Paris of the East

Hungary’s capital city Budapest is often called the Paris of the East. Eager to discover it for myself, I booked a ticket and got ready to explore this beautiful city so rich in history and culture. My travel savvy step-sister joined for the adventure and we planned our short visit strategically. After a festive evening of Christmas markets and mulled wine, our morning was spent crossing from Pest to Buda. The Széchenyi Chain Bridge is the first permanent bridge to connect both sides of the city via the Danube river.

From the end of Chain Bridge we rode the Buda Hill Funicular, in service since 1870 and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  All the way up to Buda Castle Hill we enjoyed stunning views of the city, with plenty of photo ops.

Views of Budapest are even better seen from 100 year old Fishermen’s Bastion. With a fish market nearby, this bastion was built to commemorate the fishermen who protected this part of the city. Each of the seven tent-like turrets symbolizes one of the seven Hungarian tribes that arrived to the Carpathian Basin in 896.

Nearby Neo-Gothic Matthias Church is considered one of the most beautiful churches in Budapest, as well as the most unique in Europe. Built in 1015 and inspired by orientalism, it’s colorful  interior is breathtaking!

Back on the Pest side of the city, we stopped by the memorial ‘Shoes on the Danube River’ to pay our respects to the 3,500 people, 800 of them Jews who were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen during World War II.

The Hungarian Parliament Building is without a doubt one of the most regal buildings in Budapest, also the third largest Parliament building in the world. We took a tour of the interior as well, worth the visit.

That night we booked a tour of Budapest by night and enjoyed a history lesson as the city lit up before our eyes.

Day two was dedicated to bath houses and spas, beginning with Budapest’s most famous Széchenyi thermal bath. The largest medicinal bath in Europe, its water is supplied by two thermal springs, with temperatures of 74 °C and 77 °C.  What an experience, bathing with tourists and locals alike.

Our next stop was to Gellért, an art noveau thermal bath opened in 1918. Another must do in “the city of spas”. Here we soaked in indoor hot springs and I braved a few dips in the cold pool and indulged in the steam room.

Our last visit was to the Harmony Spa at Aria Hotel located in the city center. Where music is the theme throughout the hotel, we relaxed at the hands of skilled masseuses, the perfect ending to a day of wellness.

I couldn’t very well leave Budapest without a visit to the elegant New York Café. Often considered the “most beautiful coffee house in the world”, this is where writers and editors would meet to drink and dine. In 2006 it was restored to its original splendor, offering some of Budapest’s best cakes. Another top address for homemade cakes and chocolate is Gerbeaud, opened in 1858. The perfect spot to pick up a few sweet souvenirs. As for dining, our favorite gourmet restaurant was 10 year old family run Mák Bistro. Michelin star level!

Thank you Budapest, for the many memories of this Paris of the East! Aside from some of the taxi drivers who try to take you for a ride (not just in the literal sense), best to order a taxi online, it was a trip to remember!

Paris Picks : Spas

With the summer calm long gone, temperatures dropping and the bustle in Paris ever prevalent, it’s important to take time to relax your mind and indulge your body. Both as a visitor and a local, walking around the city all day will leave you inspired, albeit exhausted. I thought I’d share my favorite Parisian addresses (not connected to hotels) for relaxation from head to toe, foot massage included. Take note of these stellar Paris spas!

Free Persephone feels like stepping into Springtime, regardless of the season. This fragrance day spa features luxurious manicures and pedicures using all organic products, including Priti NYC polishes and all natural lavender scrubs. Scented with the owner’s own perfumes and a menu including tea and aromatherapy massages, you’ll leave beautified and relaxed, floating into the neighboring rive gauche.

Free Persephone // 66 boulevard Raspail 75006 // +33 (0)1 42 22 13 04 //

The first salon dedicated to the beauty of the face, body and hair, Carita was established over 50 years ago by two sisters. This ‘Maison de Beauté’ in the heart of Paris’s fashionable Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, is an address well respected by the beauty elite. Following a rehydrating and lifting facial treatment, your skin will feel recharged with vitality. Simply put, you’ll leave the spa glowing!

