Monday, April 18, 2011


I had never been to Budapest before this month. With its history as complex and spicy as a pot of Hungarian Goulash, I wasn't entirely sure of what to expect. In a country of just over 9 million in population, Budapest is the home to 1 million. I read and studied the guide books which show the grand architecture, tell of the layers of history and suggest hotels and restaurants, but you still need to be in a place to feel the vibe of it. I was glad I was there.

Historically, during the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, Budapest underwent an unprecedented civic development that is still seen today. The grand palaces, castles, churches and official buildings are awe inspiring. Geographically, Budapest is divided by the Danube River and became one city from the 3 cities, Buda, Pest and Obuda after the Compromise of 1867. It sits on hot mineral springs and the name Pest, comes from the Slavic word, oven. I can't wait to go to the thermal baths that are one of the main attractions of the city, and confirm that translation :-) There are many thermal baths scattered around the city with one of the more opulent being at the Gellert Hotel. Politically, Hungary shed its communist ruling in 1989, which in historical context is very recent. Then during the economic buildup of Budapest, the recent worldwide downturn put a big hiccup into the growth process. My airline is the only airline to once again begin flying into Budapest from New York year round. This should be a big economic shot in the arm to the city and the country. When we arrived on our first trip to bring the inaugural flight back to New York, we were met with excitement and respect. Our hotel sweetened the pot with trays of pastries and coffee to welcome us.
We then decided to take a bus tour of the city, getting off at certain spots to acquaint us to the lay of the land. It was the first bus tour I've ever taken of a city, but it was a wise decision. As we drove around, we passed by diverse architecture and stopped at certain landmarks. We couldn't stop and get out at Heroe's Square that day because they were preparing for visiting dignitaries and rolling out the red carpet. It was a windy spring day as we made our way to Castle Hill in Buda. Buda is very hilly versus the flat landscape of Pest. It was also the more affluent of the cities. From Castle Hill there are sweeping views of Pest across the Danube. A café sits at the edge overlooking the magnificent city. There is a Hilton Hotel on the castle grounds that appears so out of place. We were told that when Zsa Zsa Gabor was married to Conrad Hilton, she insisted on having a Hilton Hotel in her native city. Remnants of a monastery curiously abut the modern edifice of the hotel. The golden light of the castle reflects in the hotel's stark windows. After exploring the castle, we were coming near the end of our 3 hour tour. We resisted any souvenirs, and actually the vendors are few and far between. After this long day we were getting hungry and had been dreaming about Hungarian food and its spicy reward. Since we had only arrived earlier in the day, we weren't sure where to have dinner. We knew it wouldn't be the English Pub or the Sinatra Bar. We were looking for pure Hungarian food in this city that is eager to please the western palate. Being the first crew of our airline to layover in Budapest, we were at the mercy of our hotel for recommendations that evening. They suggested dinner at Tigris Restaurant. The atmosphere was bistro-like and the staff spoke English. We found that many people in the city speak English, which we were grateful for. Give me a French menu any day and I'll know what to order, but my Hungarian is nonexistent....I'll try, but don't bank on any fluency! Even with an English speaking waiter, I ended up with a chalkboard special of Stuffed Pepper which wasn't what I thought I ordered at all. Before our meal, we were brought an amuse-bouche of a celery mousse topped with diced duck, which was delightful. My friends ordered Beef Cheek Stew with Sour Cream Noodles that I was eyeing. They graciously let me taste it and I wished I had followed the group and made that choice, too. Ah, I will look for this again! I think next time I'll be searching for a little less refinement and a lot more local flair. I want to taste it all, because it's not just about the palaces and castles. I want to dig in and feel the pulse and heartbeat of this city through its struggles and not just the accomplishments. Although, walking along the Danube at night it was hard to not be dazzled by the majesty of the accomplishments. I'm glad I'll be back.

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