- - Friday, October 20, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Budapest, Hungary at a glance: Start with coffee in Gerbeaud, the city’s most famous café. Then ride the old preserved trolley line built in 1894 to the Szechenyi Baths and spend several hours indulging in bathing, sauna, massage and other treatments in imperial surroundings. The Szechenyi Baths are the deepest and hottest baths in Budapest. Best of all, the bus and trams are free to senior citizens.

Often described as the “Little Paris of Middle Europe,” Budapest is famous for its own 1,000-year-old culture and also the culture of others who settled here. Remains from both Roman and Turkish occupations can still be seen in the city.

Hungary’s capital has two sides, Buda and Pest, stretching along the banks of the Danube River, representing two different characters of the city. Suburban Buda and its historic castle district offer medieval streets and houses, museums and Roman ruins. The dynamic Pest side boasts the largest parliament building in Europe, riverside promenades, antique shops, bookstores and café houses.

This country boasts one of Europe’s largest fresh water lakes, Balaton, providing a natural paradise for visitors. Hungary also is home to hundreds of therapeutic mineral springs that gush up from the earth. People come from all over the world to take these medicinal springs or merely relax in gorgeous baths.

The “Hungarian Sea” is the people’s name for the 50-mile long lake located about two hours from Budapest. Lake Balaton is one of Hungary’s most precious treasures and most frequented resorts.  The southern shores are ideal for small children because of the shallow water, but on the north shore the water becomes deeper immediately.

The city of Balatonfured is not only the oldest resort on Lake Balaton but also the most fashionable.  In former days, the wealthy and famous built villas on its tree-lined streets, and their architectural legacy can still be seen today.  The town has the most stylish marina on the lake and is known for the thermal waters of its world-famous heart hospital. The water and mud of the lake are excellent remedies for anemia, nervous fatigue and other ailments. This resort is much less expensive than others in Western Europe.

Hungary has been one of Europe’s great spa destinations for hundreds of years. Natural hot springs pour out over 18 million gallons) of richly mineralized water every day.  There are more than 1,300 hot springs in the country, of which 300 are used for bathing and medicinal purposes.  A third of these are in Budapest, which has the greatest concentration of natural springs. Outdoor pools are open all year round, even during the middle of winter.

The Szechenyi Baths complex in Budapest represents the classic Hungarian bath house.  Built on the site of a thermal spring discovered in 1879, it is as popular with locals as it is with visitors.

Our hotel (Danubius Grand Hotel Margaret) was situated on Margaret Island, a tranquil green oasis in the middle of the Danube River. It is a huge green park open to the public since 1869 that is closed to all vehicles. The 2-mile long island served as a hunting ground for former kings while Monks were drawn to its peaceful setting. During Turkish rule it was used as a harem.

In the 1200s, King Bela IV swore that if he was successful in repelling the Mongol invasion that he would offer his daughter to God.  He kept his word and built the church and convent to which the 9-year-old Princess Margaret was sent in 1251 where she spent the rest of her life as a recluse in the convent of the island that is named after her.  She led a godly life and died at the age of 29.

Well worth a visit is the picturesque Artists’ Village of Szentendre located on the banks of the Danube River and only 20 minutes from Budapest with local bus, tram and river boat service. This town is a popular place to live for local artists.

Cobblestone streets are lined with small galleries, cafes, handcraft shops and restaurants. We stopped at a small family owned café for a delicious hot-from-the-oven Langos pancake topped with cheese.

Szentendre has an abundance of museums, including the Skanzen, a village-like Etnographic Museum and the Ceramic Confectionary Museum.  A ride back to Budapest by boat was a relaxing way to end the day.

Moving into the countryside, the Hungarians are invariably linked to horses, and riding is one of the most popular sports.  From simple pony-trekking to carriage driving and show jumping, it is all on offer here.  There are more than 1,000 riding centers, just as there seems to be a thermal spa in every town.

The Bugac Stud Farm outside the village of Nagybugac has many daily horse shows. Not to be missed are the performances of the legendary Puszta Fiver, where one man—usually with a moustache as long as his whip—rides five horses simultaneously. Visitors can ride one of the many thoroughbreds at the stables themselves, and join a day-long horseback tour of the surrounding area.  Kiskunsag is Hungary’s second largest national park and the gateway to many horse shows.

The equine skill of the Hungarian cowboys, or csikos, goes back as far as the first Magyar migrations and was military in nature, with soldiers typically carrying light weapons and riding unsaddled horses. What is unusual is the way the csikos can make their horses walk at almost a crawl: a legacy of fighting battles in the open plains.

Rising steeply beside the Danube, Gellert Hill is one of the city’s most attractive areas. From the top, a beautiful view of Budapest unfolds. Gellert Hill bulges out slightly into the Danube, which narrows at this point.  This made the base of the hill a favored crossing place.

Some 90 percent of Hungary’s population are Magyars, but there are significant minority groups of Serbs, Germans, Romanians and Jews. The largest ethnic minority in Hungary is the Gypsies (Roma). The official figure is 400,000, but there could be as many as a million because many Gypsies see themselves as Hungarians. Programs to integrate the Gypsy population have been only marginally successful.  The popular image of Gypsy musicians is a “ciganyzenekar,” which is a Gypsy band.  It is one of the few ways Gypsies can earn a living in Hungary.

As a leading city of the music-loving Habsburg Empire, great composers thrived and Budapest has seen a steady parade of great musical talent waltz through it streets. The Roma have had a strong influence on Hungarian music. “Hungarian folk” music and “gypsy” music are virtually indistinguishable to the casual listener. For example, Roma composer Grigoras Dinicu’s “The Lark” — a high-speed violin piece that replicates a bird’s chirp — is a favorite show-off song for Hungarian violin virtuosos. The rollicking high spirits that accompany a lively music session are described with the Roma term mulatság.

The big three Hungarian composers all borrowed tunes from their Magyar ancestors because of the convergence of their cultures in the Hungarian countryside. Franz Liszt, Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly  represent the classical influences  and drew inspiration from their humble Magyar heritage.

Budapest has a lot to offer. Museums and galleries, churches and synagogues, palaces and historic buildings, baths and pools in very scenic settings.

There is an unmistakable feeling that something out of the ordinary is just around the corner, but what it is will be up to you to find out.

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