He was wearing a suit and a smile my grandma would have called benevolent. Yes, it was a sweet, quiet smile that did not assert anything, but jut wished people well. He was listening to melody rock. If he hadn’t been at the driver seat, we could have sworn we were alone in a car that was moved by means of a remote control device. Atilla Koszitch built up our first impression of Budapest by waiting for us to form one that is memorable and yet not based on the “must see” attractions on the city map. As was the case with all our trips, we gave a different heart to the Budapest experience – a heart that was beating with spontaneity, surprise and its own rhythm and blues, in other words, our own heart.
We booked a flight from Sofia with three full days in Budapest. We didn’t have a clear idea what three days would beenough for. Budapest is the kind of city we would love to live in for long and we were well aware of the fact that in this sense a mere three days is just a moment. So we hadn’t devised a tight schedule that would only bring the frustration and stress of having to visit certain sights all the time. We set off with the feeling that “we are going for an outing and will enjoy whatever we discover, or whatever discovers us. We didn’t bring any guide books with us, we hadn’t read anyone’s travel notes, and with just our two backpacks and a vague memory of the address where we were to stay, we headed for Sofia Airport. While we were on the plane, our Budapest host texted us offering to book us a taxi that will wait for us at Ferenc Liszt Airport. We jumped at the chance. The flat we had booked turned out to be very pleasant indeed. I never managed to make the habit of researching possible accommodation in view of easy access to touristic sights or cheap eateries or good transport links. In this aspect I am a tourist who greatly resembles a new home owner who first picks a house and only then gets accustomed to the neighbouring infrastructure. This is an effortless way to discover interesting stories about both streets and people.
This was our first trip abroad with George. It turned out we both choose places drawn by their atmosphere and spirit, we book, we pay and in the end, voila, we end up with an extra bonus to the program. This time again we had a bingo moment. Timi and Istvan’s apartment, one of the four they manage through Airbnb, had everything to tempt our travel bug. We are the kind of romantics with unkempt hair, little luggage and very little time for sleep. Our Budapest flat featured enormous windows overlooking a busy central boulevard, snow-white wooden blinds and a main entrance through a courtyard with a long terrace across the whole building (and seemed to have come out of a black-and- white Neorealist Italian film where noisy passionate neighbours seem to live their lives yelling at each other from various floors), an ancient staircase with high railings and a lift dating back from the turn of the twentieth century. We chose the place for two reasons: to begin with, we were tempted by the mix of something old – early 20century architecture, and something new – the simple stylistics of a 21century living space. Something old as the framed crocheted pieces on the wall and something new, as a bath tub fitted right in the middle of the bedroom. The flat on Elizabeth Boulevard was spacious and airy and our hosts took care of the transfer from the airport at a much more competitive price than what we could have chosen at the airport. We had also subscribed for two bicycles which turned to be a real blessing.
The Budapest trip was conceived on the spur of the moment as an improvised 4-day trip without a guide and without any commitment whatsoever to timetables, must-see-sights or any kind of urgency. We hadn’t exactly envisaged it as a culinary tour either though, come to think of it, we did discuss food a lot during the return flight. I, for one, busied my mind with emergency low calorie diets I so badly needed.
We had not yet brought our luggage into the flat when we were already having lunch at a table for two within a few meters from our address in Hungary. It was a small Turkish fast food restaurant with unbelievably delicious food. For our first day in Budapest we had one and only objective … walk, walk and walk until we discover the heart of Budapest life and style. A second objective would be not to stray away from this special focus until it is time to check-in for the flight home. So we left the flat only to find out that it was very conveniently located. We turned into Wesseleny Utca (utca – street) and entered the slow time zone.
In the past, when planning a trip to the capital of Hungary I had had a wish to stay near the Jewish quarter. As luck would have it, now we were nearly in the heart of it, only a block away and within walking distance to the most popular tourist sights of the Pesta part of the city. Wesseleni Utca seemed to be the ideal boundary between two spaces we, anyway, loved equally: the leisurely feel of a day without a single thought of work but rich in promise of an absolutely bohemian experience, and, on the other hand – the hectic pace of a day filled with countless encounters. Elizabeth Boulevard is fast and noisy and the beginning of autumn is the season you can feel with all its motions, tastes and colours. And it is glorious to be outside.
