27 FEB 2017:  “Heavenly.”  “How beautiful.” My Mother’s favourite expressions on our recent trip to her homeland echoed at nearly every turn.   In the winter of her years we returned to Budapest last fall to embrace some family milestones and to spend some quality one-on-one time and see if a one-month vacation would do it. It sure did.

Two foodies, we ate our way across the hills of Buda along the banks of the Danube and if that wasn’t enough we scoured local hang-outs and high-end restaurants deep in the heart of Pest.

We’re also inseparable culture fans. You’ll see us gushing inside concert halls of every description, hearing contemporary virtuosos play the classics from Liszt to Bartok.  One night Mum even corralled me to shake the hand of an old dance teacher who taught me rare folkdance choreography in Canada at a time when performing these ancient Hungarian dances was suppressed in Hungary under Communism.  The night I bumped into my instructor Zsurafszky Zoltan was at his gala premiere at the Erkel Szinhaz. There I was with Mum crashing a post performance soiree at her request to reconnect with him and we did.

The timing couldn’t have been more appropriate for this multigenerational trip for two. It was 60 years since the Hungarian Uprising, a period of upheaval that has burned a huge imprint in Mum’s memory. Because of it her family fled in a harrowing escape with its movie-making plot line, leaving me much to be thankful for while remaining at the same time equally curious on the country that was left behind.

In making this transatlantic flight I decided a direct flight would be the way to go. No hassles in manoeuvring connections at those grand airport terminals of Europe, so there we were, champagne in hand on board Air Transat’s fabulous Toronto to Budapest route. We sat in Priority Plus with its extra leg room appreciating the fine service from our friendly flight attendants who couldn’t have made Mum and my flight more comfortable.

In Budapest we stayed in an apartment discovered on Airbnb Budapest located on the Buda side of the Duna with the Hungarian Parliament always in view.  Mum wanted to stay on her side of the Duna (Hungarian for Danube). I learned people living in Buda are proud of their birthplace and rightfully distinguish themselves from the Pesti residents.

“In Buda I grew up with children whose parents were movie stars, musicians and dancers. Besides, the hills have the beautiful castle and the other castle,” Mum says during one of our afternoon daily coffee breaks referring to the Fisherman’s Bastion. As a child, she used to love playing on those old stone steps make believing in her fairytale world.

For first-time visitors to the Pearl of the Danube, as Budapest has been frequently called, it’s necessary to suss out a collection of bonafide establishments, favourite landmarks and neighbourhoods.  And for Budapest experts like Mum and I, it’s important to veer away from those crowds as we discovered our own incredible finds frequented by the locals. The inklings of a crafty tourist can sometimes be found there too, and that’s okay I suppose.

If you’re into keeping your relationship with your loved one unfrazzled and fresh it’s best to compromise on some activities and better yet let one of you take the lead so the other can follow.

Here’s my Budapest Survival Guide:

Our Cultural Hot Spots

On some days guided tours of our favourite landmarks filled our afternoons but come evening, we’d often return to the same venue to watch illuminating performances by the country’s finest ensembles.

The Budapest Opera House is one. A 45-minute tour highlights the acoustics, the renovations, and some of the past patrons like Sisi who had her own private balcony as the Queen of Hungary. One night we watched the mesmerizing adaptation of Kodály Zoltán’s 1927 Székely fonó “The Spinning Room” by the Hungarian State Opera in a cabaret of opera and dance. My Grandmother Steiner (Mum’s mother) met Kodály when he visited Canada in a historic visit in the sixties. During Kodály’s visit he granted a Hungarian choir and subsequent dance troupe in Toronto the right to use his name, and thus, began the Kodály Chorus and the Kodály dance ensemble. She sang alto in the choir until her passing. Me - I danced with the Kodály ensemble as well as other Hungarian folkdance groups.

The Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music  is another cultural hotspot. My grandmother Steiner loved to play Liszt Ferenc’s Hungarian Rhapsody on the piano, and of course, being a first-generation Canadian-Hungarian, it was a must in my piano playing repertoire as well.  A one-hour academy tour highlights the legacy of the music academy which is considered among the best in the world.

