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Budapest On The Danube

Professor Arnie Greenberg

I returned to Central Europe just as much of it was entering the European Community. There were parades and happy celebrations and for very good reason. People in Hungary and The Czech Republic looked cautiously to the future for a better life and a bigger slice of the economic pie. It will happen, I think, but it may take a while since the Euro won’t come here for a few years. But the countries are starting to take Euros as payment for services and some menus show prices in the local and European currency. Even hotel prices are rising.

But finances aside, I spent the better part of two months in vibrant countries with rebirth in their minds and construction, expansion and a happier future in their minds. Consider the fact that Budapest was heavily destroyed by war and revolution and both Prague and the twin city of Bud and Pest were under Communist domination until quite recently. There is a lot of rebuilding to do and a lot of catching up in the area of social reform in Hungary more than in the Czech Republic. One can see modern or refurbished buildings next to derelicts and shabby ones all boarded up and falling apart. But they too will be given new life. It’s a matter of time. Even in the poorer areas, there are those buildings that shine under new coats of yellow or beige paint. The signs are there. The future will change the city. Actually, there are already changes with the fast food chains in most areas as Macdonald’s and Burger King spread their tentacles. Security guards patrol the underground subway stations but there are also beggars and the homeless sleeping in doorways.

But the old values die-hard and the many craft stalls or embroidery shops remind us of the talented craftsmen in this future looking city.

 From the Gellert Spa Hotel and baths to Obuda high above the river or medieval and baroque Pest, we see expansion and a city that is ready to take her place in the 21st century. It is a dynamic city, now reawakening to capitalistic enterprise, artistic creativity and gourmet refinement. It is divided into 22 districts of which about 10 are of interest to tourists.

On fashionable Vaci Street, parallel to the Danube, upscale shops proudly display modern goods for eager shoppers. I fear, however that the shoppers are mostly tourists since I was told that the average salary in Budapest is about 1200 Euros per month. That is hardly a decent wage if prices are so high. But not all Hungarians are poor as attested to by the cars, clothing and restaurants filled with local business people. And speaking of restaurants, one eats well in Budapest. From a typical, clean, art deco restaurant like the Mozaik on Rakoczi Street, where a decent meal of Goulash and wine with a typical desert can cost under $20 to Gundel, that opulent eatery with orchestra, doorman and service fit for a king where one can dine in sumptuous comfort for a mere $100 to $150 a person or more. But Gundel is special as well as famous. Near Heroes Square and the zoo, this reserve for the rich, once owned by Estee Lauder is filled to capacity. Not everyone there was a tourist.

Karpatia is also recommended for traditional food in a renaissance setting. Try the goulash soup or goose liver. It’s truly Hungarian.

As for me, I was fortunate enough to stay at the Sofitel facing the Danube and the famous Chain Bridge. My view was spectacular as boats drifted by my window, people were whisked to the top of old Buda’s Castle, now an art gallery, on a silent funicular and Pest lay below filled with visitors from all over the world. I hardly felt like a local in this magnificent setting whose atrium-covered lobby rose nine stories above the street and decorated with tall palms. Breakfast in the vast sun-filled room complete with international newspapers, fresh fruit in each room and a glider aircraft hanging from the ceiling all gave me a feeling of decadence. But I enjoyed it anyways.

Budapest has a long way to go but it has also begun to recover. Consider the fact that the Germans destroyed all the bridges except one. Even the popular Chain Bridge was destroyed in the forties. But today, the Elizabeth Bridge (named after the Emperor Franz Joseph’s beautiful wife, known as Sissy) nearby and many others newly redone, tie together two sides of a city that functions as one. It is starting to look like Paris with tree-lined streets, cafes and a river running through it. There are two cities: Buda, high and dominated by spas like the Gellert, heritage castles, neo-gothic Matthais Church and Fisherman’s Bastion, completed in 1905 reminding one of Magyar tribal tents or the Gellert statue, a reminder of the missionary who was drowned in the river. The mountain affords a scenic view of the river and Pest with its British-styled parliament, the largest synagogue in Europe (Dohany Street Synagogue) at the edge of a one-time ghetto and the bustle of a modernizing mega-city. Two cities connected by modern bridges but there is only one Budapest. And between the two, on a river that is hardly “blue” stands Margrit Island ready to welcome walkers, picnickers and locals searching for green spaces.

The city was originally Roman outpost, then a campsite of Huns and later the Magyars. It sits on a strategic point on the Danube. Today it is a sprawling sophisticated city. Overrun by foreigners so many times, it is a miracle that it is still there and still Magyar. The tenacity of the people proves their desire for a home.

This is a city of contrasts; a city with a vibrant history that reminds one, at times, of Paris with bistros, operas, theatres, music (see Bartok or Liszt and street markets and countless museums. Even trees line some of the streets to afford shade to walkers. From here people fled from the Communists in 1956 to a better world. But many returned to the city of their birth, to the Danube, to the new Europe ready to join the modern world.

Hungary still uses the Forint. You can exchange most currencies at designated exchanges or banks, You are cautioned not to exchange money in the streets. ATM machines are on most main streets.

There’s more to Hungary than Budapest with its popular, money-making spas, resorts waiting at nearby Lake Balaton, beautiful scenery and rebuilt roads. The people are concerned about their future in a western world. They’ll make it, I’m sure.

Buda and Pest are waiting for you. Give them a try.


The Mathias Church with its stained glass windows and Fishermen’s bastion on Castle Hill.

Gundel Restaurant Reservations Tel: 468 4040

For Hungarian haute cuisine.

Karpatia Restaurant Tel: 317 3596

Tourism Office of Budapest

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You can Contact Professor Arnie Greenberg at


Over the past few years, Professor Greenberg has traveled with groups to France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague and both Sorrento and the Bay of Naples plus most of Sicily. His tours traveled to the far reaches of the globe including Italy and most of China (Beijing -Hong Kong) and to Russia where his group cruised the waters from St.Petersburg to Moscow. 

"He took a group to Greece and another to northern Russia. In Nov 07 he took a tour group to much of India and ended his tour groups by revisiting France. He now travels with his wife and friends. They winter in Argentina or San Miguel Mexico.  His newly found spare time is taken up with his painting and writing. "I must write every day." His current work is a cautionary manual for would-be tour leaders..  "So You Want To Be A Tour Leader." 

Arnie now travels with friends. He continues writing Travel articles about unusual places but often concentrates on novel writing. Two books based on French Art will be published this year.  Keep reading his web for travel ideas.  His next novel HELLSTORM'S Folly, will be available this fall. He now lives in British Columbia.

Go to: or contact him directly at

(More about the writer.)


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