Visegrád


Visegrád/Nagymaros [map]
40km North of Budapest

If you’re planning on visiting the Danube Bend, which you absolutely should, don’t assume that the towns are much the same. While Szentendre is all about the town and Esztergom is all about the cathedral, Visegrád draws you in to the landscape and the remnants of a faded world.

Travelling from Budapest by train takes around an hour and brings you to Nagymaros, the slightly larger one-horse town across the river. It’s pretty unassuming but has a nice blend of ease and charm, its greatest asset being the view of Visegrád. The stunning geography of the hills, piling up on each other like sofa cushions, is punctuated with Salamon’s Tower, the Citadel, a simple church and a smattering of houses hiding amongst the fabric of the trees.

The Danube here takes on the guise of a lake; its breadth looks broader still, as it curves around the hills. The Nagymaros side offers an opportunity to sit by the river on peaceful sandy beaches, without the intrusion of a road. A modest selection of restaurants and bars are also genuinely riverside. After you’re through daydreaming, a small car-ferry connects to the opposite bank.

The centre of Visegrád is essentially a handful of restaurants. However, a few hundred metres along Fő utca are the excavated and partially reconstructed ruins of the Royal Palace. It doesn’t look particularly palatial at first glance, in fact it looks distinctly farmhouse-like, so don’t expect regal grandeur. The cloistered ‘formal courtyard’, with its replica of the Hercules fountain, is the pinnacle and hints at how the palace might have appeared five hundred years ago. The subtlety is perhaps preferable to a complete reconstruction.

On top of the hill rising steeply behind the palace are the ruins of the Citadel. Continuing on foot, a path runs perpendicular to Fő utca, passing the brutally restored Salamon’s Tower. The journey to the summit is demanding. Turning one corner, I see half a dozen people negotiating the slope, moving awkwardly from side to side like extras from Dr Who. If you’re a smoker, prepare to wheeze, or alternatively take the bus.

Reaching the summit though is worth the endeavour, despite having to pay if you want to get anywhere near the stunning views. The Citadel itself is embellished with tableaux of medieval life, houses a waxwork museum and is home to some rather unpleasant smelling horses, all of which are a little superfluous (particularly the horses.) They do little to detract from the scenery though, which is simply magnificent.

V

isegrad, Vishgrad, Vishegrad, Najmaros, Nadjmaros, Nagmaros
Take a train from Nyugati palyaudvar to Nagymaros (1hr), or alternatively take a boat, if a three-and-a-half hour trip appeals to you. There’s also a hydrofoil that only takes an hour, if you have money to burn.

Andy Sz.

Source: 8

Széchenyi Baths

Állatkerti körút, Városliget [map]
Pest, XIV, Széchenyi Fürdő (M1), 1 min

The prospect of a trip to the baths tends to conjure mixed feelings. It’s certainly quintessential Budapest and those who don’t try it will surely have a niggling regret. But most people also find it a pretty daunting experience, especially if they’re already aware of the level of customer service in the city, i.e. zero. So the trick is to match your expectations to reality and take a few precautions so that you can actually relax.

Széchenyi baths is a great option for the first-time bather. It’s frequented by a lot of tourists, so you needn’t feel like you’re the only one who has no idea about what you’re doing. That’s not to say that the staff will be eager to help you but it’s comforting to know that other people aren’t being helped either. It’s also architecturally outstanding – turn of the century neo-baroque – so the chances of you leaving without appreciating something are fairly slim.

The main entrance faces the road, rather than the park (Városliget) and there are multiple ticket options, which may be a bit confusing. Take the cheapest and you’ll get your money’s worth with three outdoor pools, some pungent indoor pools of wildly varying temperature, and even the use of gym equipment, if you can find it! Should you want to step up the pampering level, the words ‘massage’ and ‘sauna’ should be understood too. For current prices, check here.

Whatever you do, don’t go expecting a pristine health-farm environment, that’s not what this is about, and some parts of the building are looking a little worse for wear. There’ll also be unidentifiable stuff in some of the pools, and you won’t know if it’s something to do with the minerals or not.

Széchenyi’s assets, though, are plentiful. Relaxing outdoors in hot spring water in such impressive surroundings is not something you can do just anywhere. On colder days especially, the steam rising from the pool creates a unique, even mystical atmosphere. There’s a time-stood-still feeling about the place, like you’re part of an ancient tradition, which of course, you are. And no matter how you’ve been mistreating your body, you’ll find some sanctuary here. If you really want to go the whole hog, take a chess set with you and enjoy being tutted at by the locals for making idiotic moves.

General advice:

1) Take a towel, a swimming costume, and maybe some flip-flops. Although you can hire the former, it’s easier and cheaper if you don’t.

