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Spicy Budapest and Danube bend: a spicy goulash.

They call this "Pearl of the Danube," the Paris of the East. Both grew up along rivers, have great outdoor cafes, fine wines, good beers and elaborate palaces and fascinating museums.

But Budapest has drop-dead gorgeous women--curvaceous blondes, heart-stopping brunettes, raven-haired and black-haired beauties. On the streets, in the cafes, on the trams, shopping, gossiping, striding to work, necking with their boyfriends. My wife even remarks on it.

And what would Paris look like if 80 percent of it--30,000 buildings--was destroyed in the 1940s by the Nazi war machine? Add to that 40 years in a Communist comma, the retribution for the 1954 Hungarian Revolution, laboring under the Hapsburgs and Turks and battling the Mongols.

Hungarians are survivors.

The modern city is three provincial towns that grew together--hilly Buda and old Buda, where the castle looms across the river, and Pest on the Danube's opposite bank with its wide boulevards.

A bumpy, 15-mile ride on a Ferihegy Airport minibus takes us past grimy blocks of dilapidated buildings and deposits us in the center of Pest, pronounced Pesh, at the moderately priced City Ring Hotel. Had we arrived by train, we would have picked a room in a private residence offered by hawkers at the train station.

A short walk down bustling Szent Istvan takes us to the majestic Danube, a murky gray under a brilliant sky. With 60 museums, two opera houses, four orchestras, 90 galleries, 100 cinemas and more than a dozen baths, there is more to Budapest than goulash, a spicy Hungarian meat stew that originated with 9th century nomadic Magyar horsemen. Today it is served with a side dish of racy gypsy music at tourist restaurants.

(Paprika, by the way, is the Hungarian word for peppers in their various varieties, which were brought to Europe by Columbus.)

Budapest's festivities begin with the Spring Festival, showcasing Hungarian and foreign musicians, followed by a folk dancing festival in April, the International Cultural Festival in June, organ recitals, the Hungary Grand Prix race, wine cellar tours, the Budapest fair and other events as Budapest reclaims its rightful place as one of Europe's most beautiful cities.

Meanwhile, we cross the Danube and descend onto leafy tranquility on forested Margaret Island for a late afternoon stroll. A public park since 1908, the isle has no cars but is home to fountains, open-air baths, lovely gardens, youth hostels, sport clubs and band concerts. Sunbathers line its Danube banks.

It's a perfect place to unwind. We sip coffee and watch the passing scene--mothers with baby carriages, children playing and young lovers embracing. We're told it's easy to get around Budapest on the continent's first underground metro, built in 1896. An aged ticket agent waves us away. No small change. We purchase delicious almond tarts, get change and ask two young Brits for directions.

"Be sure to buy tickets," one says. "We didn't and were heavily fined. Oh, and don't push the buttons near the door. We did and the tram slammed to an emergency stop."

We go to the wrong level, get on the wrong tram, get off at the wrong stop and hike to the wrong museum, aided by chatty, smiling, gesturing, locals. Hungarian is related to no other tongue except Finnish and Estonian, both unfamiliar to us. Then a polite gentleman leads us to the right tram and we zoom to Heroes' Square, flanked by the Palace of Arts and the Museum of Fine Arts.

At the square's center stands the Millennium monument, built in 1896 to celebrate the nation's 1,000-year anniversary and its leaders. The seven horsemen--Prince Arpad and the Magyar founders--represent the seven Magyar tribes who settled the Carpathian Basin.

My favorite sculpture is a mustachioed warrior with antler horns strapped to his horse's head. The first fleshy tank? High overhead the Archangel Gabriel offers St. Stephen the crown of Hungary. Notable by their absence are the Hapsburg rulers who held sway for 300 years.

We visit the Museum of Fine Arts, Hungary's largest art collection, featuring famed artists from Gauguin to Rembrandt and a room hung with Goyas. Wonderful paintings by little-known Hungarians contribute to our enjoyment. Rooms are uncrowded, tour groups non-existent. Then we relax, chat and enjoy a coffee in nearby City Park, formerly a royal hunting domain.

It's hard to get a bad meal in Budapest. For dinner we savor red peppers, stuffed with mince and rice, and a ratatouille of tomatoes and red peppers and drink a fine, inexpensive Hungarian red wine.

Our attempt to find a tanchaz at a community center for an evening of folk music and dancing ends in failure. At a typical tanchaz an hour of dance instruction is followed by dancing to records or a band.

The following morning we follow the Danube and cross at the Chain Bridge, the capital's first bridge that was built from 1839 to 1849, destroyed in World War II and rebuilt in its original style in 1949 on its 100th anniversary.