No matter which street you choose to take you to the Jewish quarter, it is the city that leads the way. The streets reminded me of an elaborate mathematical model made up of a sequence of squares, among which we happened to find a space human age invariably settles along the late 20s – early 30s scale and we were only too glad to feel it. For us, this particular place was Gozsdu courtyard, but we’ll tell more about it in a little while.
We first noticed the Fat Mama pizza restaurant, because it is easy to remember it– the menu at the entrance, the message, the brand. We all love our mammas, but few of us want to be above our ideal weight. Both George and I work with a visual image of the world, which we tell somebody about in various web- or PR projects and naturally the occasional illustration, graffiti, sign or word wink at us like friendly strangers. We didn’t enter the Fat Mama restaurant, but nevertheless, came back to Varna fat, rather than fit.
Right opposite to this Italian-feel establishment is the Hungarian Electrotechnical Museum. There you can see old household appliances, some of them still working. Among the exhibits there are electricity meters from the Stalin era. We thought it weird that the same museum offered a chocolate tasting tour devoted to the best of Hungarian chocolate tradition and the opportunity to prepare your own chocolate and leave with ….. a complimentary bar of chocolate, of course. But since Budapest had not yet whetted our appetites we didn’t go for it and went on, instead.
The next moment something glittering caught my eye. On our right in a small shopping arcade I beheld tables covered in ancient jewellery. The whole place felt like an open-air old curiosity shop. I pulled George in. I love browsing across bazaars when I travel – for spices, textiles, jewellery. These items often tell more than the castle or the oldest café. I adore examining trinkets and George adores me while I I do that. I immediately spotted an aged- silver corkscrew with mother-of –pearl holder. I just loved it and I don’t know why I put it aside. The next day the bazaar was gone and so was my corkscrew and I didn’t have this little object of history that had probably opened the wine bottles of at least one historical moment. We later found out that the Gozsdu Udvar market has a day off. Goszdu is a city point travel book editors grade 5/5 plus a minimum of one exclamation mark, because the place is notorious for its adventurous history. Don’t ever miss it, on the contrary, be a repeat visitor! The inner court between Kiraly street and Dob street was the first location to make us stop. Mind you, we hadn’t earmarked anything for sightseeing, we never do when we decide to take a walk..
Now, about the place with the tiny entrance beyond which something glittering caught our eye. It is called Goszdu Udvar. It’s an inner courtyard that can be reached from two different streets – Kiraly utca 13 and Dob utca 16 – and it is a home to nearly 30 bars, restaurants, the odd gallery and a couple of tourist hostels. The message it brings is “Culture. Entertainment. Style”. The place exudes the charm of a cross point, bringing together happy people of all ages. Every bar or restaurant has its specific ambience, menu and a musical world of its own. The result of this fusion of styles and sounds is the effortless beauty and freedom, we wish you could embrace no matter the time of day.
The Goszdu courtyard has an interesting history. Created at the turn of the last century with the sponsorship and wealth of the Romanian lawyer and philanthropist Goszdu Mano, initially it used to be a busy trade centre. Later, UNESCO declares it a World Cultural Heritage Sight. Beyond historical facts, Goszdu is not just a place but an emotion.
We got in through one entrance and left through the other and we continued our walk to reach St Stephen basilica which stands out with its imposing outlines and the grandour of the airy space in front of the entrance. Budapest is even larger and more beautiful viewed from the dome of this church, and, provided you love climbing stairs, all the 360 steps of St Stephen are yours! Of course you can get to the top with a lift and admire the view jut as well. When we visited there was a wedding photo shoot in front of the basilica and life seemed much more different in the realization that you are not at work, you are rambling about and have all the time in the world to notice other people and glimpse at their personal moments of happiness, in this case, their wedding bliss. So this was the picture we witnessed on the square in front of St Stephen. It is to the pleasing awareness of leisure that we attributed the carefree afternoon spent on a bench next to the town hall clock. Suddenly the plan for the day took a more definite shape.
