Monday, July 16, 2007

Budapest: Name Dropping at the Hotel Gellert

“Mr. Geller, with a name like yours, we really ought to upgrade you” said the very charming man at the Hotel Gellert's reception when we checked in. As a result, when we entered the room we discovered a draped vestibule that was almost as large as our entire hotel room in Athens! With its high ceilings, extensive woodwork, chandeliers, and view over the Danube, we were thrilled to be there. (The concierge later gave us a copy of the Hotel's newsletter. It's called "The Geller".

The Hotel was for many years Hungary’s finest. Built in the early 20th century, it was designed in a style best described as a cross between Art Nouveau and Baroque. It included a very elaborate thermal bath and swimming pool complex. It was like swimming in a palace! Unfortunately, one of the indoor pools was closed for renovation. However, the outside pool more than made up for any disappointment since it was equipped with a wave machine, installed in 1922. Each morning, at 5 past the hour, a dozen plump Hungarian women in flowered swim hats joined Sally and me in bobbing up in down in pretty ferocious waves. It was exhilarating.

We spent our first night in one of the many lively restaurant districts around the city. We decided we had to try a typical Hungarian restaurant. The food was as hearty and heavy as it was 35 years ago when Hungarian restaurants were the only place John Hull and I could afford to eat when we were tired of Chinese food. It reminded me of the famous question. “What is the difference between Hungarian food and Chinese food?” In a Chinese restaurant you can eat for 3 hours, and an hour later you’re hungry. In a Hungarian restaurant you can eat for an hour, and three days later you’re still not hungry!

The next morning, our first task was to visit the Russian Embassy since we arrived too late to go on Wednesday. Sure enough, the Budapest staff kept the same hours as those in Ljubljana. But we were able to reach someone in the Visa department by phone who suggested that we wait until we get to Prague, assuring us it will be simpler than trying to start the process in a different city. Let’s hope he’s right.

We spent the rest of the time touring around the city by foot, boat and public transit. We were looking forward to using the subway, since a portion of the system was the first to be built in Europe. We had also seen Kontrol, a most unsettling Hungarian film about Budapest subway attendants who play very treacherous games with the trains. While we never met up with any of the characters from the movie, the original ‘Yellow Line’ with its tiled and paneled stations just below the road surface, was very enjoyable to use.

While most people tend to dwell on the magnificence of Vienna and Prague, Budapest is also a very impressive city. Bisected by the Danube, it consists of what were once three cities: Buda, Old Buda, and Pest. We stayed in Buda, near Gellert Hill atop which is the statue of Saint Gellert, an Italian who came to Hungary in the 11th century to introduce Christianity to the region. Maybe we're not related after all.

The city has many grand streets and buildings, designed in the Baroque style. The Parliament buildings are more outstanding than those in London, as are many of the religious structures. We were particularly impressed by the old Synagogue, which astonishingly was not damaged during the Second World War. With its very high frescoed ceilings, chandeliers and extensive millwork, it seemed more like a magnificent cathedral than any synagogue I had seen before. My dad, who passed away three years ago today, would have enjoyed seeing this place. But hopefully, they will be enjoyed by my aunt and uncle in Toronto, who these days don't get to their synagogue as often as they would like.Behind it is a memorial garden with a sculptural tree incorporating the names of many of the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Beside it is a museum.

As we traveled around, we thought of our many friends and acquaintances who came to CanadaHungary. from Have any of them been back, or were they so happy to get away they have no interest in returning? We also wondered how different life is today, compared to the years under Communist rule. Being in Budapest now, it is hard to imagine that it wasn’t always a free, democratic place. There are so many shops and restaurants, and signs of capitalism. It is a place that celebrates art and culture, with hundreds of magnificent examples of art and sculpture, and dozens of museums and galleries around the city.

While we didn’t meet a lot of local people, I enjoyed the staff and servers we met, who unlike their Canadian equivalents, were by no means subservient, and never seemed compelled to tell you what you wanted to hear. I also enjoyed watching the women, especially the older women who had a certain style that one doesn’t see in older Canadian women. Many reminded me of Zsa Zsa Gabor, that most Hungarian of film actresses.

While we could easily have spent a lot more time in the city, after two days it was again time to move on. We had had enough salami, paprika and local beverages to last us for a while. We were eager to get to Prague, but wanted to stop off in Bratislava, and possibly Brno, since we suspect they will be quite different from the more popular tourist destinations we have been visiting. So we exchanged our remaining Hungarian Forints for Slovakian Korunas, (I really haven’t a clue if we got the right exchange!) and set off from another train station for more adventures.


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