I have just arrived in Budapest Hungary.
Keleti Railway Station is a beautiful big old building with a high glass roof, ornate stonework and worn flagged flooring. Its façade is full of architectural character and its main entrance pours out into the busy hustle bustle of traffic and pedestrians. .
I immediately sense that this is an exhilarating city and as I emerge from the station I am confronted by taxi drivers touting for business and am swept up in the thronging rushing crowd. Slightly panicked I quickly take evasive action and make a beeline for the external wall of the station, backing myself against it in order to escape the rush and give myself time to take stock and plan my next move.
My hostel is too far away to walk but taking advice from the Station Information Assistant I avoid the taxi drivers, knowing that they will charge me “tourist prices.” I confess that big city transport systems make me nervous. I feel helplessly perplexed by their workings, which causes me enormous anxiety and so far I have managed to avoid them. But now I realise it is time to confront my fears as public transport is clearly going to be the only way to get to the hostel. So with much trepidation and a great deal of nervous fumbling I tackle the bus system, discover how to use the ticket machine, find and catch the right bus and watching out intently whilst using my GPS I finally come to my stop close to the hostel and gladly exit the bus with a huge sense of relief.
A short walk later and feeling smugly accomplished I eventually find myself outside Zsófia’s House Hostel. It is on the first floor of an attractive building and buzzing the intercom I am let in through beautiful wrought iron gates into an enormous and elegant stone hallway. Sweeping stone stairs adorned with black iron lattice railings lead me to the first floor apartment where Maria is waiting at the door for me and warmly welcomes me inside.
The hostel is an old apartment with high ceilings and double doors entering into various spacious rooms. It has a lounge area and a spacious kitchen and my dorm, which is the smaller of a number of extremely spacious bedrooms only has four single beds in it and I immediately rejoice at the thought of not bumping my head on an upper bunk.
For me Budapest has long since conjured up an image of romantic Bohemian life in a city filled with artisans and eccentrics living a colourful and alternative lifestyle. I sense the spirit of this in this lovely apartment and can imagine it in the Art Deco Modernism 1930’s once filled with such artists and vibrant characters celebrating modern life with lively and gay house parties.
It is late in the afternoon, but after settling in I take to the streets for my first glimpse of Budapest. The hostel is close to the River Danube and I head there to see how the city is split by this impressive fast flowing river into two districts, Buda and its prominent medieval Castle Hill on the west bank and Pest with its remarkable Parliament Building on my side.
I wander the streets of Pest taking in the sights and sounds and soon realise to my delight as I frequently encounter pleasant interactions with people that this large city has friendliness and warmth in its soul.
The following morning I stroll across Elisabeth Bridge, so named after Elisabeth of Bavaria, a popular Queen and Empress of Austria-Hungary until she was assassinated in 1898. I am heading towards Castle Hill, but rather than taking the funicular up its steep slopes I happily meander my way up through medieval backstreets exploring as I go and climbing the Király lépcsö (Royal Steps) to arrive at Trinity Square and the majestic Matthias Church, its colourful maiolica tiled roof glistening in the sunshine. I explore Fisherman’s Bastion and enjoy magnificent views over Budapest. Strolling through the medieval streets that make up Castle Hill, I pass numerous interesting buildings and museums and as I head towards the Hungarian National Gallery, Liberty Statue stands tall in the distance, an elegant lady holding up a palm frond, as she looks out over the city from atop Gellért Hill.
There is an abundance of things to see on Castle Hill and indeed in all of Budapest and I am spoiled for choice, but it is Budapest’s House of Terror Museum that touches me most.
Hungary lost its independence in 1944, first to Nazi occupation and then to the Soviets. For the next four decades it was ruled under a harsh fascist and then communist regime until 1989 with the last Soviet soldier leaving the country on June 19th 1991.
Located at 60 Andrássy Avenue the House of Terror building itself was used by the Arrow Cross Communists and Hungarian Secret Police and is now a memorial to those that were captured, held, tortured and killed in the building and under these regimes.
The museum is spread over four floors and tells the story of this bloody period in Hungary’s history in a well-documented and movingly graphic way. It shocks me to realise that the atrocities that we all associate with the Second World War continued on relentlessly for this friendly and lovely country until it finally gained independence once again in 1989.
The most significant event in this period of Hungary’s history was the events of 23rd October 1956 when a peaceful student demonstration became bloody and led to the “Hungarian Revolution of 1956.” The ensuing events and aftermath saw an estimated 20,000 people killed during the uprising and another 21,600 imprisoned, 13,000 interned and a further 400 killed after the revolutionaries were defeated.
The museum also explains how more than 200,000 people of German descent were evicted from Hungary after the Second World War, how people were falsely accused and tortured and how terror reined upon ordinary people, peasants, labourers and small holders deprived of their last crops, while show trials took place and propaganda was rife.
Today Hungary celebrates the date 23rd October as a holiday in memory of the 1956 Revolution and War of Independence
Feeling somewhat sombre and moved by my visit to the House of Terror I make my way to the Danube Promenade to pay my respects at “The Shoes on the Danube Bank.” A memorial of sixty pairs of period shoes made out of bronze and placed along the river bank. The shoes represent shoes left behind by the 3,500 men, women and children who were shot there by the Arrow Cross militiamen between 1944 and 1945, so that their bodies would fall into and be swept away by the River Danube.
