Winter. The queue for the ice rink had formed an hour before opening time and a sense of anticipation hung heavy in the air. This is crisp and dry Budapest, and we have come to worship the god of the slippery blade with the local people.
The entrance is right by Heroes Square in Budapest, museums to the right of you, art galleries to the left of you, the park beyond and behind you a company of massive ancient granite Magyar-Gods amid the flapping flags.
It is inspirational stuff for those of us for whom staying upright on ice requires heroics enough. You look around at the people, young and old alike, out to enjoy the crisp dark evening, you can see a resemblance in some of the faces. The warmth that rises up from Hungary’s thermal springs is best expressed in the faces of its people.
Budapest is one of those cities where first impressions get it exactly right. The second empire architecture is big, square shouldered and magnificent, strangely more impressive than Vienna, and confident enough to shrug off the pretensions of 50 years of Soviet Social Realism.
This is a city of superlative architecture, wonderful statuary and stunning art collections. The ultimate in romance must be a trip by moonlight down the Danube, drinking Torley champagne to the strains of Strauss’s Blue Danube waltz.
But romance comes in many forms, and you can’t beat an evening with the burghers at the ice rink. Any gathering of Hungarians is a vibrant occasion, and a healthy one.
Each large town, the capital included, has its hot water gathering place where young and old gather and swim in thermal spas, often with ice cold Ukrainian wind rippling over the steamy surface.
This is the way to swim, and the brave can try a cold plunge pool to jolt themselves back into winter. Then you come back with your skates for the evening entertainment at the rink.
The crumbling second empire architecture around the thermal water of Szechenyi bath (www.szechenyifurdo.hu) gives a picture of what life was like before the bath-robed Germans came to stay in plush health spas and rejuvenate Hungary’s tourist industry.
On the riverbank in the spanking new National Theatre, the Experidance Group puts it in perspective. Folk dancing is Hungary’s proudest heritage, and the thigh-slapping high kicks would do justice to a Clonmel fleadh. Indeed, Experidance was inspired by a Michael Flatley tour.
“The happiest barrack in the camp,” is how one of the action sequences describes Hungary’s Soviet occupation.
Magyars, Mongols, Romans, Huns, Turks, Germans, Russians and now western tourists have all stopped by to occupy and loot, but the Hungarians endure it all with scarcely a thought.
The Russians have gone, the tourists are arriving by the plane-load seeking the new Prague. Down at the ice rink they smile benignly about it all. They’ve seen them come and seen them go.
Hot Water is Hungary’s great national asset, 70pc of the thermal springs in Europe are crowded together in this small patch of land, and as anyone who has booked in for any of the supplementary medical services will tell you, it is extremely good value. You get a holiday for two and a dental makeover for the price of a visit to an Irish dentist.
Hungary was the first Eastern European country where communism fell. The Hungarians gathered up all their Lenins, Kadars and their worker-heroes and placed them in a park in suburban Budapest.
Now Szobor Park in Budapest is one of the city’s big tourist attractions, where you can admire the hopelessly disproportionate statues and buy some Red Army memorabilia. Just so the Austrians won’t be cross, they also gathered up their empire monuments in another park.
Other Eastern Europeans come to gape and wonder why they should commemorate their oppression so. A debate erupted in Ireland last August after a suggestion we should do the same with our English imperial statuary.
As for the Hungarians, they smile and say that it is part of their history, and acknowledge that a few of the local population went along for the ride, just like Ireland. There’s a way of coming to terms with the past.
A new Hunguest Hotel Pelion in Tapolca opens on July 1st, bringing more visitors to one of Hungary’s favourite health attractions.
Tapolca is famous for the series of karst caves, discovered by well-builders in 1903, and later used by the local hospital for treatment of asthma and respiratory diseases. For the stout-hearted, there is a punt ride through the caves where you steer yourself gondolier-like along passages that barely seem wide enough on a boat that takes on a mind of its own in the deeper pools and tilts nervously when you are in the tightest corner.
It is the cave’s microclimate that interested Dr Tibor Szabo, who treats patients in a series of beds in the chalk caverns, like a war hospital. He says the microclimate of 14-15 degrees Celsius, the 100pc relative humidity and extremely clear air with a higher than average carbon dioxide content suit the treatment of patients, and ideally takes people for a five to six week programme, but even a few hours underground are extremely useful for anyone with asthma, bronchitis, or respiratory allergies.
The new hotel is expected to boost the Tapolca product further, offering dentistry, check-ups, pulmonology and rheumatology, and a Gator programme for special gynaecological complaints.
- Eoghan Corry flew to Budapest with Malev Hungarian Airlines (www.malev.ie) and stayed at the Hotel Astoria www.danubiushotels.com
- See www.visithungary.ie and www.budapestinfo.hu for further details.
- For Hungarian flavour dining check out the Central Market Hall “wooden spoon’ Restaurant Fakanal ( www.fakanaletterem.hu), Restaurant Robinson on a park lake (www.restaurantguide.hu/robinson) and the folk-dace evening at Borkatakomba (www.palacecatering.hu)
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