Carita // 11 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré 75001 // +33 (0)1 44 94 11 11

How better to spend an afternoon than in a steamy hammam followed by a body mask of volcanic clay and an organic argan oil massage? Step into this luxurious Moroccan setting in the rive droite, or their first location in Boulogne, and find your bliss. Les Cent Ciels will leave you counting the stars while nourishing your skin and soothing your mind.

Les Cent Ciels // 7 rue de Nemours 75011 // +33 (0)1 55 28 95 75

Your sense of touch will be heightened with a visit to Le Spa Dans le Noir, in the heart of Paris. What makes this sensory experience so special is the fact that you’re being treated in complete darkness (with an option for light), by a sight-impaired or blind massage therapist. Complete relaxation is the priority and the result, regardless of the massage you choose.

Le Spa Dans Le Noir // 65 rue Montmartre 75002 // +33 (0)1 83 95 46 77

Stepping through the portal of Ban Sabaï, you’re automatically transported to Thailand. Whether you choose a foot, hand, head or full body massage with all natural oils, your senses will accompany you on this journey to the Far East. This is the first Parisian address dedicated to traditional Thai massage, with several locations, some specializing in foot massage.

Ban Sabaï // 9 rue Saint Antoine 75004 // 46 rue de la Pompe 75016 // +33 (0)1 45 00 99 99

You can read more about these and other Paris spas in my latest feature in LUXOS Magazine (available in Paris) and find my top five hotel spas in Bonjour Paris. Happy pampering!

art of the hammam

On my recent trip to Istanbul, my friend and I decided to indulge in the Turkish bath culture, the hammam. In the tradition of physical and spiritual purification, the body is cleansed and purified from toxins, blood circulation increases and the immune system is stimulated. I had tried a few hammams in my day, but this one, the Ayasofya built in 1556, was special.IMG_6259Historically, hammams were social centers where special occasions were often celebrated.

IMG_6238Most hammams had spiritual components, and in many cases, washing was an essential part of worship. Through religious influence, hammams became a part of everyday life.

IMG_6240The sicaklik (also known as the hararet, caldarium or hot room) is a large marble-tiled room with a Göbek tasi (marble slab called a belly or navel stone). Here the soaping takes place.

IMG_6244I lay on the heated surface post scrubbing, and experienced my first bubble massage.

IMG_6254We had the hammam to ourselves, and I could have spent hours dreaming beneath the ancient starry ceiling, intoxicated by the warmth of the marble and the heavenly massage.

IMG_6255Alas, it was time to go as I was abruptly woken from the dream. Next stop, Grand Bazaar.

urban escape

I am a great fan of weekend escapes, a tranquil setting in which to unwind and simply lose track of time. Though not always possible or so easy to get away. Luckily, I discovered such a place in the heart of Paris, what I can accurately describe as an urban escape, L’échappée.

Behind this door exists a hidden universe of wellness, for mind, body and soul.

First stop, the spa. Upon entering the hammam, the cold, wintry world outside ceased to exist. The dipping pool invited me in to it’s tepid waters and there I remained for countless time, the Paris sky high above, my thoughts floating far beyond it. Experiencing the full spa treatment, I was next summoned to an adjoining room for le gommage, the ritual of cleansing and exfoliating the skin. I was left feeling lighter and rehydrated. Perfect time to escape into the steam room. The next step is my favorite of all, le massage. I chose the Californian technique for utmost relaxation. In a word, bliss. Where am I again? I left this urban paradise hours later in a state of zen and floated home.

Above the spa sits the restaurant. Both industrial chic and intimate, feeling very much comme à la maison. I’ve had the occasion of lunching here several times but it is the weekend brunch that most satisfies my palate. A decadent and plentiful spread of sweet and savory. The best Paris brunch I have discovered to date, and as a New York brunch aficionado that says a lot!

I am already looking forward to my next visit to the spa, the restaurant, or perhaps both, should I need a proper escape. Anyone care to join me?