From a harbour bridge to one of Europe’s most significant bridges, over the Danube … From Sydney to Budapest, the quickest route is via Dubai, which allows for a bit of shopping or other relaxation en route.
Sofitel Budapest Chain Bridge has had a plane hanging in its main 10-floor open atrium since it opened as the Atrium Hyatt in 1982. In 2006 the hotel was repositioned as Sofitel under GM René Angoujard. Now, in 2019, the plane is the first thing that catches the eye as you enter the hotel (the sensible will have booked the hotel’s Tesla Model S to pick them up from the airport). The plane is said to be a model of the first to fly out of Budapest after the city’s WWII siege, although it looks nothing like the Lisunov Li-2 HA-LIQ that is today displayed in the city’s Aeropark Aircraft Museum. Yes, this is a luxury hotel that may not have history itself, but is a reminder of some of Hungary’s past.
I arrived mid-evening. “Oh, we have been waiting for you,” smiled a cheerful young woman on the front desk. All the reviews I have read mention the friendly service.
Corner suite 620 must be one of the most desirable in the entire 350-room hotel. Even in the dark, I can see I have views across the Danube to Buda, with its castle atop the hill. Slightly to my right is the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, named for its promoter, Count István Széchenyi. Perhaps he was influenced by seeing Marlow Bridge over England’s Thames? He certainly used the same English architect, William Tierney Clark. After the agreed design was constructed in UK by Scottish engineer Adam Clark (no relation), it was shipped in pieces to Budapest, strung together as if Meccano and opened in 1849.
But enough of the past. Today, this hotel has a bar that is, to me, unique. The Ladies Wine Store exclusively stocks labels that are produced by Hungarian women: for example, Krisztina Csetvei, Csetvei Pince, and Márta Wille-Baumkauff, Pendits Birtok. The displayed bottles are well-promoted, as are the winemakers. Csetvei, for instance, is quoted as saying: “I love my life, look at me – this is who I am, a girl in jeans, I never want to be more than that.” From Wille-Baumkauff I read: “I think I am privileged because I do what I love. I know that not many people can tell the same.”
It is often difficult to find differentiators in the hotel world, but this is certainly one. Another unique feature is that René Angoujard, who had ‘made’ this luxury hotel Sofitel, is returning as GM after such a long spell elsewhere. In the interim, others have honed the offering. There is a really good gym next to the indoor pool, and I loved both breakfasts: in the Club Lounge for its views over the Danube, and in the main lobby-set Terrasse restaurant, for its offering. You go upstairs from reception, past a mezzanine library with lots of good books, to one of Europe’s most copious buffets, with every Hungarian delicacy as well as dim sum and the now-ubiquitous omelette chef.
Five minutes’ walk away, at Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace, there may or may not – depending on occupancy – be a buffet in the main-floor Kollázs restaurant. But the à la carte is splendid anyway (do as I did and go for a local speciality, foie gras omelette, making the most of that so-Hungarian specialty). You can also pick up a coffee and Danish from the to-go kiosk at the restaurant’s lobby entrance.
Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest is, as its name implies, a palace. It was designed in 1906 by local architect Zsigmond Quittner to be headquarters of the Gresham Life Assurance Company. Then, I learnt, it went through two world wars and Hungary’s 1956 uprising, and at one time it was briefly the headquarters of the Red Army. Jump forward to the beginning of the present century and it was top lawyer Béla W Fejér, a friend of Isadore Sharp, who led the initiative to turn the six-floor palace (or what remained of it) into one of the most beautiful luxury hotels. Opened in 2004 with 179 rooms and suites, a rooftop gym and an indoor pool, it was bought in 2011 by its present owners, Oman’s State General Reserve Fund.
Richmond International’s concept for the rooms here evokes understated European style. I was in suite 103, one of two Chain Bridge suites, aptly named for the view looking across Széchenyi Garden to the Chain Bridge. I loved the whole thing. Atypically, there was handpainted Herend Hungary floral china to go with the Nespresso machine – an illustration of art meets function. The hotel had actually seemed perfect when it opened, but it is even closer to perfection now.
Originally, it had two restaurants flanking its main entrance. In 2008, however, the ‘crisis’ – the financial crisis which saw the collapse of the national airline, Malév – meant the necessary closing of the haute cuisine Pavas restaurant. Therefore, GM Yves Giacometti and the owners took a bold step: a side-street-facing meeting room was combined with Pavas to produce Kollázs, a massive L-shaped space with a prominent outside entrance on Zrínyis. Come in and face Josper and other grills, and walk through a succession of wood-lined rooms to find a circular bar at the heel of the ‘L’. Local politicians and other A-listers come in through the side door, while hotel guests come directly from the lobby.
And who are those guests? Well, like most top hotels in this immediate area, about 50% are North American, but here the whole complement of guests also includes about 9% from the movie world. There are several studios nearby, of which the largest, Origo Film Group, has nine complete sound-stages. The government gives all the support the studios need for such movies as Atomic Blonde, Blade Runner 2049 (in which director Denis Villeneuve used Budapest’s former Stock Exchange as a Los Angeles casino) and Evita.
Giacometti never names names, but it is known that Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks, Rosamund Pike and Charlize Theron have been working in Budapest in the last few years. It is also common knowledge that some scenes of the 2015 movie Spy, with Jude Law, were actually shot in the hotel’s gorgeous lobby. So come to this luxury hotel, and you never know whom you might meet picking up a coffee to go from the Kollázs kiosk.
Lead image: Sofitel Budapest Chain Bridge