by Patricia Lightfoot
Budapest looks a little down on its luck after Vienna, but again features some wonderful Art Nouveau buildings, in various states of repair. One fine example is the Gellert Hotel, featuring a massive Art Nouveau stained-glass window on the staircase, which appears to show the hunting of a stag in a sunlit, luxuriant forest. In the foyer, anachronistic room keys with large, round fobs hang behind the hotel reception desk, which should have been tended to by M. Gustave, if that “most liberally perfumed man” was not overseeing the staff and guests at the Gresham Palace or our “own” beautiful Hotel Palazzo Zichy.
Adjoining the Gellert Hotel were the Gellert baths, built in 1918, which were wonderful and bewildering at first, because it wasn’t entirely clear where everything was and we had to walk through a very clinical-looking “treatment” area to access some of the indoor pools. The main interior pool was described as Neoclassical in the guidebook and, with its marble pillars and stone lions shooting jets of water, could well have been the property of one of the more hedonistic emperors of Rome. It emerged, or at least someone mimed to us, that we needed to wear bathing caps, which once purchased for two of us, meant that we couldn’t afford to rent a towel. We noticed that some resourceful people wore their hotel shower caps. The upside of the bathing-cap rule, which we later realized did not apply in any of the other pools, was that we often swam alone in imperial splendour in the beautiful interior pool. We spent many happy hours at the baths, migrating through the various tiled indoor and outdoor thermal sitting pools, a steam room, a sauna plus cold-water barrel, and the outdoor swimming pool with the first wave machine in Europe.
The building that houses the museum was opened in 1896 by the Emperor Franz Josef. It has a very Moorish feel inside, with elaborately carved white-stone arches and pillars supporting a glass roof. I expected to see one of the water features, such as an indoor ornamental pool, that abound in Grenada or Seville, but none were to be seen. Much of the exterior of the building is currently in a state of disrepair. That and its bright green roof tiles give it the appearance of a magnificent moulting parrot.
The beauty of the building was happily matched by the quality of the exhibits, ranging from Ottoman treasures to “Bikeology,” a celebration and investigation of everyday urban cycling. The latter included the Hovding airbag system for cyclists, which is worn in a collar that inflates on impact to resemble the powdered wigs we had seen in Vienna. The artifacts in the permanent collection included a delightful display of Art Nouveau/Secessionist furniture that seemed designed to give each piece a unique character. Prominent among these was a grandfather clock, which looked ready to dance at a moment’s notice, as if part of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
The signs on the glass cases not only provided information about the objects but also gave one a sense of the difficult conditions under which the staff had lived and worked for much of the twentieth century. It was mentioned that determined friends of the museum had continued to add to the collection through their networks of contacts when travel to international exhibitions was impossible, or when political interference changed the mission of the museum. This made me think of the heroic efforts of employees of the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg to preserve the collection in wartime, which sometimes involved risking their lives, or the efforts made by employees of the Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw at their own initiative to track down objects that had been looted by the Nazi occupiers and abandoned in caches across the country during their flight.
A very positive piece of Russian culture in post-Soviet Budapest was the Matrjoska Bisztro, where we ate an excellent dinner, featuring pelmenyi, which are little Russian dumplings. The design of the restaurant had a very modern aesthetic, clearly inspired by northern birch forests.
Photo credit: Phil Lightfoot