When we got into the taxi, I asked Atilla Kosic about his favourite restaurant in Budapest – unpretentious and special at the same time. It should also be delicious in terms of Hungarian recipes. He recommended Ven Hajo Etterem – The Old Ship restaurant, moored 200 m before Szechenyi Bridge. This is where we were heading for, feeling as thrilled as if it was going to be our first dinner together; we felt the same excitement and curiosity about the taste of not just a dinner, but a first date. Our first date with Budapest.
We patiently waited for the sunset and chose a table on the deck. Ven Hajo is a nearly 100 –year-old ship, converted into a restaurant, which had retained the authentic interior and atmosphere of the Koszut ships. We tried the ox-tail gulasch. A rich thick flavour and very, very hot. It costs nearly 2250forint or about 14 lv. Never before had we tasted a more delicious gulasch. The view towards Szechenyi Bridge makes your heart race.
It is forbidden to climb Szechenyi Bridge, but we saw no sign regulating sitting on it, which is not easy to do, anyway, unless of course you have George with you. At 200 cm tall, he can easily pick a place for you to sit and enjoy the breath-taking view and then quietly sit by your side. So we spent 30 minutes “frozen in time”. Other tourists passed by, giving us curious smiles and choosing to take a picture with us. Many of the passers- by were on their way back from the wine festival in Buda Palace. Borfesztival was a fairy-tale of feast and merriment of the type” they ate, drank and sang for three days on end”. We joined in on the third day. We had an all-inclusive pass, a gift from a friend, and in fact, this was the only event that back in Varna we had been dead sure would definitely feature in our Budapest Plan.
At Szechenyi Bridge we had one of those “no way” moments. Two boys stopped us and told us they came from Thailand. Szechenyi impressed them a lot and they wanted a super photo for a super memory. They wanted a photo “together”, which could only mean the two of them should be in the picture. As both me and George love taking pictures, we agreed to participate in their super moment as photographers. Then one of them squeezed between us, gesticulating to express how lucky he was and waited for his moment. We stepped back, not to spoil the moment for him, but he stepped back too, right between me and George. He smiled again, made the “I’m happy gesture”. Well, George and I are usually happy as it is. The picture was taken, but I still wonder who would look at it and how come that we are telling these boys ‘ story, but the thing is, they left with beaming smiles on their faces, a smile that was as wide as a river. I later told Elly how strangers took pictures with us and she supposed it was “because George is so tall” and didn’t mention anything about the motivating effect of my good looks, that is a bit of George’s glamour and fame had rubbed on me, obviously.
Should you choose to take I a boat trip on the Danube, plan it for late afternoon. The city lights from the Buda side – Fisherman Towers, Buda Castle and on the Pesta side exclusive 5-star-hotels, boatels moored at the riverbank, riverside restaurants, Szechenyi hanging bridge and the golden light of the Parliament are a feast for all the senses that can make us breathe life and see it. Admission ticket for the boat entitles you to a glass of champagne Prices vary from 2600 forint for children (about 17 lv) to 4400 forint for adults (about 30 lv.). Children below the age of ten travel for free.
Our second day started with getting lost. I was the one who got lost. I adore an early morning in an unfamiliar place. I can leave home and go anywhere I want dressed in something resembling a nightie, my hair a mess ( though I myself prefer it like this, rather than the state it is I when I leave the hairdresser). It was a miracle for me to wake up first, so I promptly decided to make use of it and surprise George. After a few minutes of tiptoeing around the flat, I was out and about, convinced that it would only take me a few minutes to get to the bakery around the corner. We had passed by several bakeries the day before. In this particular morning after the first one, I got to the second and then to the third one, trying to follow yesterday route , only to find out that at 7.30 the furnaces were not yet working the bakers obviously wake up later. I strayed from the familiar route and decided that my wish to wake George up with the aroma of freshly baked buns is a good starting point for a new expedition into Central Budapest. I strolled for about 30 minutes. I had 2000 forint in my pocket, no documents, nor a mobile phone. I was a tourist with her hair uncombed, who had popped down to the corner shop.
