Home to three storeys of stalls selling everything from foie gras and saffron to fresh meat, fruit, coffee and traditional Hungarian crafts the market is a must-see if only to take in the sheer scale of the building and enjoy the atmosphere. It is also a great place for an informal spot of lunch but, alas, not on a Bank Holiday.

From here we strolled along the beautiful Liberty Bridge and across the Danube to the Buda side of the city. The bridge leaves you at the foot of Gellert Hill which offers fantastic views across the city as enjoyed by Budapest’s own statue of Liberty. Beware, the guidebooks describe the walk to the top as gentle but from my experience it is anything but.bridge

Also at the foot of the hill is the Gellert Hotel which is home to one of the citys many thermal baths. As with my previous visit the outdoor baths were closed but still there was a long queue to gain access on this very cold day so I guess people are only after the ones indoor at this time of year. From here you can catch a tram along the Danube for two stops until you reach the Castle Hill Funicular. For about €2 it will take you to the top of the hill in no time and is a far gentler way of reaching the summit.

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The Castle District atop of the hill is home to the Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion. Originally built in 1015 the current incarnation was constructed in the late Gothic style and extensively restored in the late 19th century. The exterior of the church is really beautiful with a very eye catching array of multicoloured tile layed out in a diamond pattern on its roof. In fact it is so beautiful, and cold, that we feel no real need to go inside. Besides, the area around the church itself has lots of picturesque sights but it’s quickly getting dark and one of the best reasons to visit the district is the magnificent Fisherman’s Bastian and the stunning views it offers of the Pest part of the city. Named after the guild of fishermen who defended this stretch of the city walls during the Middle Ages the Bastion comprimises seven towers dotted along a covered terrace facing Eastward across the Danube toward the impressive Parliment building and Pest beyond. The Disneyesque terrace also offers a great view of perhaps the city’s most famous river crossing the Chain Bridge. A fairly impressive structure the bridge consists of two piers supporting the chains which suspend the road bed itself and actually allows for minimal movement, quite advanced engineering for 1849. In the bitter cold and fading light of the first day of the year however all i can really focus on beyond the twinkling lights of the bridge are those decorating the massive Christmas tree outside the Four Seasons Budapest which is located directly at the opposite end. As with my previous trip to the Castle District the Four Seasons provides the perfect spot for a relaxing cocktail or two after a day walking around the city. Housed in an Art Deco building that was once home to the Gresham Life Insurance Company this really is one of the most beautiful and luxurious hotels I have ever been in even if it is just the lobby bar. The prices do determine that you won’t spend a full evening in the sumptuous surroundings but as somewhere to take the weight off for an hour or two you really can’t beat it.

4seasonsHoping to start our gastronomic new year off on the right foot we take the unusual step of making a reservation with a restaurant we read about in our inflight magazine. I say unusual as when travelling I much prefer exploring a city off my own bat. However, with the mercury continuing to plummet and last nights meal still an acute reminder of what can happen when you don’t do any homework we booked a cab to take us to Cafe Kor. The menu is traditional Hungarian with a twist but whatever you order the menu is unlikely to leave you disappointed. The majority of main courses can be ordered as a starter at a much reduced price and seeing as there were so many delicious sounding dishes on offer I opted for two starters, roasted goat’s cheese and a goose liver pate with cognac. The price may have been reduced but the portions certainly didn’t appear to be. We ended up sharing all of the starters as they looked so good, and there was so much. The list of Hungarian wines was also fantastic and a perfect accompaniment to our meal including a shared dessert of pancakes filled with plum jam, poppy seeds and fresh cream. For four people with a few beers and a couple of bottles of wine our bill came to around €40 a head. If you ever pay a visit just make sure you call ahead to make a reservation. Cafe Kor is very popular with both tourists and locals but thankfully the latter, along with the staff, ensures that the place retains a friendly, neighbourhood feel. It turns out a friend had recommended Cafe Kor ahead of my last visit. I didn’t manage to make it on that occasion but having eventually enjoyed this fantastic restaurant i will definitely be back next time.

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Thermal Baths BudapestOf course no trip to Budapest would be complete without a visit to one of its many famous thermal baths. After the Gellart the Rudas baths are one of the most centrally located at the foot of Castle Hill but if travelling as part of a couple the only mixed sex days are Saturday and Sunday. There is an stone octagonal central pool with four smaller surrounding pools of various temperatures all speckled with coloured light from the Ottoman era dome above. On this occasion we opted to try the Szechenyi baths in the City Park close to Heroes Square. Szechenyi baths are those that feature in most of the guidebooks often with pictures of Hungarian men playing chess on floating boards in the steaming water as snow falls. What better way to shake off the previous evenings excesses in this fierce cold. It can be a little confusing trying to figure out how and where to get changed but once you do there are 15 pools in total to choose from with the three larger ones situated outside. Heres a little tip if you visit, bring flip flops. Whilst it is to be expected that all the baths will stink a little due to the sulphur element in the waters I guess it is also to be expected in a public bath of this size that there will also be a certain amount of hair and belly button fluff on the floors. But don’t let this put you off because it is definitely worth it once you have hot footed it through the icy winds to finally submerge yourself in the hot waters.

The tram ride back into the city centre is a good opportunity to stop off and visit the House of Terror museum. The museum was founded to commemorate those who suffered under the fascist and communist regimes during the 20th century. During the country’s at times brutal history victims of those regimes were regularly interrogated, tortured and killed in the building and its permanent exhibition serves as a very grim but reminder of what these people had to endure. Dark as it is its a thought provoking and worthwhile way to get to grips with the country’s complicated and brutal past.

Defying the temptation to return to Cafe Kor the following evening we instead chose to go with the other restaurant recommendation we had left up our sleeve. Ruben is conveniently located on Magyar Utca close to the apartment and whilst it would be difficult to beat our meal from the previous evening the food here is still excellent. The Hungarian fare in Ruben is far more traditional with roast goose and rabbit featuring heavily but with lots of other dishes to suit most palettes. Slightly more expensive than Cafe Kor yet reasonable by Irish standards, our meal is a more than satisfactory conclusion to a great few days in this wonderful city. Plus it is just a stones throw from Csendes where we began our weekend and a perfect place to wrap it up. So until next time, farewell Budapest, hello Vienna!

Both Aer Lingus and Ryanair offer direct flights to Budapest, see http://www.aerlingus.com or http://www.ryanair.com

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