The Travel Snob learns the city is just as boring as it sounds.
Thank God for the Four Seasons. Were it not for its Gresham Palace in Budapest, I might have trudged over to the city’s aptly named House of Terror, which isn’t a trendy café or S&M boutique but a museum devoted to just that, terror, and hung myself. Because Budapest is a very sad city, and not even me, who has been kicked out of untold bars, lounges and countries, could find appropriate trouble. And I got kicked out of Switzerland, which is also a very boring country you should avoid, unless you’re a Royal who likes to ski (and no, Prince Andrew, I don’t mean that kind of skiing).
What had me thinking Budapest was a glamorous destination worthy of The Travel Snob, I’ll never know. There’s nothing chic, cosmopolitan or fun about the Eastern European enclave, and that’s factoring in an Iron Curtain grading curve. Dreary, dark and depressing, Budapest is a pharmaceutical testing site just waiting to happen.
You can’t really blame them. The city, and for that matter the entire country of Hungary, hasn’t had the best millennium. From the Turks to the Huns to the Nazis, they’ve been conquered by everyone but the Jersey Housewives, and I shudder to think what Teresa and her table flipping brethren could have wrought on this terrified region. But nothing quite compared to the Russians and that merry blend of communism they inflicted on the country after WWII, plunging Hungary into near 50 years of bleak despair. So you’ll excuse them for the melancholy.
Still, if you’re going to make yourself a tourist destination, you may want to reconsider listing the aforementioned House of Terror as one of your highlights. Yes, folks, this is a real attraction, and it’s dreadful as you’d expect. Five levels of sunshine, from SS uniforms to KGB jail cells and a wall of shame devoted to its more heinous interrogators, is what you’ll find in this exhibit, which makes the Holocaust Museum look like a Disney ride. Each room comes with its own nightmare, which is wistfully catalogued with a one-sheet history lesson that’ll make you wistful of the Black Plague. I especially enjoyed the Soviet-era tank greeting visitors in the lobby.
It didn’t help that I’d spent the few hours before on a rain-soaked tour of the city with a guide who bore a striking resemblance to Kraus, the salty German cook from the 80s sitcom Benson. Unfortunately, she lacked that character’s joie de vivre, which made interactions with Robert Guilluame so damned entertaining; instead, the guide offered an even more depressing rendering of the country’s sordid history, and how “our forefathers have suffered, our people are suffering, and our children will suffer.” No shrinking violet, she. That particular quote was in reference to the Hungarian National Anthem, which she deemed the most depressing of any country’s, and I was quick to agree, mainly because I didn’t want to hear it.
Over the next four hours we also learned its picture-esque Chain Bridge, which spans over the Danube River and links the geographical areas of Buda and Pest, was blown up by the Germans, rebuilt and now leads the region in suicides, and how the Buda Palace, which housed the country’s various leaders, was destroyed and rebuilt many times, and which its Communist era dictators gutted and nearly destroyed. Oh, and don’t even get them started about the Versailles treaty, and how Czechoslovakia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro were carved out of its territory, all for some silly reason like World War I. The annexation left them without an agriculture base, industry or even a seaport, which was dutifully noted by the guide. I was keen to offer her a Percocet, but the tour was far from over and I’d need it myself. We spent the remaining time whizzing past more popular sites, like the Parliament building, which rubber stamped Soviet rule, its Jewish district, where 600,000 Jews were shipped to concentration camps, and its many bath houses, which I was not eager to experience.
And yet there wasn’t much else to do, so just one day into the glamour that is the former Eastern Bloc, I decided to take the plunge and experience a true Hungarian bathhouse, which sounds very sketchy and not at all on my Bucket List. To my great relief, the experience was actually enjoyable; the fear I’d need a Silkwood-style scrub down for dipping so much as a toe into one of its pools was severely misplaced. Instead, I spent the better part of an afternoon circulating through the myriad of indoor and outdoor pools that make up the Szechenyi Bath, which are all heated from thermal springs discovered more than 100 years ago. The pools were all super hot and soothing, and said to hold healing powers. The whole scene reminded me of a Six Flags-style water park, except with fat Hungarians in Speedos instead of fat Americans eating ice cream.
Unfortunately, one Hungarian bathhouse does not a vacation make. By this time I’d seen and heard enough to pay my own therapist’s heating bill, and retail therapy wasn’t an option either because there’s hardly any to speak of. Budapest may hold some international allure, but it’s not exactly a Mecca for shopping. Sure, there’s a closet-sized Louis Vuitton on what is supposed to be its most cosmopolitan address, Andressy Avenue, but nary a Chanel, Hermes or Goyard in site. Heck, even Nike Town skipped town, leaving its barren storefront for all to see along the avenue.
And so I retreated to the Four Seasons, located on the banks of the Danube River at the foot of the Chain Bridge, for the remainder of my stay, which was the trip’s one saving grace. Acclaimed as one of the world’s finest Art Nouveau buildings, the hotel features soaring winter gardens, grand staircases, stained glass, mosaics, ironwork and, thankfully, me. Built originally as the Gresham Life Insurance Company in 1903, the Four Seasons transformed it 100 years later into one of Europe’s most regal hotels, featuring 179 unbelievably lux guestrooms, all which come with huge vaunted ceilings, jaw dropping views of the Danube River and Buda Palace, and all the amenities you’ve come to expect from the Four Seasons. The hotel also features a world-class spa, where I spent several afternoons getting treatments, including a Bamboo massage, which the hotel’s press kit describes as “a powerful treatment with strong bio stimulating and reactivating characteristics.” What that all means, I don’t exactly know, but it included bamboo sticks warmed with aromatherapy massage oils, which the therapist rolled over my body. The gentle strokes, acupuncture and friction are supposed to relieve muscle tension and revive senses in a “new, astonishing and unique way,” leaving you with an “exotic South East Asian Sensation.”
Just hopefully not Hungarian.