Travel: Slicing through the city of cakes

Budapest is steeped in turn-of-the-century ambience and populated by stout citizens. Yet it does not demand heavy-duty sightseeing. Cathy Packe plunges into a city plump with nostalgia.

Thanks to the efforts of Johann Strauss and his family, the Danube has always been associated with Vienna. Strange, this, since there the river is little more than a broad, murky stream trickling through an outer suburb. Yet in Budapest it defines and divides the city, linking this geographical centre of Europe with east and west.

Unlike the other great Habsburg cities of Vienna and Prague, Budapest is not a place where there is any real need for serious sightseeing; much of the considerable charm of the city is in its atmosphere. You can see most of the main buildings from the river, and this is the best way to get acquainted with the layout of the city.

Boats leave regularly from Vigado square, on the Pest side of the river between the Chain and Elizabeth bridges. Although a timetable of sorts exists, they seem to operate on a shuttle basis: when a boat is full it sets off, and another one appears to take the remaining passengers. Sightseeing trips, which go up the river and back again, never leaving the city limits, take about an hour and a half, but if you have the time, a far more rewarding trip - and better value for money - is to go north as far as Szentendre or Visegrad.

As the boat heads through the city, you can see the main landmarks on the skyline: on the Pest side, the Parliament building, a Westminsteresque monument to the grandest days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. On the opposite bank, perched on top of Castle Hill, is the more austere Royal Palace, now housing the National Library, and several of Hungary's national museums. Next along, the Mattias Church, with its distinctive tiled roof, named after a Hungarian king from the 15th century, and scene of various royal events over the centuries. The Liberation Monument is farther along, on top of Gellert Hill. A kind of dual-purpose memorial, this was intended originally as a homage to Hungary's wartime dictator; but subsequent events caused it to be altered during the construction process to become a memorial to the Red Army.

Slightly lower down the same hill is the Gellert memorial, a statue of the 10th-century priest who was created a bishop by the first Hungarian king, Stephen. After the death of the king, there was a rebellion against Gellert, and he was pushed over the hilltop; perhaps, if he had chosen to live on the flatter side of the river, history might have turned out differently. Nevertheless his statue still stands overlooking the city, holding a cross to protect the citizens of Budapest from further ill fortune.

Built into the hill itself is a chapel where ancient and modern meet. A labyrinth of small chapels known as the Cave Church was originally home to Hungary's only monastic order. At midnight on Easter Monday, 1951, it was stormed by the secret police; many of the worshippers were imprisoned, and the priest was murdered. It reopened in 1989.

The city's many bathhouses continued to function through the communist era. They are fed by some of the 100-odd thermal springs in Buda. The most famous - and certainly the most interesting architecturally - are those at the Art Nouveau Gellert Hotel, on the Buda side of Liberty Bridge. The baths are a legacy of the Ottoman occupation in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Moslems had to obey strict rules of cleanliness before going to prayers.

Taking a bath here today is a complicated matter, and the ritual is confusing since there are no instructions to help you - not even in Hungarian. Meanwhile, the staff lack the charm of their surroundings. If you are lucky you may be allocated a locker, and you will be given a sort of minuscule apron to wear; this is, apparently, intended to preserve your modesty, but it would hardly cover the most sylph-like of bathers - which, it has to be said, most of the locals are not. Its main practical purpose seems to be to stop your buttocks getting scorched on the searingly hot wooden benches of the three, ever-hotter saunas.

When you can stand the discomfort no more you head for the shower to have a thorough wash (bring your own soap) before soaking for a while in the warm mineral pools.

The next torture is the steam room, where you stay until the thought of plunging into an icy pool seems like a relief. At the end of all this you may feel like a massage, although persuading any of the surly staff to give you one could seem like too much of a challenge. The best time to go to the baths is early in the morning (they open at 6am), when most tourists are still in bed, but the citizens of Budapest are out in force.

There is nothing like sweating off a few calories to build up an appetite. As in the rest of central Europe, the cuisine tends to be heavy. And though there is a mouthwatering collection of fruit and vegetables on display in the central market every day, few of these seem to find their way on to restaurant tables.

The cakes, on the other hand, are spectacular. To get an idea of the range you only have to look at the menu at the well-known Gerbeaud cafe in Vorosmati Square. It doesn't just have a list of cakes - there are simply whole sections devoted to tarts, cream puddings, chestnut cakes, mixed pastries - the choice is endless.

While the Gerbeaud looks like a relic of another age, the street scenes you see from its terrace present a view of unromantic, modern life. By day the square below, and the pedestrian streets radiating from it, are full of people going to work, going shopping, meeting friends. But as it gets dark you start to see groups of girls in low-cut dresses and short skirts, parading up and down looking for business.

When you can tear yourself away from watching the world go by, it is worth meandering around Budapest to admire the architecture. Although there are some hideous examples of post-war buildings, these are relatively few, and on the whole there's a nostalgic air of glamour, with long avenues of grand, 19th-century facades, updated with touches of Art Nouveau in the windows and balconies. Best of all, wander into the grand Parisi Udvar, a covered shopping arcade, where the barrel-shaped glass dome and tiled floor now have neon highlights. It's a very Budapest detail, reminding you that, after all, this is a living city, not a museum.

Bound for Budapest

Getting there

British Airways (0345 222111) and Malev (0171-439 0577) each operates two daily flights between London Heathrow and Budapest. The lowest fare, including tax, on Malev is pounds 209.20, and pounds 20 more on British Airways.

Accommodation

Cathy Packe paid pounds 180 for a three-night package at the Gellert Hotel (00 36 1 185 2200), including breakfasts and one dinner.

Getting around

The Budapest Card offers unlimited public transport, free admission to 55 museums and reductions for the airport minibus and thermal baths. It costs around pounds 8 for two days, pounds 10 for three. The best tram journey is route two, which rattles along from the market, alongside the Danube, to the parliament building.

More information

Call the Hungarian National Tourist Office in the UK (0891 171200), if you don't mind paying 50p per minute. Or wait until you get to Budapest; there is a useful information bureau at the Western railway station.

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