The best way to enjoy Budapest is to take things slow ... and go for a soak

The Hungary Parliament Building is beautiful, especially at night. — Photos: FLORENCE TEH

For those planning a vacation to Europe next month, beyond the Malaysian favourite city of London, they should consider Budapest in Hungary.

April is the best time to visit this city as the weather will be very pleasant by then.

It’s easy and safe to stroll around the city, especially along the beautiful river Danube that the city straddles.

With a population of just about two million people, it’s neither crowded nor is the city choking with traffic.

The typical Asian tourists, including many Malaysians, feel that they need to do the touristy thing when they visit a foreign country.

They need to take countless pictures posing for their social media, visit as many tourist spots as possible and go shopping to ensure that their money has been well-spent on the trip.

The Westerners prefer to just relax, read a book by the pool and sip martinis. They certainly know how to relax better than Asians, let’s be honest. Ultimately though, each to his own.

Many hotels now want to be recognised as resorts, with wellness facilities and serene surroundings.

The writer enjoying a soak in the Gellert Baths and Hotel thermal spa in Budapest. The writer enjoying a soak in the Gellert Baths and Hotel thermal spa in Budapest.

Budapest probably has the most thermal baths and spas in Europe.

Like Bath in Britain, Budapest, too, was colonised by the Romans, who left this legacy of public baths.

There’s plenty to choose from in Budapest, but I settled for the 1918-built Gellert Baths and Hotel for its privacy and well-preserved art nouveau interior, which includes colourful mosaics, marble columns and statues.

The Szechenyi Baths is certainly more famous and makes for better Instagram content, but you’ll likely need to jostle for space with locals and tourists.

It’s an iconic spot and the most famous spa, so it will be tempting.

But as a history buff, I picked Gellert because I read somewhere that the bath offers medicinal water treatments using the same deep underground springs sourced by the Knights of St John in the 12th century.

It was a Christian order whose primary objective was to look after the wounded and ailing crusaders, according to reports.

Gellert is also located by the Danube and merely walking distance from the boat I boarded for a river cruise. The building of Gellert itself is one of the many beautiful attractions along the river.

The Danube is Europe’s second longest river and runs through 10 countries, flowing from the Black Forest of Germany to the Black Sea in Romania.

My river cruise on the SS Maria Theresa began in Germany and travelled through Austria, Slovenia and ended in Hungary.

Gellert is on a 235m high hill overlooking the city and nothing beats walking up the slope and eventually immersing in the warm water of the thermal spa.

Along the river, the most famous site is certainly the Gresham Palace (home of the Four Seasons Hotel) and the 19th century Hungarian Parliament building.

But no trip to Budapest is complete without a pilgrimage to the world’s most beautiful café, which requires a three-week advance booking.

It’s ironically called the New York Café, as the building used to house the headquarters of the New York Life Insurance Company, but it was also the home of influential newspapers which were edited upstairs.

Many famous Hungarian literary figures were drawn to the place, and they included hungry and struggling writers.

The grandiose eclectic four-storey building is the work of architect Alajos Hauszmann, who was commissioned to plan the Italian Renaissance styling.

Following World War II, it was left to languish and even served as a sporting goods store at one point. Hungaria was its new name when it reopened in 1954, but only in 2006 was the café restored to its original glory and became part of a luxury 107-room five-star hotel.

The café is simply stunning and spectacular beyond words. I feel truly blessed and privileged to have been able to make my way to this place.

It is easy to navigate around the city of Budapest.It is easy to navigate around the city of Budapest.

I closed my eyes and let my imagination run wild, as writers do, and pictured what it would be like at the end of the 19th century at this café, with fellow journalists, poets, writers and thinkers, with all the chatter and sounds of the time.

I spent a lot of time in Budapest just sitting outside the many cafes, watching the world go by.

I didn’t think it was a waste of time because it gave me space to truly reflect on my life.

When you’re 62 years old, you come to terms with many things in life and adopt a different set of priorities because time goes by quickly.

I began planning my retirement after watching the dancing northern lights in rural Utsjoki, Finland, in 2017, and then made the final decision at the Ristorante Bar in Bellagio, Italy, the following year.

Indeed, there’s more to life than board meetings.

Since I’m not rich and want to travel frequently, I fly mostly on “cattle class” (economy class) and join tours which require the standard wake-up call of 6am, especially countries known for hassling and dishonest touts and scammers.

I’m too old to be a budget backpacker, so I need to stretch my weak ringgit.

But my mentor and friend, Malaysia’s most famous traveller and photographer, Yusof Hashim, has convinced me that money isn’t yours until you spend it, live simply, see the world, and leave nothing behind!

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