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Funky Buda; IAIN MAYHEW finds the Hungarian capital good and cheap.

Byline: IAIN MAYHEW

IT'S the first real weekend of spring in Budapest. Winter's grey clouds have finally retreated eastwards across the Great Hungarian Plain, leaving the Danube sparkling in the sun as it slides under the city's Chain Bridge. There is a hint of blossom on the trees, cafes spread their tables out on to the pavements and at the open-air Szechenyi Baths in City Park pale bodies stretch out beside the warm spa waters to catch the rays.

On Margaret Island, in the middle of the Danube, joggers pound tree-lined paths as older men sit drinking Dreher beer and sipping goulash soup. On Vorosmarty Square the wooden cabins selling Hungarian handicrafts do a roaring trade with passengers off the riverboat cruise just arrived from Vienna. Budapest is waking from its winter hibernation like the brown bears up on the Carpathian border. It time for the spring festival, a long fortnight of music, art, theatre and dance in the city's finest baroque buildings. It's a welcome diversion from the past few months.

The recession has hit Hungary hard. The jobless total is up and the Florint has disappeared through the floor. Last month the Prime Minister resigned when he couldn't raise enough support for his rescue package and now the country doesn't even have a leader. The locals are getting restless - when I was there last weekend students held a mass pillow-fight, an ironic protest for peace, while the next day rightwing demonstrators marched on Heroes' Square to point fingers at the usual scapegoats.

SURVIVOR

But Budapest is a gritty survivor. It has always sat at the crossroads of history and down the years it has been there, done that and got the bloodied T-shirt. Romans, Mongols, Ottomans, Austrians, Germans and Russians have each marched in the door and plonked themselves down on the sofa. Some didn't leave muddy footprints - the Turks, for example, were happy to let the Jewish population go about their business, and they built spectacular steam baths and spas that you can still use today. The Habsburgs from neighbouring Austria built grand palaces, broad boulevards and leafy squares.

But the Germans and Red Army finally trashed the place. The Nazis, with the local "Arrow Cross" faction as eager collaborators, shipped up to half a million Jews to the gas chambers up to 1944. A year later, after some bitter street-fighting, Budapest was in the hands of the Russians who decided to wreck Hungary's economy in the name of collectivisation and built some pretty naff utilitarian buildings into the bargain. An uprising in 1956 against their Moscow masters was brutally crushed. So it wasn't until 1989 that Hungarians could open their doors to yet another invading horde - tourists like you and me.

Budapest is barely more than a two-hour flight from the UK and its current financial problems, while making life tough for locals, mean a weekend break here can be cheaper than in any other European city. You'll enjoy dining out at the city's many world-class belle epoque restaurants after strolling through ancient cobbled streets, haggling at outdoor markets or cruising along the romantic Danube. Here's a brief guide...

GETTING AROUND

Budapest has an extensive network of trams and buses and a three-line metro. There is a flat fare of about 30p for each journey. A pounds 22 Budapest Card gives unlimited public transport for a weekend and free or cheap access to museums and attractions. The only hassle you are likely to get is from greedy taxi drivers. Avoid them, or only use taxis with official yellow number plates and agree the fare before you get in. Costs in restaurants and shops in the main tourist district near the Chain Bridge on the Pest side are much higher than elsewhere. For cheaper deals wander back from the river.

WHAT TO SEE

The city is known as the Pearl of the Danube. Start with a boat trip on the river, it will give you an idea of the city's amazing layout. Legenda (www.legenda.hu) run trips from the pier on the Pest side near the Hotel InterContinental. A relaxing two-hour cruise around Margaret Island costs about pounds 10, including a couple of drinks and an audio guide.

Buda is quieter, greener and has more historic buildings than Pest. The Royal Palace and the Castle Hill district, with its cobbled streets and immaculate public gardens, are only slightly upstaged by the magnificent Fishermen's Bastion, with its views across the Danube to Pest. Pest is altogether livelier, with pavement cafes, a neo-Classical Parliament building, a State Opera House and a variety of designer shops. St Stephen, the first King of Hungary, is regarded as the founder of Hungary and you should visit his huge basilica.

Locals flock here to pay their respects - I happened on a moving performance of St Matthew's Passion one evening - and it's a magnificent monument to their revered departed hero. Well, not quite departed. His hand is still here, a tiny thing in a glass case in a corner of the church. The relic is wheeled out for religious processions. Take a bus out to Statue Park (www.szoborpark.hu, about pounds 3), where many Communist statues torn down from the city centre have been unceremoniously dumped. Stalin's bronze boots preside over the place - the rest was melted down.

For a better understanding of what Hungarians went through in the Soviet era, visit the Museum of Terror on Andrassy Street on the Pest side. The building was a Nazi HQ then used by the secret police during the Soviet occupation. It has a Soviet tank in the foyer, torture dungeons and cells, pictures of victims and their persecutors. It's pretty full-on.

