When I was in front of Danubius Hotel Gellért, I sensed that I was not only facing one of the hundreds of hotels that comes recommended Budapest´s guides but I was looking at a true emblem of the history of the city. The grandeur of the building, its location on the bank of the Danube at the foot of Gellért hill and the traces of visible traces of the past on its façade, left no doubt that it was so.
The Danubius Hotel Gellért has long been a hotelier reference in Europe. Originally it was conceived as hotel- spa and whilst today the hotel and baths belong to different companies, it is difficult to understand one without the other. These baths are considered some of the best in the world. They are nestled on the hot springs that were already being enjoyed during the Ottoman Empire, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and emanating water at a constant temperature between 35ºC – 40ºC (95ºF – 104ºF). It is an ideal place for tourists and citizens of Budapest who choose to spend a carefree day at its hot springs.
Once I entered the hotel lobby, I was fascinated by its massive dome supported by marble columns and the magnificent stained glass window depicting the legend of how the Hungarian tribes came to claim the now modern Hungary, guided from beyond the Ural Mountains for a magical deer. The window is a true spectacle of color, worth careful contemplation.
After a few minutes, Mihály Vásony appeared impeccably dressed with great elegance and poise in his every movement. I had no doubt at all that I had in front of me a master of the “old style” hotel management. With more than fifty-three years of work in the hotel industry, most of them as director of the establishment, gave my visit a true sense of authenticity as some of the stories about the Danubius Hotel Gellért were recounted to me in the first person, by a direct witness. We sat in the cafeteria and I listened attentively as countless anecdotes from the hotel’s history were retold.
He told me how the Head of the Hungarian State for twenty four years, Miklós Horthy (1920- 1944), ran the government of the country from Danubius Hotel Gellért and how after his refusal to deport Jewish citizens to the Nazis (despite having been allies with Germany in the war), Hungary was invaded by Hitler’s troops making the hotel the headquarters of the Nazis and consequently the residence of ruthless General of S.S. Ernst Kaltenbrunner. We talked about how the hotel was bombed and partly destroyed during World War II, how they managed to survive during the long period of communist U.S.S.R., how various Maharajas of India chose the Danubius Hotel Gellért for weddings of endless days, how the royal house of Habsburg held parties in their lounges, how the Shah of Persia greeted his guests, champagne glass in hand, from the balustrade of the central dome of the reception, or how Arthur Miller, Richard Nixon, Yehudi Menuhin and many more renowned personalities enjoyed their stay at the hotel.
After spending a long time chatting amiably, Mihály offered me a glass of Zwack Unicum. I had never heard of it. Mihály quickly realized, so he went straight to the bar and brought a bottle to show me. Then he told me the story of that unknown drink and the beautiful relationship it had with the Danubius Hotel Gellért.
Zwack is a Hungarian liquor company founded in 1840 by József Zwack. They produce different types of spirits and wines but it´s most significant product was always called Unicum (Unique) which is a liqueur made with a secret formula of more than forty different herbs.
In 1790, Dr. Zwack, József’s ancestor, royal physician at the Austro-Hungarian court, gave the liquor to the emperor József II of Habsburg as a remedy for indigestion and after tasting, it uttered the famous sentence “Dr. Zwack, das ist ein unikum” (“Dr. Zwack, this is really unique”). From that story comes the Zwack Unicum name. Thereafter, it became so famous that no Hungarian home was complete without a bottle of Unicum to be drunk, either as an aperitif or as digestive and even as a remedy to cure colds.
In 1883, the son of József, Lajos Zwack, took the reins of the company and in 1926 his two sons, Béla and János Zwack, did the same. After the great crisis of 1929, luxury products consumption halted in Hungary and the United States significantly reduced its imports of liquor which considerably affected the economy of the company. For a time they had to use the factory’s facilities to produce light bulbs and neon lighting to achieve any profit at all.
After World War II, with the establishment of the communist regime of the Soviet Union in Hungary, the factory, house and properties of Zwack´s family were nationalized without any compensation from the new government. János put his son Péter on a train bound for Yugoslavia. Father and son did not know if they would ever see each other again. From Yugoslavia, Péter travelled on foot until he reached Italy. Meanwhile, János had to escape by bribing Russian soldiers to leave the country hidden in one of his barrels and according to legend, carrying in his pocket Unicum‘s secret recipe. Father and son met up again in New York in 1949 and after his father´s death, Péter Zwack lived in exile in the United States and Italy until the fall of the Iron Curtain.
During the Hungarian communist regime, the state owned distillery continued producing Unicum with an approximate recipe containing only some of the forty original herbs. Meanwhile, the Zwack family in exile initiated production of the original Unicum in Italy.
In 1988 Péter Zwack returned to Hungary with his family and in 1992 after collapse of the former Soviet Union began the process of privatization in which he would buy back the company founded by his family, although he could not do the same with the rest of their old properties. Since then, Zwack Unicum Plc. has produced Unicum with all the features of the secret formula and has come to be exported to all corners of the world.
After finishing the telling of this story, Mihály asked me to accompany him. We went up several floors of the hotel, walked its halls full of history and entered into one of the suites. Then he pointed a yellow house through the window and said: — Do you know what house is that? That’s the Zwack Villa. And, do you know the most beautiful of all? Because he had no chance to buy it again, he would often come to this room, take a seat by the window, ask for a glass of Zwack Unicum and spend long hours staring at that house while daydreaming of the place where he spent so many happy years during his childhood—.