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In and out of hot water

Budapest is rather lovely in the early spring sun; quite golden with all the stone. But I spent quite a lot of time getting wet...

Le Meridien was nice and central, with a metro station right outside and only a few minutes wander from the Danube. The meeting was of course in another hotel and I decided to walk over there, not least because I didn’t have any forints yet ;-) It turned into a very interesting argument about whether cable companies are clueless or disadvantaged by regulation and whether they’re going to take advantage of their advantages. This carried on over dinner, where I offered to choose the wine because no-one else wanted to take the responsibility. Mary’s the expert, someone declared; I’m not an expert, I said, I’m just opinionated. Ah, they replied; isn’t that the definition of a journalist?

Posh Hungarian restaurants are a bit obsessed with goose liver and the cuisine has more bitter and sour flavours than more western European styles, but my mushrooms with sheepcheese in sage sauce and rack of lamb were very good (as were the char-grilled gammon and breakfast potatoes I had for brunch next day in the market square). I really liked the restaurant I found for Tuesday night - Hungarian dishes with a French style. Cheese dumpling in William pear soup, wild duck with pearl onion ragout and flat nut-encrusted dumplings of plum jam followed by plum torte with cinnamon ice cream. I prefer the local peach liqueur I had for an aperitif to the Tokaj dessert wine and I can’t remember the names of any of the Hungarian wines I tried but they had haunches rather than just legs.

If I don’t have a shower when I get up I tend to stay pretty dopey, so I had a shower when I got up. As that was at 5.30 I had a nap as soon as I got to the hotel and then I had another shower to wake me up before the meeting. Before dinner I went swimming in the hotel pool (cobalt tiles turned the water a fabulous shade of blue and the Jacuzzi was so strong it pushed me off the seat), followed by a stint in the steam room, then a shower to cool down, then a stint in the sauna and a shower to cool down...

On Tuesday I strolled around, realised that I’d taken £6 out of the cash machine not £60 (2,000 forints not 20,000) so didn’t buy any of the lovely big fragile pottery in the market and walked across the river on the chain bridge (like the Golden Gate but not as high and made of stone with ornate crenellation and lions who are starting to look a bit abstract as the stone wears away). On the Buda side I went up in the wooden funicular for a fabulous panoramic view up in the Castle district. Sprawling museums, deserted foundations, lizards basking on the walls and the deserted arches of the wedding-cake complex Fisherman’s Bastion reflected in the golden windows of the huge glass Hilton. The bastion encloses a church with multi-coloured tiled roofs and a statue that looks like Charlemagne and the Hilton, which in turn surrounds a courtyard where one lofty pillar like the edge of a clerestory arch is echoed by modern roofs that stick out in points where the other arches should be. The utterly modern concrete and glass and tile mimic the antique stone ruins without trying to copy them.

On the other side the old castle wall is less impressive but I like the way houses and apartment buildings run right up to it and get the view over into Buda. There’s a ruined church where only the tower and one angled window almost as tall as the tower are left standing; the stone floor is there in between, and knee-high walls. This is where I sat down for an ice cream and decided I’d done enough walking and asked the Hilton doorman for directions to the Gellert Spa. This is a huge impressive hotel and spa complex, all very 19th century stone columns, stained glass and mosaic ceilings. The swimming pool has columns around it that they say are like the Roman Baths in Bath but I went into the thermal side which is a bit more like a Turkish bath with a pool at 36°, a pool at 38°, a plunge pool at 18° and a steam room at 50°. There are men’s and women’s thermal baths so there’s a mix of naked women, women in ludicrously small aprons and people in swimming costumes, and it’s lovely to float in the water looking up at the curved tiled ceiling and the curved glass windows in the ceiling or sit under the pipe where the water comes out and let it massage your shoulders.

I walked back across to the Pest side on Liberty Bridge and went looking for a bar; instead I found a tea bar without about a hundred flavours - I had blood orange. After dinner I walked back through the shopping district; lots of it much like anywhere else but I saw a lovely design for a blind made of a patchwork of blue, green and grey silk strips (alternating strips and gaps so it lets lots of light in).

