Consider this to be a tale of two opera houses. One is universally admired, while the other is lesser known. The first has landmark status, while the other is often overlooked.
And then, please consider the opera houses to be metaphors for the cities themselves
The opera houses are in Vienna and Budapest, which were the joint capitals of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But the elite of the Austrian city looked down upon the people of Budapest with its large numbers of gypsies, Magyars, Galicians, Jews and other outsiders. Kaiser Franz Josef reigned from Vienna and spent very little time in Budapest.
The Kaiser proclaimed Hungary as a co-equal nation only because that was the easier way to deal with rebellion, rather than trying to suppress it militarily. Although Franz Josef gave it that official status, he visited rarely. It is said that he attended the Budapest Opera House only once, whereas he often went to the Vienna Royal Opera.
This attitude continues even today. While I was on a tour of the Vienna house, I casually mentioned that I was heading to Budapest. “Their opera house is a smaller copy of ours,” my guide informed me, dismissively.
Actually, the Budapest Opera has a lovelier and more ornate building. When the Vienna Opera was rebuilt after it was damaged in World War II, the renovations were utilitarian. On the other hand, the Budapest Opera still stands as it was designed by architect Miklos Ybl in 1884. He incorporated designs from the many ethnic groups that were part of Hungary. He also insisted on using lumber, stone and fabric from Hungarian sources. Ever since then, and especially since World War II, the Budapest house gives the visitor more to admire.
The foyer has marble columns and its vaulted ceiling is covered in murals. Wrought-iron lamps illuminate the wide stone staircase.
Its acoustics are on a par with La Scala Milan and the Garnier in Paris. It resembles the Vienna Opera in its layout, with a ramp leading from the street, on which the royal carriages arrived. That ramp leads to a private reception room that gave His Highness direct access to the royal box. The Budapest Opera is on an intimate scale. It seats less than 2000, the least of Europe’s major houses. Ticket prices are also the lowest I’ve seen, ranging from $3 to a $30 top.
The city as a whole also has charm. It is not visited by as many tourists as Vienna, but it has a lot to offer. One of Budapest’s special attractions is the hot mineral waters that flow under its soil, so bath houses and spas proliferated because of those waters. Therefore I decided to pick a hotel that could pamper me with its own spa, and introduce me to that culture.
I found the perfect lodging at the Danubius Thermal Hotel Margitsziget. It is in a part of the city that has its own appeal: Margaret Island or, as they say, Margitsziget, located in the middle of the Danube River with views of old Buda on one side and newer Pest on the other, while the Danube flows by. The island is leafy botanical parkland. Think of a cross between “Tales From the Vienna Woods” and the canals of Venice. A bus takes you to either side of the river in ten minutes.
The hotel is modern and includes restaurants, shops plus therapy rooms, pools and steam baths. I’m glad we stayed here. The facilities are spotlessly clean and the staff is gracious.
Many Europeans come to the Danubius Thermal for a “cure” — as do visitors from India, China and Japan — and doctors are on site for consultation and to prescribe specific treatments. Guests from England and America, however, come more for relaxation and fun. The Danubius health spa accommodates both objectives.
I particularly enjoyed the dry brush massage which is meant to increase blood circulation, and, to balance that, a carbon dioxide bath to slow the heart and reduce blood pressure. It tickled me with thousands of tiny bubbles. Also a mud pack, with fresh ooze comprised of decomposed aquatic plants from the Hévíz thermal spring pond in Western Hungary. I also liked oxygen inhalation, which was refreshing, and salt inhalation, and a “galvanic” bath where you lie in water while electricity is passed through your body.
These procedures were invigorating, and I also had a variety of relaxing massages. The pools have varying temperatures from 20 to 40C (68 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit), with strong underwater jets which give you a rush. One of the pools has rocks on its bottom to stimulate your feet. Between treatments, you have a choice of restaurants within the Danubius complex, providing everything from international cuisine to goulash by candlelight with a gypsy violinist at your table.
This intriguing city is large and sprawling and its architecture blends Moorish and Eastern European roots. The river is spanned by iron and concrete bridges linking the two sides. A boat ride on the Danube passed the elaborate Parliament and also circled Margaret Island.
The people of Budapest speak a language that is unlike any in central Europe. Its closest connection is to Finnish. Many of the citizens are blond and blue-eyed, but you also see many who look Slavic and others who have a dark-skinned, black-haired gypsy appearance.
If you start your sight-seeing in Buda, the medieval streets take you past monuments, old buildings and museums. Buda Castle, once home of kings, is now the Hungarian National Gallery, the Szechenyi National Library and the Budapest History Museum. The Kiraly Baths on the Buda side dates from the Ottoman era. Its high-vaulted arches above the dark waters bring to mind the grotto of The Phantom of the Opera. The nearby Rudas Gyogyfurdo bath house was built by Pasha Mustapha in 1566. A grand cupola soars three stories above its pool.
Gellart Hotel, an institution since it was built in 1918 is on the Buda side but a little further downstream. It is an Art Nouveau building and its baths have stained glass ceilings and old Turkish-style columns. But I felt a sense of decay, especially compared to the modern Danubius Thermal.
The Parliament building is a Gothic behemoth, towering above the Danube River.
Crossing over a chain-link bridge, you come into Pest’s modern downtown. Most of the tourist hotels are on this side. So are a plethora of restaurants, including Gundel, which is not to be missed. It has specialized in foie gras for years, and you can order it in a variety of recipes at lunch or at dinner. My favorite was Goose Liver marinated in Tokaji. Gundel is located near the large Heroes Square that is flanked by museums. The Fine Arts Museum is home to works by El Greco, Goya, Rembrandt and Rubens as well as Hungarian art collected by the Esterhazy family.
About two blocks away is Vidampark, an amusement complex dating from 1896 with a wooden side-friction roller coaster that is one of the few remaining in the world that lack wheels underneath to keep the cars from flying off the tracks.
Budapest has a modern subway system but it also preserves the short, original rail that was the European continent’s first subway, built in 1896. It is not far below ground, with very few steps to climb. The platforms are short and the trains are smaller than on the other lines. It runs under Andrassy Avenue, a stylish thoroughfare which was designed in imitation of Parisian boulevards. The Opera House is one of the stops, and Heroes Square is at the end of the avenue.
The annual Jewish Music Festival was taking place during my visit, and two of its events were in the Dohanyi Street Synagogue, one of the world’s largest and most beautiful. Built in the 19th century in Byzantine-Moorish style, it has onion-dome towers and filigree ornamentation. Surprisingly, it was left standing by the Nazis. Why? Because they saw that the synagogue was one of the tallest structures in Budapest and they put a radio tower on top of it.
I attended a concert of klezmer music featuring Hot Postromi, a New York-based band led by Yale Strom, plus Hungarian klezmer musicians. The next night I saw a concert performance of Halevy’s opera about the persecution of Jews, La Juive or A Zsidónö, as they say in Hungarian. Vodika Leo Marian was disappointing as Eleazar. His voice sagged below pitch and he sounded too old. Although Caruso wore a white beard in this role, Eleazar has a young daughter so he surely is meant to be no more than age 50. Ilona Tokady was wonderful as the daughter, with expressivity and an appealing sound. Ottakar Klein dashed off dazzling ornaments with a supple voice.
A final note: Hungary is proud of its musical heritage. Statues and plaques remind us of the Magyar names of composers who, elsewhere, are known by the German derivations of those names — for example, Ferenc Liszt and Imre Kalman, instead of Franz Liszt and Emmerich Kalman.
Read other stories on The Cultural Critic