BULLET holes in the buildings tell you that the hand of history has long had Budapest in its grip. Craters you can stick your fingers into betray the city's place at the sharp end of the collapse of the Hapsburg and Soviet empires, not to mention the rise of the Third Reich.
Today, though, peace reigns and it's a cosmopolitan party destination enjoying a rebirth being toasted in the hot tubs of spa hotels the length and breadth of the city.
Stunning and scruffy, historic yet modern, it's a city where you won't be short of something to fill your glass as I discovered when I visited this year's International Wine Festival when the magnificent Buda Castle Palace was the backdrop to an astonishing display of the science of viniculture, featuring no less than 250 wineries from 13 countries, exhibiting their wares in purpose-built cabins. In total, there were between 4,000 and 5,000 wines available to taste. No one was keeping an exact count – it's that kind of festival.
Our small party was not in any way intimidated by this sheer mass of wine, not to mention the excellent jazz and folk bands that were playing. Among our number were several dedicated wine experts and writers, and then there was the rest of us, gluggologists. Those who knew what they were doing tended to make use of the spittoons but the rule for the rest of us was that we would eject the bad stuff and imbibe the good. Suffice to say, there was not a lot of spitting.
Elsewhere, the main draw in Budapest is simply civilisation. It must be one of the most laid-back yet intellectually satisfying cities on the planet. Of course, Budapest is really two cities, Buda and Pest, but their citizens share the same unique metropolis.
When visiting Budapest, allow time to get to know the city. Stay at art'otel, the city's first boutique offering, a blend of urban and baroque, go no-frills yet with stunning views at Citadella Hotel or treat yourself at the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus, close to the Danube in the heart of town and centred in the part of Pest – pronounced Peshd – that is dotted with museums and churches.
Boasting five-star service, the hotel is the haunt of many international stars. On my first night, Snoop Dogg sauntered through the lobby and the presidential suites have been occupied by the likes of Michael Jackson and Brad Pitt. As they will set you back about 1,745 a night, it's the sort of reservation only their like can make. But the vast majority of rooms are affordable, and the food impeccable – especially the fish buffet each Friday night. There's also a classy bar that stays open until 3am. The spa on the second floor has a pool, sauna and steam rooms. Certainly, I thought I'd encountered heaven on earth during an aromatherapy massage session.
But to capture the real essence of Budapest, you have to visit one of the public spas served by the hot mineral waters bubbling underneath the city. It is a quite extraordinary and invigorating experience on a Sunday morning, with the air temperature barely above freezing, to wallow in a lagoon of salts and minerals surrounded by hundreds of other people, of all shapes and sizes and ages, enjoying the water's reviving properties.
Apart from spas and museums, Budapest has some devastatingly beautiful churches, of which the finest is St Stephen's Basilica, built in 1851 and completed in 1905. Considering that this country was lorded over by the Soviet-style communists for decades, it is truly remarkable that St Stephen's and so many other churches have survived, and indeed many of them, such as the Matthias Church in Buda, are now being restored to their former glory.
The city is split by the greyish Danube – only blue on the sunniest days – and spanned by the famous Chain Bridge designed by William Clark and built by Scottish engineer Adam Clark. The Hungarian parliament building stands on the shores of the river, looking like a red-topped version of Westminster.
Hungarian food is not all about goulash. In Budapest, the Krptia restaurant – owned by Dr Akos Niklai, chairman of Hungary's tourist board – offers a wonderfully eclectic dining experience. Aside from the excellent food, the strolling musicians are unbelievable, playing everything from classical music to jazz.
You should also visit the Caf Gerbeau – bliss in a pastry – and the Arcade Bistro, where 20 different Hungarian wines can be bought by the glass. Should you get homesick, there are Scottish ales and fare at Patrick McMenamin's Kaledonia Bar.
In both Buda and Pest, you will find statues aplenty, but head for Szobor Park, where the heroes of the Communist era wound up, for more recent examples. The locals seem to take an almost perverse pride in the bullet holes and bomb scars that pockmark many buildings in the city. German, Russian, Romanian, Hungarian and allied weapons all gave the city these distinctive marks, but all has long been forgiven, if not forgotten.
The Hungarian people are very proud of the fact that their civilisation has survived many occupations and wars with neighbouring countries. They seem apologetic when talking about what happened to the country's Jews during the war – they were all but wiped out – but there are fewer more haunting monuments than the city's Holocaust Memorial Centre.
Outside Budapest, the open-air museum in the wine festival's other centre, Szentendre, plays host mainly to Hungary's wines and spirits. The museum is quite unique in that it is trying to preserve elements of the culture of rural Hungary from bygone days, with entire buildings from the last couple of centuries transplanted from all over the country – a bit like Beamish, near Durham, only for a lost agricultural age.
Bookings are already being taken for next year's festival, when all the wares on display should, of course, be enjoyed in moderation. Unlike Budapest, which should be embraced with gusto.
Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) flies direct from Prestwick to Budapest (no flights until December 21) from around 25 for a single.
Luxurious rooms at good-value prices in the heart of Budapest can be had at the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus (www.kempinski.com). Rates start at around 76 a night, with a 'best rate' guarantee when booking via the website
Budapest International Wine Festival (www.winefestival.hu) takes place in September. Tasting tickets cost from 50p.
For more information about the capital, contact the Hungarian tourist board (www.gotohungary.co.uk).
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Wednesday 19 June 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 16 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 12 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east