Pest at its best

Budapest, Hungary Over here on the Pest side of the Danube, it couldn’t have been a nicer day. I’m sure the same thing is true in Buda, but we didn’t get there yet to test that theory.

We arrived here yesterday after a very nice 2.5 hour train ride from Bratislava. The only hiccup was learning that taxis at the Budapest train station abide by no rules concerning meters, and operate as a rapacious mafia. But we had the good fortune to once again be traveling with the young Frenchman with whom we had shared a compartment on the train from Krakow to Bratislava. What are the odds? There is no Uber here but luckily he had the right ride-service app on his phone and was able to get us a Bolt car to our hotel for a fifth of what the taxis wanted. I wonder if he’ll appear again, just when we need him.

Our first major sight was the view of Buda from our very own window. Not half-bad seeing the Blue Danube flow by, no matter what color it happens to be at the time.

It is no exaggeration to call this a city in transition. The history of Hungary and Budapest is as rough as any in this part of the world, and its glory days architecturally were in the 19th century. Having survived two world wars and then Soviet occupation, the city still has a marvelous reservoir of wedding cake buildings to show off. But as proof of its rush to smooth off its leftover rough edges, the most dominant structures in this city are the cranes that are everywhere, renewing the old and adding the new.

Today we toured the Pest town center, beginning with breakfast at the landmark Gerbeaud café. It is gorgeous and worthy of its fine reputation, earned since it opened in 1858.

Nearby is a street filled with brands we all recognize. In the 1980’s, Eastern Bloc residents would come here and fantasize about what it might be like to be free. The McDonald’s situated in a lovely Beaux Arts building is no ordinary McDonald’s, trying to fit into the neighborhood. No, it was the first McDonald’s behind the Iron Curtain, opening in slightly more liberal Budapest in 1988. Those of us of a certain age remember pictures of lines stretching around the block to get a taste of “West food.” The Adidas store had a similarly warm welcome. Maybe this was the Soviet’s first clue that they had completely lost the culture war. Now you can get Starbucked to death.

Though the the Soviets tried to make all the shops uniformly dull, the spectacular facades on the shopping streets still remained. Despite the ravages of WWII, many gorgeous building remain and help return the area to its glory days.

We sat for a moment to enjoy a view of the white Elisabeth Bridge from March 15 Square. This was the site of a third century Roman fort, built at the point of the narrowest Danube crossing. The church behind us is the Town Center Parish Church, the oldest building in Pest, founded in 1046. It has been a Romanesque basilica, Gothic hall church, Ottoman mosque and now a Baroque cathedral where Franz Josef and Sisi were crowned the Habsburg monarchs of Hungary in 1867. Nearby is a statue of Hungary’s national poet.

We strolled up an avenue of old and newly scrubbed buildings that show the progress Budapest has made in reclaiming its past.

We went through the University area, which is next to a predominately Serbian neighborhood. Voluntarily or involuntarily, people came to Hungary from all the areas surrounding it, making Budapest one of the greatest melting pots in Europe. For us, it was also a good place to stop for a break.

We were across the street from the Great Market Hall of Budapest, built in 1896. It was irresistible, with all kinds of things we wanted to photograph, but not eat. Paprika everywhere! And when Hungarians talk about pickles, it seems they take anything they have and pop it in some brine. Colorful and dramatic, the market was a magnet for the older people who seemed to be missing from the rest of city. Guess they still value the farm-fresh commodities.

Yes, this is a city in constant transition, but it has come an amazing way since the Soviets left in 1991. And it still faces some political challenges. But your eye is drawn to evidence of the cultured society of the past, one that valued beauty and grace in all of its surroundings.

Don’s Food Corner

The Food Corner is on temporary hiatus until Don recovers from close encounters with Hungarian laundromats and various other Budapestian traumas. In the meanwhile, enjoy photographic proof that we have found nourishment in this city.

3 thoughts on “Pest at its best

  1. When I was there in the 90’s it was a beautiful city but not so sparkling clean. What a difference. Just as an observation, I see you are continuing with your schnitzel campaign.

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