The only way to truly appreciate Budapest is to dive headlong into it. Not into the Danube river along whose bounteous banks the two different entities of Buda and Pest have evolved separately over the centuries. But dive into the city’s 24×7 experiences and its fairy tale setting. Not just a single castle but a number of royal residences on a chain of verdant hills. That’s on the Buda side. So we sit on the Pest side, Shahen Yashpal, my 18-year-old Toronto-born nephew and I, and watch the vista unfold under the spectacular evening sky, feeling rejuvenated as we take in the sight, like robots who have just been rewired and rebooted.
When darkness does arrive around 9 pm, our night vision is dazzled by the string of lights floating on the Danube river, coming from the tourist boats (dinners and entertainment offered) well past Cinderella time. It’s a view we don’t grow tired of, while dining out for five nights in the many restaurants that line the coveted Jane Harming boulevard. We don’t expect Michelin quality goose liver rosti at DuBarry. Nor authentic zucchini tagliatelle from the next door Dunacorso Etterem restaurant. But all waiters speak English, service is efficient and wine is really good.
We lunched at Vapiano where one can compose your own blends of pastas and sauces. Vegetarians will be happy to know there are many Indian restaurants (Shalimar, Salaam Bombay, Taj Mahal) in Budapest. You must eat at the vegetarian only Govinda (1053 Budapest, Papnovelde utca 1, open Mondays to Saturdays from 11:30 am to 9 pm) which is usually full of locals. We ate three different bhaajis, two types of pakoras, Daal Tadka, two rice dishes and raita bowl and the bill came to just 9 Euros. Food is indeed cheap in Budapest.
After lunch, we walked across the river for another memorable experience. Budapest bubbles on top of one of the biggest geothermal reservoirs in the world. The city has more than 100 hot springs, with many public baths. The most ancient one, the Gellert Bath is the most famous because of its extraordinary Art Nouveau architecture. The elegant statues and colourful tiles and mosaics take you back to the 1910s, when this complex was built as an exclusive hotel and playground for the aristocracy. The central pool inside – once an indoor minigolf track – has a movable glass roof. The other warm and hot indoor pools are smaller, but beautifully decorated, too. The most popular one is the NeoBaroque Szechenyi Bath with three outdoor pools. Its in these hot baths that locals exchange gossip, discuss problems, romance and even indulge in games of chess. Time spent in the baths has rejuvenated us enough to climb hills. And why not, since the Gellert Hill is right next door. After an hour of huffing and much puffing we reach the summit to be rewarded by a glorious sight below. The hills slicing down to the Danube and the flat banks of the Pest side. There’s also a mid-19th-century Citadella to be explored and the Liberty Monument which celebrates the Nazis defeat.