A river runs through it

2013-10-01 11:00

Budapest is a beautiful city that wears its troubled history on its sleeve – and where the locals have great ways to heal the pain.

The first stop for any self-respecting tourist in the fine city of Budapest is the nearest Turkish bath.

The moment my wife and I stepped into the Gellért Baths, two wonderful things happened: first, we lost the urge to talk altogether and, second, our crusty old skins became so soft that we began to feel like our younger, more beautiful selves again.

This will happen when you sit in the warm waters of a spring first used for medicinal purposes in the 13th century.

I found myself sitting neck-deep in 36°C water, grinning stupidly as I watched an ancient man on crutches being helped into the pool by his very old son.

‘De hot vater it helps de leg,’ said Very Old Son, as he sat near me in the water, pointing down at Ancient Man’s painfully swollen leg.

‘For de rheumatism – it heals de pain.’

For nearly a thousand years people here have been submerging themselves up to their necks to heal their pain and soothe their hearts.

My wife and I were in a catatonic state as we slid from pool to sauna, cold shower to steam room.

It was in this fashion that we spent a few hours each day in a city fed by 80 geothermal springs.

Some baths still exist in their original Turkish form, such as the Rudas Medicinal Baths and Swimming Pool, constructed in 1550, whose beautiful dome remains intact and whose octagonal pool is used daily.

Other baths have huge outdoor pools where locals gather in a champagne mood, as if at a water slide at Sun City.

These baths that dot the city are not some elite escape but a very affordable part of life for the 1.7 million locals who go there to ‘heal de pain’.

And let’s face it: Hungarians have a lot of pain to heal.

This is a country that has been caught up in the middle of history.

Perhaps because of its central location, Hungary has been invaded by everyone from the Mongols and the Turks to the Hapsburgs, Nazis and finally Stalin.

There is a sense this city is struggling with its post-communist identity: its democracy is as new as ours, caught in a faltering economy with weakened leadership and a rising far-right wing.

We see a march through the streets by angry, chanting youths; a group of opposition leaders are on hunger strike outside Parliament, opposing changes to the constitution; editorials in newspapers suggest a change of government is afoot.

It seems there’s nothing new – it’s just part of a troubled history that has seen the city built, destroyed and rebuilt in a cycle that started when the Magyars first emerged from the Ural mountains of Russia and Kazakhstan in the 9th century and settled here.

Today, huge sculptures of these Magyars take their rightful place in the cobbled Heroes Square, the site of many of the country’s great protest marches.

The bronze statues of the Magyar leaders on horseback form a dramatic centrepiece.

These were nomads with great beards, lightweight armour and the skill to shoot an arrow every two seconds from a cantering horse.

They founded the vast Kingdom of Hungary, which lasted 300 years until the Mongols invaded in 1241 and left almost half the population dead.

The war led to one of the most endearing stories of Budapest.

After the invasion, Hungarian King Bela IV made a deal with God: he would give his daughter to Him if the Mongols left and never came back.

When the Mongols withdrew soon afterwards, following the shock death of their emperor, Bela sent nine-year-old Margit to a convent on a tiny island in the Danube River.

She spent the rest of her life there.

The Danube runs through the middle of Budapest, and today Margit Island is at the heart of the city – a quiet, contemplative playground where locals go to picnic, to walk through the beautiful treed gardens or swim in the outdoor Turkish baths.

An elderly couple plays badminton on the grass; grandchildren buzz around on a rented two-seater tricycle trailed by a fussing granny; joggers run on the 5km sprung path that follows the circumference of the island.

We eat traditional Hungarian pastries made on the spot, dipped in cinnamon.

After God (and alcohol) had chased the Mongols away, the grateful King Bela began building a castle on the hill overlooking the twin towns of Buda and Pest, split by the silky Danube.

This became the royal residence; today a funicular ride up the hill takes you to the castle district that has become a gathering place for locals every weekend.

Folks from Budapest celebrate at the drop of a hat, which is easy since they have a huge range of quality pilsners and dark beers and

a winemaking tradition dating back to Magyar times. They also smoke like troopers, and street musicians play their accordions and fiddles everywhere.

This lightness of being saw Budapest labelled the ‘Paris of the East’ – before King Bela’s castle was reduced to rubble when the Russians liberated the city from the Nazis in a siege that cost 38 000 civilian lives.

From up here on Castle Hill, as the sun drops and the low roofline of the city turns golden, the white turrets and arches of the Houses of Parliament on the banks of the Danube below begin to glow like a ghost carved out of bone.

Beyond history

SHOP Vaci Utca, the main pedestrianised shopping street, runs for several kilometres through the middle of Pest.

It is worth the walk if you start at the great steel and glass Central Market Hall, the city’s market that has been selling things like cheeses, salamis, breads and vegetables for over 100 years.

EAT Atmosphere generally wins over quality, but you can get great falafel at one of the many Turkish restaurants.

The Gerloczy Café and Restaurant is an utterly charming experience. It sits on its own little square under a great big tree and offers a delicious traditional goulash soup. www.gerloczy.hu.

SEE The Hungarian National Gallery is a must for its 19th and 20th century art by people you’ve probably never heard of.

See moody works by Jozsef Rippl-Ronai, a late 19th century Secessionist, alongside Robert Bereny’s powerful explorations in cubism. www.mng.hu/en. A cruise along the Danube provides wonderful city views. www.budapestdanubecruise.com

HEAR At the State Opera House, the great operas, ballets and works of Hungarian composers like Franz Liszt and Béla Bartók are performed weekly in a building constructed when opulence was the name of the game. www.opera.hu/en

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