Budapest, Hungary in living color

Budapest, Hungary in living color
The Chain Bridge stretches across the Danube like a jeweled necklace in front of the parliament. (Tibor Bognar)
Budapest, Hungary — As I puzzled over a sign with too many letters I didn't recognize, a soft voice with a strange accent said, "I think I can help you." I was in the Rudas baths, a 16th century Turkish-style building by the Danube River, and I was one confused American behind the Iron Curtain.

That voice belonged to Mr. Imre, whose first name I never learned. But I did find out that he had long before emigrated from his native Hungary to Canada and was back for a family visit that fall of 1984. He carefully showed me, translating from the Hungarian on that sign, how to pay and what to do. The Rudas baths, which had several pools with different temperature waters, were under a stained-glass skylight, and the place felt eerie and forlorn.

It seemed that way all over Budapest the three days I spent here nearly 20 years ago. The state tourist agency placed me with a family on the edge of town in a Soviet-style high-rise. The wife, who was perpetually scowling, wore dingy black clothing; the husband had a similar scowl and an off-brown suit. Even when the sun shone, the buildings looked dark. Restaurants were grim; the food seemed many shades of gray, and even the flowing Danube appeared several hues short of blue.

Like Mr. Imre, some people expressed a timid willingness to help, but despite the positives, I wasn't enthusiastic about returning to Budapest, even in its non-communist mien.

Yet this is exactly where my family and I ended up in April, when our rental car company decided we couldn't take the car to Croatia. Hungary was on the approved list, so my wife, Sue, an adventurous soul, and our daughters, Ella, 11, and Sylvia, 8, assented.

We arrived at afternoon rush hour in Buda, the hilly side of the Danube that joined with the flatlands of Pest in the 19th century to make the modern city. It was as cacophonous as any city in the U.S. at that time of day. Nearly everyone we asked for directions was hearty and smiling. The buildings, all seemingly old and filled with Baroque ornamentation, were similarly loud and cheery. The Danube flowed bluer and more swiftly than I remembered. The crowds we walked through later that evening were chattering and bright. The restaurants seemed pink and green and orange and silver. I didn't see anyone wearing dingy gray. The buildings surely must have been the same, but the aspect of Budapest had changed.

It may never quite be Paris, but 21st century Budapest is not the Gloomy Gus it was in 1984. Unlike some of its former Iron Curtain brothers, though, Budapest appeals not because of some cutesying up but because it is brawny or homey, with a sprinkling of the romantic along the Danube.

A destructive cycle

We travel with our girls, so we always consider how we're going to entertain them. Serious museums and night life are secondary to castles, odd transportation and animals.

Budapest was a boon to us. Castle Hill looms several hundred yards fairly sheerly up the Buda hills from the Danube in the center of the city. It is a warren of structures built, destroyed mostly by incessant warring and rebuilt since the 15th century. None of the individual museums (including the National Gallery, the Budapest History Museum and the Military History Museum) is an absolute must-see, but the experience of being in a castle high above the city is worth the trip up.

You can take any number of city buses or walking routes to the top of Castle Hill, but the funicular railway is the most fun. Its cars are enclosed and tiered, so everyone has a view on the ascent. The pricing is two-tiered as well: about $2 up and $1 down.

Sue tends to be a flatlander, so while the girls and I climbed the hills, she took the first of her thermal baths. Locals as well as visitors are drawn to the variety of baths — old, new, fancy, tourist, men's only and more or less gay. The waters come from more than 100 thermal springs that were drilled or that come up naturally from the fault line running near the Danube that separates the plains of Pest and the hills of Buda.

Sue's first bathing foray was at the Danubius Grand Hotel Margitsziget, a spa hotel on Margit Island in the middle of the Danube just north of downtown. There the bathing is ritzy and touristy.

Locals often suggest that first-timers try the Gellert Baths, built 100 years ago at the base of Castle Hill and adorned with stained glass and tile flourishes throughout. We tried it and found it relatively kid friendly. Inside there are men's and women's sections, each with baths of different temperatures, though all on the hot side. In the center is a mixed-gender area of several pools where men and women are required to wear bathing caps. For about $2.75, you can add a 15-minute massage to your routine. After the bathing, massage or not, one generally lies with a sheet on a hard, flat bed. It's power-napping, Budapest style. The thermal bath experience may not cure every ill, but the Zen of it should energize you for the rest of your day.

You can also stay at the Hotel Gellert, another in the fancy Danubius chain like the Margitsziget. We went with the less elegant Hotel Margitsziget (not to be confused with the posher Grand Hotel Margitsziget). Margit Island is an oasis on the Danube, shielded from the noise and bustle of the city. The little bed-and-breakfast is in a park with tennis courts, a rope swing and various playground equipment. We had a room with three double beds for about $82 a night.