2) If you’re going to worry about the security of your valuables, leave them at home; the whole point of the baths is to relax. Just take enough money to see you through: 10,000Ft will cover even the most indulgent bather.

3) The locker situation has really improved recently – find an open one and put the swipe card into the slot on the back of the door. In addition to the standard lockers, there are some pretty insecure ‘security’ lockers, which the baths don’t take reponsibility for anyway, (and theft is not unheard of.)

4) Put any ticket-like things that you’re given at the entrance in the same pocket. You get a (small) partial refund if you stay for less than three hours, but the staff can be a bit officious when it comes to trying to claim it.

5) Explore. Don’t worry about walking the wrong way – just take a chance or there’s a good chance you’ll miss half of what’s on offer. About a dozen pools, steam room and sauna are all included in the standard ticket.

6) If you want to use the swimming pool, take a swimming cap, since they’re obligatory for anyone with hair.

Széchenyi baths has its own metro stop on the yellow line, M1, “Széchenyi Fürdő.” The huge yellow building with several spires houses the baths.
Szechenyi, Szécheni, Szecheni, Séchenyi, Sechenyi, Secheni, furdo, lido
Andy Sz.

Source: 8

House of Terror

Andrássy út 60 [map]
Pest Centre, VI, Oktogon (M1, T4/6), 2 min

Recent Hungarian history doesn’t get a great deal of press, so a museum that really examines its brutal, fractured past has the potential to be of enormous value. The House of Terror, though, sounds more like a fairground ride. I wonder whether that’s just a translational blip or whether there’s some serious wrong-headed thinking afoot…

From the word go, imagery does most of the talking. In the entrance hall, two symbolic gravestones are dedicated to those who suffered at the hands of the Arrowcross (Hungarian fascists) and the AVH (Soviet secret police), both of whom used 60, Andrássy út as their headquarters. A little further in, a tank sits in a pool of water, surrounded by victims‘ faces. Then, in the first room of the exhibition, photographs of a forlorn Budapest flash before your eyes, as the city finds itself caught in the cross-fire of World War II. A specially composed soundtrack confirms that we’re in Spielberg territory and therefore may not be getting the most balanced reading of history here.

Despite this, for the uninitiated there’s a lot to glean about Hungary’s past: the evaporation of much of her territory; the sense that history was under someone else’s control; the replacement of one regime with another and with it the requirement to be a fascist one minute and a communist the next. Many of the issues facing modern Hungary can be traced back to these events.

Substance however comes a definite second to style. It’s no coincidence that Orwell’s 1984 springs to mind: there are flatscreen TVs everywhere, but only two carry English subtitles. As the museum unfolds along its predetermined route, the images just keep piling up, while the information never quite materialises. Certainly there are A4 pieces of paper that you can read along the way but they rarely reference the exhibits.

Design continues to outstrip appropriateness. The deliberately sluggish three-minute journey down to the basement, accompanied by the description of a hanging is presumably supposed to be touching. In reality it’s in pretty bad taste and, in a lift crammed with people, is close on ridiculous. Finally we arrive at the prison cells in the basement, which should make me feel something, since the brutality really happened here. But it’s too late. Perhaps if I hadn’t known that they were reconstructed, perhaps if the rest of the museum had been a little more balanced, a little less slick…

The House of Terror has often been accused of being a politically motivated project, an attempt to discredit the Socialist party, having been commissioned by the old Fidesz government. Of course, others say that the Socialists would rather pretend that none of it ever happened. Where the truth lies is hard to say, but certainly, a wall of photos of victims of the AVH, followed by a wall of Communist Party members does seem a lot like finger-pointing and, as with the rest of the museum, doesn’t do much for impartiality.

Walk up Andrássy út from Oktogon and the House of Terror is on the left after two blocks: a normal looking building painted entirely in pale blue and framed with the word TERROR.
Terrorhaza, Terror Háza, Terrorháza, Terrorhouse
Andy Sz.
Source: 8

János Hegy

János Hegy [map]
Buda, XII, János Hegy (Childrens‘ Railway), 15 min

One of the great advantages of Budapest is that it’s really easy to get out of. I love the city, don’t get me wrong, but every couple of weeks, I like to breathe unpolluted air; I like to see green things; I like to listen and hear nothing.

Thankfully, Budapest has its very own built-in countryside. Buda’s hills are the nearest faraway place. From the centre of town, you can be at Moszkva tér in ten minutes. After two stops on tram 56, you’re still in the city. But as soon as the cogwheel railway starts juddering and jolting, you know that you’ve escaped.

