I f Kafka represents Prague and Freud symbolizes Vienna, then Budapest is Zsa Zsa
Today's Budapest is a city like no other. Hungarians, free to rule themselves for the first time in centuries, are reveling in their new freedom. The feistiness that has helped them to fight off wave after wave of invaders, from Turks to Habsburgs to Communists, now asserts itself as they swagger with self-pride down the street.
Entrepreneurship is everywhere, seasoned, it is oft rumored, by the Ukranian Mafia. East meets West in this desire to succeed, sometimes aboveboard, sometimes under-the-table. An intriguing sense of 1930s Tangiers, updated for the '90s with cel phones, faxes and laptops, hovers in the air.
And if the Magyars' exuberance towards Capitalism is strong, their passion for life is even stronger. Conga lines form spontaneously in clubs. An opera singer stands in a fancy restaurant and, accompanied by the strolling violinist, serenades her beau with an aria from La Boheme. There's so much public kissing that Budapest could make Paris look chaste.
As a former Ambassador once commented, "The Hungarians are better at being Italians, than the Czechs are at being Germans." And if things don't always make sense, after a few days there, you just shrug your shoulders and say, "It's Budapest." After all, how can you not love a city where the gay baths are a tourist attraction. (see below)
By the way, the men are gorgeous. The women are gorgeous. (The push-up bra must have been invented with Hungarian women in mind.) The combination of North-Central European fair skin and fine features with Turkish swarthiness and imposing physiques is irresistible. And they know it. I fell in love a hundred times just waiting for the light to change.
The Danube divides Budapest into Buda, the older part, and Pest, the more commercial area. This week we'll explore Buda and then next issue cross the river to Pest.
There's something beguiling about Buda in its mix of old and new, some
mysterious, quirky quality that permeates the place.
Like when I arrived one morning at St. Anne's Church in Batthyany ter (Square). Although the inner doors were closed, from the vestibule I could hear someone playing the organ. The music was sublime; the musicianship, superb. As I would try to leave, another beautiful piece would begin, holding me back riveted. Finally, I could linger no longer and departed wondering about the identity of the mysterious organist.
Best to begin a tour of Buda at Castle Hill which can be reached from Clark Adam ter with the cute little funicular rail. The imposing Royal Palace was rebuilt after the Nazis left it a pile of rubble. It now houses a complex of museums including the Hungarian National Gallery worth visiting to see its magnificent late Gothic winged altars, wood carvings and panel paintings.
The nearby Matyas Templom (Matthias Church) has a Byzantine feel to its stately interior-not surprising, as it was the main Turkish mosque for almost 150 years. Down the block, the remaining tower and one wall of Castle Hill's oldest church, a 13th century Dominican, have been incorporated into the modern Hilton Hotel for an interesting contrast.The Labyrinth of Buda Castle (Uri utca 9) should be a fascinating place. Used as a wine cellar and source of water in the 16th and 17th centuries, it became a refuge for 10,000 people during World War II.
Last year after reconstruction, it reopened with a kinda historico-zen slant. In part of it, you can search for your "personal way." The pre-historic labyrinth has reproductions of cave paintings.
The historical labyrinth tries to convey 1,100+ years of Hungarian political and religious history with statuary that would not be out of place in a suburban garden.
Personally, I would have preferred a history of the labyrinth with visuals and an explanation of how so many people could've squeezed in there during the war. But wandering through it was fun in a kitschy way. It's probably best to go late in the day with a group of friends after a few cocktails.
Elsewhere on Castle Hill, stroll along charming streets with buildings going back over 200 years. Some are still private residences, others government or school buildings, while some stretches feature shops and cafes. Courtyards are usually open and accessible. I moseyed into one where a hay wagon and other old farm implements sat safely unattended.
If you like your culture in bite-sized portions, the area offers a buffet of small, topical museums. There's the Pharmacy Museum (Tarnok utca 18), the Telephone Museum (Uri utca 49), the Museum of Commerce and Catering (Fortuna utca 4) and the Museum of Music History (Tancsics Mihaly utca 7). Appropriately, Beethoven stayed in this former palace when he came to Hungary to conduct in 1800. The Museum showcases manuscripts of composer Bela Bartok, a wide array of classical instruments, and folk instruments that seem to have been invented by Dr. Seuss. None of these museums charge more than a dollar admission.
(Another singular museum is the Vasarely Museum, a short ride away in Obuda. It's a must-see for any fan of the late Father of Op-Art. Also in that direction are the Palvolgy and Szemlo-hegy Caves. Said to be beautiful, I regret that I didn't have enough time to see them.)
Before leaving Castle Hill, it's kinda mandatory to visit Fisherman's Bastion, a series of crenelated turrets from which you get great photos of the Danube and Pest. Get something refreshing to drink, buy some souvenirs and enjoy the musicians that are inevitably playing there.
