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Budapest Snapshot: A City of Surprises

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Budapest Snapshot: A City of Surprises
To invigorate your travel and give it fresh meaning, try working around travel themes.
My preferred theme for travel these days is UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Understanding how different civilisations have developed and delving into their present day gives me a realistic, first-hand appreciation of how different cultures in the world are shaped.
Eastern Europe has always fascinated me. When I worked with a global public relations industry group, I found professionals from Eastern Europe were always quieter and more guarded.
Nevertheless, when I spent some time getting to know them, I was taught about the culture, nature and history of that area. After all, it was only in 1989 that communist rule ended there.
Budapest – A Tale of Two Cities
Budapest Snapshot: A City of Surprises - 2 cities
The name Budapest came about as a result of a merger of Pest and Buda in 1873.
Budapest is the most populous city in Hungary. It was bestowed the UNESCO award in 1987 for the Buda Castle District on the banks of the Danube and some of the historic buildings.
On the other side of the Danube is Pest, which is referred to as the ‘New Town’ and is considered the more lively side of the city.
The country has a chequered past — having been conquered by the Romans, Ottomans, Habsburgs, Nazis and Soviets, and each left reminders of their presence in the form of landmarks.
Even with a history that dates back to the Celts in 4th century BC, it is a relatively ‘young’ nation, having achieved independence only in 1989, just 34 years ago.
Understanding Budapest’s history gives perspective to many of the city’s landmarks. Still, I will remember Budapest as a city that held many surprises for me.
Hungary also produces cheaper Foie gras
Budapest Snapshot: A City of Surprises - Foie gras
It was a lesson for me to learn that the frowned upon delicacy foie gras (the liver of fattened geese), is not produced by France alone.
Hungary is the next largest producer of Libamaj, as it is called. Apparently the Hungarians were fattening geese as far back as the 11th century.
It is as flavourful and costs a fraction of the price of the French version, which makes it even more tasty.
Spas are a way of life for the Hungarians
Budapest Snapshot: A City of Surprises - Spa
Imagine what a pleasant surprise to learn that Budapest lies on a geological fault line which has resulted in more than 100 thermal springs.
In Budapest, our Hungarian friends pointed us to the three top springs. The largest is the Szechenyi bath, a Neo-Baroque spa complex which opened in 1913 and is the largest in Europe. It has three outdoor and 15 indoor pools.
The other two are the Rudas thermal bath (built in 1550 during Ottoman rule) and the Gellert Bath (built in 1934).
The entrance to the latter two were non-descript but when we peeked inside, each of these had beautiful columns, mosaics and domes. Unlike the Japanese onsen, nudity is not permitted at these baths.
We were told to check when the men’s, ladies’ and mixed days were. Massages are also possible but appointments had to be made in advance. Unfortunately no one answered when we called the telephone number given.
Hungary bears claim to the first electric underground railway
Our host in Budapest proudly told us that London was not the first city to have the world’s first underground railway.
The London tube was set in motion in 1906 whilst the Hungarian Metro was already running 80 years before that. There are four metro lines today serving the 1.75 million population.
One of the world’s largest Parliament buildings
Budapest Snapshot: A City of Surprises - Parliament buildings
Government buildings are important landmarks in a city. They are telling symbols of political life, culture and are usually architectural marvels.
Hungary’s Parliament Building, the Országház is ranked among the world’s top five biggest parliament buildings. It is bigger than the Palace of Westminster in London, and ranked just after The Capitol in Washington.
To give an inkling of its size, there are 365 towers incorporated throughout the building, for each day of the year.
Because our hotel was on the Buda side, on Castle Hill, we could admire this building, probably the most photographed in the cityscape. It looks spectacular at night compared to the daytime greyish hue.
Despite being in the EU, Hungary uses the florint as currency
In its Austro-Hungarian empire history, Hungary’s official currency was and still is the florint, abbreviated as HUF.
This name comes from the city of Florence where gold coins were minted. Although Hungary is a member of the European Union, the florint is still in use today.
One euro exchanges for 381 florint, and the best thing to do is to carry Euro into Hungary, then exchange the currency when you get there. The ATM machines are widely available and it’s not difficult to find them whilst in the city.
A surprising, personal view on communisim
Budapest Snapshot: A City of Surprises - GellertBath
Image courtesy of GellertBath
Our host in Hungary, in his 40s, works in a hotel chain at the front office. I asked him what he thought of the post-communist era and if their personal lives were better today. His answer surprised me.
He didn’t think so. According to him, had Hungary remained a communist country, people would have remained employed during the COVID era.

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