Saturday 7 November 2009

The Amazing Turk

The Amazing Turk- Farkas Kempelen’s incredible chess-playing automaton

In 1770, The Turk made its first appearance in front of the Viennese court.
On a signal from the Empress Maria Theresa, Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen slowly wheeled his creation forward.
The one-meter-high wooden cabinet with a large chessboard screwed to its top ran on four brass casters that not only allowed it to move freely, but also raised it slightly off the floor so that the audience could see that there was nothing hiding underneath.
Behind the box sat a figure, dressed in Oriental clothing and a bulky turban.
Kempelen opened a door on the left of the cabinet to reveal an elaborate mechanism of cogs, wheels and levers.
Then, opening a corresponding door at the back, he held up a candle whose light flickered through complicated innards.
After closing the doors, Kempelen wound up the contraption by turning a large key in the cabinet.
Suddenly the figure came to life, reaching out with its left arm to move the chess pieces around the board.
Every dozen moves or so, Kempelen wound up the device again, but never actually touched the figure itself.
The Turk, so called due to its attire, managed to defeat a number of challengers.
The Turk’s sensational performance that day astonished and delighted the Empress and soon became the talk of Vienna.
The presentation changed Kempelen’s life.
The 35-year-old civil servant was born Farkas Kempelen in January 1734 in Bratislava, then Pozsony, capital of the Hungarian part of the dual monarchy.
He was not actually a nobleman, although the title baron has often been attributed to him.
Kempelen was formally introduced to the Viennese court by his father, Engelbert, a retired customs officer.
The young man was very handsome, spoke several languages and made an immediate impression. He was given the important task of translating the Hungarian civil code from Latin into German, the official language throughout the newly united kingdom of Austria-Hungary.
Kempelen’s translation was hailed as a masterpiece and he was soon appointed counsellor to the imperial court.
On the official document confirming his appointment, Maria Theresa wrote, “The Hungarian court will benefit greatly from young Kempelen.”
In 1757, Kempelen married Franciska, a lady-in-waiting at the court.
Tragically, she died suddenly a few weeks later and Kempelen retreated, shocked and grief-stricken, to his hobby of scientific experimentation.
Now a wealthy man, he could afford expensive tools, materials and scientific equipment for his workshop.
In 1766 Kempelen was appointed director of the imperial salt mines in Transylvania, by which time he had also remarried.
He felt confident enough to put his scientific knowledge into practice and soon devised a system of pumps to drain the mines when they became flooded with water.
Following the success of this project, he was asked to design the waterworks for the castle in Pozsony.
In the autumn of 1769, Kempelen was invited by Maria Theresa to attend a scientific conjuring show presented to the court by a visiting Frenchman named Pelletier.
Maria Theresa was particularly interested in science and had an unusually enlightened attitude toward it for her time.
She challenged Kempelen to explain Pelletier’s tricks to her.
He was so unimpressed by what he saw that he declared he could do better. He returned to the court six months later, this time as a presenter, with his Turkish wizard.
Kempelen eventually took his invention on tour, travelling around the world and sparking vigorous debate about the extent to which machines could emulate or replicate human faculties.
In Paris, The Turk played and beat Benjamin Franklin, the American statesman and scientist, who was a chess fanatic.
The Turk also played Francois-Andre Danican Philidor, the best chess-player in Europe and, although The Turk lost, the match was considered a triumph.