Just a quarter-mile walk south, past the Hungarian Olympic training facility, is Margit Bridge, one of eight that cross the Danube in the city. At the foot of that bridge on the Pest side is the wonderful No. 2 tram. It is utilitarian for sightseeing, passing the huge Rococo parliament building and other government offices on its way to the downtown center of Pest. But it's also romantic, especially in the evening, because it overlooks the floodlighted bridges and Castle Hill across the Danube.

In downtown Pest, people do their strolling either along the riverfront or a couple of blocks back on the Vaci Utca. ("Utca" translates loosely as "street.") At its south end is the glorious Baroque Market Hall, built in 1896. The first floor holds fruit, vegetables, meats and fishmongers; upstairs are the crafts and textile stalls. Here you'll find the carved "magic box," a painted wood jewelry box of sorts with moving slots that hide keys and mirrors, an inexpensive (about $5) and durable gift. The craftspeople will carve a name on it on the spot.

Our favorite shop for folk crafts along the Vaci Utca was the Folk Art Centrum at No. 14. We bought pottery designed by a local artisan for about two-thirds the cost of the mass-produced pieces we found at tourist stores.

Not far off the Vaci Utca is the Great Synagogue, said to be the largest functioning synagogue in Europe. This huge structure, built in 1859, is open to the public only intermittently because of security concerns. When you can get inside, there is a Jewish museum, which emphasizes Hungary's plight during the Holocaust. Hungary was a German ally. Jews were persecuted, but Hungary defied the Nazis and would not permit their deportation. That ended in the spring of 1944, when nearly a half- million Jews were sent to the death camps.

Hungary always showed some resistance to outside forces. It was dominated for 400 years by Turks, Austrians, Germans and Russians. Hungarians revolted against that last group in 1956 and, even after defeated in battle, had the most liberal society behind the Iron Curtain for the next three decades.

Hungary's cruel history is part of the theme at Budapest's newest major museum, the House of Terror, opened in February 2002 after a controversial genesis. It is in an elegant town house at 60 Andrassy St., considered Budapest's Champs-Elysées. This building was the headquarters of Hungary's Nazi party in 1944 and '45 and then that of the Communist secret police after World War II. It is said that hundreds of people died in torture chambers in the basement.

Multimedia exhibits throughout describe both reigns of terror. Hungarian Jews protested its opening because they believe the Nazi terror is underemphasized. In any case, it is effective in showing what the country endured.

Family friendly

About a mile up Andrassy Street at the Pest city park is the Budapest Grand Circus. It's performed in a brightly colored arena, well banked for sight lines, and it's a dream for viewers of the old "Ed Sullivan" variety show, which featured a seemingly endless parade of circuses from somewhere in Central Europe. There were acrobats, synchronized swimmers, big-footed clowns, high-wire fliers, contortionists, animal acts (we particularly loved the acrobatic house cats) and magicians of all sorts. The performances too are near-Cirque du Soleil quality and far down the price scale, about $5 per person for a two-hour show.

Lively isn't the word we'd use to describe Budapest's cuisine. The fare is hearty without much flair. There are open-air restaurants along the Danube and in some town squares, but they tend to be Italian or German. Food tends to be better in Pest, at eateries along Andrassy Street or around the Vaci Utca shopping street. For quickie meals, the stalls inside the Great Market Hall are a good bet.

If you get worn out, there is always the Danube to defrazzle you. Each morning at 9, boats leave the dock near Vigado Terrace in central Pest and travel north up the river to several towns in what is called the Danube Bend, a series of twists in the river toward Slovakia. We got off about 90 minutes upriver at Szentendre, a town seemingly filled with crystal, porcelain, tile and linen shops lining the way from the boat dock to the train station.

Sylvia, my 8-year-old, had lost a little stuffed animal earlier on the trip, so I indulged her with a homemade stuffed ram from an artisan's shop. We named it Seth, a replacement of sorts like the biblical Seth was for Cain and Abel. We hopped on the local train back through the fields to Budapest. Two stops down the line, Sylvia clutched for her jacket. Not there. "And I lost Seth," she wailed.

We got off and switched tracks for the train that was, we hoped, bound for Seth and the jacket. We got on the next one back and were met by a conductor ready to charge us a $7 penalty for not having the right ticket. But then she saw the teary-eyed Sylvia. Out came the handkerchief and a hard candy. "I have an 8-year-old too," she said in a soft accent, not unlike Mr. Imre's at the Rudas baths a generation ago. "You will find your ram."

Sure enough, Seth and the jacket were still resting at the food stall, untouched by the hundreds of hands that had passed by in our time away. The sun came out, and the Danube, almost like a smile, turned a spirited blue.