Our hardy Eastern Europe experts, the redoubtable Claudia Fischer and Roger Holliday, finish their report on the world's two favorite formerly Iron Curtain destinations, Prague and Budapest, with a look this month at the Hungarian capitol.

European cities with histories reaching back to Roman times and beyond tend to be situated on rivers, not for aesthetic purposes but because waterways afford many practical benefits: transportation routes for trade, travel and commerce; protection from evil forces and good strategic positioning in general.

Budapest is no exception. Since the first century A.D. when Roman legions occupied the area, civilization has flourished in this city on the Danube.

The 1,770-mile long river that traverses Europe from the Black Forest to the Black Sea, was a natural place for many early city builders to set up shop. Cities as diverse as Ulm, Regensburg, Passau, Vienna and Belgrade are all situated on the banks of the Danube.

But Budapest's intimate relationship with the river is different from all the others. It is said the Danube runs by Vienna but that the Danube is Budapest.

No wonder then that post-WWII hoteliers moved heaven and earth to secure riverside real estate and build their properties to maximize a classic view: the Chain Bridge connecting the green hills of Buda with its castle and Matthias Church - with level Pest, whose skyline is dominated by the massive Parliament Building and Basilica.

Hotels

For two decades after the war, Budapest's hotel situation remained in a dismal state, all the major hotels had been destroyed in the siege of 1945 and not rebuilt. For years, all that remained of them were depressing, burned-out shells. When an energetic program of tourist development began in the 60s, international hotel chains were quick to seize prime spots along the river where the once-grand hotels still languished, dark and deserted.

The first modern hostelry on the Pest side of the river was the 340-room Duna Inter-Continental, its construction in 1969 started a process that changed tourism in Budapest. It introduced the concept of a large hotel featuring the international style of service that travelers from the West had come to expect.

The Forum Hotel Budapest, constructed next door a few years later, made even more innovative use of its site. Each of its 408 rooms is set at an angle to insure a view of the river.

The 356-room Atrium Hyatt Hotel, located just behind the Forum on Roosevelt ter, though not directly on the river, is cleverly designed and its views are equally good. In typical Hyatt fashion, the ten floors are connected by three dramatic glass elevators that rise through an atrium area filled with fountains and lush, green plants.

Across the river on the Buda side of town, the controversial Hilton-Budapest sits atop Castle Hill, in the middle of some of the city's most historic buildings. The outcry that arose when plans for its construction were unveiled one can only imagine, given that the hotel was built into and on the ruins of a 13th century Dominican church and a 16th century Jesuit college. Even though we might have been among the loudest protesters, the final result is successful.

The hotel's striking bronze-tinted exterior panels reflect the image of the picturesque and ornately carved Fisherman's Bastion, one of the city's most visited monuments. Care was taken during construction to maintain the site's historical integrity. The street side façade incorporates the remains of the Jesuit school while other elements of the structure fuse with the Gothic remains of the church, creating in one part of the building a charming area where operas, concerts and ballets are performed during the summer.

Actually these well-known, riverside Budapest hotels are more alike than different. Each is rated at four or five stars and staffed by well-trained, multilingual personnel. All were built 15-20 years ago. Guest rooms are nicely furnished with mini-bar, color-TV, phone, hair dryer, lots of fresh towels, 24-hour room service and, nearly always, a superb view. As is the case with most hotels, the cheaper rooms tend to be small. All the usual facilities are available and typically include a fitness center, sauna, cocktail bar, a variety of restaurants with menus for every taste, garage parking, meeting rooms, a uniformed doorman and, of course, souvenir shops.

While not members of the warm and cozy category, each offers excellent accommodations in a convenient location.

A new player, the Grand Hotel Corvinus, opened with appropriate pomp and circumstance on September 11. Unfortunately, by the time the Kempinski group arrived to construct this impressive hotel all prime river spots had been taken. They built instead on a large city block between pretty Elizabeth Square and Deak Ferenc ut, a few steps off the main shopping streets and only three blocks from the river - a less dramatic setting but one with easy access to the major tourist areas.