EATING OUT

Hungary is gradually cooking its way out of the bland Communist era and it isn't just goulash and red plonk any more. (Porkolt - stew - which we know as goulash, is meat served with sour cream and paprika. Halaszle is a spicy, thick fish soup usually served as a main). Budapest is now packed with good-value restaurants serving every type of international cuisine. Chinese foodies are particularly wellcatered for.

THE NIGHTLIFE

Hungarians love to dance - they also love to drink, so you can have a really good night out in Budapest. "Drinkbars" are fairly upmarket and serve mainly cocktails. Wine bars, or borozo, are watering holes for locals.

A good bet is to head for a beer hall (sorozo), which are more like English pubs or German bierkellers. Most open at lunchtime and shut after midnight. In Buda, try the Racz Kert Sorozo, in Hadnagy Utca, a really lively spot. In Pest, the Crazy Cafe at Jokai Utca is in a long cellar with a huge variety of beers and karaoke.

AROUND BUDAPEST

If you have more than a weekend to spare, Hungary has some great options away from Budapest.'s bright lights. The country is famous for its spas and thermal waters - perfect for a healthy break. Hungary's rich thermal springs extend directly underneath two-thirds of the country and emerge through 60,000 thermal-water wells, 100 of which can be found in Budapest. The result is a spa culture like no other, dating back to Roman times.

The Turks, who occupied Hungary for 150 years in the 1500s, brought Ottoman bathing customs here and during Budapest.'s golden era towards the end of the 19th century and between the wars, spas were an essential part of any Grand Tour. Central Europeans would come to Hungary to take the waters f o r medicinal purposes, to heal any number of ailments - from arthritis to gout. This still holds true.

The best-known provincial hub of spa tourism is in Heviz (www.spaheviz.hu), near Lake Balaton, Europe's largest thermal lake. The first spa here was opened in 1795. With a temperature rarely below 26 degrees, Heviz has such voluminous springs feeding it that the entire lake replenishes itself every 24 hours. Nearby Tapolca boasts one of the more unusual spa attractions in Hungary - a medicinal cave where the air is pure and free of dust, ideal for people suffering from asthmatic conditions. Guests of the nearby Hunguest Hotel Pelion (www.hunguesthotels.com) have direct access to the caves, and the thermal waters used for the pools in the hotel. Closer to the Austrian border, the Radisson SAS Birdland Resort in Buk (www.birdland.hu), built in 2004, is a large spa and leisure complex with two thermal water pools and an 18-hole golf course. A stay here allows easy access to the extensive range of historic palaces and castles in the region.

GETTING THERE

FOR more info about Budapest and holidays in Hungary call the Hungarian Tourist Office on 020 7823 0411 or visit www.gotohungary.co.uk.

MALEV Hungarian Airlines provides an allfrills service at no-frills prices with five daily direct services from London to Budapest with fares from pounds 110pp return. For more info visit www.malev.com or call 0870 909 0577.

I STAYED at the central Le Meridien Budapest., a short walk from the Danube, with rooms from pounds 98 per night. Book on (+36)(1) 429 5500 or visit www.starwoodhotels. com/lemeridien/ budapest.

FOR more details on the annual Budapest Spring Festival or other Hungarian arts and culture festivals visit www.festivalcity.hu.

HUNGARY is a member of the EU but not in the eurozone, which as the pound continues to tumble against the European currency makes it a bargain destination.

But it's not the only holiday hotspot that can guarantee you a place in the sun without burning a hole in your wallet.

Thomas Cook (www.thomascook. com) has just released its annual Holiday Cost Of Living survey, which provides prices of daily essentials in 16 popular tourist destinations worldwide.

The survey shows that the majority of best value destinations for daily expenditure are long and mid-haul non-euro destinations, where the pound goes further. The favourable exchange rates of North African destinations such as Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco make them great value destinations and Turkey is also still a bargain.

The cheapest by far continues to be Goa, in India, where a cup of coffee is more than 10 times cheaper than in the UK.

Holidaymakers to Cuba also get a good deal in bars and restaurants.

But some eurozone places do manage to be easy on the bank balance. Prices in Spain, Majorca and Cyprus are still cheaper than in the UK.

With a three-course meal costing on average just pounds 11.50 in Spain, for example, it's still a value-for-money holiday hotspot.

CAPTION(S):

STAR SPA: Szechenyi Baths in City Park AWESOME: The Terror Museum's tank RELICS OF THE PAST: In Statue Park RELIGIOUS CENTRE: St Stephen's basilica RIVERSIDE VIEW: Parliament buildings GREAT ARCHITECTURE: Fishermen's Bastion GET THE POINT: A view over the City's rooftops
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Apr 11, 2009
Words:1802
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