Before I went to Budapest, a friend told me that for her it conjured images of "Eastern European dissidents and women with hairy legs."
I hadn’t considered either. What I knew about Budapest could be summed up in a few phrases: Eastern European, recently communist (until 1990), a relatively new NATO member. And always the refrain I heard from people who had been there: "The women are beautiful."
I wondered: Why would there be more beautiful women in this city than in other cities of the world?
So let’s get this out of the way. In the summer, the majority of younger women in Budapest do seem to have great tans and lithe limbs covered by scanty attire. At least, they did when we visited during a record summer heat wave. You see plunging necklines and high hemlines everywhere. Heels also are popular.
And there wasn’t a hairy leg in sight — except on the men, who seem to have a penchant for wearing black socks with shorts. Younger guys wear T-shirts and baggy shorts, just as they do in the States.
So, yes, men like to go to Budapest to see the women. They are known around the world.
Spc. Thomas Pena, visiting the Hungarian capital with a group of Texas National Guard soldiers, said he was working on a freelance video called "The Women of Budapest."
"Women here are drop-dead gorgeous," he said. "They’re in great shape, they have pretty faces, beautiful eyes and they’re very shapely. They’re also very approachable, not stuck up at all."
So there you have it, spoken by one doing research.
The reputation of Budapest’s women actually was a slight deterrent for one soldier, Sfc. Debbie Montouri, who toured Budapest with her companion, Ed Siebold.
"I didn’t honestly think Budapest was the place to go, because everybody mentions that it’s for the men — it has this, like, name to it," she said. "It definitely wouldn’t have been my first vacation choice, but it definitely is now. This has to be seen once."
Montouri wasn’t in Budapest to see women, and neither was I. When Stripes photographer Peter Jaeger and I toured the city with a group of American soldiers, we found that it boasts many attractions that are equally stunning.
On the bus ride in from the airport, I thought perhaps I had made a mistake in wanting to see Budapest. The outskirts of the city are where you see the remnants of communism: stark, dingy, stained buildings with laundry hanging from the railings, a worn look in the people and the architecture.
But everywhere there were flower boxes brimming with color. ("It’s cheaper to grow flowers than to paint," observed one tourist.)
However, the billboards, which are everywhere, are colorful, contemporary and apparently Western influenced, hawking cigarettes, cereal, deodorant and other products with long Hungarian names that look like strings of consonants. Oh well, I thought. Nice billboards, anyway.
Luckily, this was not all of Budapest.
It’s when you take the yellow tram into downtown that your eyes fill with the city’s charms. By day you see the Danube (the second-largest river in Europe, next to Russia’s Volga), dotted with tour and restaurant boats. The royal palace towers on one side, the neogothic Parliament building on the other. The architecture is a mix of neoclassic, romantic, art nouveau and uniquely Hungarian.
People are out shopping, dining, walking, and kissing. Yes, kissing. I’ve never seen so many couples nestled on park benches and in cafes indulging in public displays of affection.
Strolling gypsy bands and violinists play for you once they recognize you as a tourist. They smile and gently turn their eyes to their open instrument boxes, collecting money from tourists before you. You toss in a few coins and they nod and smile and play more enthusiastically.
Budapest by night is the real treat, though. The lamps on the elegant Chain Bridge light up and are reflected in the river. Tour boats become dance boats and the sounds of gypsy bands waft over the water to the shore. And you think: Ahh, THIS is why they call it the "Pearl of the Danube."
Budapest is made up of what were once two cities, joined by graceful bridges. On the hilly western bank of the Danube are Buda, a mostly residential area, with its Obuda (Old Buda) district, the site of the ruins of the Roman city of Aquincum. Hot thermal springs gush under the miles of caves beneath the Buda hills, feeding Budapest’s world-renowned thermal spas.
On the eastern bank is the larger Pest, a bustling commercial area built on a plain. Along the Danube on the Pest side is the elegant Parliament building, the largest operating parliament building in the world, according to guidebooks.
Between Buda and Pest is Margaret Island, Budapest’s largest park. No cars are allowed; you can rent bicycles and bike-carriages to get around.
"There are many beautiful capitals in Europe, like Paris or London," said Budapest tour operator George Fohn as he drove a busload of American soldiers over the Chain Bridge. "But they don’t have a picturesque view like this, because the Seine in Paris is not so wide like the Danube, and there are not so many hills in Paris or London."
Because of the mix of hilly Buda, flat, busy Pest and the wide Danube, Fohn calls the city’s location "the most unique in the world — you can find almost everything here."