So I had a little walk. I must have walked in a large square rather than in a circle and I came to IO – a chain of bakeries where you get in, say “aio” and immediately realize how Ali Baba used his “Sesame, open up!”. Now, the place is a carb heaven, mark my words! Five months after Budapest I still live with IO on my bum. I quickly returned once I had spotted the first Elisabeth Boulevard sign. It turned out I had covered quite a number of squares from the urban pattern in my search of buns. I watched the city. It was nearly 9 a.m. and the streets were still resting from the midnight revellers. The night before, until 2.00a.m. the pavements were full of noisy people cheering, and at 9 in the morning people were only barely starting their day. This autumnal city idleness appealed to me. The real Indian summer should come in slow motion.
This very day we chose to cross to the other bank of the Danube. We set of for Buda. We replaced the leisurely walk with a leisurely electric bike ride. Well, it wasn’t that leisurely, after all, as we had to get from point A to point B in 30 minutes. We enjoyed the bike tour. It proved to be very convenient for exploring the sights, as there was a bike station next to each point of interest, where we could leave bikes to be charged and borrow new ones. The change must happen spot on the 30th minute. Google Maps provide reliable information on the exact locations of bike stations and there is no way you end up with a bike on your hands its battery low. Until we reached Szechenyi, we pedaled, but we crossed the bridge on foot. Right before the bridge we exchanged bikes at a station near which we discovered a little Thailand with all the possible tastes of the Far East. For about 8 euro per person at Padhai wokbar we left the European and entered the exotic leg of our journey. Later it didn’t take us long to get back to Budapest.
On the opposite bank, there were two options available – either resume cycling or take the funicular and climb the Buda hill with its fortress and from there see the castle, the seven Fisherman Towers and St Matias church. We spent an hour cycling along the river bank with a view of Pesta, which has a peculiar charm in the day time, then climbing the steep winding streets which keep the spirit of aristocratic life from the time of Hungarian kings and, even without a map, we reached the seven Fisherman Towers. Up there the view is mind-blowing, the late afternoon light seems to generate the state of inner joy, and, had I been able to feel it 24/7, nothing would have stopped me. If you come out at the square next to St Matias church and the fishermen towers and then take the cobblestone street with little cafes and bohemian bookshops you quickly reach the Royal Palace. In Buda we only visited the Borfesztival with an open-air stage for concerts at the heart of the activities of the court back in the past. In the palace gardens, under pretty tents, top chocolatiers and confectioners demonstrated the long-standing traditions of their art, and on the other side there were wine- and BBQ stands. We tried furnace-baked fresh bread buns with pieces of specially marinated meat .We could not identify all the ingredients, but this was a moment I could have come up with a definition for “extremely delicious” that would be worthy of an encyclopedia. I was with George. There were two glasses of wine, a green lawn and a palace behind our backs and there was Pesta on the horizon in front.
In the same day we passed by Europe’s biggest and the world’s second biggest synagogue – Dohany synagogue in Dohany street. In the yard of the synagogue there is a remnant of the original wall of the Jewish ghetto from the time of the Nazzi regime. Here light and shadow intersect in a peculiar way and all words seem to disappear.
The third day was devoted to world-class gastronomical experiences and we came across an item of news that once featured in The New York Post. Its name is Gundel. This is a restaurant that has preserved the history of Hungarian cuisine. We found it by sheer chance and wearing red sneakers. We found it at lunch time with ravenous appetite.
We lay in bed late, until 9.00, and by 10 o’çlock we had already changed the direction and were pedalling away, following the city transport route towards the city park at the end of the Andrassy Boulevard. We lay on the grass, contemplating another journey. A new one after Budapest. The cycling route from Elizabeth Boulevard to Varosliget (city park) took us about 20 minutes. We cycled across a beautiful quarter, with large palatial mansions, exquisite yards and elegant fences. Once in the park, we set off from the Heroes Square (where you’ll see the leaders of the 7 tribes that founded Hungary and other distinguished figures in the country’s history), we rode into alleys surrounding a beautiful pond with rowing boats and a fountain and we also caught sight of a castle. We didn’t have the slightest idea it was the Vaidahunyad Castle – a must -see in Budapest. What a curious castle it is with all the facts about its construction! Initially it was built from cardboard and wood to celebrate 1000 years since the foundation of Hungary and showed drawings of popular historical buildings. The citizens loved it so much that endeavoured to build it for real from bricks and stone. In the city park you can see the Szechenyi baths, should you need some spa relaxation while you are travelling. We ourselves are not much into spas, so we omitted the baths. We fancied a shady spot near the pond and had a lie-down in the grass. Plenty of people around us had made the same choice.