The Corvinus is big with 367 rooms on nine stories. Everything about it is state-of-the-art from high tech elevators to wide, sunlit hallways. Each room has a phone in its bathroom. Television sets, hidden in stylish armoires, not only provide normal programing but interactive services as well. Guests can tune in stereo radio, read phone messages, check their bill everyday for accuracy, order room service and even control the heating and air conditioning - all by remote control.

Rooms themselves are large with high-quality, neoclassic furnishings creating a formal atmosphere that, while perfect for entertaining, is somewhat less conducive to relaxing in bare feet and a bathrobe.

A hundred years ago all great hotels had large, opulent public spaces. In recent decades, however, lobby areas have been declared wasted space and consequently grown smaller and smaller. Not at the Corvinus. The design goal was to achieve an ambiance of such grand style that the hotel would be a natural setting for all manner of important events. The enormous, curved lobby is an expanse of polished marble floors, Corinthian-like columns and high ceilings. Ballrooms and conference spaces are just as impressive and throughout the hotel, dramatic pieces of original artwork convey a sense of quality and elegance.

The Kempinski management is so convinced their hotel is in a class by itself they are suggesting the city institute a new six-star category.

Less expensive hotels are, of course, available throughout the city. One we especially recommend is the Hotel Nemzeti (Hungarian for National). Although located an easy 15-minute walk from the city center, there is a subway stop just outside the front door. Rooms here are less elegantly furnished and there is no room service or fitness center, but each one of Nemzeti's recently remodeled guestrooms is comfortable, clean and comes with the basic amenities - telephone, color-TV and mini-bar.

The Nemzeti's restaurant serves a good breakfast buffet. Meals at other times, while not inspired, are hearty and abundant. The deriguer, two-man gypsy band is either welcome or slightly irritating, depending on your mood. There's also a cozy bar just off the attractive Baroque-style lobby.

A slightly funky overnight alternative is the famous Hotel Gellert. Built in 1918 on the site of medieval thermal baths, it, too, was damaged extensively during the war but was restored during the 1950s. Though there's a pervasive feeling of drab, old-fashioned Socialism about the place, the art nouveau architecture is stunning. There are 322 rooms, all with radio and phone. The larger rooms and the suites also have color-TV, air conditioning and a mini-bar.

Even if you don't stay in the hotel, be sure to at least take a peek at the Gellert Baths around the side.

The magnificent foyer of majolica tiles and mahogany is an elegant sight in itself. Entrance to the baths costs just a few forints but the stern women guarding the door won't let non-payers in even for a quick look. The baths and pools themselves are gorgeous, with lots of things like marble lions spewing water. In addition to ordinary swimming, soaking and tanning, something called underwater massage is among the treatments offered. Guests at the hotel can use these facilities for free.

Budapest is, in fact, sometimes called the 'World's Largest Spa'. Eons ago, a fault line formed right where the hills of Buda and the Great Plain of Hungary met, creating a six mile stretch of thermal springs. Every day fifteen million gallons of water flow from 123 springs. Upwards of ten million people visit the baths annually - 70% of them for medicinal purposes for ailments ranging from arthritis to dermatitis.

Finding Food

Hungary is not known for sophisticated cuisine. Sturdy soups and stews usually involving onions, paprika, garlic and sour cream are the norm. But there are many excellent places to eat in Budapest, offering both good food and good service, something of a rarity in other Eastern European countries.

The Kispipa Vendeglo at Akacfa u. 38, continues to be a favorite. Excellent meals are served at reasonable prices in a friendly bistro atmosphere. A typical meal of, for example, venison filet or paprika veal stew, including pre-dinner cocktails, appetizers, wine and dessert, costs less than $30 for two persons. The clientèle is a nice mix of local and foreign diners.

Café Hungaria (also known as the New York) at Theresia kôrút 9-11 has a stunning interior that is all carved wood, velvet, gilt, ornate mirrors and strolling gypsy musicians. Unfortunately, the food is terrible. There is rumor, however, of an impending sale, so perhaps a change in ownership will bring some improvement. In the meantime, it's still worth stopping by for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine just to have a look at the Rococo grandeur.

In addition, the restaurants of the major hotels are recommended and serve complete meals of several courses for a surprisingly low cost of 950-1740 fts ($16-$29) per person.

