February 2010- Budapest

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Salami shop

Salami shop

An autumn approach to Budapest. It is bright and sunny. Margaret Island gives the city vista from the air a slightly mellow, cross-legged aspect, just where the Danube impales the Hungarian capital in two.

In the sky-brightness the iconic Széchenyi thermal baths and the small lake beside the city park’s fairytale castle glimmer back into the sky.

The river looks comfortable. All the land herearound is flat except for a green outcrop of hills.

There is something to celebrate, a reason why we are here. Malév are commemorating ten years on the route, but like so many celebrations at the moment, there is a nervous after taste to the party.

Having cheered Malév’s longevity and blown the candles out, we are about to lose their services for the winter.

There are many reasons for this. The airline is looking east to Moscow rather than west to Europe. It is retrenching and rebuilding under new management. That said, the loss of the Budapest route and, more importantly the connections to the east that Malév provide, will be sorely felt.

Malév’s arrival in Dublin was a harbinger of the Celtic tiger. The route started in 1999,  just as the great god Mammon had decided Budapest was a happening place, and so was Dublin.

Three routes carried 500,000 passengers in the ten years. It made possible lots of things the tourist takes for granted today. Irish property owners, Irish weekenders, Irish golfers, and, most of all, the thousands of Irish students who came to study in Budapest’s renowned universities.

The route grew with the girth of the Celtic Pussycat, In no time Budapest grew from insignificance to become our second most important citybreak destination after Prague.

And now, with the Celtic Pussycat firmly back in the litter box, the route is coming to an end.

 

A pity, because Budapest is on sale. An economic slowdown means five star hotel prices at four star rates. Budapest at the moment has some of the plushest hotels at the cheapest rates imaginable.

We are housed in the Kempinksi, undisputed best hotel in town until the Four Seasons arrived in the former Gresham Palace and opened a two-sided competition that will rage for a while to come. The rooms are comfortable with good working space and (amazingly in this day and age) free wifi.

The Kempinski is a glittering example of what the hotel industry should be about, but with 90pc of its clients from the international market, it is vulnerable to the economic showdown that is stalking the industry.

Now is a good time to snap up the golf and spa packages to see the signature attractions.

Get out of the expensive and exclusive hotel pool. Meet the locals who socialise in the Széchenyi Baths, public baths where people meet like they would in a public house environment at home, playing chess and sitting in the natural thermal water surrounded by elegant Romanesque columns that give a certain grandeur to the humblest attempt at a dog paddle. Quiet and hidden away, the ancient Radi baths also offer a sublime bathing experience.

There is a wide repertoire to choose from at he city’s opera house, Mozart and Strauss concerts in period costumes, or enjoy each other’s company at one of the many musical dinner shows.

Then, for a sample of communist era history, the KGB headquarters is now a museum and the Stalin era statues have been removed to an amazing Szoborpark statue park in the suburbs, to which all the Lenins and worker-heroes have been removed.

One monument to the Soviet liberators remains, appropriately in view of the American embassy. Nearby are the gargantuan parliament buildings, which cost the price of erecting a town for 10,000 people when they were erected in 1904, and which formed the inspiration for the original Sinn Féin movement of Arthur Griffith.

Gundel Restaurant is Budapest’s oldest and one of the city’s grandest restaurants.  Don’t come home without stopping by.

 

Hungary has 22 wine regions and all of them feature in the wine festival in the palace, looking down on the river. We stopped by to help the tasting and admire the floodlit architecture below, looking down from the Buda side on the river to Pest and beyond on some of the most splendid public buildings in Europe,

In the Fisherman’s Bastion, the cake and candles were served up at Apetito, a restaurant that had great food, sadly in inverse proportion to the dreadful service, perhaps because Hungary were committing World Cup hari kari with a home defeat against Portugal on the night we were there.

We sang Happy Birthday to Malév and Geraldine Aherne, the affable Irish manager who did so much over the ten years to drum up business, thanked us all.

Unflappable as always, she did not even hint that the office had closed, the staff all let go and she herself would be leaving the following Tuesday.

Malév has been good to the Irish market, and the Irish market has been good to Malév. We hope the chance will come round to do it again.

 

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