To modern eyes, in an era when it takes a supercomputer such as IBM’s Deep Blue to beat the world grandmaster Garry Kasparov, it seems obvious that Kempelen’s chess-playing machine had to have been a hoax - not a true automaton at all but a contraption acting under the surreptitious control of a human operator.
Using 18th century clockwork and mechanical technology it now seems impossible to have built a genuine chess-playing machine, but at the time automata of extraordinary ingenuity were being constructed and exhibited across Europe, including Jacques de Vaucanson’s mechanical duck, Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz’s harpsichord player and John Joseph Merlin’s dancing lady.
Kempelen next took The Turk to London, at that time a centre for chess and also renowned for public displays of technical marvels.
The Turk went on show in Savile Row and was a great success.
A year later, Kempelen returned to Vienna, packed The Turk away into wooden crates and turned his attention to other inventions, such as an ambitious attempt to build a machine capable of imitating the human voice.
This wonder could be seen in the halls of the Millennial Exhibition of Hungarian achievement. He also devised a writing machine for the blind.
When Kempelen died in Vienna in March 1804, The Turk was sold to John Nepomuk Maelzel, an engineer and musician who wanted to make money from displaying the automaton to a curious public.
The Turk’s most famous encounter during this period came in 1809, when it was shown to Napoleon Bonaparte.
Napoleon tried to trick the automaton by deliberately cheating, but The Turk was not fooled and upset the board rather than beat him.
Napoleon’s valet Louis-Constant Wairy wrote: “The Emperor complimented it highly.”
In London in 1819 the computing pioneer Charles Babbage saw The Turk play.
The following year, he challenged it to a game.
He wrote, “Played with the automaton. Automaton won in about an hour.”
Maelzel also took the Turk to the United States where the author Edgar Allan Poe was so intrigued by the ‘Automaton Chess Player’ that he published a lengthy thesis containing his own theories on how it worked.
“Perhaps no exhibition of the kind has ever elicited so general attention as the chess player of Maelzel. Wherever seen it has been an object of intense curiosity, to all persons who think.
Yet the question of its modus operandi is still undetermined,” wrote Poe, noting also that The Turk played with his left hand, a matter Poe considered highly significant.
The secret of The Turk was finally revealed in January 1857 in an account written by Silas Mitchell, whose father Dr John Mitchell had bought the automaton when Maelzel died in 1838, to satisfy his own curiosity.
He discovered that a person was concealed inside the cabinet.
The clockwork machinery visible on its left-hand side extended only a third of the way along, so that the covert player could hide behind it, then slide along to the other end for the remainder of the demonstration.
The human chess wizard would play by the light of a small candle, whose smoke was dispersed up a pipe to an aperture in the top of The Turk’s turban. The operator watched a chessboard in front of him and moved a metal pointer which was connected to The Turk’s arm using a system of levers to move the corresponding piece on the external board. An ingenious system of magnets helped the operator follow the opponent’s moves.
Kempelen probably used a series of operators in this elaborate trick, but one thing is certain, all were strong players, taking on some of Europe’s finest chess masters and losing to only the very best.
Interest waned in The Turk once its secret was discovered and Mitchell sold the automaton to the Chinese Museum in Philadelphia.
Some years later there was a fire at the museum and The Turk was totally destroyed. The reconstruction of The Turk at a German museum shows that, more than 230 years later, the ingenuity of the chess-playing ‘automaton’ still has the power to charm and intrigue.

There is a non-working model of the Amazing Turk in the Roland Café in Bratislava – Kempelen’s home town.

Update: Farkas Kempelen’s Amazing Turk is reconstructed at the Heinz Nixdorf Museum at Paderborn, Germany
In 1770, the Hungarian engineer Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen built a chess-playing machine for the amusement of Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa.
The mechanical device, designed to resemble a Turkish man, became the most famous chess-automaton in history.
In April 2004, the Heinz Nixdorf Museum in Paderborn produced an incredible working replica of the Turk, 200 years after Kempelen’s death.
Hundreds of chess fans and curious visitors gathered there on the presentation day to relive a scene that duplicated what the audiences had witnessed in Maria Theresa’s day.
Professor Ernst Strouhal gave an introductory lecture on The Turk, and the reconstruction was then wheeled into the room.
An actor took on the role of Wolfgang von Kempelen to demonstrate the operation of the machine.
First he opened the two compartments to show that they were empty.
Then he opened the left door to reveal a mass of cog-wheels, shafts and levers. The maestro closed the doors and wound up the machine.
The Amazing Turk started to play chess. The figure standing behind the table was obviously artificial and could not conceal a human; however it executed chess moves with mechanical precision.
The re-creators of the Amazing Turk then revealed its secret to the audience…