We take a funicular up to Castle Hill, home of the Royal Palace and its maze of museums. Perched on the spur of a Buda hill, it offers a bird's-eye-eye view of the city, a perfect spot to ponder the city's history, from the Romans who first built here and at their nearby city of Aquinquin--possibly the capital of Attila the Hun--to the Magyars who rode in from the east in the 9th century and stayed.

Hungary, where western and eastern Europe meet, has waxed and waned, sometimes wealthy, often poor. In the 15th century King Matthias Corvinus presided over one of Europe's most splendid courts in his Budapest palace. But after 150 years of Turkish occupation, Christian forces besieged and destroyed the castle in 1686. Then, as a Hapsburg showplace, Empress Maria Theresa had a baroque palace rebuilt from the rubble. Some 200 years later that palace was flattened by the advancing Red Army who battled the Nazis, making their last stand here. What we see now is a painstaking reconstruction.

This national symbol houses the Hungarian National Gallery, one of the world's finest art galleries, the Budapest History Museum, the National Library and the Ludwig Museum, with its 200 pieces of Hungarian and world art.

The Budapest Historic Museum, not a jazzy title, houses one-half million works of art, a Roman archaeological collection, exhibits showing the city's history and remains of the medieval royal palace. We spend a day touring its royal cellars, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque halls and ever-changing exhibits. Above the palace stands reconstructed Matthias Church, Budapest's most famous house of worship and easily identified by its distinctive roof of colored, diamond-patterned tiles. Built between 13th and 15th century, it's the royal showplace of frescoes, art, stained glass, coronation relics and goldsmith masterpieces. The Hapsburg emperors were crowned here.

Nearby Fishermen's Bastion was built at the turn of the century as a lookout tower to protect a thriving fishing community. It offers sweeping views of the seven bridges spanning the Danube. We circle down a forested path and hop aboard a cruise for a waterside view of the divided city.

A perky guide, Viktoria Vadocz, tells us the following day, "I can't make a living teaching so I guide, translate and give tutorials." Life for countries in transition is never easy, but in the past decade foreign investors have pumped billions into Hungary. Yet, she says, the Chinese illegally dump goods at their markets and the Ukrainian mafia controls the escort services. Budapest is popular with the Chinese who come here to be married; the Japanese usually visit during the winter.

We begin at St. Stephen's Basilica, the city's largest, that holds Hungary's greatest reliquary, the mummified right arm of King Stephen who brought Christianity to Hungary. Then it's on to the Parliament, the nation's largest building and the permanent site of the national assembly. One of Europe's most imposing structures, the Parliament, modeled after London's, sits on the Danube embankment; locals say it's always being cleaned as it was during our visit.

Constructed from 1884 to 1902 as a symbol of the city's growing power, it has 691 rooms, is six football fields long and its cupula rises nearly 300 feet. We view the coronation regalia, St. Stephen's crown, the scepter, orb and Renaissance sword. The pope sent King Stephen a crown with the upper part engraved in Latin, the lower part in Greek.

The damaged cross was crooked when the king removed it from the box. He opted for Hungarians to become Roman Catholic, not Greek Orthodox. During World War II the crown was stored at Fort Knox and returned in 1978. The building is decorated in 75 pounds of gold leaf, has exquisite carpets, fine examples of the famed Herend porcelain and carved statues showing 460 craftsmen who worked in medieval Hungary.

The State Opera House, at its ceremonial opening on Sept. 24, 1884, was Europe's most modern house--safety exits, fireproof doors, and an old-fashioned majestic staircase. Only one room survived intact from World War II bombing. Its Italian Renaissance paintings depict Greek mythology, the expanse of its high dome holds a painting of Mount Olympus, and its columns depict angels playing musical instruments.

Soprano Andrea Rost says of the ornate house, now restored to its original glory, "It's like a jewelry box. And the jewels are the voices inside." Its first director composed the Hungarian national anthem.

Budapest is a city of medicinal baths. Although baths from Roman times have been uncovered, the true bathing culture began during the Turkish occupation in the 16th and 17th century. Men and women are separated as they often bath nude.

The palatial Art Nouveau thermal spa at the Gellert Hotel (open to nonguests) features therapeutic hot-springs baths, a covered bubbling pool and sun terraces. Its medicinal springs already were famed by the 13th century. No one should miss them.

The indoor Market Hall is a two-story building with scores of stalls selling traditional Hungarian wares, from embroidered linen to paprika and salami. Paprika garlands, strings of garlic and sausages make it as vibrant as any market in France or Spain.

Budapest has a proud heritage. Like Vienna, it is famous for its Old World cafes. Each corner cafe has its own character and is the neighborhood's extended living room.

