Features

Budapest: Eastern Promise

27 Nov 2006 by Tom Otley
View from The Chain Bridge, Budapest

Tanks on the street, crowds outside parliament, protests at the government. This was a story of 50 years ago, or so I thought, a few weeks before my visit to Budapest. Reading the excellent Twelve Days: Revolution 1956 by Viktor Sebastyn and then watching scenes unfold on the television, I realised that no matter how well you think you know a city, it still has the capacity to surprise you.

Budapest briefly captured headlines again in October as a result of leaked comments from Socialist prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány. Even for those who are convinced that politicians only tell the truth when it suits them, this was strong stuff. This was no mere off-the-cuff remark about the previous election and his party’s conduct in it. Gyurcsány admitted that his party had lied “morning, evening and night” about the state of the economy ahead of the April elections that returned him to power.

Yet Budapest has quickly bounced back. “I think uncertainty and this kind of protest are not helping our image and I can only trust that these events are over,” says Balázs Szücs, director of Tourism UK. “Some conferences were postponed or the destination changed because of it, so I hope it has ended and we will be seen as a stable country.”

So it has proved. The November commemorations of the 1956 uprising passed off peacefully, and the government has gone back to the pressing concerns of dealing with Hungary’s huge budget and current-account deficits. Taxes are being raised, public workers laid off, and universities are being pressed to charge for tuition. For now, the euro is far off, and no one seems in a rush to adopt it. Many Hungarians borrow in euros or Swiss francs for home loans, and so are very sensitive to currency fluctuations and interest rate changes, as is the country as a whole. The Wall Street Journal Europe estimated recently that some 60 per cent of corporate debt, and a third of government debt is denominated in foreign currencies, while the budget deficit is expected to be about 10 per cent of gross domestic product this year, the highest in the European Union. Under the EU guidelines, budget deficits are supposed to be limited to three per cent of GDP.

Yet walk the streets of Budapest, and you see building work continuing, roads improving, and a large expat community thriving in the capital. According to the European Cities Monitor 2006, compiled by Cushman & Wakefield, a poll of 507 top corporate executives found that Budapest’s position on the list of future business destinations has strengthened. The results show Budapest becoming more attractive as the amount of office space increases and its quality improves, with cost factors (rental charges, staff costs and so on) remaining favourable. According to the Hungarian Travel and Tourism news website (turizmus.com), the survey showed an increase in the number of companies planning to establish their business centres in Budapest in the next five years (in Central Europe, Prague is the most attractive business destination, followed by Warsaw and Budapest. In terms of reputation, the Hungarian capital comes out ahead of Prague, but behind Warsaw).

In the last 12 months, hotel openings have continued. The excellent new Best Western Premier Hotel Parlament [sic] is a case in point. A design-conscious hotel located close to the Houses of Parliament and owned by an Italian investor, the 65-room property has been designed with real imagination and appeals to business travellers on a budget. The hotel offers free internet and free tea, coffee and soft drinks in the library bar until 5pm, and breakfast is included in all the room rates, served in the atrium café (rooms from E110; bestwestern.com).

Interestingly, one wall of the café is made of glass, allowing guests to view a giant hoarding with pictures of dozens of famous Hungarians (an English language summary of these is available and includes everyone from Paul Newman to Sir Georg Solti). The hoarding covers up an unrenovated site next door, which has been bought by an Irish investor. Irish voices are commonly heard in the luxury hotels of Budapest; Ireland is the largest source of property buyers in Budapest (the UK comes second, and Balázs Szücs estimates there are around 10,000 British citizens in the city).

But the most notable opening this year, both in terms of profile and because it has been so long coming, is the New York Palace. Owned and run by the Italian group Boscolo Hotels, this is a painstaking and triumphant renovation of one of Budapest’s most famous cafés, as well as a luxury modern hotel built around an atrium courtyard (the original building was constructed for an American insurance company in 1891-95). Rates are steep (from E200) and the hotel is clearly trying to distance itself from all competition apart from, perhaps, the Four Seasons Gresham Palace across town.