Thursday 17 September 2009

Healing the Nation - the gyógyszertár and the patika

If the stormy weather is giving you a headache - and who, in Budapest, hasn't felt the brain-fogging effects of a 'hideg front' (cold front)? - it is always worth popping into the local chemist's for some aspirin and, while there, have a look around.
In Budapest many pharmacies date back to seventeenth century and often have original interiors intact.
“There are 16 pharmacies in Budapest which are considered historical monuments and 36 throughout the country, including a beautiful chemist’s in Sopron and establishments in Gyôr, Kôszeg and Debrecen,” said Szilvia Solymári, manager of the Városi Gyógyszertár (chemist's) at the corner of Váci utca and Kigyó utca.
The history of a society can often be illustrated by what medicines it used, what potions and pills were swallowed in the search for longevity and good health.
The Városi Gyógyszertár dates back to 1686, making it one of the oldest in Pest.
Unfortunately much of its beautiful interior was destroyed during World War II, but restoration has been made faithfully according to old photographs and the dark brown cabinets and drawers, ancient chairs and the black metal chandelier look like the furnishings of a medieval banqueting hall.
There are records of the first Pest -Buda pharmacist dating from the beginning of the 14th century.
In 1303, a Buda doctor and pharmacist named Péter is mentioned as he was granted exemption from paying a tenth of the wage tax. At this time doctors prepared medicines, and so were considered pharmacists in a way themselves. The two professions only started to separate in the 14th century, but the separation of the two professions had still not completed by the end of the 17th century.
“Patika” is the old name, coming from the word “apothecary” and many of the older generation still refer to the patika. However, many now use the more Hungarian word “gyógyszertár”.
'Gyógyszertár' is a wonderful, tongue-twirling word, describing a store place (tár) for medicine (gyógyszer), which itself is one of those loveable, prosaic Hungarian words describing factually what something is: 'health' (gyógy) 'stuff' (szer).
Similarly - for those interested in linguistics, Hungarians don't fall back on the Latin-based vocabulary to create words but make up their own, logical, descriptive versions. A 'bicycle' in Hungarian is 'kerékpar' - a pair (par) of wheels (kerék) and a camera is a 'fényképezőgép' (a 'light picture making machine')! Fantasztikus!
The pharmaceutical business is booming in Hungary and customers come in with a wad of prescriptions and leave with all manner of pills, potions, salves and unguents in brown paper bags, green glass bottles and phials.
An old lady in the Városi Gyógyszertár illustrated the prominence of the chemist's in daily life when she said if we want to find her again we needn't ask her address, “You can find me in this patika, I come here every day,” she said.
The medieval patikas besides medicine sold herbs, perfumes, paints, candles, paper and silks, and functioned as a kind of general store.
The pharmacists were some of the city’s most accomplished citizens and many belonged to the city council. A painting by C17th Dutch artist David Hyckaert in the pharmacy museum in Tarnok utca shows a very well-to-do married couple who were alchemists.
The husband makes gold and a custodian says, "It was considered a very good profession and highly thought-of members of society were chemists."
They did not have university diplomas, this set them apart from doctors, but they could heal those poorer members of society who could not pay an official doctor.
At the end of the 17th century, the patikas in operation were the Arany Sas in Buda, the Fekete Medve Gyógyszertár in Buda and the Szentháromság Gyógyszertár in Pest These three dealt with Pest-Buda's needs for nearly one hundred years.
In 1760, in the newly-formed Medical department of the Nagyszombat university there was a pharmacist training facility, known as the Generale Normativum in Re. Sanitaria. (1770)
The oldest chemists in Pest was the Váci utca 34 Szentháromság Gyógyszertár. It was founded in 1686 by Herold Henrik Siegfried and for a long time it worked alone to serve the medicinal needs of Pest citizens.
In 1701, Osterwald Zakariás received permission to found a new patika, however in 1705 he bought the Szentháromság Gyógyszertár and amalgamated it with his new patika. The patika at the beginning used the Városi Gyógyszertár name, and it was known as this until 1928 when it became the Városi Gyógyszertár a Szentháromsághoz.
At the end of the 18th century, in accordance with the growth in population, more pharmacies came into being.
The Kigyó (snake) Chemist's is at Kossuth Lajos utca 2 is one of the oldest working chemist's in the city.
It originally existed under the name of Csillag when Károly Stehling opened the premises on the now-demolished Kigyó tér 1 in 1784. It moved to its present site in 1899.
The original furnishings date from 1870 and are neo-Rococo. After the move, the interior was decorated further in the Secessionist style.
A grey marble tablet near the entrance to the Kigyó displays the dates, and opposite on the left hand side, another shows a statue of a snake coiling around a cross.
The snake entwined around a tall goblet is now the recognized symbol for pharmacies in Hungary.