Back at the hostel I have now made friends with Zsófia, an energetic and warm lady, who owns the hostel. Zsófia and I immediately connect and enjoy each other’s company sharing life stories as we relate to each other’s challenges of running a hospitality business. I also make friends with Lou from England, who is staying at the hostel. She is a bubbly, enthusiastic and friendly young lady who has discovered that multiple short break trips can be just as cost effective as long term budget travel with the added benefits of returning home frequently to recharge, change her wardrobe and have Mum do her washing! As well as travelling, Lou also has a passion for hummus and Hummus Bars as well as unusually flavoured ice cream and goes in search of both wherever she travels. I suspect, if she had time between her trips she might have enough material to write a hummus and ice cream blog!
Ruin bars are rather funky and eclectic bars which have emerged from old ruined and derelict buildings and have become hugely popular in Budapest. They aren’t usually signposted and from the outside just look like normal homes or derelict buildings and sometimes don’t even have a roof! It isn’t until inside that you discover their unique atmosphere decorated in a bizarrely mishmash way. Because of the lack of signage, you need to know how to find most of them and many hostels advertise personal Ruin Bar Tours and promote themselves as party hostels accordingly.
As well as the ruin bars Budapest is also renowned for its SPArtys which is when its thermal baths, places to relax during the day, are turned into lively party baths by night and people enjoy partying in them until the early hours of the morning.
Becoming aware of Budapest’s partying reputation before I arrive, I finally concede that I have grown too old for the party scene and carefully select Zsófia s House Hostel as it is one of a few non-party hostels. Now I relax in it, gratefully enjoying its homely and peaceful atmosphere while I can only imagine what antics are going on in the ruin bars and thermal baths around the city!
Hungary and in particular Budapest, has long since been famous for its thermal springs and its first thermal baths were constructed by the Romans who settled in the area more than 2000 years ago because of the springs. Nowadays there are a number of baths located throughout Budapest and I have decided to visit Széchenyi Baths which is the biggest in all of Europe.
Széchenyi Neo Baroque Palace was built in 1913 to house fifteen indoor baths and later, three outdoor pools. It also has ten sauna/steam rooms and even has a thermal beer spa. Massage treatments are also available. Its water is supplied by two springs, their temperatures being 74 C and 77 C. Their attraction is an abundance of minerals including sulphate, calcium, magnesium, bicarbonate and fluoride acid which are considered to have medicinal properties and are particularly good for joint ailments and inflammation.
I have bought my entry ticket from Maria at the hostel and make my way to the palace through City Park. I have booked a personal cabin to change and store my belongings instead of using the communal changing room and find myself in a tiny cubicle neatly finished, like all of the rows of cubicles, in attractive polished wood.
I had seen photos on the internet of the baths which looked beautiful, but nothing has prepared me for the real thing. The palace is built in a hollow square with the three outdoor pools dominating its courtyard, its beautiful mustard coloured neo baroque style architecture an attractive backdrop to the three brightly painted blue pools. It is obviously a popular place with happy people everywhere, filling the pools and the surrounding sunbathing areas. The entire scene is incredible and standing on the side lines in my swimsuit I take a moment to absorb it all.
The three pools consist of an adventure pool with a fun whirlpool in its centre, a swimming pool and a thermal sitting pool. Their temperatures range between 27 C and 38 C depending on the weather and taking the plunge on this hot 35 C day, I climb into an even hotter thermal pool.
My back still hurts from my recent accident and my muscles are weary from weeks of pounding the streets exploring, but immediately the warmth begins to sooth my joints and I relish the luxurious feeling.
After a while I go exploring and find my way into the indoor area where smaller baths of varying temperatures are housed in different rooms. There are showers and drinking fountains dotted around and saunas off to the sides and I happily go from one room to the next trying out each bath. Each one feels and smells different, perhaps dictated by the level of minerals and water temperature and I find some more pleasurable than others, but they are all pleasurable.
I am in a scene taken right out of Ancient Roman times. It is crowded, but everyone is relaxed and there is room for everyone. People climb in and out of the baths, quietly immersing themselves, resting on underwater seats or slowly exercising their limbs. Some quietly chat together as they lean their arms on the bath edges and distractedly exercise their leg muscles, others relax alone; their eyes closed as they let the waters healing powers caress their bodies. The entire atmosphere is tranquil, calming and rejuvenating and is even quite sensual. I am in heaven, soaking up every part of this luxurious experience and cannot recall ever having had such an intensely self-indulgent pamper before. The only missing part of the scene is the beautiful young servant men plying me with wine and grapes and attending to my every need and desire.
Hours later after spending time in each bath and returning to my favourites several times, I reluctantly extract my prune like body from the water for the last time. I feel profoundly relaxed, my aches and pains have eased, but I am physically drained and head back to the hostel to dream of my past life as a wealthy Roman Lady with a hedonistic lifestyle.
All too soon it is time to leave Budapest. I have visited its horrors and its pleasures and a great deal in between. But I know I haven’t even scratched the surface of this vibrant and warm city with a long and layered history and a deep soul to match. And as Zsófia walks me to the front entrance of her hostel and affectionately hugs me farewell, I silently pray that it won’t be the last time I visit Budapest or see Zsófi.