One culinary skill in which the chefs of Budapest excel is baking mouthwatering pastries and cakes. The most famous spot to sample these delights is Gerbeaud Cukrszda, Vorosmarty ter 7, serving a steady stream of customers since 1858. In warm weather it's possible to sit outdoors but it's a shame not to go inside and enjoy the cherry-wood paneling, vaulted Louis XIV ceilings, crystal chandeliers, wall sconces and marble topped tables.

As many as 150 different items, both sweet and savory, arrive freshly prepared from the kitchen each day, fortunately not all at the same time. The shop's display cases are replenished with new temptations throughout the day so it's impossible to know just what will be available at a given moment. It doesn't much matter, though, everything looks and is wonderful. A cup of excellent coffee and a slice of divine pastry cost under $3.00 a person.

A word of caution - despite reports of a wait staff of eighty, service can be slow in the extreme. Go when you have plenty of time and can relax.

Ambling Through Budapest

Walk out of Gerbeaud, through the square, past the statue of romantic poet Mihaly Vorosmarty, and you're strolling down the Vaci, the Budapest version of Rodeo Drive. A variety of big-ticket shops from the West line this busy and colorful pedestrian shopping area as do street musicians and table-top vendors. On past visits the street was crowded with Romanian Gypsies, aggressively selling hand embroidered linens and fur pieces. Thankfully they were not so much in evidence this time.

A slightly different shopping experience is to be had at the Vasacsarnok, the city's central market...if you can find it.

Still a problem in all former East Bloc countries is the renaming of streets and squares that used to be called after the likes of Marx and Lenin. Unfortunately printed materials don't always keep up with the changes and a combination of an old map with a new guidebook, or vice versa, can lead to serious confusion.

The market used to be located between Kalvin ter and the Szabadsag Bridge (which, for the time being at least, remain the same) on a thoroughfare formerly called Tolbuhin kôrút but now known as Vamhaz kôrút. Sorting that out was just the beginning of our difficulties, though, because the massive, old building was closed indefinitely for reconstruction. Only clever detective work eventually led us to the market's temporary quarters along the river.

Our effort was rewarded. The market stalls, indoors and out, were loaded with autumn bounty: baskets of apples and pears, bins full of potatoes, carrots, beets, yams, onions and cabbage; long swags of garlic and bright red, orange and yellow dried peppers; pine cone and lichen wreaths, hand embroidered baby clothes, folk art Christmas decorations, honey straight from the farm and homemade pickles and jams. Smartly dressed women shopped alongside babushka-ed peasant women and swarthy men in work clothes.

Tucked away in some of the stalls were little packets of saffron, one of the rarest, most expensive spices in the world. Saffron, which is the stigma of the crocus flower, adds distinctive color and flavor to such dishes as paella, risotto and bouillabaisse and is expensive because of the laborious hand work involved in harvesting it. For a single pound, 250,000 of the tiny golden threads are needed.

In our local grocery store an infinitesimal amount of saffron costs over $10, which works out to $201.78 an ounce. At Budapest's central market cellophane packages of approximately 1/2 cup (a lifetime supply in most kitchens) cost only 100 fts ($3.33). Small, inexpensive, weighing almost nothing and universally appreciated, this is the perfect gift for the cook on your list.

Next time we'll buy much more, we could probably finance our whole trip with saffron futures!

Excursions

For a day out of Budapest, a visit to the Danube Bend is a highly recommended excursion by rail, bus, boat or car.

Just north of Budapest the river almost makes a U-turn as it changes from an easterly to a southerly direction, forcing its way through the mountains and creating some very dramatic scenery.

We took the one-hour and 20-minute train ride through the countryside to see the small town of Estergom, today's religious capital of Hungary where in 1,000 A.D. St. Stephen was crowned king.

Only remnants of the original 10th-century cathedral remain but the Basilica that replaced it still stands. Inside is a bell tower to climb and a crypt to investigate that includes the tomb of Cardinal Mindszenty, who along with hundreds of priests was unjustly imprisoned by the Communist regime.

Much more interesting, however, was the little Varmuzeum next door. It is Hungary's oldest palace, destroyed by the Turks during one of their numerous invasions of the region and hidden from view until rediscovered during a construction project during the 1930s.