Unusually, here in Hungary the snake is seen as a symbol of healing. “Snake venom was often used as a cure and the snake is considered a doer of good things,” explained Solymári.
In the underpass that joins the two stretches of Váci utca you can see a giant black and white photo of the original Kigyó Gyógyszertár, A large painting in the shop window shows a huge boa constrictor coiled around a tree.
To see this in colour, visit the Kiscelli Museum where a whole room is devoted to the Arany Oroszlán Patika. The Golden Lion Pharmacy was lifted in its entirety from the centre of Budapest (it opened in 1794 by Kálvin tér), with drawers and jars of herbs and poisons all labelled in ceramic plates. Mortars and pestles sit by the silver cash register and the frightening painting dominates the entrance.
One of the oldest pharmacies was found on Kristóf tér. The Nagy Kristóf Gyógyszertár was the first officially registered fiókgyógyszertár or dispensary in Pest.
It was founded in 1791 by Ignác Schwachhofer, the owner of the Szentlélek gyógyszertár on Király utca, in a building at Váci utca 6/Kristóf tér 2, which was named after Kristóf Nagy.
In 1833, the owner at the time Imre János Prégardt was the first to write the words ‘gyógyszertár’ instead of ‘patika’, and the first to give the medicines on offer names in Hungarian as well.
The Nagy Kristóf Gyógyszertár in 1909 moved to Kristóf tér 7 then in 1914 it moved to the one time Váci utca 1-3 but you cannot go there for your cough mixture now, as it was demolished in 1909.
Since 1985, the square has been decorated with a fountain and statue of the Fish-selling Girl by László Dunaiszky. The ‘Haláruslány kútja’(the well of the fish-selling girl) had previously stood at the Inner City fish market at the Pest end of the Erzsébet Bridge.
The Pesti Halász company put the fountain up in 1862 but because of bridge building it was moved to Népliget for a while.
Budapest City Council made Kristóf tér into a pedestrian square and put the fountain back in 1985, restored by sculptor Sándor Lovas and builder László Wild
In 1963, the then Ethnographic Ministry made 16 Budapest pharmacies protected buildings. All state pharmacies were privatized after the change of political system and Solymári said that the classic chemists all keep a corner of the shop devoted to the old style of pharmacy with an arrangement of old bottles, pestles and mortars, to distinguish the from the many ‘drogeries’ that have sprung up. “There are now so many chains of stores that strict new laws will be introduced this year to keep things under control”, said Solymári.
She said the classic style of pharmacy must always have two trained chemists present.
Solymári said that other chemist's worth visiting are one at Dísz tér, on Pannónia utca, a very old pharmacy next to the Opera House that escaped fire damage and has original furnishings and one with black furniture on the corner of Nefelejcs utca and Garay tér.
Solymári said that the wall painting by Kocsár Bretschneider in the Octogon pharmacy is of Hygieia and Asclepios
Standing on the corner of Szófia utca, the Oktogon Gyógyszertár was originally founded in 1786, in the Tabán district in Buda and moved to its present site in 1924.
The neo Baroque furnishings were made at this time.
A plaque on wall states that Gustav Mahler lived here when he was director of the Hungarian State Opera from 1888 to 1891.
There are some interesting cures. At Teréz krt 41, there is a pharmacy with an interesting sign that reads “The fresh snake venom antidote is now in” - Budapest is now gripped by a mania for collecting dangerous and deadly pets. Besides baby turtles and the odd hamster, pet shops stock tarantulas, lizards and deadly snakes.
Newspaper back pages are filled with stories about the “cobra that went berserk in a tiny flat”, and doctors say it is only a matter of time before a fatality occurs.
The snake serum only keeps for a certain period of time and is very expensive to buy.
Hospitals do not always have it in stock, ready for an emergency.
The Arany Sas Pharmacy Museum at Tarnok utca 18, in the Castle District also displays some strange cures.
A mummified head was powdered up and the potion was drunk to relieve fevers and sore throats...!
The museum was originally a genuine pharmacy called Arany Egyszarvú (Golden Unicorn), established in 1688 by Ferenc Bôsinger. It was the first pharmacy in Buda Castle after the expulsion of the Turks, and moved here in the mid-18th century.
The building was formerly a merchant's house and dates from the early 15th century. Inside, an alchemist's laboratory is recreated and strange creatures hang from the ceiling, a dried, stuffed crocodile and a large lizard.
The tiny museum is crammed full of bottles and jars, C18th handwritten notebooks and some pictorial records of Kozma and Damján, Arab chemists who died martyrs and became the patron saints of pharmacists.
The Semmelweis Museum of Medical History at Apród utca 1-3, behind the Tabán church is the resting place of physician Ignác Semmelweiss (1818), known as the 'savior of mothers' because of his discovery of the causes of puerperal fever - sepsis during childbirth.
The museum exhibits the furnishings of another old Pest pharmacy, the Szentlélek Patika, founded in 1786 and also on display are skulls, strange remedies, mummies and a shrunken head.

