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Travel & Holidays in later life


Danube view from Castle Hill, looking towards the Parliament buildingBudapest may seem a long way to go for a short break. But Easyjet flights take only two and a half hours. If you juggle your dates for the cheapest options, the return flight can cost around Ł70.

The Hungarian travel industry is well established with good accommodation, food and drink, excellent restaurants and lively nightlife. The city is rich in sightseeing interest. 

Warm mineral springs await for visitors to indulge in the spa experience, popularised first by the Romans, extended by the Turks, and turned into a social occasion in the 19th century. It's a key theme of Hungary's promotion of 'health tourism' based on many variations of spa therapy. 

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Cheapest travel option is by Easyjet: Between London, Luton, Gatwick and Budapest. Malev and British Airways fly direct from London Heathrow. 

By road there are good motorways across Germany and Austria. Reckon about 1100 miles from Calais.

What to buy? Hungarian salami, Bull's Blood wine, Tokay and a bottle of apricot brandy called Barack; low-cost recordings of Hungarian folk-music; craft products - hand-woven cushion covers, lace, Herend china, costume dolls, and embroidered tablecloths.

Many travellers combine Budapest and Vienna, with frequent train or bus connections, or by Danube hydrofoil. 

The most up-to-date pocket guidebook: "Budapest - the Bradt City Guide", is available from Bradt Guides.

More information: Hungarian National Tourist Office, 46 Eaton Place, London SW1X 8AL. Tel: 00800 36 000 000 (free from UK).

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Many Viennese culture-vultures pour into Budapest at weekends, to enjoy top-quality concerts and opera at much lower cost than in the Austrian capital. 

For the best panorama of Budapest, stand on Gellert Hill - a rock that rises steeply, 700 feet above the river bank.

Castle Hill Palace, now housing four museums and art galleries

Down below is the Danube, almost 1,000 yards wide. The river splits the Hungarian capital into two sections: the hills of Buda on the right bank, and the plain of Pest on the left.

The Buda hills formed the original settlement: Castle Hill, with a fortress and Royal Palace, the ancient Matthias Church where Hungarian kings were crowned for 600 years, and the more modern Fishermen's Bastion which is another fine viewing point.

All around on Castle Hill are delightful old streets of medieval, baroque and classical houses. This is the romantic old-time Budapest that flourished when Austria and Hungary shared an empire.

Across the Danube bridges lies the Inner City, called Belvaros - the heart of old Pest, which originally was independent of Buda.

Within that Inner City it's mainly an 18th- and 19th-century world of baroque churches, turn-of-the-century shops, cafes and restaurants, and a ministerial and political nucleus that focuses around the neo-gothic Parliament House.

Further along, the River Danube splits into two arms that form Margaret Island - 200 acres of public park used as a major sport and recreation The elegant tower of Matthis Churchcentre.

Like a complete resort, it has tennis courts, swimming pools with artificial waves, amusement centres, rose-gardens, open-air theatres, cafes, restaurants and luxury hotels. You can sample a bathing-pool of hot sulphur water, fed by one of Budapest's 123 thermal springs. 

Cruising along the Danube are paddle-steamers, hydrofoils and launches that offer choice of river trips, some with meals, music and dancing. 

Gipsy music is everywhere: in hotels at teatime, to accompany coffee and cake; in speciality restaurants, and in wine-cellars that stay open till past midnight.

Often the musicians are dressed in formal evening suits with black bow-ties. Otherwise they are brightly clad in traditional costume, ready to smile at every flash. Their gipsy music is enchanting, switching from mood to mood through an evening of Magyar nostalgia.

On a holiday package to Budapest, choose a bed-and-breakfast deal, leaving you free to sample the wide range of character restaurants.

The richly fertile countryside produces excellent vegetables, meat, freshwater fish (especially carp and pike-perch), and fruit. Hungarians take serious interest in their national cuisine, which uses paprika, spices, herbs and sour cream to enliven their flavours.

Certainly the food is a memorable feature of a Hungarian holiday. The soups are outstanding. Traditional meat dishes offer great variety. For dessert, try the pancakes, typically filled with honey and nuts, and covered with hot chocolate sauce. You can always diet afterwards!

Then there are the famous wines.

Numerous equestrian statues are scattered around the Old TownSeveral Hungarian wines are well known in Britain - especially the robust Bull's Blood of Eger (Egri Bikavér) and the white Balaton Riesling. But part of the pleasure of Hungary comes from making your own local wine discoveries.

The prime excursion out of Budapest is upstream to the Danube Bend, where the river narrows and turns sharply as it passes between the 2500-3000 ft heights of the Pilis and the Börzsöny Mountains.

This strategic Bend is overlooked by the hilltop fortress palace of Visegrád first developed by the Romans, then built up by the Hungarian kings from 13th century onwards. This was the official royal seat in the early Middle Ages not in Buda. By the 15th century, Visegrád rated high among the great palaces of Central Europe. 

Destroyed by the Turks in 1542, the site was forgotten until rediscovered in 1934. Since then, restoration has given Visegrád very high rating as a tourist attraction. There are superb views of the Danube Bend itself, En route to Visegrád is Szentendre a small and charming riverside town which originally was settled by Greek and Serbian migrants. 

Szentendre has become a mini resort, with numerous cafés, restaurants, art galleries and cheerful souvenir shops, boutiques and peasant craftware stalls. There are several museums, including one for wine and another for marzipan.

In the Open-Air Museum near Szentendre Near Szentendre is an open-air museum of peasant cottages and village buildings which have been transported from different parts of Hungary, re-erected and furnished in authentic style. 

Danube Bend excursions are operated by motor coach or river boat. Part of the pleasure comes from admiring the prosperous- looking private homes along the road, each standing in its own large garden, packed with flowers, fruit trees and vegetables. Many houses offer rooms to let 'Zimmer frei' - 'vacancies'. 


Where else to visit in Central and Eastern Europ

KRAKOW - the pub capital of Poland

MOSCOW - See the transformation for yourself

PRAGUE - Pulling back the Czech curtain

SLOVAKIA - for old-time price levels

"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

Budapest - the Bradt City Guide by Adrian Phillips and Jo Scotchmer - Easily the best choice for a capital city break, with detailed information in a light-hearted style that makes it an enjoyable read. 390 pages of entertainment in pocket format.

AA Essential Budapest - If you want glossy pictures and coloured street maps, with just the basic information. 

Hungary - (Bradt Travel Guides Series) by Adrian Phillips and Jo Scotchmer -  If you want a deeper understanding of Hungary, here's a splendid extension of Budapest (above) written by the same authors. Dip anywhere for another entertaining insight into Hungarian history and lifestyle. Here is quality writing, not usually found in guidebooks.

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