After a few minutes, the train pauses at a curious backwater. The houses of the well-to-do hide amongst the trees and the city visibly retreats into the distance. When you first use the cogwheel railway, you’ll realise that it’s less romantic than it sounds. It’s just bog-standard BKV transport, functional at best, but its function is romantic enough to make it a pleasant trip.

At the terminus, a short walk across the park brings you to the Children’s Railway, which is an enjoyable farce. There’s a mosaic in the station building that speaks volumes about the pride that the Soviets took in their scouts movement. Happy but disciplined children blow whistles and wave flags. Today, somehow, this tradition has been preserved. Three children salute us as the train pulls out of the station.

At János-Hegy, crooked steps lead out of the station and along a path which winds up towards the summit. Thankfully, a few stalls sell drinks and snacks before the steep climb to the lookout tower. The tower itself, looking fresh from its renovation in 2005, is more than a little reminiscent of the Fisherman’s bastion. It marks the highest point in Budapest and the views, naturally, are outstanding: in one direction, the city’s miniature landmarks; in the other, rolling hills coated in a deep green fleece.

For the descent, forget about the railways and head for the chairlift. Gliding down the hill, with the city opening out ahead of you is simply serene, or, if you’re a little wary of heights, exhilarating. Take a deep breath as you reach the bottom and ponder how to get off the damn thing, and with any luck, you might still have some oxygen left in your lungs by the time you get back to the city.

To follow the route above, take the 56 tram from Moszkva tér two stops to the Cogwheel railway terminus at Városmajor. Travel the entire length of the cogwheel railway, which should take about 25 minutes and costs just a single BKV ticket. At the Széchenyi-hegy terminus, bear left past a small cafe and continue on foot to the Children’s Railway station at the end of the road. János Hegy is the fourth stop. After decending by chairlift, take a 158 bus back to Moszkva tér. You can take the chairlift both ways, if you prefer.
Janos Hegy, Hedge, Hill
Andy Sz.

Source: 8

The Parliament Building – Az Országház

Kossuth tér [map]
Pest Centre, V,
Kossuth
tér (M2, T2/2a), 0 min

Budapest doesn’t have the highest international profile, which affords me a great satisfaction in showing people where I live. At Batthyány tér metro we head for the far escalator in a well-rehearsed act. My unsuspecting guest rambles on about something which will be abruptly forgotten as soon as we emerge by the side of the Danube. The Parliament’s score of spires reach into the sky, as the river winds under a trio of bridges before disappearing somewhere at the foot of Gellért Hill.

This is undoubtedly among the finest cityscapes in Europe, and the Parliament building is its crowning glory. But don’t satisfy yourself with having glanced over the river at it.

Getting into the Parliament is no mean feat, so a little guile might avert serious queues and mild sunstroke. English tours are by far the most popular so if you’re not too worried about catching all the facts and stats, it might be worth taking a chance on your foreign language skills. Visits are by guided tour only but they are free for EU citizens, provided you remember your passport. For information on tours and tickets, click here.

Any misgivings about the toil required to get inside are quickly dispelled. The route through the building is an acclimatisation to grandeur. I’ve wandered around a few cathedrals in my time but never have I seen such a concentration of grandiosity (bear in mind that I haven’t been to Rome.) And yet, the fact that a lobby can be so sumptuous, and a staircase so magnificent, is mere preparation for what lies beneath the dome.

The ceiling of the cupola is a spider’s web of gold and green; a sixteen pointed star; the light of Hungarian democracy. It fuses effortlessly with the stained glass windows and is quite dizzyingly awe-inspiring. The centrepiece is the Holy Crown, the symbol of Hungary’s 1000 year history, first worn by the nation’s founding father, St. Istvan.

Meanwhile, a visit to one of two near-identical chambers, depending on whether the national assembly is in session, reminds us that this is a functioning parliament, which proves to be surprisingly modern. Each seat in a horseshoe of antique-looking pews is activated by a personal swipe-card, allowing MPs to submit their “yays” and “nays” electronically.

The success with which the Parliament depicts a glorious tradition of democracy is truly impressive, and shows no sign of the century of political instability that has accompanied its existence. For the other half of the story, turn to Kossuth tér itself, which bears one or two scars.

The Parliament lies on Kossuth tér and as the largest building in the country, you can’t miss it as you emerge from the metro or tram stop.
parlement, parlament, congress, hub choice
Andy Sz.


Source: 8

hub choice

No matter how long you’re in Budapest for, there are a few places we think you should really check out. So we’ve created:

Click on the logo above, or in the right-hand menu in any of the sections: bars & cafes; eating out; or sightseeing, to find our list of unmissables. Or just keep your eyes peeled for the tag.

If there’s anywhere you think we’ve overlooked, please let us know.

Andy T.

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Source: 8