Useful chemist's
Csillag Patika. VII. Rákóczi út 39
All-night chemist's
I. Széna tér 1
II. Frankel Leó út 22
IX. Üllôi út 121 (Nagyvárad metro stop)
XII. Alkotás utca 3 - gives medicine out through a hole in the wall at weekends
VI. Dob utca 81 - original interior with very beautiful lamps
XIII. Pozsony út 2 - with the snake coiling around a beaker symbol.
Kossuth Lajos 10 - Azur Drogerie- is not a pharmacy but it has a long, narrow interior, lined with cabinet and drawers made of brown wood that resembles a pharmacy and is worth a visit

Friday 14 August 2009

The Centrál Coffee House

I wrote this article on the wonderful coffee house more than ten years ago, however the historical details are still interesting, I think.

Renovation work is now beginning on the one-time Centrál Coffee House.
Work started on the reconstruction on June 29 and will continue for a year and a half, with completion date pegged in at July 15 1999.
Dr. Somody Imre, director Pharmavit Rt. bought the building and is financing the 1,100 million forint project through a private company, which he established specifically for the coffee house renovation.
When it opens its door again in October 1999, the building, which stands at the southern left hand corner of Ferenciek tere will have office buildings on the upper floors, while the ground floor will recreate the former glory of the famous coffee house.
Together with the renovation work on the Ybl Palota opposite, this will make Ferenciek tere, the square of the Fransiscans, an elegant place of learning once again.
The university library stands on one corner, the Ybl Palota and the Károlyi Mihály literary museum further down the road, when the Centrál Kávéház is ready, the only corner with not quite such a high-brow reputation will be the northeast nook, where the Bonnie and Clyde bar offers roulette and darts.
The Central opened in 1887, in the freshly-constructed house belonging to Lajos Ullmann Erényi.
It was the heir to the Philosophus Kávéház which had stood a few blocks away a few decades earlier.
“The lamps and the whole interior decoration, like the marble tables, sofas, billiard tables, the whole games room and the coffee kitchen, moreover even the cups and the pots are so beautiful that it is impossible to imagine anything more beautiful,” wrote a critic at the time.
The Centrál soon became the centre of intellectual life, although it was almost exclusively male scholars and writers who made the Centrál their local.
It was the place where József Kiss edited the Hét (‘Week’) weekly literary paper, for which many big names worked before the Nyugat (‘West’) paper was formed. All the 400 coffee houses of the capital had subscriptions to Hét.
Kiss also taught young writers the secrets of language, verse and writing.
Famous writers worked here in the Centrál around the so-called “big writers’ table” - among them Kálmán Mikszáth, Sándor Bródy, Gyula Krúdy, Andor Kozma, Zsigmond Justh and Zoltán Ambrus.
Even Endre Ady, who had different home-from-home cafe, the Három Holló (Three Ravens) (now the Goethe Institute) was known to frequent the Centrál.
In 1907, younger writers in the Hét group formed Nyugat and soon moved their headquarters to the New York coffee house, on the corner of Erzsébet körút and Dohány utca, near what is now called Blaha Lujza tér.
Then, in the twenties the Nyugat paper moved back from the New York coffee house headquarters to its birthplace in the Centrál coffee house.
From 1905, the Centrál was run by former bank offers Gyôzô Mészáros, who was also the head of the Budapest coffee house association and he, as a professional protected the high standard of the artistic institution for many decades.
The atmosphere was conducive to writing, as wafts of coffee brewing aromas occasionally reached the writers, who sat hunched over scraps of white paper, waiting for inspiration.
Cigar smoke spiralled up towards the chandeliers, mixing with the low mutterings of authors thinking out loud.
No business deals or loud noises disturbed the creative atmosphere.
Mészáros put the men of letters on a special gallery so that the ordinary citizens would also be able to witness the shining examples of intellectual life, literature, science and fine arts.
Loud words, disruption of order, or snobbishness were not tolerated in the Centrál, which was open day and night.
The coffee house was philanthropic in its actions as well as its principles.
Those in need were helped with credit, small loans besides the moderately priced coffee, peaceful surroundings, and the Hungarian and international press.
The First War World disrupted the clientele of the Centrál as many young writers were conscripted. Zuboly (Elemér Bántai) became the first casualty amongst the writing regulars in 1915, two years later the poet Géza Gyóni also lost his life. “The only remaining piece of Pest was the Centrál,” wrote Mihály Babits.
It was somewhat shaken by the fighting, some of the tables’ marble tops were split, the mirrors had grown hazy, the porcelain buttons on the armchair coverings also showed the marks of time.
On the wall was a memorial tablet to Zuboly, with a bronze relief, under which was engraved some lines of verse by his friend Ady.
During the twenties, the Nyugat once again had its special table in the Centrál. Babits’s Sons of Death novel gave a role to this much-loved place where, “through the nonsensical cafe house smoke, the aroma of delights of days gone by fluttered”. Coughing slightly, the ‘sad poet’ Árpád Tóth, scuttled in, his lungs ruined by the damp air of his rented room, the printing room and the smoke from his own and surrounding cigars.
Zsigmond Móricz would make his slow dignified procedure over to the Nyugat table, sit down, drink a coffee, light a cigar and hide himself away in his thoughts and a thick aromatic cloud.
The Nyugat editor took his place without a sound, while Frigyes Karinthy and Dezsô Kosztolányi blustered in more noisily.
Aurél Kárpáti, Ernô Szép and Ferenc Molnár and the whole editorial team would spend hours discussing topics.
And so life continued in this bastion of literary life, “In the Centrál, where along with many famous or now forgotten men I also rocked my cradle”. wrote János Kodolányi.
Other scholars frequented the Centrál with their books, librarians, museum curators, and university professors.
Artists also sipped coffee in the Centrál, although they did not have a particular separate circle of their own here. József Rippl-Rónai signed one of his paintings with the words, “I drew this in the Centrál Coffee House”.
Many men of letters worked here day in day out, and went to the Centrál as if it were their office.
After the Second World War, the Újhold (‘New Moon”) editorial was formed and operated in the Centrál.
Ágnes Nagy Nemes, Pilinszky, Balazs Lengyel, Mándy, Sándor Rákos and others worked here on Tuesday afternoons until late at night, preparing the paper and editing.
In 1950 the Paprika Centre National Company took over the premises.
This company, which built the little yellow underground, made the premises its culture centre and canteen.
Then, from 1967, it became the Eötvös club - the popular ELTE students' club, where groups like Omega entertained the college crowd and Zorán and the Metro band began their careers.
The old stippling on the walls remained virtually intact.
However, the chandeliers made in Vienna were smashed and pawned at the MÉH - recycling depot.
Then the premises became home for the Wizards amusement arcade with an unspectacular and less literary tenancy until recently when Dr. Imre Somody bought the building.
Now, it is hoped, a thriving literary life will return to the heart of Pest. “That special place has now disappeared, the place that was neither club, nor pub, neither an association nor a restaurant, neither a casino nor a presszó, but something more democratic than all of these - a coffee house,” wrote Dóra Pataky, the interior designer for the new Centrál.
The Centrál will again be a place where, “fascinating discussions will whirl on all topics by a company of people who will talk and argue late into the night on politics, art and ideologies while women decorate the scene with their beauty”.

