By Hugh Spencer
Sure, standing on the banks of the Danube looking around you can just imagine the proletariats trudging to work in pre 1956 communist Hungary past the aristocracy at the Castle, the Parliament and in their turn-of-the-century homes. You can even imagine what Eastern bloc Hungary must have been like just 22 years ago. And, imagine this country joined the European Union a mere eight years ago and you realize that Budapest is really a tale of two cities.
It is not just that the Danube River splits this majestic metropolis into a bohemian enclave on the Buda side and a cosmopolitan destination on the Pest side, that would be too simple; it’s fraught with dichotomy. Because Budapest is home to old world wine country and 17th century architecture, you respect the traditional aspects of Hungary and simultaneously delight in its new found democracy and thirst for modern western culture.
But first, you’ve got to get there – and that can be intriguing as well, if you take American Airlines’ Flight 158 from John F. Kennedy International Airport. That flight, which began on April 5, is the only year-round direct service between JFK and Budapest. It offers a precursor for some of the great cuisine you can expect in Budapest: a five-course meal that includes warm mixed nuts or crudités and dip to start; smoked salmon and herb marinated shrimp as an appetizer; seasonal salad greens; a choice of beef filet with red wine onion sauce, chicken tikka masala, rosemary garlic shrimp or four cheese ravioli as a main course; and either an ice cream sundae or fruit and cheese plate for dessert.
Once on the ground in “the pearl of the Danube”, there is a Four Seasons Hotel, a Nobu restaurant, renowned museums, coffee shops, an outstanding Opera House and the world class Bartok Bela Concert Hall. There is dance and dancing, bathing and basking. Budapest is cutting edge; cutting edge gastronomically, with its oenology, in leisure, and most of all socially. There is history but more importantly there is future.
Before settling into the particulars of the capital city and all it has to offer, its past, its food, the second largest Parliament in the world, the architecture, the labyrinths, go no more than thirty minutes out of the city limits to see and taste the abundance of its little talked about wine country. Hungary may only be known for its Tokai region and arguably the best dessert wine ever made but be assured that you will not be disappointed should you visit a little cellar on the side of the road in the Etyek region, Rokusfalvy Fogado.
Originally known for producing only méthode champenoise sparkling wine cuvees, the owners of the Etyek wineries came to realize that one could appreciate the individual grapes in the region; grapes deserving of being shown off on their own. The resulting wines show off the winery’s attention to detail. Details that make spicy light pinot noirs and clear dry sauvignon blancs. Chardonnay sees nearly a year in Hungarian Oak for robust aroma and flavors reminiscent of classic French Bordeaux.
The Rokusfalvy winery has a small inn with six intimate rooms and a restaurant serving meals most restaurants would be proud to serve. While in the Etyek region, should you want to entertain yourself with 15th century Roman Architecture or 1990 Brooklyn, you will find the sets of Showtime’s Borgia a hundred yards away from Hell Boy II’s demolished Brooklyn cityscape at the Korda Studios. Hungary has long been a destination for film shoots but now houses one of the most equipped and high tech movie studios in the world. Korda Studios is in the process of putting together a tour package and museum that very well may rival Universal Studios someday. Stay tuned, it plans to open to the public as soon as 2012.
If fantasy structures are not really your thing and you crave genuine architectural masterpieces, check out the art nouveau building designs found throughout the Jewish District of Pest. The influence of this eclectic mix of modernism, a collective of asymmetrical shapes adorning turn of the century structures, can be seen all around Budapest, but seek out the Bedo House if you find the Secessionist style to be your thing. Home to a furniture store and museum, Bedo House built by Emil Vidor in 1903 for the art collector Béla Bedo also has a small café on the ground floor, affording you an opportunity to sit amongst some of the finest exhibition of art nouveau artifacts for the price of a cup of coffee.
It is this interspersion of new and old that helps to give Budapest its real charm. This charm is found not only in its architecture but also in its attitude. Remember, Hungary only joined the European Union less than a decade ago. As such, they are just now starting to define their new found democracy and autonomy with the advent of fashion, modern business and luxury hotels, designer shops and a nightlife scene that would rival New York.