Inside the New York Palace it is a strange mix. There is the extremely fashionable and good-looking design: both the breakfast room and the VIP room are some of the most attractive modern designs I’ve seen, a kind of Stanley Kubrick version of the future (a cross between the Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange and something from 2001: A Space Odyssey). Then there is the carefully renovated grand, turn-of-the-(last)-century style of the café, one of Budapest’s most famous, with its marble, bronze, frescoes and Murano chandeliers. Finally there are the frankly odd touches, like the presidential suite with its turquoise Murano chandelier, presumably so the masters of the universe or supermen who can afford E3,000 a night can be reminded of their mortality with a huge picture of carefully crafted Kryptonite hanging over their bed. As for the Ice Cave spa, if the aim was to create a spa unlike any other, it has been a success, but whether anyone uses it is another matter.

The Corinthia Grand Hotel Royal (see review in Business Traveller November 2005) has added a huge 1,000sqm spa, and its Bock Bistro restaurant, run by the famous wine maker, is garnering good reviews. Also new is the Callas Café housed in the former ticket office for the Hungarian Opera House, which has been skilfully created by British interior designer David Collins to appear as though it has always been there. Located in the exclusive District VI neighbourhood, Callas Café, with its large outdoor terrace, is close to the Opera House, the Liszt Academy of Music and new designer boutiques Louis Vuitton and Chanel, turning Andrassy Utca street into a fashionable and international address once more.

Callas’ owner Zoltan Kocze wanted something “authentic, related to turn-of-the-century Hungarian architecture, but also something trendy that could operate by day as a café brasserie and by night a restaurant with a lively bar”. The result is a triumph, both low-key and unshowy, yet absolutely right for the location and period of the building.

“I was determined to see if I could pick together the DNA of the old brasserie,” says designer Collins, who has done so by creating features for the 120-seat restaurant such as a vaulted ceiling featuring arches of ornate plaster and colourful mosaic, all developed from existing details uncovered during the restoration. There’s also a chequerboard marble-mosaic floor and aged Venetian plasterwork, with elaborate brass chandeliers. It conjures up the refined essence of an old Budapest coffee house; albeit one with an Art Deco twist.

“We were able, by almost forensic means, to recreate the interior using fragments of the mosaic and part of the original ceiling that we discovered behind more modern renovations. I am really thrilled with the results,” Collins explains. “It’s a tribute to the craftsmen of Hungary – the amazing people who created such wonderful details that we could never reproduce.”

It’s the new openings and the facilities that attract business travellers to Budapest, particularly to use the city as a meetings and incentives destination.

Balázs Szücs says: “It’s the grandness and the perfect beauty, or perhaps the imperfect beauty, of the city that attracts people. There are still a lot of people who haven’t been, so there’s the unknown factor to it as well, but I think a very important factor is that you get great value. We have hotels here that have been nominated within the top 10 best in the world, such as the Four Seasons Gresham Palace, and you can stay for a rate that in London you would pay for a four-star hotel. In my experience, once people like the destination, they like it even more when
they find out how affordable it is and what good value it is.”

The now reopened Budapest Congress & World Trade Center has been renovated to an impressive standard, with the main Patria Hall providing the largest space that Budapest currently has to offer for exhibitions and conferences. However, Dr Gabor Galla, managing director of the Hungarian National Tourist Board, believes that this situation will soon be remedied with a new conference centre with a capacity of around 5,000, which will be announced in early 2007.

Also coming is the long-awaited dedicated rail link for the airport, again with an announcement expected in the next few months. With tourism making up 8.7 per cent of Hungary’s GDP – behind only building and construction – it’s clearly vital that the promotion and marketing continue. The newest campaign is “The Winter Invasion”, a marketing campaign with over 70 partners contributing. “In Budapest, everyone stays longer than planned: the Romans 400 years, Ottomans 150 and Soviets 45 years. You receive an extra night for free.” Designed to boost off-season traffic, it means that any traveller booking at least three nights in participating hotels will receive an extra night for free.

Lastly, although Budapest has for thousands of years been known for its natural thermal spas, the low prices of private healthcare when compared with other European countries has meant that it is increasingly becoming a choice for those who want to pay for high-class treatment at a fraction of the costs they would pay in their home country.

