||Coffee bribes in the former bloc|
ticket inspectors roamed the corridors of the Budapest metro, targeting
confused tourists. "Youre over the line without a punched ticket,"
"But we had to come over the line to read the explanatory sign," I pointed out. No dice. The pack surrounded us, baying for blood or was it bribes? "Four coffees, four coffees," one official insisted, waving his ticket book.
Was our fine the
piddling equivalent of a round of drinks? Or were we being shaken down
the head goon snarled. "No," I shot back. The situation looked
grim. Very grim. Grim as in former-Soviet-bloc-prison grim. Until my companion
produced our train tickets. "Weve just arrived from Romania,
five minutes ago, at Nyugati station upstairs. We havent had time
to illegally ride the metro."
Eureka. We were released,
ever so reluctantly. But our metro misadventures didnt end there.
Those inspectors plagued us throughout the day, chasing us through grimy,
dim corridors to triple-check our thin, pumpkin-coloured tickets. Then,
to top it all off, we missed the last train across town at the
absurdly early hour of 11pm.
An hour later, my
resistance was melting down, however. Wed passed innumerable lively
cafes, spilling crowded tables and bright umbrellas onto the sidewalks:
scenes straight from Rome or Paris, transplanted to this colder clime.
Couples strolled hand in hand down cobbled streets. Cheerful shouts escaped
from open-air clubs, pulsing with music. Granted, they were horrible Kraftwerk-style
techno tunes, but overall the atmosphere was light, playful even
a far cry from our hellish subterranean morning.
We wandered along
the mighty Danube, a broad inky ribbon bisecting the city. Golden floodlights
washed over ornate Art Nouveau and eclectic architecture, bulbous onion
domes evoking the Kremlin, the rock-hewn Cliff Chapel, craggy Castle Hill,
the imposing Parliament. Tiny bulbs traced the famous Chain Bridge, oldest
in the area. Night breezes hinted at forested slopes and green meadows
just over the horizon. Hungarys capital was fairytale perfect under
the pinpoint stars and pale moon.
I relented. Budapest
deserved a chance, despite the ticket inspectors and intimidating haunches
of meat, smothered in cream sauce and paprika, which dominated every menu.
The morning dawned
bright and crisp, hinting at autumn. The Danube wasnt blue, as the
song promised, but sunlight danced alluringly along the ripples, highlighting
the powerful current (for state occasions, the city pours azure dye into
the murky waters). We crossed the river, bound for Vorosmarty square,
one of Budapests most elite addresses. Gerbeaud, a 145-year-old
cafe, lies there. If the legendary decor, coffee and pastries couldnt
win me over, nothing would.
This Budapest institution
didnt disappoint. The ambience was fantastically fussy with marble
tables, gold wallpaper, shiny brass and velvet drapes, all the trappings
of the Austro-Hungarian glory days. The posh piano was destined for the
Titanic, but missed the boat because of construction delays.
One of the largest
and oldest cafes in Europe, Gerbeaud serves an ornate menu, including
espresso laced with apricot liquor, topped with whipped cream; marinated
goose breast with walnut dressing and marzipan cake, to name a few delicacies.
The drinks, admittedly,
didnt live up to expectations. Hungarians take caffeine very seriously.
A proverb even dictates that "coffee should be black like the devil,
hot like hell, and sweet like a kiss". Gerbeaud, cranking out cups
for the tourists, fell more into the lukewarm and lacklustre camp, but
the setting and confections more than compensated.
We lounged in wicker
chairs outdoors, as pigeons and children wheeled about the famous square.
A leafy clump of trees and monumental statues broke up the vast space,
fringed with elaborate mansions.
The citys glamorous
commercial district begins here at Vorosmarty. Stalls line the side streets,
packed with leather goods, predominantly gem-coloured wallets. Bijou boutiques
sell hand-embroidered linens next door to glamorous chain stores along
the Vaci utca.
Shoppers can splurge
on white-gold porcelain favoured by Queen Victoria
at Herends (Jozsef Nador ter 11). Stop by the House of Hungarian
Wines for the evocatively-named red, Bulls Blood (Bikaver), or the
world-famous Tokaj, which even merits a few lines in the national anthem
(Szentharomsag ter 6).
A tolerant smile
stretched across my face, as sunshine glittered on the window displays
and bright Hungarian flags cracked in the breeze. Now this wasnt
so bad: cosmopolitan and elegant, yet alien enough to be interesting.
To celebrate my conversion, I decided to undergo the traditional Budapest
baptism a dip in one of the capitals 123 hot springs.
