Three weeks at the Thermal Hotel Margaret Island in Budapest. Eighteen treatments, two meals a day, return airfare from Toronto, pick-up at airport: $1,971 in Canadian dollars. No Single Supplement! I (and my stiff neck) could not resist.
In mid-January a Malev (Hungarian Air) flight deposited me at Budapest Airport. Brilliant sunshine emphasized the shabbiness of the suburbs that framed the city with dreary, cookie-cutter apartment buildings. At first sight, there was no hint of the medieval wonders awaiting.
The Thermal Hotel is on Margaret Island (Margitsziget) right in the middle of the fabled Danube River, which is straddled by the city – Buda on the west, Pest on the east. The two cities merged in 1872. Buda is older, its hills crowned by magnificent Buda Castle. The neo-Gothic Parliament buildings dominate the Pest shoreline, and the castle quarter is awash in superb examples of medieval architecture.
While the modern Thermal Hotel is no medieval masterpiece, it is nevertheless attractive. My single non-smoking room was spacious, with a balcony overlooking the Danube, and well-equipped with comforts.
I walked in the lovely park surrounding the hotel then went for my first of many hearty dinners, a buffet of soup, meats, vegetables, salad bar and tempting deserts, accompanied by gypsy music. I felt comfortable dining alone, although I often joined two Canadian guests I met there. Together we attended spine-tingling performances of opera, philharmonic, and ballet.
The Spa is, of course, the main feature of the hotel, its thermal pools and treatment rooms all connected by marble-floored hallways. A mop and bucket brigade keeps them squeaky clean. On the morning after arrival I had a consultation with a doctor: "Madame, what is your first complaint?” On pronouncing my neck "very bad,” he prescribed physiotherapy, ultra sound, massage and underwater treatments – all of which worked. The stiffness and pain in my neck is much improved. Many guests return year after year. After all, you treat your car to an annual tuneup; why not your body?
My days went like this: two cups of thermal water before meals, treatments in the morning, luxuriating in the pools any time. Every afternoon I took soul treatment at a museum or gallery. The city has hundreds. Budapest in Your Pocket describes the major museums as well as cafés, night spots, tours and attractions.
Allegro, the Toronto company that arranged the tour, assured me that "everyone speaks English.” Not so! I read somewhere that Hungarian sounds like someone falling downstairs, and that seemed an accurate assessment to me. I did manage to learn and use "sia” which means hello or goodbye. Locals appreciated even that small effort.
A map is essential. The largest Metro stations are crowded and confusing. Some boulevards seem as wide as the river. I wondered how I would ever navigate until I followed pedestrians disappearing underneath the street. Several heart beats later I surfaced on the opposite side. But once you get the hang of the public transport system, it's easy to get around. Even at night I and others from the hotel took bus #26 over Margit Bridge to enjoy entertainment in town, although I never went alone at night.
A month's bus/tram/metro pass cost 3,600 Forints (C$20; US$13). All three methods of public transport are efficient, frequent and fast. I'd find a fresh young face and ask directions with a smile. The youngsters always rewarded me with courteous, good humor, and they had a better grip on English than older citizens who seemed to me weary and wary – perhaps a legacy of the Soviet's iron fist?
In February, Budapest weather took a shot at spring. I strolled in the sun and gazed at the domes, buttresses and turrets of past centuries. Hungary has a tyrannical history, which the country has always resisted. The last revolution against Communism erupted in 1956, and like leprous scabs, bullet holes remind Hungarians – and visitors – of the brutal drama in the streets of Budapest. They will not be repaired.
Having three weeks in the city gave me time to grow comfortable and feel at home despite language deficiencies. Shopping was fun, more so in the "itsy bitsy” (Hungarian origin) than in the "gigundo” malls where I found the prices higher. Goods made in Hungary are reasonable. In one tiny shop, the owner giggled every time I spoke, and I, glad to amuse, found a pretty top for $22.
Andrassy Street, on the Pest side, is famous for architectural landmarks and fashionable shops. Along this elegant avenue you can buy pottery, antiques, clothing and jewelry. Monumental Heroes' Square is flanked by the glorious National Gallery. Performances at the State Opera House are a musical bargain. From my box seat ($12), I could thrill to the spectacle on stage as well as admire the sophisticated audience – balls and elegant dress have returned to Budapest. Maybe I too will return – even in winter I fell under the city's spell.