The self-guided tour of this charming little museum leads through the castle's ancient rooms now filled with artifacts unearthed on the site. None of the descriptions are in English but it doesn't really matter; the items are so well displayed that little explanation is necessary. The tour ends on the rooftop with a beautiful view of the Danube far below and the rusted bridge to Czechoslovakia on the other side, destroyed during the war and never rebuilt.

On another day we made a 40-minute journey to Szentendre, a town of seven churches, fourteen art galleries and museums and a large number of pretty Baroque houses painted in bright yellow, cool green and rich russet.

Unfortunately, tourism has already made ugly in-roads and the streets even off-season are lined with cheap souvenir shops. There are worthwhile things to see in Szentendre for those with time to spend as well as some good restaurants but we don't recommend it for a quick trip.

Budapest: The Data

Budapest Hilton Hess Andras ter 1-3, H-1014 Budapest, telephone (36-1) 175-10-00, fax (36-1) 156-02-85. Singles 290-370 DM ($177-$226), doubles 360-460 DM ($220-$281). Breakfast buffet 25 DM ($15) extra. Maximum rates are for rooms with river view. Major cards. Rating: III-IV

• Atrium Hyatt Budapest, Roosevelt ter 2, H-1051 Budapest, telephone (36-1) 266-1234, fax (36-1) 266-9101. Singles 340-380 DM ($207-$232), doubles 420-460 DM ($256-$281). Major cards. Rating: III-IV

Forum Hotel Budapest, Apaczai Cserejanos Utca 12-14, H-1368 Budapest, telephone (36-1) 117-8088, fax (36-1) 117-9808. Singles 329-360 DM ($201-$220), doubles 380-420 DM ($232-$256). Major cards. Rating: III-IV

Intercontinental Budapest Apaczai Cserejanos Utca 4, H-1364 Budapest, telephone (36-1) 117-5122, fax (36-1) 118-4973. Singles $195, doubles $240. Major cards. Rating: III

Pannonia Hotel Nemzeti, Jozef kôrút 4, H-1088 Budapest, telephone (36-1) 133-9160, fax (36-1) 11-49-019, Singles $85, doubles $105. Major cards. Rating: II

Hotel Gellert Gellert ter 1, H-1111 Budapest, telephone (36-1) 185-2200, fax (36-1) 166-6631. Singles 6900-10,400 fts ($115 -$173), doubles 14,000-17,300 fts ($233-$288). Prices include use of thermal baths and pools. Rating: II

Grand Hotel Corvinus Kempinski Erzsebet ter 7-8, H-1052 Budapest, telephone (36-1) 138-2334 or 118-3476, fax (36-1) 117-8609. Singles 310-390 DM ($189-$238), doubles 390-470 DM ($238-$287). Breakfast buffet 25 DM ($15) extra. Major cards. Rating: IV

• Kispipa Vendeglo, Akacfa u. 38, telephone 142-2587. No credit cards. Rating: PP $

Café-restaurant Hungaria (The New York Café), Theresia kôrút 9-11, telephone 122-3849. Rating: Recommended for drinks and snacks only.

Café Gerbeaud Vorosmarty ter 7, telephone 118-1311. Rating: P $

Getting to Budapest

Airport Arrival

Travelers arriving in Budapest at the two airports, Ferihegy I and II, can now take advantage of a new service into the city. The LRI Airport Bus Service provides transportation to anywhere in Budapest for 500 fts ($8.33) per person, half to one quarter of current cab fares. The service uses six-seater vans and guarantees a wait of no more than 10 minutes. Return trips to the airports can be arranged by calling 157-6283.

Auto Crossings

For those traveling by car, the usual crossing point is at Hegyeshalom about 70 kilometers (45 miles) southeast of Vienna. Recently, new crossings have opened at Janossomorja-Andau on the east side of the Neusiedlersee in Burgenland, and at Fertod-Pamhagen at the south end of the same lake. The latter would be more convenient for travelers returning to Austria from the southwest of Hungary.

By Hydrofoil

From March through September hydrofoils make the 4-1/2 hour trip between Vienna and Budapest at least once a day, depending on the season, for approximately $80 per person.

January 1993