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The Perfect Escape: Budapest

Bbridge When I was in Budapest in 1989, the mood was dour, the city’s Art Nouveau treasures were crumbling, and there was nothing for anyone to buy except little souvenir bags of paprika. But fast forward 17 years. Not only is the Communist government history but I have to discard my cliches of goulash and the Gabor sisters. As I discovered, Budapest may not be close to Prague in terms of 21st century attitudes and investment, but it has prospered.

(Photo:Courtesy Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest)

I found stylish hotels and restaurants that would be at home in New York or London and a wine industry that’s just beginning to realize its potential. But Budapest residents admit that it will take years to undo what the Nazis and the Communists bequeathed Hungary.

The coin of the realm is still the Forint, though the Euro is due to become the official currency by 2010. When that happens, as evidenced in other European countries, prices inevitably will rise. So go now, because this Eastern European capital lingers far behind Western European cities when it comes to cost and a getaway to Budapest runs about half of what it does to Paris.

Bscene (Photo: Courtesy Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest)

WHAT TO DO

Hilly Buda lies to the West of the wide Danube, while bustling Pest is on the eastern shore. The Hungarian National Gallery, the Mathias Church and the views from the turrets of the Fishermen’s Bastion should be on your short list in Buda. The Hungarian National Museum and the Basilica of St. Stephen are musts in Pest.

The attractions are considerable. Budapest’s architecture is stunning, and includes some of Europe’s best examples of Art Nouveau. The historical sites and the history itself, from the Romans to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the Soviet era, are fascinating. And I found Budapesters keen to extend a welcome, in a city where American tourists are still relatively few on the ground.

It’s easy enough to stroll in downtown Pest and across the river to Buda but taking trams is easy, and it’s hard to get lost, even if the Hungarian language is seriously baffling to most visitors. And you’ll need to use rapid transportation to fully explore this city of two million people. The subway is a joy, especially the Yellow Line, the oldest subway line on the Continent. The tiny tiled stations are like museum pieces while the yellow subway cars look like they were the models for a toy train set. At 145 Forints, a ticket is about 67 cents.Fountain

(Photo: Courtesy Hungarian National Tourist Office)

The main shopping street, Vaci Ut, in Pest is a fun stroll though Eastern European fashions that will likely never make the cover of Vogue. At one end is the Central Market, however, one of Europe’s great market halls, roofed with glass, and filled with dozens of merchants selling smoked sausages and mounds of smoky paprika. Both sellers and shoppers seem to have toddled out of a 1950’s era version of the city.

If you’re an architecture buff, Budapest is heaven, with hundreds of Art Nouveau buildings in various stages of repair. I ventured to the Museum of Applied Arts and while it was still splendid, I found it in need of major work. Other sites, like the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts, seem well-maintained and harbor wonderful early 20th century paintings rarely seen outside the country. While most hotels can arrange for a city tour, your best bet is a self-guided tour with a copy of the informative, if wildly eccentric "Budapest: A Critical Guide," by Andras Torok. The English language guide offers detailed walks, with history, drawings and plenty of opinions.

This is a musical city redolent of composers such as Liszt and Bartok, all the more reason to visit the Hungarian State Opera House, designed by architect Miklos Ybl’s and one of Europe’s grandest opera houses. Built in the neo-Renaissance style, my third row orchestra seat for a performance of Mozart’s "La Clemenza di Tito" ran about $38. Standing room tickets are about $1.

There are more than 100 thermal baths in Budapest and they’re justly lauded as vast Art Nouveau temples. The Gellert is the most famous, with bathing-capped swimmers doing a slow motion breast stroke counterclockwise, a ballet in a watery theater. And the Szechenyi Baths are where men play games of chess on floating chessboards in the steaming outdoor pools.

But the architecture trumps the staff at these state-run baths. Attendants were clearly trained during the Communist-era and charm is not their strong suit. And treatments generally lack finesse. This is not the Golden Door by any stretch of the imagination. Go to bask in the architecture and the scene, not the sulphuric waters.

Where to Eat

The good news for diners is that the days of stodgy food are fast fading. Cafe Kor (Sas u. 17; 36-1-311-0053) is no longer new, but it’s still a warm and bustling bistro beloved by locals. I would return any day. Roast duck in tangerine sauce, goose liver or house smoked salmon are among the offerings. All the wines, like the rich red Bock Ermitage 2002 Villay, are Hungarian, and every wine can be ordered by the glass. Tom George (8 Oktober 6 Utca; (36-1) 266-3525) or TG for short utilizes soft lighting, the colors pink, orange and yellow and materials like aluminum and shag carpeting, for Budapest’s most striking restaurant interior design. It draws the Budapest social set with a menu that veers from sushi to curry to caesar salad. About $90 for two. Baraka (12-14 Magyar utca, 36-1-483 1355) and Mokka (4 Sas utca, 36-1-328-0081) are also worth seeking out for food that fuses Hungarian cooking with other cuisines. Gerbeaud

(Photo courtesy of Hungarian National Tourist Office)

Everyone makes the obligatory pilgrimage to Cafe Gerbaud on Vorosmarty Square. This elegant jewel box of a cafe has wonderful Dobos Torte, the Hungarian pastry classic of layered chocolate butter cream covered with a caramel glaze. But service ranges from indifferent to brusque. If you don’t get impatient and walk out, which is not uncommon, it’s about $14 for coffee and pastry for two. Less fancy but more down to earth is Central Kavehav (Karoly Mihaly utca 16), where students linger and the cappuccino is excellent.

Where to stay? Depending upon how deep your pockets are, Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest (see THE DEAL), K&K Hotel Opera, Artotel and Hotel Victoria all merit a look.

For more information, contact the Hungarian National Tourist Office.

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