In the direction where we entered the park there are two restaurants – one is right next to the pond and the second is a little further. We picked out the more distant one. There was a notice board with the lunch a-la – carte menu. And we were there just on time for lunch. A smiling lady in a perfectly pressed suit without a single crease in the material wished us a pleasant visit and invited her waiter colleagues to take over. We were led to a table in the garden, as was our wish. In less than a second we felt the place special. Waiters with their backs straight and their gait brisk, served each dish on a separate tray, covered with a metal lid. Waiters behaved professionally – their manners precisely measured – neither too strict, nor too familiar. We had come from the park wearing sneakers and they made us feel as if we were formally dressed. The dishes were gourmet in terms of quantity, challenging and intriguing in terms of taste and perfect as an overall experience. It was definitely the top surprise of our last day in Budapest – the restaurant gave us a feeling of living in a different epoch. Silverware, round metal trays and, at the same time, a modern interpretation of the tradition that went into the creation of Hungary’s national dishes. Here we discovered the novelty of a “floating” dessert. We also discovered it as a definite favourite.
Gundel restaurant became iconic for Hungarian cuisine and culinary culture owing to the Gundel family, who marked the beginning of Gundel style. At the reception of this restaurant, which has many halls, you can see the bust of Janos Gundel, the founder of the establishment. Aged 27, he already had his first restaurant and turned it into a popular meeting place for Hungarian artists, Ferenc Liszt among them. Karoy Gundel, the son, also opened a restaurant of his own, again in his late 20s, and succeeds in making it a culinary institution. To these days the restaurant has preserved and prepares 120 year-old recipes. It is here that the famous Hungarian pancake with rum, raisins, walnuts and lemon rind was created and was practically recognized as a national dessert. The restaurant boasts a unique “Wall of Fame” with autographs of the most distinguished guests – statesmen, kings, world- famous artists, musicians and sportsmen. If you are keen on unique authentic histories, look up that of Gundel. The place is indicative for its reputation of welcoming every guest as if they were royalty. As for the value of this experience…..well, it far exceeded the price we paid for the lunch, about 60 euro for two. Prices cannot surprise or embarrass a customer, as they are quoted on the website, for everybody to see. Following Atilla’s advice (the taxi-driver who picked us up from the airport), we paid in Hungarian currency everywhere.
In short: Use a bike in Budapest and try new tastes. About the bike transport…. Bike rent is 500 forint for 24 hours, and 1000 forint for 72 hours. How to use the bikes and how to activate your access is explained in great details in the platform MOL Bubi – molbubi.bkk.hu a taxi from the airport to the center is between 22 – 28 euro. Go to Gundel, take a nap of an hour in the park, dive in the nightlights of Budapest, climb up the Fisherman rampart early in the day, or as late in the afternoon as possible. Love the chance to get where others are only planning to go…. And tell them where you have been, because, in the corner of one of your directions, they will find theirs. And so, corner by corner and heart by heart, the city will unfold its best map for everybody who loves to travel; for everybody who loves to discover something new about themselves in a new place.
What remained to be seen…. New York Café. When I was booking the flat on Elisabeth Boulevard, I spotted it nearby on the map, and New York has been a dream of mine, and now that I have converted him to my dreams, of George’s too. The Budapest café with an American name is full of Bohemian spirit. It resembles a charming temptress who is a master of the tango, smokes with a cigarette holder and wears red velvet and bright lipstick. Such a woman would probably master and create any situation, and New York café is just the same, only it is a place – it has survived epochs, political systems and historical ups and downs. If you go there, send us a photo for memory’s sake. If, however, you have already been to the real New York, recommend some accommodation. Mind you, it has to be tried and tested.