Centrál Kávéház és étterem
1053 Budapest
Károlyi Mihály utca 9

Table reservations: (+36 1) 266 2110

Wednesday 13 May 2009


With its cubic cobble stones and plane trees standing guard along the way, ancient Hungarian craftsman’s workshops and fading neon shop signs, Bartók Béla út, in the eleventh district of Buda, was one of the few streets near the centre of town that looked typically Hungarian.
The cobbles have gone now, but Bartók, like Mester utca in the ninth district has that unique Magyar street ambience.
Others with their flashy palaces of denim and burger bars could be confused with streets running through other great cities of Europe.
The cobblestones are called macskakővek in Hungarian, meaning 'cat stones'.
However, this all changed in 2003.
In November, work began to remove the cobbles over which rattled the second largest stream of downtown-headed traffic. Every day 600,000 people jiggled along the painful route. The builders moved in and replaced the ancient electricity, gas, water and sewage systems.
After an agreement on the fourth metro line, the station diaphragm walls were sunk at Gellért tér, Móricz Zsigmond körtér, Kosztolányi Dezsô tér and Tétény út. Tram tracks and sidewalks were replaced and the green areas were given new park benches, flower pots and bollards.
Although the street looks a bit smarter, and the trams run more smoothly, the atmosphere has changed little.
Bartók Béla út, the street named after Hungary’s greatest composer doesn¹t actually contain much in the way of musical heritage.

At Móricz Zsigmond körtér there is a piano repair workshop and at the Budai Parkszínpad beside the Bottomless Lake (Feneketlen tó) at Kosztolányi Dezsô tér there are concerts by widely varying popular artists from Roma rap Fekete Vonat to guitar troubadour Péter Gerendás.
A statue of Bartók (1881-1945) by József Somogyi stands beside the lake, under a frame of bells.
Bartók Béla út begins at Gellért tér, graced by the beautiful Art Nouveau Gellért spa hotel and curves around the base of Gellért Hill to Móricz Zsigmond körtér. The fading Szabó photographer’s studio, second hand fur coat store and faded Cipôbolt share the wide, cracked pavements with more modern mobile phone outlets and optical showrooms.
The tiny, cramped book antikvarium (antique shop) front is almost hidden at 10am every day by the lines of pensioners who rob their own book-shelves to sell another selection of first editions for groceries.
On the right-hand side, some of the imposing buildings are worth a closer look, for the amazing stucco facades in pastel blues and greens and the hidden courtyards behind.
At No. 23 there is a fabulously grand yellow courtyard with Classical pillars, while No. 33 is a walk-in shopping area with a grotto and steps leading up to a leafy glade.
At the Bertalan Lajos utca tram stop, many homeless gather and sip wine take-outs from the countless borozós (wine bars, more proletarian than posh) on the street.
They sit under the statue to Géza Gardonyi who wrote Egri Csillagok (Under a Crescent Moon) and the building behind (No. 36-38) resembles a giant cinema Wurlitzer organ rising up in orange stone out of the street.
The doorway is guarded by two winged sphinxes with Cleopatra hairstyles.
A little further along at No. 40 is an interesting building designed in 1899 by Ödön Lechner, the father of Hungarian Art Nouveau, to accommodate his brother Gyula, a writer and painter.
The unusual decoration on the beige building resembles the stitching on the side of a blanket.