In fact, if you look closely, he told the attentive group, you can see women sunbathing on the banks of the Danube topless. That news was met with murmurs of approval and laughter from the male soldiers.
On the Buda side, take a tram to the top of Castle Hill to see the Buda Castle and Castle District (have your camera ready for views on the way up). When you exit the tram and approach the wrought-iron castle gates, street musicians will burst into song, again with their instrument cases open. This remains charming until about the fifth time it happens.
The southern part of Castle Hill is occupied by the gothic Royal Palace, built in the 14th century by Hungarian king and then-German emperor, Sigismund of Luxembourg. It was destroyed by the Turks, rebuilt in 1790, destroyed again in World War II and rebuilt afterward. No tours of the inside were available when we visited, but tourists were allowed to walk on the grounds. The palace has two inner courts, an open and a closed one. In the open court there is a fountain with a group of statues, the most interesting of which is that of King Matthias in the hunting gear of the age.
The entrances to two museums are in this court. One leads to the Hungarian National Gallery in the centre of the complex; the Museum of the Hungarian Working-Class Movement is housed in the wing to the north. The southern wing contains the Palace Museum (the Budapest History Museum), which displays the history of the palace and the city, the Gothic halls and recently excavated Gothic sculptures.
If you’re in the mood for a romantic walk, traverse the twisting, narrow streets of Obuda and enjoy the narrow buildings built in the Middle Ages. Shops offer folk art, and the merchants speak English ("We have to" explained one saleswoman).
If the cobblestones get to your feet, you can find many cafes catering to tourists: Stop for a drink or perhaps a frozen treat, such as a hollowed-out orange or lemon filled with vanilla ice cream.
A must-see is one of the symbols of Budapest, the 13th-century Matthias Church, with its gothic tower and multicolored roof tiles in Eastern European geometric designs. Walk up the steps to go inside and behold the ornate interior, wall paintings, frescoes and high altar. Often you’ll hear a lone voice singing hymns from the organ loft. As stunning as it is, you can’t really forget you’re inside a tourist attraction because of salespeople posted at the entrance, hawking brochures and baubles.
Near the church is Fisherman’s Bastion, a big, white, stone structure built where a fish market used to be. Climb its terraces for some great views of the Danube and the Pest side.
In the adjoining square, you find a fun atmosphere: You can hop into a horse-drawn carriage near the statue of St. Steven for a ride. A handsome young man stands outside the Mathias church holding a hawk with a hood over its eyes (apparently to keep it from flying away); you can pose with the hawk for a fee.
Men at a small table play a betting game of "find the object under the cups." Watch out for this; it appears the man who hides the objects and moves the cups is in cahoots with two who pose as tourists. They will bet, point, find the object, and make it all look easy! Then the unsuspecting real tourist will bet and lose, and have to pay up.
"There are several reasons for soldiers to visit Budapest," said tour guide Fohn. "Budapest is more than 2000 years old if you count the Roman times. There is a tendency to keep most of the old things and to build very modern things at the same time. So you can find here the Roman remnants and amphitheaters but you also can find the latest-fashion buildings. And because of the last 40 years of socialism, you can see a very unique thing in the buildings: the original holes from the guns and the bombs of former wars."
On the Pest side, I used the red awnings of the Marriott Hotel, a mini-city of American tourists, as my grounding landmark. Around it are the ever-present strolling musicians and stalls set up by vendors selling folk art: wooden boxes and toys, wooden Easter eggs hand-painted in Eastern European designs, embroideries, lace, dark blue ceramics, steins and children’s traditional costumes. The salespeople know enough English to say whether they have this or that in another color or size, and to convert the prices from Hungarian forints (HUF) into American dollars.
East of the Marriott is Vorosmarty Square, the heart of the inner city. The most expensive shopping area begins here. For more shopping, find the Central Market Hall at the end of the lower section of Vaci Street, overflowing with food and folk-art stalls. If you like flea markets, head to the Ecseri Flea Market, held on Saturdays.
When you tire of shopping, you’re in the right place for a cafe break. Vorosmarty Square is home to the famous Cafe Gerbeaud, "where you’ll find the finest range of pastries in the city," according to one guidebook. We can testify: We tried the six-layered Dobos tort and a creamy spice tort with nuts. Delicious.
Another must-visit cafe is the 19th-century art nouveau Cafe New York, once the gathering place of some of Hungary’s finest writers. Don’t go for the cakes (so-so compared with the Gerbeaud’s), go for the opulent interior: lamp lit, arched ceilings, huge chandeliers and fresh flowers — the height of elegance.
