Flying to Budapest from Gatwick only takes two hours and 10 minutes. That’s less time than it takes to cross London (on a good day). After this short flight I was transported to a mystical and magical land that has only been in charge of its own destiny for twenty years.
The bus, metro and then tram took me to within a couple of streets of BO33, my hotel for the next three days. The cost? The equivalent of £2, Hungry is a member of the European Union but not in the Euro yet so has its own currency, the Forint. This is a country on the up, but it started low so has a way to go. It’s to our advantage as visitors, it’s very cheap to buy drinks and food here. And getting around couldn’t be easier, I used a 72 hour Budapest Card that works on the train, tram and buses.
It is much like Vienna in appearance, Art Nouveau claiming the biggest architectural influence in the city centre. A fiercely fought battleground during the Second World War it suffered considerable damage but has since been rebuilt to exacting standards. In 1996 Madonna and the crew that made Evita, the film about the life of Eva Peron chose Budapest as a stand in for Buenos Aires. I can see why, it has French, Spanish and Italian influences and is remarkably similar especially if you move away from the centre of town.
One of the big hitters on the Rocco and Gold extravaganza front is The New York Cafe. An exercise in auric flourish, it is quite beautiful. Like all grand European cafes it is so much more than a place to order coffee. Full of swish and just a little bit of pomp it was the place to be seen 100 years ago. It still is but instead of Europe’s intelligentsia you now have tourists and locals alike who appreciate it for many reasons especially its heritage and authentic food. It’s part of Budapest’s cultural history.
My first evening in the city was complimented with a torrential thunderstorm with forked lightening thrown in for good measure. I didn’t want to travel too far to eat with my borrowed umbrella. A few streets from my hotel I stumbled upon the Lado Cafe. Looking through the window I saw a jazz singer crooning in the corner with her band, candles guttered on the tables and it was raining outside. How could I resist?
Although small Lado still employs that mysterious hierarchy of senior and even more senior waiters and waitresses. They were a pleasure to observe. Everything had its place but it was in no way stuffy. My first meal contained a fair amount of the national spice, paprika (it crops up everywhere). This rich but moderately used ingredient is a winner with me. My chicken paprikas, was rich and creamy and came with pasta and stewed apples on the side, the perfect antidote for any hungry traveller.
After an excellent buffet in the bright airy breakfast restaurant with its large outdoor seating area (last night’s rain long gone) bathed in bright sunshine I set off for a walk around the city. My location made the centre of the city within easy reach and with the use of the excellent trams and buses I was able to cover a lot of ground.
The Jewish Quarter holds the largest synagogue in Europe constructed in a Moorish style. At the rear of the building is a moving sculpture of a weeping willow tree by Imre Varga in metal. On each leaf is the name of every Hungarian Jew who was a victim of the Holocaust.
The area is full of interesting places to grab a coffee or a bite to eat. Some of the more interesting are the Ruin Bars. These are run by cooperatives that have used empty spaces and made them their own. The Szimpla is found at Kazinczy utca 14, Budapest 1075. With a daily change of programmes including local bands and a variety of food it simply is the place to go for the best Bohemian atmosphere in town.
The Széchenyi Chain Bridge that spans the Danube connecting Buda and Pest might look familiar to British visitors. It’s a larger version of the bridge at Marlow in Buckinghamshire both designed by William Tierney Clark. Across the river and into Buda (you can catch No.16 bus if you don’t fancy the steep walk) you will find yourself in the Castle district. It’s very pretty and full of charm. Fans of spy films will find the Fisherman’s Bastion here, a wide viewing platform commanding an excellent view of Pest across the river. It appears in the opening scenes of the John Le Carré film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
I grabbed a delicious ice cream from Ruszwurn, a famous coffee house with outside chairs and tables. They also do a good line in Hungarian cakes. Just a few paces away is the impressive Church of Our Lady with an exquisitely tiled roof.
