Budapest is sometimes compared to Paris. While very pleasant indeed – especially if you go in the summer and lounge by the vast 19th century public baths in the scorching sun – the city doesn't really compete with Paris in terms of beauty, architecture or cultural riches. With its history of hardship and decimation, how could it?
However, the Gresham Palace hotel – the Four Seasons’ outpost in the city – can compete with whatever Paris may care to offer. It is an exquisite behemoth, occupying an old English insurance company building, right on the Danube river by the green chain bridge, facing hilly majestic Buda. It is the epitome of art deco exuberance, bursting with quirky gilding, sumptuous ironwork, stained glass modern art – very Agatha Christie.
Outside, the hotel is imposing, with Gaudi-esque turrets and gables and archways – if you want to impress a client or friend, inviting them to meet you at the Gresham is a surefire tactic. Inside is where the fun really begins, though: the lobby floor is a vast mosaic made from tiny reflective tiles, lit by two gigantic chandeliers. The foyer sweeps into a cosy, cigar-infused bar, and there is no shortage of elegant spots in which to rest on plump cushions and take tea and cake.
The deco style continues in the finest taste in every detail (essential if it is to work): from the dials atop the lifts to the style of the room numbers, to clocks, to various pieces of statuary in the hallways.
Strangely, the rooms – well, ours anyway – were the least impressive part of the package. Our double river-facing boudoir was quite small and lacked flair, sticking to a rather plain interpretation of luxury. It seemed a bit of a let-down in a hotel in which even the lifts are a source of delight.
No matter: our lack of space – and terrace – ensured we didn’t linger inside. Which is where the concierge came into play. The Four Seasons group tends to have industry-beating service, and the thoroughness, delicacy and efficiency of the staff here made the weekend flow smoothly. We were sent to the best available concert on our first evening – admittedly a slightly odd organ recital at nearby St Stephen’s Basilica – and aided in the rest of our plans, from baths to museums to a river cruise.
Dinner at the hotel on the second night showcased Hungarian cuisine in posh, Gallic guise – slivers of dumpling, carpaccio of local beast, fragrant goulash, glasses of fine red wine from the countryside. It was an impressive meal, but I preferred the rough and ready variety we had on other occasions, from the pork chop the size of my head at an upmarket local eaterie to the hot dogs and beer at the great market hall (where poppyseed cakes dazzled me).
Finally, the spa. Hungary has become known for its cosmetics – Omorovicza is stocked in Chelsea’s poshest spas – and the country has always known how to do a brutal massage (public spas, or baths, are a major institution). I was left sore after my body massage, but days later, when the ache faded, I was grateful. €445 per night for a Danube Deluxe Room in January. A variety of packages are also on offer until March. www.fourseasons.com