Beneath the Hill, the rest of Buda is primarily, but not exclusively, residential. A walk down Fo utca (Main Street) takes you through a number of neighborhoods where you'll pass Roman ruins and modern office buildings. At the Arany Szarvas Restaurant (Szarvas ter 1), I had excellent venison soup and wild boar with horseradish. The already-mentioned St. Anne's Church and the funicular rail lie just off Foutca as well as Bartok's home (Szilagyi Dezso ter 4) and, yes, the Turkish baths.
The Baths...and more
After parading all over Buda, what better way to relax than at one of the
centuries old Turkish baths. Constructed during the Ottoman Empire's rule
of Budapest for use during Muslim ablution rites, the Turks were able to tap into Buda's thermal springs and mineral-rich waters.
Nowadays, the domed roofs and memorials to the Pasha remain, but there's not much abluting going on. As you go in you get a ticket for about $1.50. For another $1 or so you can get a 15 minute massage. It's well worth it. If you're really sore, whip out another buck for thirty minutes.
Then proceed to the dressing room where you get a locker, change into something more comfortable and have the attendant do his thing to double-lock the door. You hold on to your key-it's all worry-free secure.
Now head to the pools and alternate among them from just right to steaming hot to freezing cold. Make occasional visits to the sauna and steam rooms, and a few hours can go by very quickly. All the baths are open from early morning until 7:00pm with last admission an hour before closing.
The Racz (pronounced "rats") and Kiraly ("key-rye") are known to be the gay baths. How are they known? I don't know-it's Budapest. It's not like there's a pink triangle hanging above them. But a straight tourist who wanders in unawares might be a bit surprised.
The Racz (Hadnagy utca 8-10) is near the ramp coming off the Elizabeth Bridge and can be a bit of a challenge to find the first time you go. (Maybe it was just me-I went there my first day in Budapest.) Though nearly 600 years old, these baths were rebuilt in the mid-1800s and so, architecturally, they are the least distinguished. Sitting under the cupola in the main pool, however, there's an echo effect that's almost hypnotic. The Racz is men only on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
The Kiraly (Fo utca 84) is the more stately of the baths. Its dome has windows in it that allow shafts of light to pierce through the rising steam creating an almost spiritual atmosphere. Kiraly is men only Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
The Kiraly "requires" you to wear a bathing suit, but doesn't really care if you don't. At the Racz, you're given a little apron to tie around you're loins. Many guys turn it around to sit on in the steam room or don't bother with it at all. Once it gets wet, it doesn't leave much to the imagination.
The masseuse at the Kiraly was a real cool guy. The first time I went to him, I wasn't able to tip him, no pockets and all. When I returned two days later, coming down from the locker room, I gave him the equivalent of a bit more than a dollar. It must have been a huge tip for him cause he worked on me for way more than the allotted time.
Now for the bad news-about 75% of the guys at Racz and Kiraly are elderly and usually corpulent. If one takes a shine to you, they can be pesky, but will eventually take a not too subtle hint.
BUT that still leaves the other 25% made up of a few cute young'uns, some handsome men and tourists from all over. (You'll probably find someone who speaks English, though German helps. That's if you're talking at all.) The saunas can get quite frisky with action tumbling out into the pools. People may watch but don't seem to care.
As for the Rudas Baths (Dobrentei ter9), also near the Elizabeth Bridge and open Monday-Friday, the straight boys go here. Visually there is much to see, from the dome's stained glass windows casting rainbow hues to the athletes relaxing after the game or work. Or whatever.
Although a whale may sidle up to you, if you see someone you like (and if you don't, you must be blind), proceed with caution. For, as the Budapest Gay Guide says, "Because of mistaken eyecontacts there have already been many scandals in these baths! So please make acquaintances very carefully!" And try not to get too excited-at Rudas, too, you're only gonna be wearing that little apron!
If you tire of the Turkish motif, go to the Gellert Baths (Kelenhegyi ut 4) with its exquisite Art Nouveau decor. In addition to the baths/sauna/steam room there's an outdoor swimming pool with a wave machine. Some gay action can be found here, but beware of hustlers prowling for wealthy tourists staying at the posh Gellert Hotel.
Prefer your fun outdoors? Then head to Margitsziget (Margaret Island) located in the Danube between Buda and Pest. There are some historic sites here, but people mostly come to bicycle, play tennis or swim at the Palatinus Pools. Or just to enjoy the nude sunbathing on the roof of the men's changing rooms, well known as a gay cruising area. Want to get to know the locals better? Then head down to the second floor shower for lots of meet and greet. Just remember to bring the suntan lotion for the roof.
[CULTURE NOTE: Vasmalom, an incredible Hungarian folk/jazz group, will be appearing at Gyoker (Eotvos utca 46, near Oktogon) at 8:30pm October 16 and 30. More on them next issue, but trust me, DON'T MISS THEM. When they play Jazzfest, you'll be able to say "I saw them when..."]