|Where's Ramona? ... Budapest|
From castles to underground military hospitals to rural wine tastings, take a well-rounded tour of this remarkable city.
By Ramona Zacharias
Country number two on our trip was Hungary. I didn't know much about the city of Budapest up until this point (like, for instance, the fact that the city is divided into two components, "Buda" and "Pest", which are separated by the Danube) and the four full days we spent in and around the main core was a great introduction. From castles to underground military hospitals to rural wine tastings, we certainly received a well-rounded glimpse of this remarkable city.
Our group stayed at the Marriott, and having stayed in a couple of unique hotels up until this point, it was actually a welcome change to be somewhere with some familiarity and the comforts of home ... like an ATM in the lobby! The property is very conveniently located; the central shopping area is about a block away and it is right above one of the main boat tour companies. The view is magnificent; right on the banks of the Danube, you have a bird's eye view of the Buda side of the city. Also, the food is fantastic. They have an enormous breakfast buffet, complete with eggs, bacon, mushrooms, omelets, fruit, pastries, yogurt and anything else you could think of. One night, I decided to stay in and order room service; the burger and fries I enjoyed was possibly the best I'd ever had.
WHAT TO DO
Whether you are on the Buda side or the Pest side of the city, there is much to see and do in this stunning city. We started off our tour at the Szenchenyi Bath and Spa, a huge complex of indoor and outdoor pools and treatment facilities. An enormously popular activity in Budapest, public bathing is loved and advocated for its relaxation and health benefits. And the beautiful setting certainly doesn't hurt.
We followed the thermal soak up with a Hungarian massage. If I could describe this experience in two words, they would be “Good” and “Lord”. Not for the faint of heart (or the easily embarrassed – your therapist hangs out with you while you strip down and lay down), you are pounded, prodded and twisted until everything feels like jelly. At one point, my therapist even had his leg up on the wall while he gave my neck a good crack. Mildly disconcerting was the fact that he would bellow "Yes!" every time something in my body popped. An experience, to say the least.
CENTRAL MARKET HALL
Central Market Hall is also a must. Dating back to the late 19th century, the main floor is packed with vendors selling meats, spices and produce. Upstairs is a wonderful buffet restaurant where you can sample authentic Hungarian cuisine (goulash, anyone?) while being serenaded by violin-toting musicians. Walk off your lunch on the second floor, where local merchants sell souvenirs of the area, mainly paprika and hand-stitched linens.
Besides visiting the obvious spots, such as the Parliament Buildings, Heroes Square, St. Matthias Church and Buda Castle, our group took a relaxing day trip to Lake Balaton and a town called Tihany, about an hour and a half out of downtown Budapest. A family-friendly vacation spot, Lake Balaton is the largest sweetwater lake of Central Europe. The entire area can be toured by bicycle, as there are bike paths all around. It's about a 20-minute boat ride from Lake Balaton, and the name literally means "quietness". This small town makes for a nice escape from the busy city and is a good introduction to some of Hungary's smaller villages.
TAMAS PINCE WINERY
On our way back to Budapest, and about five kilometers outside of Lake Balaton, we stopped off in the Csopak region at Tamas Pince winery. Completely owned and operated by a three-person family (Mom, Dad and their son), it's not even remotely a tourist attraction. However, you can organize a private wine tasting with a couple of days' notice for groups of two to 16, at a cost of around $15 per person. Besides wine, the mother also makes homemade jams and jellies for sale, including such flavors as red wine, fig, almond and elderberry. Because of the language barrier, you may want to have your hotel concierge organize this (even the web site is only available in Hungarian, Dutch and German.) The number is +36 70 528 1015. To give you an idea of the quality, "Segal", the only Michelin-recommended restaurant in Hungary serves Tamas wine.
HOSPITAL IN THE ROCK
Hands down, my favorite part of Budapest was Hospital in the Rock, the underground military hospital and nuclear bunker built during World War II. Opened in February of 1944, and still containing most of the original equipment and tools, the experience is nothing short of surreal. The natural cave system that exists under Budapest was developed by spring water centuries ago and originally used as cellars. A comprehensive exploration was done in the 1930s and caves were joined together to build the hospital.
As you can imagine, the history here is phenomenal. The hospital was actually built to treat 60 to 200 patients, but they actually treated around 600 at their peak. Beds were shared between three people, with the least injured in the middle. The kitchen ended up resorting to horse meat to feed their staff and patients; proper food was supposed to have come from the nearby Saint John's Janos Hospital, but the Soviets had already occupied it.
Although shut down in 1945, the hospital ran again in the 1950s. Eight children were even born here. Eventually classified as top secret, the hospital closed down in December 1956, but expanded in the following years to include the bunker in case of nuclear attack. Continuing its fascinating history, a janitor couple took over maintenance of the facility, living here from 1970 to 2004. Finally opened to the public in 2006, the present-day museum was opened in March of 2008.
For any information on this incredible project, including hours of operation and admission prices, visit hospitalintherock.com. It is truly a remarkable experience.
Budapest is one of those cities that, for some reason, never really made it onto my Top Ten list of places to visit. However, having now been there and seen the incredible culture and history it has to offer, I would not only recommend it to others but also look forward to another visit myself someday.
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