Coffee bribes in the former bloc





Vorosmarty square


Hungary’s capital didn’t make a good first impression. Grit, inconvenience and bureaucrats straight out of the film Brazil greeted us. The Soviet regime, I thought, has forever tainted the glorious city of the Hapsburgs, the Turks, the Romans.

Indeed, ferocious ticket inspectors roamed the corridors of the Budapest metro, targeting confused tourists. "You’re over the line without a punched ticket," they barked.

"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 for cappuccinos?
I was tired and grumpy from an eleven-hour journey in a sleeper berth. So I argued – with my whole five-word Hungarian vocabulary. The inspectors knew a bit more English, but it was mainly surreal babble about coffee. Soon I was under arrest.

"Passport," 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. "We’ve just arrived from Romania, five minutes ago, at Nyugati station upstairs. We haven’t had time to illegally ride the metro."

Eureka. We were released, ever so reluctantly. But our metro misadventures didn’t 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.
The capital’s taxi drivers are notorious for fleecing visitors, so we set off trekking. Nothing like a six-mile constitutional stroll after a big dinner. Budapest was not racking up brownie points. Frankly, I hated it.

An hour later, my resistance was melting down, however. We’d 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. Hungary’s 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 wasn’t 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 Budapest’s most elite addresses. Gerbeaud, a 145-year-old cafe, lies there. If the legendary decor, coffee and pastries couldn’t win me over, nothing would.

This Budapest institution didn’t 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, didn’t 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 city’s 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 Herend’s (Jozsef Nador ter 11). Stop by the House of Hungarian Wines for the evocatively-named red, Bull’s 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 wasn’t 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 capital’s 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 towel depot.

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 pasha’s harem.

Unfortunately, Budapestian 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 didn’t 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. Don’t sit under the faucet? Avoid blocking the sign? Go away and spend your capitalist-pig earnings elsewhere?

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 couldn’t 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.

Getting there
Budapest Ferihegy airport is 15km outside the city centre (www.bud-airport.hu). Malev Hungarian Airlines flies Athens-Budapest from around 220 euros (www.malev.hu). Sky Europe plans to launch a no-frills route later in the year from London (www.skyeurope.com). Ryan Air and Easyjet are also contemplating a Budapest stop.

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
Follow in the footsteps of bigwigs like Brezhnev, Gorbachev and Yeltsin at the Hotel Andrassy, once a Communist party resort (Andrassy út 111; 462-2100;). Or check out the hype at the new Art'otel. American artist Donald Sultan has mixed moderne design with 18th-century Baroque townhouses in this gracious, spacious hotel (Bem Rakpart 16; 487-9487; www.artotel.de). Surprisingly enough, the blend works.

Where to eat
Gerbeaud Confectionary attracts all the glory with its velvet, mirrors and polished brass (Vorosmarty tér 7; 429-9000). Yet many prefer the New York, a favourite haunt of struggling writers since imperial times. Legend claims that giddy patrons tossed the keys into the Danube, so the cafe could never close (Erzsebet koru 9; 322-3849).

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. They’re 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 city’s most famous – and expensive – eatery (Allatkerti krt 2; 468-4040). On the down-market chic side, Marxim’s weighs in with barbed wire, communist murals and decent pizzas (Kisrokus utca 23; 316-0231).

Bon vivantes flock to the Hungarian State Opera, which often showcases native sons Zoltán Kodály and Bela Bartok (Andrassy ut 22; 331-2550; www.opera.hu).

Snuggle among ‘champagne’ bubbles at the bewilderingly-large and ornate Gellert Baths (Kelenhegyi ut 4; 466-6166). Or dip in the city’s 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).




"A proverb even
dictates that coffee
should be black like
the devil, hot like
hell, and sweet
like a kiss"








"Each resembled
nothing so much as
a very determined
walrus with a lumpen
plastic carrier bag
trailing off his head."

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