Friday, September 30, 2016

Budapest's curious train station.

There is a tall door, a tall green door to be exact, in Budapest's western train station. Every day hundreds of people walk past it, but only a very special few ever get to go inside. It leads to a very special room, one could even go far as calling it a secret room. For, only a few know that it even exists. With the Latin, 'Viribus Unitis' (meaning, with forces united) inscribed in marble above the door, the man for whom this secret room was built, wanted, at the very least, his life's motto to be visible for all.

Budapest's Nyugati Railway Station anchors the Grand Boulevard, a wide thoroughfare surrounded by fabulous buildings and impressive architectural design.

The station itself was built by the Eiffel Company in 1877, twelve years before it would become an iconic name,due to the construction of an inconspicuous little tower in the heart of Paris.

The building is an interesting, generous mix of brick, glass and steel. While the main train hall is run-down and shabby now, it still bears clear signs of who and what is was built for. But noone, including yours truly, could imagine the opolence that still lies behind these walls.

The station was namely, built for royalty. The King and Queen of Hungary, the Emperor pair of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Habsburg royalty, Franz Joseph and Sissi. Sissi, Empress Elizabeth loved Budapest and traveled here frequently, spending many months at a time in Hungary, abandoning her responsibilities in Vienna.

Behind the green door, which is firmly locked most of the time, is a room built specifically for Sissi. It was her lounge upon arrival, and where she would wait and relax before her journey would take away again from this beloved country of hers. It is the Royal Waiting Room. She might even have endured heartwrenching goodbyes in this room, when leaving her rumoured lover, Count Gyula Andrássy. Now, this room is used sparingly, for special gatherings, and is not open to the public.

Along with its secret room, the Nyugati Station also houses what is widely known to be the world's most elegant McDonalds. It really is a beautiful location to eat a Big Mac.

I have visited Budapest twice now, and will be back again in a month. It is a city with a fascinating history, and telltale signs of former grandeur, making me constantly wish that buildings could tell stories I can actually hear.

On the grounds of the Buda Castle, high above the Danube River, I found not just the perfect place for a coffee, but a view unlike any other. I like the rough edges of Budapest - it doesn't have the fresh-painted shine of cities, such as Prague, where you can smell the money that has been thrown at it in recent decades.

One can feel the turbulence, see the resilience, and sense the relief of peace, within the grooves and cracks, along the faded facades, and among the tarnished structures. For me this defines beauty.

And speaking of beautiful, the bath houses in Budapest are a sight to behold, and the perfect place to plunge. As I had limited time on my last visit, I only made it to the Széchenyi Bath. Every facet from the outside window coverings, the sculptures standing as greeting, to the inside entrance hall...and the glorious pools. I was taken in by every gorgeous chunk.

I local told me recently that an even better option to bathe in, is the Lukács Bath, which is less crowded and half the price. Really, what is needed is the time to just go to all of them. Did you know that Budapest has more natural thermal springs than any other capital city in the world (according to There are a 118 springs providing 70 million litres of water a day, with temperatures between 21 and 78 degrees Celsius!

There are many beguiling corners to visit. One neighbourhood that shouldn't be missed is the Jewish Quarter, where free walking tours take you through the Gozsdu Courtyard, a series of connected arcades and past the 2nd largest synagogue in the world.

I opted to take a coffee break at the New York Café because I was told that it's the Most Beautiful Café in the World - so, how could I not go and see what it looks like? 'Ornate', would be one word to use to describe it, 'tourist-filled' is another word. But, that shouldn't take away from the fact that it is a stunning café, where you can absolutely enjoy a real good, really expensive cup 'o joe. Trivia: The café was built in 1894 and was actually a hub of Hungarian literature and poetry, where the creative types gathered to exchange and write and discuss. The luxurious bits came much later.

One of the locations which I get to call 'my office' when I'm in Budapest, is the Pesti Vigadó, a concert hall whose name translates into 'a place of merriment'. This building, which lies on the eastern banks of the Danube River, in my experience, breathes energy into its just has something.

Maybe it's because it was originally built in 1833 to house public balls and large, happy folk festivals, or maybe it's because its walls have heard the likes of  Johann Strauss, Richard Strauss and Ferenc Liszt perform. But, it also has a dark past, as so many beautiful buildlings do. Destroyed by numerous wars, its most recent reincarnation came just two years ago.

Also lying on the shores of the Danube, are the spectacular, gothic revival, Hungarian Parliament buildings. Looking like part catherdral, part iceberg, and all parts amazing, it is called, 'The House of the Country' in Hungarian - this I find incredibly endearing. It brings to mind a different white house which should possibly reinvent itself with a name change like this.

Directly at the parliament, is the most profound, gut-wrenching monument I have experienced up to now. It depicts the murder of Jewish men, women and children in 1944 by Hungarian fascist militiamen. The victims were ordered to take off their shoes before they were shot. They fell into the river and were carried away by the current. It is unspeakable, unthinkable, to imagine the horror these people experienced. A row of many, many scattered shoes, cast in bronze, lay abandoned - a baby shoe which someone has placed a tealight inside, a dried-out rose which lies beside a ruined woman's pump in bronze.

Since 1989, as the east was opened up to the west, not all roads have been easy...for Hungarians this is no exception. There are many complicated and complex issues which are difficult for all the European countries to negotiate. But, the people who I have dealings with in Budapest, the places and experiences which I have visited and heard about, politics aside, have left me with a feelling that I want to continue to visit this stunning city, and I encourage everyone else who has the opportunity to do so also.

I can't write about Budapest and not mention its most popular landmark, and rightfully so, the Chain Bridge.

On my last trip, I had the incredible good fortune to find myself standing all alone in the middle of the bridge - which was closed to traffic due to a sporting event taking place on the Buda side. It was seriously cool. How many times do you get to have a Unesco World Heritage Site all to yourself?

There are very many reasons to visit Budapest, and it being one of my new favourite cities, is surely the most important reason! I doubt that Budapest will disappoint. So, go to Prague sure, but don't miss out on Budapest.

It will impress the socks off ya!