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Buda and Pest, shabby and chic

The parliament building, seen across a frozen River Danube.
The parliament building, seen across a frozen River Danube. / Encarni Novillo
  • In Budapest you are getting two cities in one and both have retained their own style and personality

Over recent years Budapest has gained a reputation as one of Europe's most exciting and cultural cities. It is fully deserving of this unofficial accolade, and not just because of its gargantuan parliament building (the third largest in the world after the Pentagon and Bucharest's), its great castle or its fascinating history. The Hungarian capital combines modernity with tradition and the chic with the shabby in a manner all of its own.

You are in fact getting two cities for the price of one if you choose Budapest as a weekend getaway. Up until their unification in 1873, Buda and Pest were separate cities sitting on the west and east sides of the river Danube, respectively. Though now joined in several places by myth-laden bridges, these two districts have retained their own styles and atmospheres. Pest, where most of the nightlife, restaurants and hotels are located, is (mercifully) flat, whereas Buda's castle sits on top of a steep hill, from which the entire city can be surveyed. The centre of Pest easily rivals Paris, London or Madrid for its range of designer bars and high-class restaurants: its network of beautiful old streets feel cosmopolitan and expensively sophisticated. Buda, on the other hand, feels more local, more low-key and traditional - although there are plenty of hotels and restaurants here too.

The Pest side of the Zsabadsag (or 'Liberty') bridge is a good place to stay. Around the junctions of Kalvin Ter and Kecskemeti streets, where quaint old townhouses sit alongside giant glass-fronted banks, you are just a ten-minute walk from the inner city and the parliament in a busy local area. On and around Raday street, the queer paradoxes that define this part of town are everywhere, with sleek drinking spots sitting alongside scruffy apartment buildings and gloomy Soviet-Era office blocks. Raday is also lined with eateries offering everyting from traditional Hungarian goulash to Mexican fajitas.

Eating fajitas when in Budapest, though, would be a wasted opportunity. Goulash, the most famous dish of Hungarian cuisine is available in most restaurants in the city centre. It comes in a miniature pot hanging from a metal frame, with a ladel for serving, and accompanied by giant hunks of bread. If that doesn't sound particularly sophisticated, suffice to say it is divine. A rich, paprika-infused stew of meat (usually beef) and vegetables, its smoky flavours and meltingly-tender chunks of meat are incredibly filling. You might want to wash it down with a hit of palinka, a traditional Hungarian fruit brandy. Palinka is potent stuff and perhaps not for everyone - but it comes in loads of different flavours and is supposed to have medicinal effects.

To eat goulash or drink palinka in Budapest, incidentally, you will need to stock up on forints, because although Hungary has been a member of the EU since 2004, it decided (wisely, you might say) to not to join the single currency.

From this part of town you are about a ten-minute walk - or two-minute rickety-old-tram-ride - away from Budapest's legendary parliament building. Seven years after Buda and Pest were joined in 1873, the Hungarian parliament decided to build an administrative structure to celebrate the city's unification. During its construction, which lasted from 1885 to 1904, about half a million precious stones and 40 kilograms of gold were used. Yet the effect is one of understated might rather a flashy display of wealth and power. Sadly, its architect - local boy Imre Steindl - went blind and died two years before its completion. Today, the Hungarian government struggles to fill this vast space and conducts business in a only a small proportion of the parliament's 691 rooms.

To visit Buda castle, the city's other great historic attraction, you'll need to cross the Danube, which often freezes during winter when tempartures can hit minus 20 degrees - even more of a shock if you're arriving from Malaga. The so-called "Chain" (i.e. suspension) bridge is the most famous of the city's several historic crossing points, and was designed in 1839 by English architect William Tierney Clark. Construction finished in 1849 and was overseen by the Scottish engineer Adam Clark who, according to an amusing apocryphal story, killed himself when a fundamental flaw in the bridge's design was pointed out: namely, that the stone lions at each end lacked tongues. You can decide for yourself whether Clark's mythical suicide was justified as you cross the dark, faintly menacing waters of the Danube on your way to Buda castle.

Nowhere else in Budapest represents the city's troubled history better than this sprawling castle, which dominates the city's western skyline, as parliament dominates the eastern. The original Royal Palace (the central building in the complex now known as Buda Castle) was built by Hungarian Kings between 1247 and 1265, but it was destroyed by an invading Christian army in the siege of 1686. Its Baroque replacement (itself rebuilt in the mid-nineteenth century) suffered the same fate in the Second World War. Yet the mid-twentieth reconstruction that sits atop the hill today is a stunning achievement, providing the perfect spot from which to contemplate the violent upheavals that have shaped Budapest's many-sided personality.