Budapest riverside setting
Gellert Bath, Budapest.

Lying back totally relaxed, and keeping an open mind, it is hard to decide what I like most about Budapest.

Certainly the hot-spring baths score highly, particularly the grand neo-baroque and Art Nouveau-style bathing buildings which are so theatrical that, at first sight, seem totally unreal.

Some look like Roman baths, though they were only built a century ago. These pay tribute to the Romans who adored the medicinal properties of the thermal springs on the banks of the River Danube.

Same goes for the Ottomans, who brought with them the Turkish bathing culture, a culture embraced and expanded by the Austrian Hapsburg Empire that eventually displaced them.

That shift provoked the next set of bathing buildings, among them the iconic Gellert baths at the Hotel Gellert and Szechenyi baths in City Park. At the latter I encountered a ticket seller who would have deterred any number of these ancient invaders, or a modern army for that matter.

But I wouldn't have missed that bathing experience for the world. Still, most people who come to Budapest gravitate to the banks of the Danube for a front row view of the city's splendid monuments, especially at sunset. This is facilitated by pulling up a seat at any of the promenade restaurants on the flat Pest side of the river.

Seen from a vantage point in Pest, the seductively illuminated landmarks on the hilly Buda riverbanks take on a magical form as night descends. To this add the sound of violins that set the drops of the crystal chandeliers a-tingle as musicians work themselves to near frenzy with their repertoires of haunting gypsy songs.

Depending on the weather and how much time I have, I usually like to walk a city; and in the past I've explored most of Budapest on foot. This time I've arrived on a river cruiser on a damp and murky day.

We moored beside the Chain Bridge and were whisked across the river to ascend the heights of Buda via the funicular, one of the world's first cable railways and a technical wonder when it opened here in 1870.

The panoramic view from Buda castle district is breathtaking. Even on a grey and rain-swept day Budapest can put on a show, and up-close the monuments take on a real life.

The citadel and castle: much restored after numerous attacks but clinging to this spot for 800 years.

Matthias Church: converted to a mosque when Buda was the headquarters of a Turkish province, now restored in splendid neo-gothic style. Fisherman's Bastion: not a bastion at all but a fanciful concoction of terraces and stairways topped with seven limestone turrets representing the seven Magyar tribes that settled Hungary in 896.

Hungarians were proud to call themselves Magyars.

In 1896, they commemorated the Magyar conquest with the Millennium Monument that resides in Heroes' Square near City Park. It depicts the seven Magyar chieftains and their leader, Grand Prince Arpad, plus other key players in Hungary's history, including Arpad's descendant, King Stephen I who accepted the "holy crown" from the Pope.

Thereafter the pagan Magyars switched to Christianity and aligned themselves with the Christian West. Not surprisingly, Stephen was canonised. You can see his mummified holy right hand displayed in a glass cabinet in the landmark St Stephen's Basilica downtown. Insert a coin and the cabinet is brightly illuminated.

Andrassy Avenue links Heroes' Square with the downtown area. It is named after Count Gyula Andrassy who, in 1867, when Hungary was part of the Austro- Hungarian Empire, became the first Hungarian prime minister at a time of unprecedented prosperity and cultural activity.

In keeping with this, Andrassy Avenue became a showcase boulevard flanked with an opera house and lavish residences and apartment buildings. Europe's first underground railway was built beneath it.

Decades later, many of Andrassy Avenue's elegant inhabitants were forced into exile, or worse. Number 60, a building called Terror Haza (House of Terror) is a museum these days.

It no longer holds the power to intimidate but will always be remembered as headquarters of the Hungarian nazis and the communist organisations that followed on from them.

The last Soviet soldier left Hungary in 1991. Soviet goings-on seem distant now, unless you have the wrong ticket on the underground, which seems to act as a sort of lightning rod for the transport police to spring into gear.

Hapless commuters are told to purchase another ticket or leave. Fair enough, though I've heard it expressed in the more robust Western vernacular.

Amused, if a little shocked, on that visit I elected to walk everywhere, and this delivered a new set of images - dozens of pairs of bronze shoes marking the spot where Jews were shot and thrown into the Danube during World War II.

I saw streets outside the tourist loop where Budapest is in a state of transition, still catching up with its popularity as a tourist destination. Baroque pediments stripped of paint and energy; buildings reflecting the scars of a torrid past, but beautiful nevertheless.

As a grand finale, though, nothing beats lying back in a deckchair on a river cruiser and watching the illuminated monuments slide by as you glide along the Danube after sunset.


FACT FILE

• Fly Perth-Budapest with Switzerland International Air Lines and their airline partners. Contact www.swiss.com.

• By rail, pre-book Eurail passes through Australian-based International Rail. Contact www.internationalrail.com.au.

• Budapest features on four Viking River Cruises' Danube itineraries. Contact your travel agent or Viking River Cruises www.vikingrivercruises.com.au.

• The Australian-owned Adina Apartment Hotel Budapest offers studio and apartment style accommodation. Contact www.adina.eu.

• For more information on Budapest contact the Tourism Office of Budapest www.budapestinfo.hu.

Margaret Turton was a guest of Viking River Cruises, International Rail and Adina Apartment Hotel Budapest.

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save

Our Picks

Follow Us

More from The West