Sitting in one it is easy to recall when Budapest was the second city of the Austro-Hungary Empire, when its cafes catered to people such as Franz Listz who made famous Hungarian folk music. Not to be missed is the opulent Gerbeaud Cukraszda on Vorosmarty Square with its brocade wall coverings, crystal chandeliers and imperial ambience.

Pastry addicts, try these two specialties--retes, a strudel filled with apples or black cherries, and dobosstorta, a cake layered with custard of egg yolks, sugar, chocolate and vanilla and covered with carmelized sugar.

Hungarian classical and folk music is world-renowned. The names and works of Bela Bartok, Zoltan Kodaly and Franz Liszt have won Hungary a solid reputation. The concert halls attract world-class musicians. Each March the Budapest Spring Festival and the Budapest Autumn Festival host the best of Hungarian and international music, theater, film and fine arts.

Andrassy Avenue, the main boulevard for strolling, is lined by book shops, cafes and is an entertaining jaunt. Nearby, many of Pest's older buildings show off the extravagance of the turn of the century boom that gave Budapest a cosmopolitan, vibrant, romantic reputation.

If you have free time journey back 2,000 years to a nearby Roman settlement that is the site of the first hot mineral waters complex. Aquincum, named in honor of aqua, had a population of 100,000 wealthy Romans who enjoyed the public baths, two amphitheaters, parks, palaces and whose houses were centrally heated by thermal springs. Its most famous governor was Hadrian who became emperor.

More than 70,000 visitors annually walk through the ruins of its forum, tribunals, market place and homes. Its artifacts and mosaics give one an inkling of what life was like on the empire's northern fringes.

If you fancy horses, try riding where equestrianship and horse breeding have been revered since the 9th century. Head for the old Diplomat's Riding School at Alag, 10 miles outside the city. The fabled Hussars, the mounted cavalry who fought for the Hapsburgs, were Hungarian.

Students of the Communist past might want to visit outdoor Statue Park, featuring gigantic Iron Curtain statues removed from the streets of Budapest. Hungary today it is making up for lost time under the Soviets. Scenes from "Evita" were filmed here and the world's largest film studio is under construction in Etek. Its wealth of dance festivals, dance companies, operas, operettas and folk dance troupes draw big audiences. And Hungarian hospitality treats visitors as guests.

Once it was an essential stop on the Grand Tour. Its cultural buzz has returned.

It's 30 miles north from Budapest to the Danube Bend, but it's a world away as our rented car snakes by age-old villages, neat vacation houses and well-kept gardens along the Danube River.

Bishops, kings and Roman legions all coveted the Bend and they all ruled it. They built grand palaces and mighty fortresses and left the area with a rich legacy.

This area of steep, wooded slopes provides spectacular views as the Danube makes a sharp right turn toward Budapest. The Bend is one of Hungary's most popular tourist areas, and it's easy to see by car, tourist bus or Danube passenger ferries that cruise through this scenic valley.

There are three main areas to visit: Esztergom, Visegrad and Szentendre. They all can be seen in a day if you rush. Better yet, take an extra day or two and see everything leisurely. Ruins of Roman settlements from the lst century cover the countryside.

Szentendre

Our first stop is pronounced sen-TEN-dreh, a 17th century settlement of Serbian, Dalmatian and Greek families with narrow, cobblestone streets. Museums, shops, galleries and restaurants are in 10th to 19th century burgher houses.

We visit the crystal museum and watch a craftsman cut intricate designs in glass with a diamond drill, view of the works of fine sculptors, and marvel at the blue and white brocaded peasant clothing.

While relaxing, we sip Unicom, a schnapps packing a wallop. Farther on we descend into the wine museum caves displaying wines from Hungary's 22 wine regions. The October grape harvest is a joyous time to visit Hungary as each wine town has its own festival.

Exterior stone blocks at the Serbian Orthodox Church harbor deep gouges from swords swung by medieval knights in hopes that they would return alive from bloody battlefields. The famed Herend porcelain factory has an outlet and the Szabo Marzipan Museum sells marzipan--35 percent sugar and 65 percent almond paste--amid a giant representation of the Hungarian Parliament and smaller marzipan figurines of Queen Elisabeth of Austria, Lady Diana and Michael Jackson.

The Hungarian Open Air Museum shows the country's peasant side. We see how peasants tilled the soil, how bakers baked their bread and housewives cooked for their families. The costumed occupants go about their business as if we aren't there. On special occasions the brightly costumed residents dance and sing for local festivals.

Esztergom

For a millennium this was one of Hungary's most important cities. Roman emperor-to-be Marcus Aurelius wrote his famed "Meditations" while camping here. Ruined Roman watchtowers still tower over the countryside here. The seat of the Hungarian kingdom for 300 years, the town holds a neo-classic colossus, Hungary's largest cathedral that sits atop Castle Hill. Its 200-foot-tall dome can be seen for miles.