There are a number of companies set up to facilitate this process, and a popular place to stay on these trips is the centrally located but peaceful Margaret Island, where many of these services (including dental treatment) are available. The island is convenient, partly because everything is on site and the hotels have a long history of dealing with this type of business, and partly because it is such a beautiful and relaxing place to stay. The island is situated only 20 minutes from downtown Budapest, but is in the middle of the Danube and set in protected parks.

Visiting on a warm autumn day, I was enchanted, and was determined to return the moment I needed a spa break, or indeed any treatment. Once again the city had surprised me.

Ferihegy Airport

Only 10km from the city centre, Budapest’s Ferihegy Airport plays a large part in any plan for increasing and improving the prosperity of Budapest, and of Hungary (some 18 per cent of Hungary’s population lives in Budapest).

Bought by UK airports operator BAA in December 2006 for £1.3bn, the airport has been improved in the last 12 months, including much-needed improvements to the taxi services. With BAA having been bought by Spanish infrastructure group Ferrovial for £10.1bn in June, Ferihegy has been sold again, to German group Hochtief.

Hochtief faces major challenges. Low-cost carriers have fuelled much of the growth in visitors to the country, yet the low-cost airlines which have fuelled this growth don’t like the high landing charges. József Váradi, CEO of Wizzair, blamed the high fees charged by the airport (€23.6, compared with other airports which charge around €10). In response the airport says it has reduced fees and is planning further cuts, including staff redundancies, and outsourcing services not directly linked to the airport management. But fees cannot be reduced too much because a condition placed on the sale of the airport by the Hungarian government was that there would be further upgrading and expansion of the airport in the coming years.

Additional reporting by Ágnes Horváth, Hungarian Travel News, turizmus.com

Tried and tested review
Flight check: Malev, business class

HOTELS

 LE MERIDIEN Budapest

What’s it like? Among the top five hotels in Budapest, both in terms of quality and price, this is where George W Bush stayed on a recent visit to the city. Built 1914-18 and formerly housing the Italian Adria Palace Insurance Company, at one time it was the headquarters of the Budapest Police before reopening as a hotel in 2000.

The entrance hall of Corinthian pilasters with gilded capitals sets the scene for a grand, but not imposing, hotel. There’s an antique fireplace, limestone floors inlaid with green slate, and a reception panelled in mahogany.

Where is it? On Erzsebet Square, next to the Kempinski Hotel on the Pest side of the city in the centre of town (Belvaros).

Room facilities The 218 rooms (including 26 suites) have a variety of views, the best being into the square. All rooms have good ceiling heights, tall French windows, woven damasks, walnut furniture, and all bathrooms have separate baths and shower cubicles, with beige marble floors.

Restaurants and bars Le Bourbon is a 120-cover French restaurant with excellent food prepared under French head chef Laurent Vandenameele.

More oak panelling, but full length windows looking out onto the street lighten the atmosphere, as does the menu. This is fine French dining: crunchy pork feet and goose liver, apple in red wine, mixed salad (€11); sautéed scallop, novis leaves risotto and parsley coulis (€23). The three-course lunch menu is €23. For breakfast, teas and lighter meals, the Atrium Café is a good choice, and the pastries are well respected by locals. Service throughout is excellent, and as well as welcoming high-flying executives, there were families and casually dressed superstars also staying. For drinks, the Adria Palace Bar has live music.

Business and meeting facilities A total of nine meeting rooms on the lower ground floor, with an oak panelled ballroom for 150. In the business centre, 60 mins internet access costs E12.5 (there is also wifi access in the hotel’s public areas).

Leisure facilities A good one on the eighth floor, with a small pool and a fitness centre, solarium, steam bath, and several massage treatment rooms available.

Prices From €155 (superior double).

Verdict One of the top hotels in Budapest, with one of the highest occupancies of the five-star hotels.

Contact Le Meridien Budapest, Erzerbet Ter 9-10, Budapest 1051; tel +36 1 429 5500, starwoodhotels.com.