You might as well eat cake during the day, because restaurant dinner portions in Budapest are so big, you probably won’t have room for dessert. Guidebooks show an array of themes: Asian, Czech, Greek, Indian, Italian, Mediterranean, Mexican, Mongolian, Russian, Scottish, Serbian ... the list goes on.
We sought traditional Hungarian food, and can recommend Fatal, which means wooden plate, on Vaci Sreet, and the Muzeum Café & Restaurant, next to the National Museum.
At Fatal, the soldiers we dined with burst into laughter when the waiter brought out plates so heaping they looked almost ridiculous. Spc. Robert Sanchez’s eyes grew wide as he assessed his serving: a mound of potatoes topped by a mound of meat topped by a mound of fried onions. Sanchez was up to the challenge. When he had finished, he had cleaned his plate down to the wooden board. ("I don’t know," Sanchez said, "I’ve just always been able to eat a lot.")
What we couldn’t eat we passed down to him.
I didn’t have a bad meal in Budapest, and the soldiers said the same.
"Every place that I’ve eaten, the food has been absolutely excellent," said Spc. Charles (Aaron) Tirrell. "All the steaks and meats have been very tender and moist and juicy and the vegetables have been kind of crispy and tender at the same time. For $10 U.S. you can get more than you can eat on a platter. It’s an excellent deal."
In Budapest, a restaurant that is considered expensive offers entrees above 5,000 HUF (about 19 euros), a moderately priced restaurant offers entrees at about 8 to 19 euros, and a cheap restaurant offers meals at less than 7 euros.
Make sure at least one of your meals in Budapest is goulash. But forget the macaroni and hamburger concoction known in the States. Hungarian goulash is simply meat soup: tender beef cubes mixed with carrots, onions, potatoes, green peppers, tomatoes and seasoned with paprika, salt, cumin and garlic.
Other things to look for: many things with paprika, including salami, and cherry liquer chocolates.
Hungary also has a number of native wines. The one with the most evocative name is Bull’s Blood.
If you like statues and monuments, there are two main statue parks to visit for pictures: Heroes’ Square on Hosotere, and Statue Park, corner of Balatoni ut and Szabadkal ut.
Heroes’ Square has a collection of Hungarian heroes watched over by the angel Gabriel, who sits atop a 36-meter tall column. Skateboarders and wedding parties like the area, and you can buy ice cream from vendors with carts. Statue Park is a unique open-air museum where the Hungarians put their socialist statues after communism crumbled. Among them are likenesses of Lenin, Marx and Engels, along with various Soviet soldiers and martyrs. You can buy communist knick-knacks, Soviet medals and badges, T-shirts and CDs of communist songs.
If you tackle half these sights and tastes in Budapest, you might want to soothe your aching limbs in a thermal bath. Hungary ranks fifth in the world in thermal and medicinal water reserves, recommended for ailments ranging from respiratory to joint problems. Budapest alone has 100 baths.
The best-known and most upscale are the Gellert Baths and Spa in the Gellert Hotel, built in 1918 and visible from the Danube on the Buda side. "Here a certain grandeur attaches even to the act of dog-paddling," says one guidebook.
Non-swimmers visit just to look at the mosaic-studded art nouveau entrance hall, vaulted glass roof and swimming pool surrounded by elegant, Roman-style columns.
In the single-sex pool and baths, bathing suits are optional. On the women-only side, muscular, no-nonsense women in white uniforms stand by to give massages. (I regret that I didn’t have time to get one: Those women looked like they could turn knotted joints into jelly.) You also can book a mud pack, pedicure or sauna. Afterward, you can visit a hair salon off the entrance hall.
Do the "healing baths" work? Romans, Turks and Hungarians have long thought so. Bath operators take the medicinal values seriously: Doctors and physical therapists stand by for appointments while you’re there.
My experience does little to back up the claims: I had a whopping head cold when I took the plunge, and I still had it several days later. But my soul was soothed.
If you haven’t found enough reasons here to visit Budapest, consider this: Hungary welcomes you because it wants your business. After the fall of communism, "We had not only a political change, we also had an economic change," said tour guide Fohn. "Now there are many new companies and enterprises in Hungary. We don’t have much money for this very fast changing, so we need more income."
So come to Budapest, Fohn says, and take a sightseeing tour to learn about its history. "Because if you understand the history of the country," he says, "maybe you’ll better understand the lives of the people."