One factor in choosing our new home was its proximity to some pretty cool places – we’re an easy morning’s drive from Bratislava, Vienna (Jo’s favorite) and Budapest (Scott’s). We’re also less than 4 hours from the beautiful city of Krakow; we’ll drive there after the roads clear in the spring.
A while back, Jo put up a great post on Vienna, so now it’s time for Scott to weigh in on Budapest.
As you know, Budapest was once two separate cities – medieval Buda sits atop a hill overlooking the Danube. And Pest, with a 19th century ambience (think broad Parisian avenues), lies below on the opposite bank. It’s true that there’s a lot of cool stuff in Buda, which is probably why tourists tend to congregate there, but for some reason I spend most of my time in Pest when I visit.
Those who know us will not be surprised to learn that we invariably choose the Hotel Kempinski for our lodging.
Having said that, I have in the past stayed at the architecturally magnificent Gresham Palace Four Seasons once or twice. The building is a remarkable piece of Art Nouveau, built for an insurance company but left derelict after the war, only to be rescued in the ‘90s for conversion into a hotel. Unfortunately, the rooms are about double the price of the Kempinski, and very few hotels are twice as good as our favorite. Even so, I generally sneak into the Four Seasons for a drink or a meal, simply to enjoy being surrounded by the architecture.
The Kempinski is located at one end of the main, pedestrianized shopping street, called Vaci. If you’re lucky enough to stay there in December, you’ll be right by the Budapest Christmas Market. Ham and sausages, mulled wine, furs, leather, glass and music. Of course there’s a lot of cheap stuff but there’s a fair amount of the worthwhile as well.
Vaci is a winner – the usual international brands (Boss, Zara, Nike, etc.) are represented, but there’s a large complement of local-only stores too; the usual tourist tat is here, but so are several antique stores, jewelry shops and higher-end outlets. All in all, a very attractive mix.
It’s long, too – at least a mile. And once you make it to the end, you get a great reward – an incredible greenmarket.
What a place – the vegetables look amazing, and caviar, local liquors and fresh meats are available in abundance. But what keeps me coming back is the foie gras - this last trip I paid 20 euros for a hunk of nearly a kilo. Amazing.
There are many restaurants along Vaci, among them a more-than-serviceable trattoria called La Cucina. Of course they’re right in the middle of a tourist street, but the quality is very good - If you’re in the mood for unpretentious but well-done pizza or pasta, it’s the place to stop.
But if you’re searching for something special, seek out the Borkonyha Winekitchen, just across the park that abuts the Kempinski. When I visited the city with our best friends Arlye and Frank last year, we popped in for a late afternoon glass of wine, and decided later to accompany it with an appetizer or two. The quality was so good that we knew right away that these folks can cook. On my latest trip I stopped for a light lunch; not being in the mood for quantity (for once) I decided on a couple of appetizers instead of a main.
I’m convinced that it was the best scallop dish I’ve ever had in my life. And the other selection was definitely the best seared foie gras I’ve tasted (foie gras is a Hungarian speciality).
One other food note: There’s a Nobu right on the ground floor of the Kempinski building, which is obviously tempting. WARNING: Do not go there for dinner! For some inexplicable reason, they insist on playing deafening techno music, completely ruining the ambience of a Japanese meal. Go there for lunch instead – the music is muted to a quite tolerable level, and you can enjoy some great sushi, soft shell crab tempura and lobster in a wonderful wasabi ginger sauce.
BTW, did you notice the prices on the Borkonyha menu?
The Hungarian language is famously fiendish (and has nothing whatsoever in common with Slovak, so my study of the latter does me absolutely no good here), but the good news is that almost everyone with whom a Budapest tourist comes into contact speaks perfectly passable English.
My problem is to do with the money. The forint/euro exchange rate is something like 280/1 – not exactly a convenient ratio. Even when I do the conversions at 250/1, so that 1000 forints equals 4 euros, there’s still something very disconcerting about seeing a restaurant bill of over 10,000. And when the ATM gives you these choices, it definitely gives you pause for thought:
At least it’s not like it was in 1946, when Hungary suffered what remains the worst hyperinflation in recorded history. At its worst, the currency (the pengo), which had been at a level of about 7 to the dollar in the 20s, was being denominated in 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 (100 quintillion) pengo notes, which still weren’t worth anything. Prices were apparently doubling every 15 hours, and at the end of the episode - when they replaced the currency - the situation could be summed up like this:
I bought this 100 million pengo note at a shop on the Vaci as an interesting curiosity – it cost a little over a Euro.
If you head north from the Kempinski, in the opposite direction from the Vaci, you’ll pass the glorious Gresham Palace, on what used to be Roosevelt Square (the name was recently changed).
Just round the corner is a beautiful view of St. Stephen’s cathedral, the largest in the city.
It’s beautifully illuminated at night.
The building was built at the turn of the 20th century and is modeled on Westminster.
It still represents the seat of government; as such it has also become the traditional site of protests and demonstrations. The most notable, and the most tragic, occurred in 1956 during the first protests in Eastern Europe against Communism and Soviet domination. Hundreds were killed here on October 25 – memories of this massacre were still fresh during the year of liberation, 1989, and even now it has by no means been forgotten.
Carrying on to the north, in a slightly subdued state of mind, you’ll soon arrive at Culinaris – a most important destination. It’s a gourmet grocery store that seems to cater largely to US and UK expats. JoEllen makes me stop there every time I’m in town, for delicacies like toll house chocolate chips, Aunt Jemima pancake mix and Canadian maple syrup. For myself, I usually pick up stuff like A1 Sauce and Old El Paso refried beans. OK, I know, that doesn’t exactly sound “gourmet” but they’ve got lots of high quality stuff as well. I’m just amazed at how they seem to fit so much into such a small space.
Walking back to the hotel, I get ready to drive home. Even Jo says I’m a damned good navigator – which means I know my way around maps.
How hard can it be to get out of Budapest and head for home? I must admit that by now I harbor a certain macho pride in being able to drive in and out of Bratislava, Prague, Vienna and Budapest with no problems, and without getting lost. It hasn’t always been that way, as some of my best friends are too well aware. You know who you are – now stop smirking.