HUNGARY FOR ADVENTURE... Budapest Is Cosmopolitan, Steeped in History, and Packs Dozens of Sights into Its Walled Central District - So It's Perfect for a Weekend Break
Byline: SUE CORRIGAN
Think of Paris, divide everything by four - the palaces, boulevards, shops, cafes and, most of all, the prices - and you have a picture of Budapest. The capital of Hungary, set to join the European Union this May, is often described as 'the Paris of the East', but everything in this city is much smaller, friendlier and less costly than in frequently bad-tempered, always overpriced Paris.
Which makes Budapest absolutely perfect for a spring break away. Apart from its unpronounceable language and confusing currency conversion rate (around 380 forints to the pound) Budapest is, above all else, user-friendly.
With a population of around two million, it's relatively small compared with many other European capitals, which instantly gives it a pleasingly intimate feel, and newcomers can get around surprisingly easily.
Even better, the Buda side of the city, on the west bank of the greeny-brown River Danube, contains a walled Castle Hill district which is an intimate gem of meandering cobbled streets, antique shops and pastel-coloured medieval buildings. The vampire thriller Underworld, starring Kate Beckinsale and Bill Nighy, is just the latest in a long line of films to be shot there.
With almost all its tourist attractions concentrated in a central area close to the fast-flowing Danube, Budapest is also a city of satisfying contrasts.
Even if you're only there for a couple of days, you feel as though you've taken in a huge variety of different cultural and architectural experiences.
The Buda side of the city is the place for lovers of history, reflecting 1,900 years of Roman, Magyar, Turkish and finally Austrian conquest.
There's little trace, though, of the Nazis, who took over and virtually destroyed Buda's vast Royal Palace in the final months of World War II - it's since been lovingly reconstructed - nor much of the Russian-backed Communist regime which ran Hungary for 45 years after the war ended.
Pest, on the flat, low-lying east bank of the Danube, is the Hungarian capital's newer, more commercially bustling half. Largely built around the end of the 19th century, it's an Art Nouveau paradise, as well as a shopper's and cafe-lover's dream come true.
In the opening lines of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula, an English visitor arriving in Budapest experiences a sense of dread and foreboding as he 'leaves the West and enters the East'. Yet for all the traces of its eastern European heritage, as well as its increasing westernisation, Hungary is above all else a central European country, with Budapest its proud, intensely cultured, vibrant heart.
Here is a city that feels the way many western European cities must have felt half a century ago - quieter, more dignified and affordable, and still relatively untrampled by today's tourist throngs, particularly in spring and autumn. *
THINGS TO DO IN BUDAPEST
* Visit one of the city's thermal baths. Built above more than 100 naturally hot mineral springs, Budapest is proud of its thermal baths. …