Friday, June 18, 2010

Budapest, Hungary


From Saturday evening through Tuesday morning I was in Budapest with wonderful Willie Levitt! Willie was coming off a semester in Bologna, Italy, where he ate a ton of gelato, learned enough Italian to eavesdrop effectively on all the Italian tourists we ran into in Hungarian restaurants, and spoiled his appetite for anything below the standards of Italian food... which is, you know, everything else.

Despite the nearly unbearable heatwave that made us stop at least five times a day for juice, cocktails, coffee, water, ice cream, and pretty much anything cold and edible, Willie and I enjoyed visiting a city with such an interesting combination of old and new, east and west (and north and south) cultural influences. Our first day we trekked across the Danube up Castle Hill, where, of course, we spent way too much money on unfortunate food for our first meal. The views were cool, and the architecture reminded us of Disneyland. We had another bad dinner at a bar, but later that night we found one of the best desserts I have ever eaten, a strawberry/rice pudding sundae at Gerbeaud, one of Budapest's famed coffeehouses. The waiters in Budapest were strange- they never seemed particularly interested in waiting on you, and seemed irritated when you asked them for something like a bottle of water, or, you know, a meal.

The second day, we visited Budapest's main indoor food market, a massive complex selling every type of meat and fish, sausage, cheese, pickle, vegetable, fruit, prepared Hungarian dish, imported specialties from Asia, pastries, bread, cookies, fresh juice, touristy knick-knacks and, of course, paprika. We sampled donut-hole style potato pastries (addictive), then I got a massive profiterole with pudding-cream and Kool-whip and confectioner's sugar- spectacular. We also bought the wrong cherries, but in doing so we discovered what cherries in pies and maraschinos must be made from. We went to the City Park, which would have been pretty if it had not been under construction and an extremely hot sun. Willie and I split off then, and I went to the public baths. At first it was a little disconcerting, being in a big, lukewarm, sulfurous, shallow pool with a bunch of elderly strangers, but after a while I slowed down and unwound in the water. It wasn't until thirty minutes before I was supposed to meet up with Willie that I found the massive outdoor pool in a beautiful old courtyard. Too bad, but I enjoyed the experience all the same. The courtyard was painted, the street signs, construction cranes, many houses and apartment buildings and metro lines, a macaroni-and-cheese color of yellow/orange.

Then I met up with Willie at a really cool cafe-bookstore. The bookstore was modern and reminiscent of a Border's or Barnes and Noble, but the cafe, a high-ceilinged dining room in the back, was more ornate than many of the sites we had been seeing. The food was also some of the best we found in Budapest, and the air-conditioning was a god-send. Called Alexandra Books & Wine, a major section of the ground floor was dedicated to selling wine. It was sad to leave this cool (in both senses of the word) haven, but less than a block later we found ourselves sipping tomatillo-garnished pina coladas at a cafe across from the opera house, so not too sad.

That night we ate at a semi-vegetarian organic restaurant that, for Hungarian food, was quite good, but now that we're in Istanbul, seems a bit lacklustre. We had reserved tickets for a night-time boat-ride along the river, but we had a bit of extra time so we sat in the lobby of a Marriott and thought up excuses for why we were sitting in some random hotel's lobby. It's fun and kind of thrilling to do this. Crashing nice hotels became a bit of a pastime for us. Afterwards we went on a night cruise of the Danube, and saw the sites lit up. It was cool, but the distances were much more manageable than I had expected, so it probably would have been just as cool to walk up and down the river on foot. We planned on going back to Gerbeaud for another sundae, but by the time we got back to land it was closed. Despite the heat of the past few days, by our last night we both wished we had brought sweaters.

Overall we found Budapest to be a bit bewildering, a bit confusing. It was certainly beautiful at times, but it was also dirty and undeveloped in other areas- and these two components were often right next door to each other, literally. Our hostel staff and waiters at restaurants were generally well-intentioned and kind, but also generally had no idea how to do their jobs. Our hostel staff once called a friend to get (faulty, as it turned out) directions to the airport, and they could not point us in the direction of good, cheap Hungarian food, which seems like something you would know if you worked at a hostel in Hungary.

The last morning we got more pastries and fruit from the market before heading to the airport by metro and bus. The airport is two entirely separate locations, so you really have to know your terminal. We flew away from Hungary and headed over to Turkey, hoping for better food and looking forward to air-conditioning at the next place we were staying.

When I looked at the map of Europe in the in-flight magazine, I realized how far I had come, by bus and train. Athens to Budapest is no small journey! It gave me a nice taste of overland travel, and I'm looking forward to future overland travel, some of which I'll be doing in the coming weeks through Turkey.

More later on the availability of roasted chestnuts, how to select toppings for massive baked potatos, why buying six pieces of baklava at once is not necessarily the best decision, and other food misdemeanors with Willie in Istanbul...



  1. Always fun to get the next blog... I don't even have to travel anymore... so fun to read about all your escapades... you, Willie and food! What more is there! Have fun...