When Bartók died in New York in 1945, he left a condition in his will that no place in Budapest could be named after him, so long as there were still places like Hitler tér (now Kodály körönd) and Mussolini tér (now Oktogon).
Thus, immediately after the Second World War, the city decided to rename Horthy Miklós út after him along with eight other Bartók Béla út and utca dotted about Budapest.
Móricz Zsigmond körtér (circus) named, like the following Kosztolányi Dezsô tér, after one of Hungary’s great writers, is one of the busiest, most atmospheric squares in Buda, rivalling Mozskva tér for life and colour, noise, birds, flowers, trams, homeless, drunks and dog faeces.
A plaque to Móricz Zsigmond (1879-1942) reads “A Hungarian realist. The first to depict the realities of life of the Hungarian peasants”.
A neon sign high on the rooftops advertises the services of the Manfréd Weiss factory on Csepel Island and looks down on the simpler stylistic designs of a Mcburger bar’s golden arches.
The circus is a rickety wood circle around which trams rattle, the 18 and 47 on their way to Budafok, the 19 and 49 rumble all the way along Bartók Béla út to Kelenföld.
In the middle, a statue to Prince Imre by Zsigmond Kisfaludy Strobl portrays King Saint Stephen’s son who died in a hunting accident aged 24. Interestingly, this statue managed to remain as a resting place for tired pigeons throughout the Communist period.
The circus was designed in the late 19th century to the grand American plan, with wide streets and huge squares, continuing in style at Kosztolányi Dezsô tér which is quite a terrifying road junction where broad radial roads meet.
After Kosztolányi Dezsô tér, the road runs in an almost entirely straight line, cobbled all the way to Etele tér, in Kelenföld, the end of the line also for the famous No. 7 bus.
At dusk, the Bottomless Lake is one of the most atmospheric parts of Buda. The Szent Imre church is illuminated at night and shadows are thrown across the reeds and water of the former quarry pit, which is actually only a few metres deep.
At No. 62 a faded sign still bears witness to the one-time glories of the Bartók cinema.
This was part of an apartment block designed by Gábor Preisich and Mihály Vadász in 1934.
Preisich was a member of the Ciam group and was very influential in introducing modernism to Hungary.
This building is one of his best creations.

The street becomes more and more rural as it continues to Kelenföld, the ‘fields of Kelen’.
Outside No. 98 a pile of steaming horse manure on the pavement helps the village atmosphere.
Nearby is a horse tackle shop, a ‘Daisy’ gun shop, a knife shop and a garden equipment shop.
At No. 125 the Nagyon Kis Vendéglô (Very Small Bistro) is a family-run bistro offering ‘cheap home cooking’ and just along the way is the Melódiás Haladás Eszpresszó (Melodic Progress).
These types of establishments have died out in the centre of town but can still be found along the far reaches of Bartók Béla út, along with a wonderful workshop at No. 112 that will do everything from picture framing, to mirror cutting, zip repairs, bag lining and patches, as announced on a stylised brown sign.
The Karinthy Theatre at No. 123-130 has one of those ancient cinema signs, where you can click the letters into the lines to show what’s playing this week. A little further along the Szent Gellért church is a modern building, but look around the side to catch one of sculpture Imre Varga’s stunning works.
Jesus cradles Gellért in big silver wings with embossed metal decoration and carries him up to heaven.
In Brussels, a statue of Béla Bartók by Imre Varga stands in a forgotten square between the Grand’Place and the Centraal Station.
A group of Japanese tourists take photos and ask their guide who the statue depicts. “Bartók, a German composer I think,” says the young guide.
At No. 133 a huge tram depot stands with a yawning gate.
A group of static No. 19 trams gaze out from their shed.
As we approach Etele tér, we are now in the heart of Kelenföld.
It is somehow reminiscent of Szeged with wide tree-lined cobblestone streets and a sleepy Sunday afternoon ambiance.
Kelenföld was the centre of horseracing in the 16th century, introduced by the young King Lajos II in 1525 and the area was still fields and vineyards up until only 100 years ago.
The area received the name Kelenföld in 1847.
Prior to that it was called Tabán. The area became populated in the middle of the 18th century when grape workers moved in.
The origins of the name are argued about.
Some attribute it to ‘Krenfeld’ which is ‘Horseradish field’ in German and all the agricultural workers there at the time would bear this out.
Other say that there was a tribe leader called Kelen at the time of the occupation of the Carpathian Basin in 896 and they made their camps here and named it after him.

