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Hungarian hotbed With its eclectic collection of churches, cafes, music and medicinal baths, Budapest beckons tourists

"Hey!" an almost-naked man cheerily called to me.

"Um, hey, back at you," I couldn't help but giggle as I answered, waving with one hand, my camera in the other.

"You take my picture," he commanded in halting, Hungarian-accented English before striking a Schwarzenegger-like Mr. Universe pose. Click. Click, click, click. Then, with one last slightly embarrassed glance, I rushed away, both of us laughing and waving to one another.

The jokester was waist-deep in one of Budapest's medicinal baths. And, yes, he most certainly was wearing a bathing suit as he enjoyed the hot, swirling water.

The Turks occupied Hungary in the 16th and 17th centuries, and with them they brought the now famous medicinal baths. Relics of the past, the baths are good for what ails you through hydrotherapy, aromatherapy and physiotherapy. Swimming pools are a rarity in Budapest, so the locals and tourists alike come to the beloved baths as a substitute.

In post-communist Hungary, somehow it seems remarkable that it was only just over two decades ago in 1989 that the Iron Curtain, in a sense the ultimate of metaphors, came tumbling down.

That signaled the beginning of hope for Eastern Europe, and in Hungary, where the first cracks in the curtain began with the removal of its fearsome border fences, cities like Budapest began their rise from the ashes of the Cold War.

With the end of communism came the beginning of tourism, and Budapest, nicknamed the "Paris of the East" for its eclectic collection of churches, outdoor cafes and music, began to open wide its arms to the world.

And like Paris, which is ribboned by the River Seine, part of Budapest's scenic glory comes from the romance of the River Danube that lazily flows through the city.

Budapest, with its population of about 2 million, actually is two cities. Buda, surrounded by and lifted onto a natural pedestal by the Buda Hills, is etched with venerable outlines of the Royal Palace and Buda Castle and gothiclike cobbled streets. Pest, on the eastern side of the Blue Danube, lies on flatter land and is the lively center of activity with restaurants, bars, cafes and boutiques.

"In the case of Budapest," says Mihaly Hardy, a local whom I befriended, "you have to dig in and find all the different levels."

In the years since the Iron Curtain fell, those who live in Budapest have surrendered to the carpe diem lifestyle: They live for the day and love life in this post-communist city resplendent with Roman fortifications, those steamy Turkish baths and, as Hardy suggests, layers of culture. As for those baths, Pul Kis of the Danubius Grand Hotel Margitsziget explains that Hungary is in a volcanic valley, which means it's underscored by geothermic heat. Water from the springs can be very hot, so it must be mixed with cooler water.

Kis explains, "Everywhere in Hungary, if you stick a stick in the ground, water comes up. We use the water for treatments, wellness and fitness. Come to us for 14 days, and you go home 14 years younger."

And when you get hungry in Hungary, try goulash, an iconic dish as well-known as the baths. The cuisine is influenced by all of Europe because of its closeness to other countries, and goulash, a spicy, hearty meat-and-vegetable soup, is a staple at every restaurant.

"Goulash can be made of any kind of meat: beef, chicken, lamb, it doesn't matter," says Chef Andras Olgyai. "And we put enormous amounts of onion into everything."

One place to try goulash is Gundel, the city's most famous restaurant for fine dining. It opened in 1894 and is named for Chef Karoly Gundel, who took it over in 1910. With an extensive wine list and a Sunday brunch equal to none in the city, Gundel does goulash right.

Your tummy full, try a night on the town. Budapest is known as the City of Ruin Pubs, from "romkocsma," a word that translates to "ruin pub," and is a mecca of sorts for nightlife. Even with the pubs' crumbling facades, peeling paint, ramshackle bare brick, and sometimes even bullet holes from a war here and there, these pubs are great places to drink and get to know locals. Two to definitely try: Szimpla Kert, the first ruin pub in the city, and Otkert, opposite Danube Palace.

Also find time to squeeze in a lunch or dinner cruise along the Danube. Our group took a night cruise on the Legenda (www.legenda.hu), and the city glimmered and glistened under golden light as the cruiser passed myriad palaces, bridges and statues.

Known for its architectural lavishness of Heroes Square, Andrassy Avenue, St. Stephen's Basilica, the Parliament, Fisherman's Bastion, the Opera House, the entire Castle District and Dohany Street Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe, Budapest is a big, walkable city.

One of my very favorite stops is Central Market. I love busy, brimming-with-color open markets, and this one fits my criteria perfectly. First built in 1897 and restored in 1994, the always buzzing market is strung with fresh produce, peppers, meats and cheeses. There are restaurants, gift shops and clothing boutiques. This place is sensory overload in an extremely good way, and it's an excellent destination during the Christmas Market season.

Wine has flourished in the region for hundreds, possibly a couple of thousand years. From bold reds that pair well with goulash to fruity, delicate whites, Hungarian wine is all about the aroma and taste.

Try your own wine tasting with music. Whether it's the soothing strains of the Danube Symphony Orchestra, the world-renowned folk-and-rock Sziget Festival in August -- "It's sort of the Woodstock of Hungary," says Hardy -- the beat of a local band at a ruin pub, or a traditional folklore play (think whirling skirts, vests and puffy-sleeved shirts), music is the heart and soul of Budapest.

As you listen to and explore Budapest, give yourself a break along the way by having a sumptuous pastry at Muvesz Cafe on Andrassy Avenue or joking with a half-naked man at a Turkish bath. Either way, it's a real treat.

If you go:

Getting there: Budapest's Ferihegy Airport, which just underwent a complete renovation and reopened in March, is bigger than London's Heathrow at 3,700 acres.

Now thoroughly modern with SkyCourt shops, cafes, bars, floor-to-ceiling windows, it is one of the leading airports of the post-Cold War era. We flew nonstop on Delta (www.Delta.com) from JFK, at the time the only airline with nonstop flights from the U.S. directly to Hungary (nonstop service is June-October), and stayed at the also thoroughly modern Budapest Marriott (www.Marriott.com).

For more information: Visit www.BudapestAdventure.com, www.BudapestInfo.hu, www.bud.hu/english.

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