The restaurant scene, like in any emerging market, is competitive. There is a central dining scene in Budapest just off the Oktogon (arguably the center of the Pest side) where cafés line the streets with their outdoor tables and hosts that lure you in as you stroll through. Menza, a café in the middle of them all is the one spot in this mix where you will find the Budapest locals eating. It is the least of the touristy destinations, more of a hangout and cosmopolitan in design. Menza serves Hungarian classics in contemporary fashion and at an affordable price.
For fine dining, Onyx is the spot. Recently opened to a Michelin star review and located two short blocks from the Danube in the Vorosmarty Square in the building that houses Gerbeaud Cafe, the owners have created a sophisticated Modern Hungarian fifty five seat restaurant where the elite meet to eat. Onyx is deliberate and refined. Under the tutelage of Chef Szabina Szulló, the kitchen prepares local sustainable ingredients, using the latest modern techniques.
On the Vorosmarty Square you will find jugglers, musicians and performers, but the Gerbeaud around the corner from Onyx is a 150 year old coffee house serving Swiss confections and the real star. Also housing a pub and restaurant, Gerbeaud is the perfect meeting spot for a late lunch or afternoon cocktails. In an equally beautiful building just a 10 minute walk from Gerbeaud through the quaint shops of Pest, is the Central Market. Also built in the mid to late 1800’s at the foot of the Liberty Bridge, the central market was restored a few years back and now houses booths of fresh produce, meat and of course paprika!
There are many bridge crossings connecting Buda and Pest but none more intriguing and beautiful than the Chain Bridge. Rebuilt after its destruction in World War Two, it remains one of the most photographed landmarks in all of Europe. It is the backdrop to the Parliament on the Pest side and the Castle district. The Castle itself is a marvel and home to the national museum but the area it sits in is home to Roman stone homes above a labyrinth of caves and the Matthias Church, both worthy of a tour.
The labyrinth tours can be as serious or fun as you want. Take it with friends in the pitch black or do the educational tour to learn some Hungarian history and culture, or should you find damp wet caverns romantic, request the lover’s tour for two. You get twenty minutes alone and should you want it in one of the caves.
Whether it is after a tour of the caves or stroll over the bridge, try relaxing in one of the many therapeutic baths that help to make Budapest a famous destination since the mid 15th century. There are several dozen natural springs feeding ancient bath houses, the most famous being the art-nouveau Gellert Baths. Gellert has over twenty pools of naturally hot mineral water and massage therapy and steam baths open to all. The pools are open year round both inside and out and are readied to help rejuvenate your ailing bones.
The baths also make for the perfect hangover remedy and Budapest gives you every reason to want to go out and get your party on. Once again, the dichotomy of Budapest is seen in the use of old buildings no longer useful for living accommodations. These decrepit buildings are converted into bars know as ruin pubs. These pubs are usually festooned by local underground artists and worth going to for their outrageous décor. Ruin pubs are located through the city and some are grungier than others but all are fun and most stay open through the night. Sitting atop of the defunct Corvin Department store (what could have been the Bloomingdales of communist Hungary) is now one of the liveliest of this style pubs. Enter through a small inconspicuous dive café and you end up in a freight elevator that whisks you to the more than five hundred person dance party on the roof.
See the majestic New York Palace Café to swank it up in a room that shames the real New York’s Plaza Hotel or hit the Happy End Ruin Pub; there is something for everyone. Enjoy the scenery that rivals Paris’ Seine, tour wine country that is at least that of Sonoma County or just walk the main shopping district to find one of a kind designers like Vago Reka, and you will see why Buda and Pest seem to have it all. Worlds and generations collide to make Budapest one of the most fascinating destinations in Europe.
In celebration of the Budapest launch, American Airlines through June 30 is offering passengers between JFK and Budapest the chance to earn 15,000 bonus AAdvantage miles for round-trip travel in Business Class, 10,000 bonus miles for full-fare Economy Class, and 5,000 bonus miles for discounted Economy Class.
Full details and registration are available at www.aa.com/offers using the promotion code: NYBUD