Monday, 20 August 2012

A Perfect Day in Budapest

The perfect day in Budapest started off at the Margit bridge, Pest side of the river Danube, heading towards the chain bridge. Walking along the riverfront here isn't the easiest - there isn't a nice esplanade - you have to skitter along tiny half-pavements, step over low chain fences, dodge speeding traffic to cross the road, jump over road barriers, and avoid eye contact with policemen guarding parliament grounds - but if you're game it's worth the walk. You get a good view of the gothic parliament building from here.

Further along the Danube, you come across the memorial to those shot by Arrow Cross (the pro-Nazi Hungarian party in power during the 2nd world war) into the river. One of the most powerful memorials I have ever seen - I had read nothing about it and just stumbled across the vast collection of realistic steel shoes strewn across the wall along the river. So powerful because each shoe is an intimate portrait of the person who might have owned it - each pair was a different style, a different size, worn in different parts - they were utterly human. And seeing them discarded along the Danube, you knew what had happened to the owners of those shoes without knowing any of the details of the actual story. Haunting. 

Once you get to the chain bridge, turn into the city, and continue south through Dorothya utca, until you reach the Gerbaud house on your left. Gerbaud is a Hungarian patisserie, operating since 1858 and as fine as those you will find in Paris. The place is huge and has everything from pub, to ice cream parlour, to restaurant dining, to cafe. I thought I would just pop in and have a little look at the cakes, after having a not-so-nice experience at a 'famous' Budapest cafe the previous day. But as soon as I saw these cakes I knew they would be excellent; somehow they just ooze perfection and decadence. 

We started with a chocolate and lemon 'slice'; impossibly smooth and shiny chocolate glaze, over light-as-air lemon cream; a combination that shouldn't work, but does. Washed down with excellent cafe macchiato, served in exquisite deco-style red cups. 

Finishing with a lighter cake of apricot and yoghurt; smooth and not too sweet apricot-scented cream, a nice tart piece of fresh apricot on the top, and an almondy base. Good finish after the intensity of the chocolate-lemon extravaganza. 

All up, for two cakes and coffees, 5,000 Hungarian Forint, or about €18, including service. As good as the cakes in Paris, yet half the price, and one tenth the number of tourists to battle through. 

After mid-morning cake, take a stroll through the heart of Budapest and discover what is really special about this city; architecture. From Gerbaud, go to the southern end of the square and turn left, then turn right onto Becsi utca. Follow this street along as it turns into Petofi Sandar utca, admiring the deco, baroque and renaissance buildings, and perhaps a spot of second-hand shopping. At the end of this street, once you get to Ferenciek tere, stop to admire the Parisi Udvar galerie on your right, a fabulous but long-neglected, empty shopping arcade. 

Continue along Karolyi Mihaly utca, Egyetemter, and over the square to Kiralyi Pal utca. Turn right into the big main street, Kalvin ter, and head towards the bridge. The Great Market Hall is on the left just before the bridge. This is a huge market where you can stock up, or just admire, the fresh fruit and vegetables, the different types of meat both fresh and dried, and upstairs, any kind of touristy tat you may wish to purchase (or not). 

Upstairs you will also find stalls selling traditional Hungarian fare - from Hungarian-style pizza (deep-fried bread with toppings) to goulash to stew and cabbage affairs. I had cabbage stuffed with rice and served with Hungarian sauerkraut, and beans. Not the cheapest - 3,000 Ft (or €11) for two meals - and certainly not the best, but you will probably need it after the morning's walk through the city. Finish up with a freshly-squeezed orange juice from downstairs, south side of the market, then get the hell out of there. 

After the market madness, stop off for a refreshment Spritz at a little bar like Cafe Mezes Sorozo, just outside on Pipa utca. Seemed to be tourist-free, with cute booths and tables, and cheap drinks (an Aperol Spritz for 500 Ft, or €1.80). 

Head back in towards the Kalvin metro stop, then turn left along Muzeum korut, which is lined with second hand bookshops, if you're into vintage books. You'll hit the intersection with Dohany ucta, with the pretty synagogue on the corner. 

After a squiz at the impressive synagogue, wander through the streets directly behind it. It turns into a grungy bar district with stunningly decayed deco buildings. Check out Szimpla Kert on Kazinczy utca, an eclectic garden bar, with a rambling mix of arty bits and pieces, little corner bars and pockets to play chess, read, canoodle, or whatever takes your fancy. Easily as trendy as an East Berlin beer garden. Beer was 650 Ft each, or €2.30.

From Kazinczy utca, turn right onto Wesselenyi utca and then left at Kertesz utca, and find M restaurant for dinner. The walls are covered with plain brown paper and drawings, the menu is hand-written and basic. Chilled cucumber soup - like gazpacho but green - great to beat the Budapest heat and dust. Fish cream soup - absolutely divine. The stand-out main was the beef goulash, served with barley and gherkins. You can't eat enough of this goulash if you can find a well-made one. And a bottle of Szekszardi Merlot 2009 - fabulous (why did no one ever tell me that Hungarian wine is so good?). 13,000 Ft, including wine and service, approximately €46. 

After stumbling along through the setting sun to the bus, we got back to our camp (and I have to add a little plug for the campsite here - Zugligeti Niche Camping - welcoming, good facilities, easy access to town, free homemade breakfast, and incredible goulash soup). We finished the evening with a glass of "medicine", Unicum, a traditional Hungarian digestif and one of the bitterest things I have ever drunk. 

If you are still able to walk after dinner, I would also recommend a stroll across the chain bridge at night, and back up towards the Margit bridge on the Buda side. The city is stunning at night. Look out for the sparkling birds above parliament. 


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