Treasures and terrors of the past

Budapest, Hungary Today’s travels spanned the spectrum of things that this city can be proud of and things many wish had never happened.

Starting with the glories of Budapest, near the top of the list has to be the newly restored State Opera House, which Don attended last night. He showed off its wonders to me today, and, indeed, it is glorious.

The building dates from the 1890’s and was just recently restored. It sparkles in the daylight and must be amazing at night.

We strolled down a beautiful street in what was known as the “Broadway Quarter” for its emphasis on the arts, from the Franz Liszt Academy of Music to the Ballet Institute and several small theatres. What remains today is still a great looking collection of buildings, though most have been repurposed.

And then, we got to the House of Terror. Not a ride at Disney World, this is the place where both the Nazi and the Soviet regimes tortured their Hungarian subjects. I was rather grateful that only one object could be photographed in the museum, as then I could avoid having to share what we saw. Suffice it to say that once you were taken to this building for questioning, it was almost inevitable you would never leave. The photographs of 3,200 people killed here decorate the outside of the building, and rise up from the Soviet tank in the lobby.

Our next stop was something out of the past also, but still giving pleasure — one of Hungary’s thermal bath houses. The Romans were on to something with their baths, and this version of a communal soak seems to continue to work well today.

After a long break for lunch, we walked past the Museum of Fine Arts, but were definitely not in the mood for Hieronymus Bosch.

We then took a bus across the river and finally entered the Buda side of this city, taking the Castle Hill walk. The highlights are the Royal Palace, the Prime Minister’s offices, the Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion. It’s a very large area, accessed most easily by funicular. The palace has had many iterations, and owes its look to no specific era or style. But it does offer great views of Pest, particularly of the gleaming white Parliament.

I have to admit we speed-walked through most of it, as a lot is under construction and little is too memorable. There is a large fountain — sort of a Trevi-light, and a major statue to St. Stephen, who got everyone in the late 900’s converted to Christianity — or else. The Fisherman’s Bastion is a 1896 fantasy designed to remind people of their Magyar heritage. All in all, it was a bit phony and a lot didactic, like much of Hungarian monuments.

Don’s Food Corner and other matters

Before moving on to some of the food we’ve consumed over the last few days, I will report on my experience at one of Budapest’s famed thermal baths. (Jo didn’t go. I don’t take photos, although we walked by the bath today and she did a few snaps outside and through the window within.)

There are a couple of dozen of these bath complexes in Budapest. They all draw on readily available hot water springs with water that is rich in all kinds of supposedly curative minerals. I went to the Szechenyi Baths, which is the largest medicinal bath in Europe. It was originally opened in 1913, with an elaborate decorative style of the 19th century.

This was a vast complex of various pools, both indoor and outdoor. The pools are kept at different temperatures, ranging from 86 degrees to 108 degrees. Each pool has the temperature marked. The water comes out of the ground at 170 degrees. The temperatures are controlled by adding cold water. The water, which is constantly being refreshed with new water from the springs, is not chlorinated.

While there is a dedicated area for swimming laps, most of these pools are for people to just stand there or kind of float — for hours. There is a lot of socializing, as people move from one pool with one temperature to another. There are also dry saunas and wet steam rooms. Both sexes used everything; bathing suits required. The place was filled with all ages, from young children to the ancient (like me).

I’m not sure there was any interest in medicinal powers of the water. It was just a great big public swimming pool (with a $15 entrance fee) that offers really warm water, lounge chairs to sun in and multiple options for food and drink. It’s as much a part of the Hungarian culture as paprika and sour cream.

Speaking of which, today we went to the restaurant Gundel, which is touted as Hungary’s best restaurant. Very fancy it was. Located across from the park where the Szechenyi Baths are located, the decor is breathtakingly beautiful. The restaurant was originally opened in 1894 and completely restored and reopened in 1992 by Hungarian-born American restaurateur George Lang, owner of New York’s Café des Artistes.

Our expectations were very high. We were disappointed with the service, however. Although there seemed to be dozens of waiters and waitresses roaming around, we found ourselves in some service no-man’s-land. No one seemed to have been assigned to our area. (A man two tables down from us was so furious about not being waited on promptly that he demanded complimentary wine. Although he got his demand answered, we could tell that his whole plan for a special meal event was ruined.)

When we finally got someone to pay attention, after Jo literally pulled on a waitress’s apron, she admitted that no one was sure who had been assigned to our table and those of our immediate neighbors. That should not have happened.

It took us an hour to get served. It did help that there was live, but unobtrusive, music alternating between a skilled pianist playing songs from the Great American Songbook and a trio of violins and piano playing more traditional Hungarian music. Gypsy violins, anyone?

The food itself was not disappointing. It’s just that I was expecting something spectacular, considering the build-up.

We started by sharing a goose liver pate that had been enhanced with Hungarian wine and served with a raisin chutney. Excellent.

We also shared Hungarian goulash soup. Seemingly a refined version of this dish, it was excellent as well. Jo just thought it tasted like decent beef and vegetable soup (and had traces of her dreaded bell peppers). I thought it was somewhat better than that, but I also thought that I could make this soup at home with similar results.

Moving on to the main course, Jo had her usual — wiener schnitzel. The veal was tender and the breading was delicate. The schnitzel was served with parsley potatoes and a cabbage slaw that was heavy on the vinegar. The potatoes were impressively “turned” in the French manner and perfectly cooked, tender without falling apart.

Jo gave the Gundel schnitzel a B+ rating. That’s the highest rating possible outside of Austria. When we get to Austria, she expects everything to range from A- to A+. If it drops below that, it’s the end of civilization. Stay tuned. The Austrian schnitzel wars are about to begin.

I had chicken paprika, which consisted of a chicken breast and leg with noodles (spätzle) in a creamy paprika sauce. This is a dish I tried in the dining car on the train we took to Budapest from Bratislava. I would say that while the Gundel version was definitely more refined in execution and presentation than that in the train dining car, it wasn’t that much better. Clearly from these two versions of the same dish, everyone is using the same cookbook. The paprika use is judicious as is that of the sour cream. (Like the goulash soup, I’ll be able to replicate this at home.) I was also served a side dish of cucumber salad. In this case, however, there seemed to be more sour cream than cucumber by weight.

If we’ve sampled the best in Hungarian cuisine, I don’t think we need to linger here. Maybe that’s why there are so many Italian restaurants in Budapest, with so few restaurants serving traditional Hungarian dishes.

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