Hungary's first king, Stephen I, who converted Hungary to Catholicism, was crowned by the pope here in 1000 A.D. and made it the center of the early church. The town's epithet is "the Cradle of Hungary." Originally the clerics lived along the riverbanks, the royalty in the hilltop palace.

Our footsteps echo through the cathedral as we gaze at the relics, explore the spooky crypts and look in awe at the magnificent high altar painting; the gold and silver masterpieces of the Treasury are the richest in Hungary. Franz Liszt composed the music for its consecration in 1856.

Sharing the crest of the hill is the Royal Palace, home to early kings of Hungary. Destroyed many times, today it houses the Castle Museum filled with weaponry, pottery and relics. Fragments of ancient paintings line its walls, ceilings and chapel and hint at its lost magnificence. Below, the Danube flows serenely and Slovakia spreads out in quiet, green splendor.

Visegrad

A Roman fortress became the foundation for the Citadel, whose ruins still loom 1,000 feet above the town and river. Built in 1259, the Citadel was destroyed by the Turks and later the Hapsburgs.

Today, it has been restored so visitors can make the arduous climb through forest, steams, rocks and mud to a drawbridge and through a gate to the rustic Citadel. Several buildings within the walls hold dioramas of early fortress life and hunting in the 13th century.

Far below, the crumbling ruins of the once magnificent 350-room palace are being restored. In the 15th century it was considered the most elaborate palace in Europe and remained the seat of royal power for hundreds of years. The best preserved part is the Court of Honor, with its Gothic cloisters and fan-vaulted ceilings. More exhibits and relics are found in the King Mathias Museum in one of the nearby hunting lodges.

There is so much to see that we decided to get a hotel room, winding up at the four-star Danubius Spa and Conference Hotel outside Visegrad or "High Castle" in Slovak. The mountainous area is a former royal hunting forest, perfect for picnics and hikes in summer and skiing and snowboarding in winter. Our room overlooks the Danube--blue here for the first time--and down on a series of large pools filled with sunning Scandinavians and Germans. Soon, my wife discovers that she forgot her swimming suit, but resolutely shoots down a slide into the pool in short pajama bottoms and a black bra. Her attire attracts amused glances. Warm outdoor pools provide a wet wonderland.

Water slides glide us, water spouts spin us and fountains swish us around tight curves. Various mineral and spring waters fill surrounding pools.

Roman mosaics and presumably appropriate Latin phrases lend a hedonistic Roman Empire air. We swim, slip into saunas, try the freezing refrigidarium (briefly) and all the other "ariums" with pungent scents, various temperatures and Latin sayings.

The Danube setting is idyllic. Later, we sip wine on our terrace and enjoy a magenta sunset turning age-old villages across the river a golden pink. With night a magical mist forms above the dark forests that climb the hills. At dinner no one is speaking Latin, or English, but the food is hearty Hungarian capped by a late-night dip in a pool.

The following day we explore this sleepy riverside village. For 400 years the river was the border of the Roman Empire where Roman camps, watch towers and sentries attempted to stave off barbarian invasions.

After the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, construction began on the present ruined hilltop citadel, a still standing castle keep and a wall running down to the former riverside palace. The five-story Salomon's Tower retains its original wells and displays statues found during excavations of the Renaissance palace.

The uphill hike through the dark forest did not appear daunting when we began. As we climbed higher we encountered streams crossing the path and the slippery mud grew deeper. We called off our assault and retreated for a picnic on the walls running to the river, a sublime spot to view the citadel and the Danube.

As we walked through the ruins, young sisters played flute and viola performing haunting music that seemed to bring the ruins' long lost glory back to life. Our next stop was the Royal Palace built in the 14th century; in 1323 King Charles Robert of Anjou, whose claim to the throne was contested, moved his court here. For 200 years Hungarian kings and queens alternated their courts between here and Buda.

Later, the Turks destroyed Visegrad and in 1702 the Hapsburgs blew up the citadel to prevent Hungarian freedom fighters from using it. With European Union help, the palace has been partially reconstructed, fountains rebuilt and a fascinating museum opened.

Soon we're in our rented car and quiet Visegrad slips away as we pass fishermen, blue heron, picnickers, forests and hills, tiny villages, spired churches and a serpentine road that follows the riverbanks. The sun shines on kayakers, small boats with tiny motors, spreading swamps, small islands, floating trees and weekend campers. Scenes emerge and fade. Soon the spires of Parliament pierce the air and we're back in Budapest.
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Title Annotation:LIFE; Hungary
Author:Hagman, Harvey
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Travel narrative
Geographic Code:4EXHU
Date:Feb 1, 2016
Words:3462
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