|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
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
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
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
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.
www.top-travel-ideas.com or contact him directly at
(More about the writer.)