Wednesday I went up to the City Park by metro (after I worked out which direction the trains went in by going the wrong way). As the train approaches a stop it plays a cheerful chiming tune like a musical box. The entrance to the zoo has elephants supporting a dome-that-comes-to-a-point with a mosaic arch of birds and flowers, then a ring of polar bears and a castle right on the top. There’s also what looks like a mosque with blue-tiled onion domes - much more impressive than the modern neon-festooned circus and funfair. The road runs in a big loop through the park, with scrubby grass and a lake that runs round to the castle (except they’ve drained it to clean it out); in one direction there’s Heroes Square with two ginormous museums, a triumphal pillar and colonnades populated with statues (warriors on their horses, lots of princes and one man with a knee-high pile of books).

Keep going round and there’s the castle, which is another museum, with more statues; one looking very like Destiny of the Endless and another chap with his hat and books beside him on a bench. You can see where people like to sit to be photographed by where the tarnish has been polished off by hands and bums. This would be much more impressive if it was reflected in the lake rather than set off by mud ;-)

Further round (or back to the beginning) is Szerchenyi spa, which is a violent yellow with freshly-cleaned copper domes; the stained glass in the main entrance is hidden by the scaffolding but it’s very relaxing even with the builders down one end! There are two outdoor lounging pools of hot water (one with up-bubbling jets of water that you can stand in and a tidal whirlpool that you can get sucked around in), either end of the big swimming pool (caps to be worn at all times! Peeep! This means you!). Inside there’s a 36° bath, a 38° bath (both surrounded by a profusion of red sandstone columns and water drains that sound like they’re chewing up the garbage on the Death Star) and the 18° bath where I came a cropper (I’m sure there’s a steam room but I didn’t find it).

I did a steady progression from bath to bath, pausing only to get molested by a charming elderly piano player on a world tour who offered me something Hungarian to drink and tried to hold my hand underwater and be generally raffish in what I think is Dutch (I proffered a few words of German and still have no idea what he mean by ‘privaat’). On the way out I plunged into the 18° bath for the last time; it was completely empty so I went down the steps on one side and rather than going straight up the steps on the other side I turned to the side to splash around and cracked my foot against a big sitting-down-on step that I hadn’t spotted. Luckily the baths are right by the metro stop and I could hobble back to the hotel and hop into the cab to the airport (I didn’t feel up to nipping out for a photo of the Museum of Applied Arts which has the most amazing enamelled green roof tipped with gold). Pizza and beer at the airport and a long wait to take off and at least two circuits before we landed and I could come home and put some ice on my very purple toe!

Photos by and by...

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( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
muninnhuginn
24th Mar, 2005 22:28 (UTC)
You can see where people like to sit to be photographed by where the tarnish has been polished off by hands and bums.

That reminds of the Hotel Biron where you could see the preferred areas for touching on all the Rodin bronzes by the amount of shine.

Your desription of Budapest makes it sound even more enticing than I already believed it to be.
elinor
25th Mar, 2005 00:08 (UTC)
I don't have much of anything to say, but I do love your travel writing.
marypcb
25th Mar, 2005 12:20 (UTC)
thankee kindly ;-)
pickledginger
25th Mar, 2005 00:43 (UTC)
Ow, ow, ow!

Sounds lovely - I've been wanting to see Budapest for years! And oh, the food. I think I need some supper, now.

Thanks!
grey_lady
25th Mar, 2005 06:51 (UTC)
I brought back a bottle of palinka (dry apricot brandy) and a bottle of dessert wine (a '5' on the scale of 1-3-5-7 that I didn't understand) that I'm looking forward to trying.
marypcb
25th Mar, 2005 12:26 (UTC)
puttanyos? it's a measure not so much of how sweet the wine is as of how many barrels of noble rotted grape paste they add - that sounds horrid, but it's rather nice ;-)
http://www.ifcanet.com/resources/archives/magazines/wines/hungary.htm
derb
25th Mar, 2005 10:00 (UTC)
You certainly make Budapest seem more fun than I remember it (but it has probably changed a lot in the last c. 7-8 years as has Prague). Glad you had such a good time! Don't you think it odd that it seems easier to get a variety of teas in Budapest and Paris than it is in the UK?
marypcb
25th Mar, 2005 12:31 (UTC)
I picked out fun things to do and ignored anything that didn't pink my interest ;-) I did see teas there I've never come across like a flavour with little bits of highland toffee in! But we have - er - maybe 100 flavours of tea here anyway, mostly from UK shops so it's just a case of looking in tea shops. Whittards is still good and Fortnum & Mason does the best Darjeeling but I like little tea shops like the one in Lincoln. What was odd was to find a shop that served the tea as well as selling it; that I would like to see here. Teabucks anyone?
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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