The Hungarian language (Magyar as it’s known) is rather tricky to master, even the simplest words proved impossible for me to grasp. It is based not on German or Russian its closest relatives are Estonian and Finnish. Stemming from the Fino Urian languages. Oh and one other point, maybe Douglas Adams was right when he said the answer is 42, as that’s how letters are in the Hungarian alphabet. Luckily English is widely spoken so you should be all right asking where the bus stop is or for a cup of tea!
The House of Terror vividly brings to life the torturous rule of fascist and Communist years of government. This moving and gripping museum is housed in old head quarters of the secret police. There are cells in the basement left as they were when in use. The exhibitions pay tribute to the victims of the regimes and all the information is in Hungarian and English. Worth a visit to brush up on European history and as a reminder of how lucky we were in the West during those years.
In 1884 the resplendent Neo Baroque opera house was opened, it has since survived the Second World War and the 1956 revolution and is a celebrated part of Hungarian culture. Music is very important here and all school children are required to learn an instrument at school. It seats 1260 and has over 300 performances a year offering a variety of works including children’s workshops as well as operas and ballet. Gustav Maller was the inaugural director of music. Prices range from 60 Euros for the best seats down to a very affordable 4 for a place in the gods.
My next lunch was to be at Szamos, the famed Hungarian chocolate shop and restaurant. They have 22 branches across the country and in Austria but this was their first. Started in 1935 they were the first company to start using and importing marzipan. It is still the mainstay of their business today. They also make and sell ice cream and sweets.
I had a go at making some chocolates (they hold lessons here for about 30 Euros for 2 hours). My tutor was master chocolateir Audor Haraszti. The main thing to learn is how to temper the chocolate. Melt it at 46.5c then pour it onto a marble surface and with a spatula (this is the bit that Audor made look really easy, it isn’t) you reduce the temperature to exactly 28c then carefully and quickly pour into the moulds. The temperature is key to giving the chocolate a deep shine that will last for several months. It was great fun and a bit messy. Even the great and good have been here and tried their hand Harrison Ford’s wife Calista Flockhart and their son had a go on a visit to Budapest.
The lunch I ate there was also very good with lots of local foods like grilled flat river fish with diced pasta, cottage cheese and paprika sauce (there it is again)! The grilled goose liver (which was readily available under communist rule)! was delicious served with honey roast apple and mash potato with dried plums. All finished off with another classic, Esterhazy cake, layers of sponge with walnut cream and orange liqueur. Szamos is certainly worth calling in for a spot of lunch and chocolates to take home.
A river cruise on the Danube is hard to beat as the sun goes down. Setting off from the centrally located pier 7 you gently glide around for a couple of hours. The multilingual narration is informative and punctuated by soothing classical music a first for me, others should learn from this considered approach. The whole experience was thoroughly enjoyable. You can clearly see the towns of Buda and Pest during your cruise. Locals say that the money is all in Buda but Pest is where the fun is, I think they’re right.
The cocktail bar of the best hotel in town is always going to entice me. The Four Seasons Gresham Palace doesn’t disappoint. All the glitterati stay here from Madonna to Bono. A slight twist on a mint julep prepared by barman Richard was a welcome treat and tasted superb. Richard clearly knew what he was doing serving it in a correct metal tumbler. I asked him how many recipes he has stored away in him mind. He replied very quickly about 350 – 400 at any one time. I thought this is what it must be like if you are Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger having to remember their lyrics.
I left the cool jazz atmosphere of the Four Seasons after a busy and contented day and wandered on to my new ‘local’ The New York Cafe where I enjoyed a late night supper of that Hungarian classic goulash. Perfect in every way (every restaurant claims to have the best recipe …) it filled me up and tasted wonderful.
On my last morning I just had time to visit Szechynil Spa, Budapest’s public baths built in 1913. It is vast and extremely popular, open from 6am until 10pm. They even have bath parties every Saturday evening until 3am. They put a movie on and open a bar. These guys sure know how to party. It may once have been a repressive regime but they sure are making up for it now.