Budapest is a city of palaces, cathedrals and synagogues, coffee houses and squares, a gilded Opera House and 500-year-old Turkish baths. It’s
one of the loveliest cities in Europe, especially when seen from the banks of the Danube at night. The hilly Buda side of the river is a curio cupboard showcasing the Hapsburg collection of palaces, churches, and castles. The flat Pest side is the city center and houses Parliament, the Opera House, the Synagogue and the World Heritage designated boulevard – Andrassy Ut. Stand on the Chain Bridge between the two riverbanks at nightfall and wait for the show. The city flicks on – it’s a Christmas tree lighting. The bridge and all the buildings and monuments are illuminated. The fingerprints of Budapest’s history are smeared over the current day city; Turkish occupation, Hapsburg Dynasty habitation, communist attack and control, and European Union ascension. The resurgence of Central Europe is a sight to behold.
But in spite of this embarrassment of riches, my personal highlight in Budapest is breakfast. We always stay at the Bellevue B&B just below the Fisherman’s Bastion near Mathias Church. The owners, Judit and Lajos, are retired economists who have lived in Canada and Greece during their tenure with the Hungarian Finance Ministry. Show up to breakfast hungry – and try to act smart. It’s a serious business, and I don’t miss a minute of it – from the 8:30 start to the 10:00 final cup of coffee. When breakfast ends, my sightseeing day begins. But before we push back from the table, let me reflect on breakfast.
Lajos is kind, solicitous… he refills my coffee and ensures I have enough jam and bread. I drop some casual questions “Can the Euro be saved? What caused the crisis?”. He pauses, lifts a brow and wrinkles his forehead in thought. I’m prepared. After all, I thought up the questions. I share a few relevant points from the Economist magazine I breezed through on the train down. Then, I’m all ears. It’s a lot to absorb. Monetary policy is not my strong point. However, it’s an unparalleled experience to learn history from a guy who had a front row seat.
Judit is spunky – her face crinkles when she smiles – her black hair and central European accent lend a Mata Hari element to her stories. She spins tales from her Hungarian Jewish roots. Her sister walked out of the country near the time of the 1956 revolution. She was following her husband who had left a few days earlier, and she toted her two very small sons with the help of an ill cousin. When her cousin was forced to return home, he took the younger son back with him. Judit’s sister ,with her older son, trundled on to Austria. The family fractured not to reunite for eight years. I can not imagine making the impossible choice and living eight years with the consequences. But stories like this are commonplace in our new home - a humbling reminder of life behind the Iron Curtain.
With breakfast behind us, we turn to our serious meanderings. One day we visit the castle district including an underground World War 2
hospital built into the rocky base beneath the castle hill. It’s the hot new attraction. While I won’t rush to return, it’s an interesting and unique site; a hospital fully contained underground, a safe haven used during the war. Up on the castle grounds, we drop into Mathias Church and enjoy the colorful, geometric stenciled walls. Another day we stroll the tree and mansion lined Andrassy Ut – past the Opera House and onto Hero’s Square. It’s a lazy day in a city built for boulevardiers and with a coffee house culture which rivals Vienna. We spend an afternoon with cake and coffee in one of a myriad of choices – perhaps Gerloczy Cafe or the venerable Cafe Gerbeaund. Other days we’re feeling a bit more intellectual and visit the Terror Museum on Andrassy Ut or the Fine Arts Museum on Hero Square. We listen to an open air concert in City Park or soak in the nearby Szechenyl baths. The most powerful sites are the Jewish memorials; a collection of random brass shoes on the banks of the Danube below Parliament, a memorial to the Jews shot and thrown into the river by a cruel and desperate German army. Behind the Synagogue stands a silver weeping willow tree – each leaf inscribed with the name of a victim of the genocide. These heartbreaking memorials are on the agenda of nearly every visit. And throughout the city are reminders of the 1956 Soviet attack – bullet holes still visible in the walls around Parliament square – commemorative statues everywhere. We pace ourselves. There’s no rush as we realize we will return.
In the evening, we eat at one of our short list of favorite restaurants. In other cities I’m more inclined to choose a restaurant randomly and vary my selection. But in Budapest, we stick to the old standbys, including my favorite Italian restaurant: Trattoria Toscana. We’re less likely to disrupt our meal agenda here – less likely to bypass old friends for new. After dinner, on our walk back to the B&B, we cross the Chain Bridge. Each night our last sight of the city is the spectacular panoramic light show. Days can be consumed in this large and diverse city. Others frantically flip thru their guide books to plan tomorrow but not me. I’ll sleep like a baby. And if I dream, I will dream of breakfast.
Hotel: Bellevue B&B Szabo Ilonka, 15/b. A multilevel B&B (no elevator) of 5 rooms just below the castle hill. It’s a bit of an up hill walk after a day of sight seeing – but a bus runs from Deak Ter to just above the B&B. The rooms are comfortable facing either the castle or Parliament. They range from 40 Euro to 65 Euro depending on the room and season. And of course, breakfast is included. (Rooms are payable in foriths or Euro but the rate is quoted in Euro). Non-smoking, cash only, Air-con.
Trattoria Toscana: Belgrad Rakpart 13 (Pest side, on the Danube between the Chain Bridge and the main market hall). You will think you are in Italy. Wood fired pizza oven with an assortment of fish, meats, and pastas… Salads and sides are large enough to share. Reservations are a must. You can call or email them (email@example.com)
Menza: On the leafy and happening Liszt Ferenc Ter (on Andrassy Ut). Hungarian food with a modern twist. Indoor and outdoor seating right on the square. Reservations are smart. Great venue for before or after a show at the Opera house.
Cafe Kor: Sas u. 17. Old time Budapest with tourists. Hungarian specialties very near St. Stephen’s Basilica. Appetizers are huge (a meal in themselves). And meals are even larger . 1/2 portions available (though generally not at quite a half price). Cash only!
Arrival Information: We arrive by train at the Keleti station and exit the station to the metro line. You can buy single tickets or a 10 pack. Take the red line towards Deli Palyaudvar and exit Batthyany Ter. Follow directions to Bellevue B&B. Make sure you stamp your ticket in the chest high small box where you enter the station.