A bastion of music, Leonard Bernstein, Bartók Béla and Zoltán Kocsis all performed on the stage. There was a heartfelt story involving Bartók Béla, a professor for over 30 years at the Liszt Academy, and his student Sir George Solti. When Solti died his wish was to be buried next to his beloved professor. If you visit the Farkasréti cemetery in Buda you’ll see two headstones beside each other of Bartók and Solti.

One night I said to Mum, ‘let’s feel like what it’s like to be a tourist in your hometown.”

Known as the Nemzeti Hotel when it opened over 120 years ago the luxury Grand Dame property was deemed a favourite “to be seen place” for actors and other luminaries of Budapest’s cultural elite who frequented the National Theatre across the street.

“Always a sore spot, the Nemzeti Theatre (Hungarian National Theatre) was one of the most magnificent theatres but was sadly demolished for the subway construction,” said a local Pesti where the Blaha Lujza metro station now stands.

So I booked a stay at this historical hotel in the city center which is under the Sofitel brand’s MGallery collection. The refurbished rooms in bold contemporary accents made Mum blurt, “Hey look it’s Picasso on the door,” about the whimsical paint flecks on the frosted glass door.

The lobby bar with its stylish nooks and high ceilings quickly turned into our favourite night cap spot. Breakfast has its own panache in your choice of a la carte or buffet which proved irresistible when we saw the food stations rife in organic honeys, local condiments and typical Hungarian dishes. The Sofitel managed property deserves a closer look. From there it’s an easy jaunt by Metro to the local attractions.

Our Shopping time

Shopping malls are growing. There are two downtown retail therapy hubs we frequented: the Mammut Mall near the Castle District and the Vásárcsarnok in our neighbourhood. Mammut is good for apparel, shoes, perfumes, instant banking and has a pharmacy. The building is located at the Széna tér station. A commemorative statue of the 1956 Revolution, which was the first of its kind in Budapest, flanks the main entrance and for us, it served as a stark reminder on what unfolded in the capital only a generation ago.

For our home turf the restored Vásárcsarnok in Vizivaros was our go-to. Anchored by a popular grocery chain Spar with merchandise shops on the upper level, the two-level shopping centre is convenient for your long-stay needs. Think wine, Unicum, deli counter, bakery, cleaning products including fresh produce and dry goods.

Souvenirs and high-end fashion on the pedestrian-friendly Vaci Utca in the Fifth District is always a good bet. For rare vintage handicrafts and native folk art we discovered Szkíta Kézművesbolt (Scythian Craft Store) on Kossuth Lajos Street. We totally enjoyed speaking to the proprietor Maria whose been running Budapest’s first store on handicrafts and repros of ancient Hungarian tools, archery, and other leather goods like the ostor and korbács (bull whip).

For crystal lovers the Ajka Crystal shop a few stores away from Maria’s is a definite must do. Located inside a historic apothecary shop, the wooden cabinets, some with original signage, are lined with the colourful blown glass objets d’arts.

For Hungarian delicacies like sausages, cabbage rolls, and sweet paprika in every description (powder form, fresh, or even in jars and paste) it’s off to the touristy Central Market Hall “Nagyvásárcsarnok” in Pest. The two-story foodie emporium the size of a train station is Budapest’s largest indoor market designed in the late 19th century with marvelous Zsolnay ceramic roof tiles. Mum found lots of handicrafts like Herendi porcelain and embroidered table cloths.

Our sightseeing - Where should I begin?

Let’s look at the amazing public transit system where a monthly pass (while pricey, it was worth every forint for unlimited inner city commutes and discounted rail tickets outside the city.) Tram Number 2 hems along the Pesti Duna bank making this easily the nicest public transit tour. The streetcar passes the Parliament Building, the Gresham Palace, the Vigado concert hall, and the Nagy Csarnok among other landmarks. The illustrious M1 Metro down Andrassy Ut is Budapest’s historic underground subway that still sparkles as the day it first opened in 1896. It’s a piece of nostalgia. Commuters sit in varnished wood seats in this 11 station commute where the platforms glisten amid a confectionary of ceramics.