DANUBIUS Hotel Astoria

What’s it like? If you want to feel as though you are really staying in Budapest, the Astoria is the place. A famous hotel in the city, recently refurbished, it has given its name to the junction on which it stands and the underground station outside the door. On arrival there’s a good welcome, in English, and help with bags up to the room if required.

Built 1912-14 by Emil Agoston and Artur Hikisch, the name came from the first general manager, who had previously worked at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. In 1918 Count Mihaly Karolyi and Countess Katinka Andrassy stayed here and the National Council held meetings here. Now fully renovated, it is a lovely place to stay, with helpful English-speaking staff and guests from the UK, US and Hungary principally, followed by Italy, Germany, Finland and Sweden.

Where is it? At Astoria junction, well marked on the underground map and within easy walking distance of all the sites of Pest.

Room facilities The 138 rooms, 94 superior and 44 standard are divided only in terms of decoration, the superior being the more recently renovated. The rooms are clean, of a good size, have tea and coffee making facilities, trouser press, a good size bath and shower and satellite TV. There is wifi access in the rooms, though you have to buy a card from reception. One quirk is that the 24 hour card does not allow you to log out and back in again, so it is better to buy a couple of the 90-minute ones for almost the same price. The Astoria road junction outside can be very busy, so it is worth asking for an inward facing room if you are a light sleeper. I was woken by music from a nearby bar, which didn’t cease until 4am.

Restaurant The Mirror restaurant serves fabulous fusion cuisine, in the beautiful setting of an early 20th century Hungarian café house. The menu is comprehensive, and both dishes I ate were delicious.

Business and meeting facilities There are three function rooms on the first floor and one in the basement, which was originally used as a nightclub and has kept that style for private parties.

Leisure facilities No, but there is an arrangement with Astoria Fitness across the street.

Price €87 (standard Topaz room).

Verdict A good choice, famous in Budapest and part of the excellent Danubius group of hotels, which also includes two hotels on Margaret Island.

Contact Danubius Hotel Astoria, Kossuth Lajos u, 19-21, 1053 Budapest, tel +36 1889 6000, danubiushotels.com.

BY THE BOOK

Be Faithful Unto Death

Zsigmond Moricz, Central European Press £9.99

This portrait of life in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy through the eyes of a small boy contains a famous articulation of the Hungarian sadness at lost lands, and a demonstration of the spirit which makes this nation surrounded by strangers so resilient.

Blue Guide to Budapest

Bob Dent, £11.99

The best guide to the architecture of Budapest. Currently out of print, though hunt around and hopefully you will be able to find a copy. It has a depth and insight lacking in most other guidebooks. The one to be caught carrying by Hungarian friends and colleagues.

Budapest: A Critical Guide

Andras Torok £9.99

Fantastically entertaining, and now in its 4th edition (the cover here is the third edition), Torok guides you around Budapest with a local’s knowledge, and tells the truth from a Hungarian’s point of view. Wonderfully idiosyncratic and with some good maps.

Fateless

Imre Kertész Vintage £7.99

By Hungary’s first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and now turned into a Hungarian- produced film, this is a chilling story of what one Jewish boy experiences in wartime Hungary, featuring Auschwitz, Belsen and beyond. Chilling.

Budapest

Lonely Planet £12.99

A new edition for 2006. As strong as ever on food and drink recommendations, and has the best maps of any of the guidebooks reviewed here. This guide is weaker on culture and real detail, but has a distinctive tone and is fun to read. Expensive compared to the Rough Guide.

Budapest

Michael Jacobs, Granta £9.99

New this year, and a good read, though falls a little awkwardly between guidebook and travelog. One minute you are having a precis of history, the next it changes into personal recollection. Nevertheless, for those who know Budapest, it is an interesting read.

Budapest

Rough Guide £9.99

If you take only one guide book, this should be the one. Good on history, culture, hotel recommendations and even restaurants, the Rough Guides and simply excellent. Maps could be stronger, and why use colour just for the photos? But otherwise, faultless.

Embers

Sandor Marai Penguin £7.99

Set in the 1930s, two men who were friends in their youth, meet for the first time in over 40 years to talk of the past, and a particular event. Gripping, and deeply evocative. Recently turned into a play in London’s West End starring Jeremy Irons.

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