Wednesday 28 January 2009

The Gellért hotel and pool

When friends visit me from abroad, one of the places definitely on the list for an unmissable, real Budapest experience is the Gellért thermal bath complex.
It’s more pricey than most, but no other bath gives quite the same feeling of history, culture, unusual fun and sybaritic soaking all in one.
It’s also a good excuse to treat myself.
Despite living only one tram stop away, I restrict myself to the occasional Sunday afternoon wallow in the thermals and the sauna or, in summer, a refreshing splash in the wave pool followed by a vigorous foot massage.
The Gellért is the oldest Hungarian spa hotel.
The springs that supply the baths with hot healing waters have been flowing for at least 2,000 years.
Saint Iván, a healing hermit whose talents were known far and wide, once lived beside the Sáros fürdô (mud bath). He was one of the first naturopaths whose sermons and "miracles" attracted many sick people to the area.
Due to the great heat of the water gushing from the spring it was known as Purgatory, but later the name was changed to the more virtuous Bath of the Virgins.
The earliest reference to the existence of healing waters at this spot dates from the 13th century during the reign of King András II and in the Middle Ages a hospital stood on the site.
The Ottomans built baths here and they were mentioned at the time by Evliya Celebi, a well-known Turkish travel writer.
During the Turkish occupation (1541-1686) a grand bathing establishment stood on the site where the Gellért Hotel now stands.
After the Turks left a bath house was built with courtyards and plane trees for shade, but the mud baths were filled in to make way for the construction of Szabadság híd (Freedom Bridge).
In 1912 work began on a brand new spa hotel to be named Gellért after the hill behind it, down which the Venetian bishop-monk Szent Gellért was pushed in a barrel lined with nails by pagans in 1046.
The present building, with its glass dome, terraces, open-air pool and bathhouses, took six years to complete.
In the 1920s, the Gellért became the center of upmarket social life. In 1927, the open-air pool with artificial waves was constructed and, seven years later, the indoor thermal pools were added.
In 1927 Károly Gundel took over the restaurant.
This was a time of high society banquets for which Gundel created ever more delicious culinary inventions to delight visiting dignitaries from all over Europe.
All these elements helped to promote Budapest as an international spa city in the 1930s. Members of Europe’s royal families, artists, foreign politicians and millionaires all stayed within the Gellért’s elegant walls.
In January 1945 the hotel was bombed so badly that only its walls were left standing.
The curly Secessionist balconies and the oriental rounded turrets and towers of the exterior were restored, but the present interior furnishings are not faithful to the original plans.
However, both the hotel and the public swimming pools to this day retain the atmosphere of a more glamorous era.
Enjoy a coffee and cake in the hotel café after your wallowing and admire the stained glass windows halfway up the grand staircase.
The indoor and outdoor baths are supplied with water from a source deep within Gellért Hill. Its chalky, slightly acidic, hydrogen-carbonate, radioactive water contains many minerals.
The water surges from its source at a temperature of 43°C.
When you enter the grand Secessionist hall, lined with pink marble pillars, floral motifs on the walls and bronze curlicue decorations, you are faced with a range of facilities to choose from.
Move along and hand over your ticket on the right and follow the stairs down to a tiled subterranean passage way that leads past the outdoor pool.
Circular portholes offer a view of the swimmers’ legs and aging photos on the wall opposite show aspects of the hotel. Then up more stairs to the changing rooms.
There are also changing rooms with cabins on the level of the indoor pool, but upstairs is drier and warmer for changing.
Keep a hold of your ticket as the cloakroom attendant sometimes asks to see it.
She will secure your locker and give you an aluminum tag with a number on it that must be guarded safely.
On leaving, it is also a good idea to tip her, and also the masseuse, as you get a wonderful smile and special service next time. Inside, the 33 meter pool is the height of luxury.
Lined with marble columns and trailing plants, it resembles something from the heady days of the Roman Empire.
Its retractable glass roof is often opened in summer to let shafts of sunlight in on the hedonistic scene.
At one end is a thermal pool with hot jets of healing water spouting from statues.
Doors lead off at either side to the single sex Turkish thermal baths.
In the ladies’ section there are three thermal plunge pools of slightly differing temperatures, where naked women rise up out of the steam, revealing flesh in all shapes and sizes.
There is also a steam bath amongst the intricate designs of the blue and brown tiled walls.
The sauna comprises three largish rooms, each getting hotter and hotter until the third approaches something akin to Dante’s Inferno.
The women’s section also features changing rooms and showers.
The men’s section is arranged as a mirror image of the women’s on the right hand side, looking down from the thermal pool end.
These areas can be visited separately from the main pool for a slightly cheaper ticket.
Outside, there is a small thermal pool which is crowded full all summer long with visitors.
The elegant outdoor pool has chilly water, but temperatures rise on the hour when the fun wave pool cranks up into action for about 10 minutes.
Waves crash onto the very shallow far end and bodies fly in all different directions.
In summer a terrace buffet provides snacks, soft drinks and the ever popular bottles of beer from which some guests choose to slurp while in the thermal pool.
The Gellért also features a major treatment center and has salt baths, mud baths and inhalation rooms, all of which utilize the rich mineral waters gushing from Gellért Hill.

Gellért Medicinal Baths
IIII. Budapest
Kelenhegyi út 2-4
Tel: 466-6166

Pool hours:
October 1 - April 30
Mon-Fri 6am-7pm, Sat-Sun 6am-5pm

Thermal pool hours:
October 1 - April 30
Mon-Fri 6am-7pm, Sat-Sun 6am-2pm