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The Life Aquatic
Although the Danube is Budapest's most famous body of water, it's the therapeutic H20 spewed up daily by 100-odd hot springs that sets local hearts aflutter. Ancient Romans—the guys who coined the word "spa" (an acronym for "solus per aqua" or "health by water")—were the first to exploit the springs by building baths around them 2,000 years ago. Simply put: they came, they saw, they conquered…and then they soaked. Later occupiers followed suit: including the Ottoman Turks, who built their own dramatically domed facilities, and the Habsburgs, who erected oh-so-atmospheric Beaux Arts beauties. Add in the later contributions of communists and capitalists, and Budapest has over a dozen thermal baths. More than mere monuments, these are part of the fabric of life. And, on any given day a large percentage of the city's population seems to take a dip in one.
Not Your Average Joe
Budapesters have been drinking copious amounts of coffee ever since the Turks introduced it in 1579. But they seldom grab a cup to go: city coffeehouses are elegant affairs designed for lingering. Indeed, in the 19th and early 20th centuries they served as extended living rooms for impoverished intellectuals. The communists, fearing cafés were hotbeds of sedition, closed most of them down. A few—like Gerbaud—survived, while others—like the Café Central—have been revived. All offer an extensive coffee menu. (Ask for standard "kávé" to get espresso; specify "amerikai kávé" to get a weaker brew and a disdainful stare.) All, moreover, boast an absurd array of decadent tortes, fruit-filled strudels, and fanciful marzipan creations. Sure they're fattening, but given how much goose liver and goulash you'll consume on your trip, extra calories hardly matter.
Hungary's Right-Hand Man
It's hard to ignore Szent István (St. Stephen to the tongue-tied). Stamps and forints bear his image; places and people bear his name; and statues of him pop up everywhere. Admittedly István wasn't Hungary's most devout saint: that distinction goes to Margaret, who entered a convent as a child and swore she'd rather cut off her nose than leave it. Nor was he the most spectacularly martyred (St. Gellért wins that award for rolling downhill in a spike-lined barrel). But as Hungary's first king, István remains the hands-down favorite. After being crowned in 1000, he turned loosely linked tribes into a centralized state and converted his pagan subjects to Christianity, thereby allying Hungary with the burgeoning powers of western Europe. Curiously, citizens express their undying gratitude each St. Stephen's Day (August 20) by parading his mummified right hand around Szent István Bazilika.
You cannot appreciate how much has been achieved in Budapest in recent years until you acknowledge the not-so-distant Soviet domination. Though a generation has come of age since the Iron Curtain parted in 1989, reminders of the regime are relatively easy to find. Observe the dispiriting blocks of Soviet-built housing. Note the older edifices still bullet-pocked from World War II and the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. Walk through Szobor Park, where overbearing statutes of Lenin, Marx, and assorted comrades were exiled after Communism collapsed. Or visit the controversial—and undeniably disturbing—Terror Háza. Once headquarters of the State Security Police, it's now a museum that uses propaganda posters, arresting displays (including a re-created "interrogation" room), and videotaped interviews with victims to make the past palpable.
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