Budapest - Delight on the Danube
By Michael Russell
Over the 2,000 years of its history, Budapest has been ruled at various times by the Romans, Turks, Goths, Germans and until recently the Soviets. They have all left their influences and the combination has given Budapest an ambience all its own. It's a large city that was once considered three cities. Pest, Obuda and Buda were divided by the Danube, which forks in the middle of the city. The three cities were combined in 1873 and Budapest was adopted as the new name.
During a stay in Budapest there are a few must see attractions.
Spas - Budapest sits on a tectonic plate fault line in Eastern Europe. While earthquakes might seem inevitable, one advantage to the location is the proliferation of mineral water spas in the city. Perhaps the best known is The Gellert Spa Hotel located in the center of Budapest on the eastern shore of the Danube River. From the front, the hotel looks like a classic renaissance building you would find in Paris or Vienna. The entrance to the hotel opens onto an indoor pool that looks like something out of ancient Rome. The square pool is surrounded by baroque columns and covered by a glass roof two stories above the water. Palms, plants and relaxing Hungarians are everywhere. It is staggeringly impressive.
For roughly ten dollars, you can have the full Gellert experience. There is one mixed gender indoor pool and two sections reserved for just men and women. In these reserved sections, you can get massage services, but keep in mind these are vigorous Turkish style massages. Put another way, you will be getting slapped around a bit instead of nearly falling asleep.
At the rear of the Gellert, there is an outdoor area that rivals any Las Vegas hotel. Unlike Vegas hotels with themes, this pool area is truly historic. The area comes with marble steps, ceramic tile mosaics and lush landscape. One tends to feel a bit like you are taking a bath in the Vatican.
There are spas all over the place in Budapest but another that you might try is the Kiraly Baths. Kiraly was apparently built during Turkish rule and the spa experience is entirely Turkish, including the massages.
Castle District - Situated in the Buda section of Budapest, the Castle District sits on the eastern side of the Danube. Positioned a couple hundred feet above the Danube, the entire city of Budapest can be seen from the numerous vantage points. The view is so amazing, the Italians coined a saying, "Europe has three gems - Venice on the water, Florence in the plains and Buda in the hills". The Italians definitely got it right. Some travelers will tell you it's a reason in itself to visit Budapest.
Buda Castle - Sitting on top of a hill and towering over the Danube, the Buda Castle is stunning. Started under the guidance of King Bela IV in the 14th century it was expanded upon by later rulers. Medieval times, however, saw the castle burned, looted, demolished, bombed with cannon balls and ransacked. Each time, new rulers rebuilt. Visiting Buda Castle is like stepping back into the heights of the renaissance. The Castle is adorned with red marble stairways, gothic facades, bastions and epic statutes overlooking the Danube. The fountains around the Castle are simply fantastic for variety and beauty.
Holy Trinity Square - Just to the south of Buda Castle lies Holy Trinity Square. The Church of the Holy Lady, which is also known as Matthias Church, dominates the square. The church has served as the location where Hungarian Kings undertook their rule and many famous figures are interred on the grounds.
Fishermen's Bastion - This Roman bastion has the appearance of a mini-castle at Disneyland. The views from the parapets are amazing as you take in the Danube River as it cuts its way through Budapest.
Just outside of Bastion, however, you have to keep your eye out for something amazing. Hungarians historically have been some of the best horsemen in the world. As part of the tradition, the horseman carry bullwhips instead of ropes. Big bullwhips. And they like to crack them just outside of the bastion. If you aren't paying attention when this occurs, the world's loudest snap will send you diving for cover. The only thing I can equate it to is the sound of rolling thunder, but without the rolling. When it happens tourists' drinks, food and cameras go flying!
Margaret Island - In the middle of the city chaos lays an oasis of tranquility, Margaret Island, which is one of the unique elements of Budapest. The island is located in the middle of the Danube River in central Budapest and is a little more than 1 mile long and 500 yards wide. With the exception of a hotel at the south end, the island is free of cars and buildings. In the past, Margaret Island served as a private park for Hungarian royalty and you can see why. The island consists mostly of paths flanked by old growth trees, rose gardens and tailored lawn areas. Peacocks walk freely around the island and wild ducks nest throughout the island. At the south end of the island, you can visit hot thermal springs, walk on paths through peaceful ponds or relax in front of tiered water cascades. During part of the year, plays are undertaken at an outdoor theatre. Only in Budapest can you be in the middle of an active city, walk 200 feet across a bridge and be in a peaceful, forested area.
When visiting Hungary, it is easy to fall in love with Budapest. Don't let the language frighten you away, there are getting to be more people - particularly students - who can speak a little English and they're all eager to practice on you. Hungarians are a proud people. While most are polite and some helpful beyond belief, they are reserved, perhaps the most reserved people in Europe you'll meet south of Scandinavia. Make a friend though and you'll have a friend for life. Welcome to Budapest!
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