Sunday, 15 February 2009

Budapest - Day 3, Return to the Spa & Winter Sunshine

First thing this morning I was anxious to see if the weather was as good as I had anticipated and I was delighted when I opened the shutters on the window to be confronted with a crisp clear morning and a breathtaking sunrise creeping deliciously over the Danube and introducing a perfectly clear blue sky to the day. Things looked very, very promising indeed.

I was sceptical but just in case the waters in the Gellért baths were going to grant me eternal life or any other range of health benefits worth having we made the journey down in the creaking hotel lift for a second visit to the spa and the swimming pool. It was only seven o’clock but I was surprised just how busy it was already and it seemed that this was a place where people meet socially before going off to work suitably invigorated and fully charged for a day at the office. One thing that struck me as odd was the number of staff that were on duty, I don’t know if this was a legacy of the communist era but staffing levels seemed exceedingly generous and there were more people on duty than I would have thought were really required. To illustrate this, one mans only job was to sit by the entrance barrier and to take the admission card that we had been given in the lift and enter it into a machine that operates the turnstile which was a simple enough procedure that is something that most people ought to be able to manage well enough for themselves. I think on balance I enjoyed the thermal baths in Budapest just as much as those at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland but what was better here was that the pool was tiled and more hygienic and I wasn’t walking around in sticky mud that was full of other peoples dead skin cells and pubic hair.

Because the sun was shining we left the hotel early this morning to take full advantage of the unexpectedly good weather. On the other side of the Liberty Bridge was the Market Square and the covered central market building. As with other cities that we have visited the market was filled with excellent produce, meat, fish vegetables and, this we hadn’t seen before, several stalls devoted to selling different paprika and herb combinations to be used to flavour the Hungarian national dish of goulash.

The weather now was unbelievably good, the sun was shining, the sky was blue and the temperature was several degrees above average for this time of the year. Today we were going to concentrate on Pest but with an eye on the blue skies had a mind to return to Buda for photo opportunities that had alluded us yesterday. This meant that time was an issue so there was no time to dawdle about. From the market we walked through the streets of the city, past the Hungarian National Museum and down a long road that went past some very fine buildings and came out in a Elizabeth Square which was big and spacious and was surrounded by impressive buildings and wide boulevards. In the nineteenth century Budapest earned the tag of Paris of the East and looking around it was easy to see why.

After the creation of Budapest as one great city, there was a rush of construction and Pest was extensively remodeled in the image of Vienna, acquiring the main arterial street Nagykörút or Great Boulevard and another, Andrássy Avenue, which led out to Hero’s Square and a great park with magnificent fountains and lakes, and all of this frantic reconstruction reached a fanatical peak to coincide with Budapest's millennium anniversary celebrations of the settlement of the Magyars in the region of 1896. Today Budapest is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in the world and is considered an important Central European hub for business, culture and tourism. We weren’t expecting this and it certainly took us by surprise and like most other places we were beginning to realise that two days was hopelessly inadequate to appreciate this really fine City.

Moving swiftly on we were in full speed sightseeing mode now and next it was St Stephen's Basilica which at ninety-six metres high is the tallest building in Budapest. Actually the Hungarian Parliament building is also ninety-six metres high which might sound a bit of a coincidence but in fact this is no accident and is quite deliberate because the number ninety-six refers to the nation's millennium, 1896, and the conquest of the later Kingdom of Hungary in 896. The Basilica is named in honour of Stephen, who was the first King of Hungary from 1000 to 1038 and whose mummified fist is kept in a shrine at the back of the church. There is also a copy of his crown which is quite important to Hungary because it represents the legitimate authority to govern the country and it was first used in the coronation of Stephen which is an event that marks the beginning of Hungarian statehood. The Holy Crown was removed from the country in 1945 for safekeeping, and entrusted to the United States government. It was kept in a vault at Fort Knox until 1978, when it was returned to the nation by order of U.S. President Jimmy Carter and it is now kept at the Hungarian Parliament building where it belongs. It is a pity that Jimmy Carter doesn’t run the British Museum because then the Elgin marbles might get returned to Athens.

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