Spa-studded and stately

Budapest is dazzling, but there's more to Hungary than just its capital


Just a block or so from the Astoria Hotel, you can see the city has real character. Along the main avenues, groups of people exchange animated gestures and conversation. Down the side-streets, old men sit on doorsteps, their creased, lugubrious faces veiled by cigarette-smoke. Presiding over all this sits the grand, historic synagogue, one of the most magnificent temples of Jewish worship anywhere on earth.
Outside, the colourful throng seems to be a constant presence. The surrounding area is dotted with delicatessens, shops selling Judaic merchandise and a bright, prosperous-looking glatt kosher restaurant.

Budapest's mighty Dohany Street Synagogue, a dazzling, dominating edifice

So, is this New York? Paris? No, it's Budapest, the stately capital of Hungary. More specifically, this is the old Jewish district that fans out behind the mighty Dohany Street Synagogue, a dazzling, dominating edifice whose high walls have echoed to generations of sonorous choirs. Late in the Second World War, with the shadow of defeat already beginning to fall upon them, the Nazis turned this district into a ghetto. The largely assimilated Hungarian Jews were not going to be allowed to escape deportation and death. Today, in the synagogue grounds, the magnificent sculpture, Tree of Life commemorates the half-million Jews who died.

In those dark days, the elegant Astoria served as the Gestapo headquarters. Now, it offers calm, comfortable service to a wide range of international visitors. And Budapest, with its seven bridges across the Danube, is a welcoming city. The charm of its coffee houses is undimmed and, in the summer, there are even weekly klezmer concerts in the Carmel Cellar.

But there is more to Hungary than Budapest. Despite being landlocked, the water is never far away. It is most conspicuously abundant in Lake Balaton, one of Europe's largest stretches of water, sometimes referred to as "the Hungarian sea" (it has a couple of beaches). Sixty miles from the capital, this is where many Hungarians take their holidays and, with its agreeable climate, its swimming, sailing and vast, varied spas, some have summer homes.

For the sailing season, which runs from March to September, the Ramada Lake Balaton offers a reliably luxurious base. It has its own speedboat and you can book helicopter trips around the lake. There is also local horse-riding - and if you are accompanying a rider but wary of sitting on an animal yourself, there are lessons or horse-drawn carriage rides at the Csikos "dude ranch" at Pécsely, an unremittingly horsey establishment where even the bar stools are saddles.

In nearby Tihanyi there is an ancient abbey (founded a decade before the Battle of Hastings) and, by contrast, Club Tihanyi, a modern complex on the site of Hungary's first hotel. The town of Balatonfüred, on the north-western side of the lake, has a serenity which may well emanate from its renowned heart hospital, one of whose illustrious former patients, the Indian Nobel-Prize-winning writer Rabindranath Tagore, has a promenade along Lake Balaton's shore named after him.

The lake - shaped, as a New York Times correspondent once declared, "like a 50-mile long paprika" - covers an area large enough to offer a slew of enthralling sights, both natural and man-made, from the impressive needles of volcanic rock at Hegyestü to the Baroque Festetics Palace.

The latter has a British-tinged grandeur, partly due to the fact that a 19th-century count married Lady Mary Hamilton and brought her to live here. The original, southern wing was built in 1745, but a vast library, now housing more than 80,000 books, was added in 1801 and Lady Hamilton's spouse extended it considerably between 1883 and 1887. The opulent palace has many intriguing items on display - among them a megillah scroll in a glass case.

The Royal Balaton Golf and Yacht Club at Balatonudvari is a work in progress. At present, a nine-hole course is open in a spectacularly green, 64-hectare setting. They aim to have holes 10 to 18 ready next month. In the next three years, a 150-room hotel will follow, along with 70 apartments.

There is a sybaritic side to a Balaton holiday. Hungarian cuisine is legendarily lavish, and with some menus you will need a calculator to add up the calories. There are very good local wines and it is possible to arrange a tasting at some of the region's vineyards. I sipped some fine examples at the famous Szeremley wine house at Badacsony.

But a great many of Lake Balaton's visitors go there for repairs, and many of the hotels announce themselves as "wellness" centres.

People come here - as they have been coming here for centuries - to take the waters. And, while there is plenty of pampering on the hotel schedules, the "treatments" incline to the curative rather then the cosmetic.

This aspect of Balaton is vividly apparent at Heviz, a lake within the lake. Hot springs here feed a huge, naturally thermal lake and the sanatorium-like facilities are populated by scores of white-gowned convalescents who strip off and float in rubber rings amid the minerals. Guests suffering from rheumatism and similar conditions frequently feel renewed.

If proof were needed of the diversity of ingredients available to tourists at Lake Balaton, a four-day event advertised for the week after our departure would provide it - this was the annual Harley Davidson Festival, promising, inter alia, "displays by Hungarian stunt-riding champion Zoltán Angyel and aerobatics world champion Péter Bessenyei".

Budapest, Balaton and bikers - what a great holiday goulash Hungary offers its visitors.

    Last updated: 4:22pm, March 11 2009