My first taste of schnitzel, in a cheap and cheerful café off the Vaci Utca, Budapest’s pedestrian promenade, tugged at my heartstrings, reminding me of the strip of Hungarian restaurants that had once been a fixture of Bloor Street near Honest Ed’s in Toronto, a testament to the thousands of Hungarians who arrived as refugees after the 1956 uprising against the Soviets. The Hungarians have an even more complicated history than the Austrians in the bloody aftermath of the First World War.
Budapest, for all its busy cafés and its bustling Central Market, often wears the ravages of that tumultuous history in façades that are pockmarked by bullet holes and bomb-damaged interiors that were reconstructed according to Stalinist design protocols. The city remains wonderfully picturesque – especially along the Danube, which divides high and mighty Buda (with the Royal Palace and the Gothic spire of Matyas Church) from the livelier and more commercial Pest. Like Vienna, Budapest is compact, laced with efficient trams and an underground network that rightly claims to be the oldest in continental Europe.
A strategic station stop is Hosok tere, or Heroes Square, the site of the Magyar millennium celebrations in 1896, and the quarter that displays the final glories of the Hapsburgs in wide avenues lined with mansions, now hosting several foreign embassies, cafés and monuments. We spent the morning visiting the neo-classical Museum of Fine Arts, which has an impressive collection of international art including Greek and Roman treasures, and paintings by Rembrandt, Murillo and Monet. Then, we ambled down Andrassy Street stopping at the Franz Liszt Museum, where one could hear recitals through the walls from the connected music academy, and took a late lunch at the recently restored Central Kavehaz, which stands on the site of a café dating from the 1880s.
Then we headed to the Great Synagogue – Europe’s largest – near the Astoria Metro station and the unhappy location where Hungarian Jews were marshalled late in the war for deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The courtyard is a haunting memorial to the 600,000 Jews killed by the Nazis (including many who were buried in a mass grave on the site) and to the heroes who risked their lives to save as many Jews as they could.
Unlike Vienna, which was occupied by the Western powers from 1945 until 1955, Budapest was part of the greater Soviet world until June, 1991. The Terror Museum, situated rather incongruously on elegant Andrassy Street, occupies the same building that formerly housed the vicious Nazi-era Arrow Cross Party and later the AVO, the Hungarian Communist secret police. The location adds a chilling emphasis to the photographs, videos and execution chamber from that dark era and the brutal reprisals after the 1956 uprising.
Emotionally and physically drained, we headed back to the Gellért, with its art nouveau façade for a soak in the baths. Construction on the massive pile, built atop medicinal thermal waters first discovered in the 13th century, began in 1913 with the hotel finally opening in 1918 – a classic example of bad timing.
There was another calamity late in the Second World War, when a bomb – the locals blame the Americans – crashed through the hotel’s dome, leaving the exterior walls standing and destroying everything inside except the underground spa. The baths, which are divided into men’s and women’s sections, are labyrinthine. One male guest told me he hadn’t dared to return after getting lost in there eight years earlier.
The spa services are a bizarre mixture of European and Soviet style – pedicures don’t include nail polish – and the massages could do with an incursion of robust Turkish techniques. I was expecting my muscles to be roughhoused into submission, but instead received such a gentle kneading that I felt a butterfly was traipsing over my body. From Budapest we took trains back to Vienna and from there to Graz for a wedding weekend sans museums, and a reunion with friends. Graz, an ancient university town, escaped heavy bombing in the war and consequently boasts one of the best-preserved city centres in Europe. We ate ice cream and pastries, strolled through squares and alleyways, and shared in a joyous occasion where our only duty was to show up and enjoy ourselves.
The trip had been hurried – sometimes like TV’s The Amazing Race – but we had sampled the delights and shortcomings of places we had always wanted to visit. As for which location merited a return trip, the answer, as we knew all along, was obvious: They all did.