Thursday, October 28, 2010

Retro Budapest

A retro city guide by Jeff Greif

Budapest, Hungary’s capital city has really come alive after years of communist oppression, and today has a lot to offer.  The city originated as two cities, Buda and Pest, divided by the Danube River and joined together to form Budapest. The two sides of the city have distinct differences, but together they create a special place that is vibrant, historical and still a bit of old world Europe. 

Hilly Buda, positioned at the end of the European Alps, contains Castle Hill and the famous Gellert Baths while Pest is the commercial hub which begins the flat plane continuing south all the way to Greece and Turkey.  Pest is where you’ll find shopping and top restaurants that attract the café society for which the city is known.  A stay on the Pest side at the Inter Continental Budapest Hotel facing the Danube and adjacent to the famous Chain Bridge is an ideal choice both for its location and luxurious amenities.  The imposing post modern glass structure was recently fully renovated and offers spectacular rooms with river views.

Budapest has a history both rich and varied.  The Magyars, the originators of the Hungarian language founded the city.  Then the Turks took control, and they had a lasting and influential presence during the Ottoman Empire.  Afterward the Hapsburgs designated the city as a focal point of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and made it the jewel in the crown of European capitals.  Considering this impressive pedigree that already existed, the Communists came to the party late but they rocked the foundation of the city’s history.  During the period of Soviet occupation, which ended with the fall of the iron curtain in 1989, nothing really changed in the city. However it’s this interesting cold war phase, now called the Retro Period,  that fuels the city’s current vibe and as the name suggests is a step back in time.

Signposts of the Retro period are all over the cityThroughout the long haul of Soviet oppression, Budapest’s citizens held on for better times and the remnants of their efforts still remain but nowhere more obvious than in the very active Jewish quarter.  During the Retro period there were not many shops here but now that’s changed.  With the locus centered in Király Street just adjacent to the quarter, there are shops and restaurants of all kinds now that make this charming neighborhood irresistible.   
On the Buda side of the city, there is a lot to explore including the facades of the buildings that meld different periods of Hungarian history together.  During the Retro period many of these buildings went into disrepair and are now just being restored. From Pest you can take a subway that drops you at Moscow Square, a beautiful public square and transit hub in the heart of Buda.  During the Retro period this is where the Soviets recruited Hungarian youths to become KGB agents.  The subway system still looks like its 1960 again with authentic cars built by the  Soviets during the Retro period.  This quirky present left to the city can take you anywhere from Pest to Buda. 

Also located on Buda hill and not to be missed are the Gellert Baths.  The ornately decorated hotel and spa dates back to 1918.  One of the most famous statues from the Retro period (now in Memento Park) stood guard on Gellert Hill in Buda just above the landmark baths.  The spa complex includes thermal baths, an Olympic size communal pool and separate private areas for men and women for therapeutic massages.  A hefty 18.5 million gallons of warm thermal water spring forth daily from its 118 natural thermal springs, and the relaxing experience of soaking in the baths can calm the weary after a long day of sightseeing

Castle Hill, close by to the Gellert baths by taxi offers a half day of sightseeing.  Arrive the scenic way by crossing the popular Chain Bridge from Pest and taking the funicular up the hill.  Reaching the pinnacle, visitors can experience the best views of the city anywhere along the ridge.  Start at the Royal Palace which is now a museum devoted to Hungarian art.  All the buildings were partially destroyed during World War II and rebuilt afterward to replicate their grandeur.  Don’t miss the labyrinths under Castle Hill.  This subterranean maze was used by the Nazis during the war as one of the last stands against the allies.  You can tour the labyrinth and learn about the fascinating history. 
Located just about four miles outside the city and accessible by taxi is Memento or Statue Park, and is the climax of the Retro Period tale.  When the Communist government was finally overthrown a smart businessman came forth and amassed all the statues and memorabilia that the Hungarians remembered so well, and installed them in a park.  The park is arranged in four figure-eight parterres with manystatues of workers and soldiers symbolizing the Soviet principals during the Retro Period.  A replica of the Stalin statue that stood on the Grandstand guards the entrance, but all traces of Stalin are gone except for his boots.  These are installed across the road from an old Trabant, the Soviet -made auto deemed perfect for the Hungarians. 

After a visit back in time Central Café is the perfect ending for the Retro Period tour. This coffee house dates back to 1887 when it was the center of social, cultural, and intellectual activity.  During the Retro period it was closed and afterward was turned into an eatery for construction workers of the underground.   Later in the 1990’s, after a brief stint as a club for the University, it operated as an amusement arcade.  It then fell into disrepair until 2000, when it was bought and returned to its original splendor.  Now everyone can again enjoy not only the sumptuous desserts, but also a full menu of fine cuisine that is inventive and even innovative by Budapest standards.

It’s always nice to crown a wonderful trip with a romantic experience.  Dinner at Gundel, a classic restaurant that was asleep during the Retro period, will surpass your expectations.  Strategically placed adjacent to City Park, this landmark’s popularity dates back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and it is a symbol of culinary art and refined hospitality.   It survived the great hardships of World War II and was then occupied by the Communists during the Retro Period.  George Land, the restaurateur, and Ronald Lauder purchased it in 1992 and completely remodeled it in the original Belle Epoque style.  The opulent interiors designed by Adam Tihany invoke an old-world atmosphere and the food which carefully combines traditional Hungarian cuisine with contemporary flourishes is incredible.  Serving variations on the classics such as goose liver pate, veal paprika and catfish, the perfection in the execution is astounding and you’ll find yourself wondering exactly what is on your plate.  On summer evenings guests dine outside in the garden and listen to live music played by an orchestra whose repertoire spans the gamut from Franz Liszt (a Hungarian) to traditional gypsy music.  What a treat!

Budapest offers the traveler impressive history and culture, but the Retro Period, a time they were not proud of, is truly something that has left a lasting impression on the city.  So, get into your time machine, set your watch back and let history work some magic.  Experience the simple pleasures of bygone days when you head to Budapest where the red star has finally turned to gold.

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