After all, every
travel writer gushed about the therapeutic waters and the sheer fabulousness
of Hungarian spas. And thanks to the strong euro, I could venture into
the gilded heart of decadence. I was tempted by the deepest, hottest pools
at Szechenyi, the splendid neo-Baroque backdrop for the film Evita (Allatkerti
ut 11), but opted for the creme de la creme, the Gellert Baths,
where Saint Elizabeth once cured lepers, according to legend.
The hotel certainly
looked the part, as its turrets loomed over the riverbank. The spa lobby
passed muster too, with soaring ceilings and gleaming wood aplenty. But
all hell was breaking loose at the ticket kiosk, where tourists struggled
with the bewildering array of options. Bath and steam? Open-air pool?
Locker or bathing cabin? How many forints was that exactly?
Confusion is not
chic and the Gellert was rife with it. The endless corridors were
a modern Tower of Babel, as visitors from all around the globe fumbled
through the Byzantine system. The attendants seemed actively malicious,
confiscating chits needed farther along (each bather is issued a handful
of receipts, all handily labelled in Hungarian, a language kin only to
Finnish and famed for its difficulty).
I padded through
the vast changing room, exchanging irritated glances with other guests.
Support groups formed, sending out the bravest soul in search of the fabled
A Canadian girl wept,
having lost her camera and weeks of film in the scrum. Sharp-tongued
staff scolded the customers. Despite the marble columns, I started having
flashbacks to the metro madness. What next? Another rant because my receipts
were damp (big surprise there) or insane demands for coffee?
Just as I was ready
to flee the spa and the country I accidentally emerged into
the central pool area. The Art Nouveau gallery was exquisite, all stunning
skylights and mosaics, a vision from a pashas harem.
bureaucracy had invaded this sanctuary too. Angry black arrows dictated
that swimmers circulate clockwise. The pace was brisk, as stocky, pink-jowled
men charged round the circuit. Each wore the mandatory Gellert bathing
cap and resembled nothing so much as a very determined walrus with a lumpen
carrier bag trailing off his head.
Preferring a convivial
soak, I headed for the bustling smaller tank, where stone lions spurted
hot water. The experience was not relaxing. Signs multi-lingual
for once forbid floating. The guests clung to the benches, but
such obedience didnt spare us. Soon two attendants arrived and began
bellowing in Hungarian, waving vaguely into the crowd. Bathers shifted
around, trying to intuit what the problem might be. Dont sit under
the faucet? Avoid blocking the sign? Go away and spend your capitalist-pig
Like me, many gave
up and left. The shouts continued to bounce off the marble, echoing down
into the Tower of Babel dressing room. I couldnt leave quick enough
and almost screamed myself, when the refund system slowed my headlong
charge for freedom and sanity.
The Gellert was typical
of my Budapest experience: stunning design crippled by chaos and the people-handling
skills of a Communist thug. I know this was a streak of bad luck, as Hungarians
are famed for their quirky wit and warm welcome, not to mention being
the most savvy, sorted-out nation in the former Eastern Bloc.
With more time
and more careful planning this capital could prove magical. But
first impressions are hard to shake: and mine will forever remain being
shaken down for coffee in Nyugati metro station.
Airport taxis have
a poor reputation. Take the Shuttle "Minibusz" for 2100 HUF
instead (296-8555). Budget travellers should catch the local 93 bus to
Kobanya-Kispest metro station for 106 HUF.
Where to stay
Where to eat
Meat dishes dominate
the menu at Apostolok, a classic restaurant with a dash of religious kitsch:
stained-glass windows and church-pew booths named after the Twelve Apostles
(Kigyo utca 4; 267-0290). Panicked vegetarians seek refuge in the soothing
Bangkok House Restaurant. Theyre in good company, judging from the
portraits signed by Madonna and Yoko Ono, praising the delicate Thai cuisine
(So utca 3; 266-0584).
Swanky Gundel remains
the citys most famous and expensive eatery (Allatkerti
krt 2; 468-4040). On the down-market chic side, Marxims weighs in
with barbed wire, communist murals and decent pizzas (Kisrokus utca 23;
Snuggle among champagne
bubbles at the bewilderingly-large and ornate Gellert Baths (Kelenhegyi
ut 4; 466-6166). Or dip in the citys deepest, hottest pools at Szechenyi,
the splendid neo-Baroque backdrop for Evita (Allatkerti ut 11; 363-3210).
True bloc-buffs might consider the "Hammer and Sickle" walk offered by Absolute Tours (211-8861; www.absolutetours.com).
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