For an insightful personal walking tour we headed out on a 3.5-hour Mansions and Villas tour with local tour operator UniqueBudapest’s Gabri (who said she was named after the archangel).

In the leafy residential sixth district of Terézváros named after Queen Maria Theresa who visited the neighbourhood in 1751 we learned how poets, scientists, and wealthy tycoons were later lured there. It was the fresh air, the new city park and the fashionable mega villas created by the darling architects of the day.  The time: the 19th century.

Hungary’s beloved poet Ady Endre died in the Zsolnay ceramic-laden Liget szanatórium (Benczur Utca 47), an Art Nouveau masterpiece built in 1909 as an exclusive hospital with the comforts of a hotel. There were rooms with balconies and spa services for moneyed patrons. The landmark is now used for private offices.

We stopped by the Lutheran Gymnasium, Hungary’s version of Cambridge -- a school where a certain Mr. László Rácz was a legendary high school math teacher of several students like John von Neumann of the Manhattan Project and the Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner whose Wigner’s Theorem is a cornerstone in quantum mechanics.

But the streets we really marvelled at were on the other side of Andrassy Avenue. As we negotiated the traffic, Gabri mentions how posh Andrassy Ut, Budapest’s version of Paris’ Champs Elysees was anchored by the adjoining Heroes’ Square and the ever green of Varosliget (City Park).

Architects like Miklos Ybl the somewhat forgotten father of Budapest who helped establish many magnificent residences along Andrassy Avenue. Many residents were aristocrats, landowners, and bankers who moved into the elegant, palatial residences. These nobility types also didn’t wish to see the growing crowds of common folk zipping by to the new city park so the new public transit system scheduled to open so the story goes went underground. The Metro which opened for Hungary’s millennial celebrations in 1896 as a millennial project became Continental Europe’s first subway system.

We passed by the Austrian Embassy, the grim setting where Gabri pointed out Raoul Wallenberg, the man who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews during World War II was reportedly last seen alive and his disappearance continues to baffle. The streets of Bajza and Munkacsy Mihaly utca (named after Hungary’s greatest painter), wowed us the most due to the elegant residences and for its rich collection of Art Nouveau landmarks like the Schiffer Villa.

Another time, a river cruise made the match. I asked my cruise expert Mum who did her first cruise, a transatlantic sail back in 1957, for her preference in either a dinner or cocktail cruise. We glammed it up for the cocktail cruise. Boy did the “It’s beautiful and heavenly” comments happen in spades then…as she enjoyed her very first Mojito against a city lit up like a necklace of shimmering diamonds.

A Weekend Getaway

We couldn’t leave out the final stop in Mum’s story. It’s the lovely medieval town of Kőszeg. Bordering Austria, the hilly area is renowned for many reasons. The terra firma is known for some of the best vinifera (species of grape used in wine making) and the countryside also served as a safe haven for the crown of Hungary’s first king, St. Stephen, which was secretly stored in an underground bunker during World War II. The location is now a well known tourist site. The crown itself, a national treasure, is on display in the Budapest Parliament.

Mum has mixed feelings about the walled city with its own fairytale castle. She had the best summer vacation ever as a child staying with relatives who wanted to ‘fatten her up’ but sadly within a few months the very place where she spent afternoons swimming and eating ice cream inevitably became the final stop before her family’s escape to neighbouring Austria.

But she wanted to go.  We arrived to Kőszeg by train and stayed at the charming Hotel Irottko in the town square.  “My aunt and uncle promised my mother the country air would do me well and they would return me a few pounds heavier,” she laughs as she showed me where her favourite ice cream parlour used to be.

Weirdly, across the street from our hotel there was a shop which was all boarded up but it was also very familiar to Mum. It used to be her uncle’s carpentry shop.

It was there in the autumn breeze next to her uncle’s former shop that another familiar sight appeared. It was the big linden tree Mum used to sneak under for those lazy, shady afternoons when time stood still.



Ilona Kauremszky

A regular contributor to Travel Industry Today, Ilona is a prize winning journalist whose writing pursuits have taken her around the globe.

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