Budapest, Hungary Today is Easter Sunday, as well as being in the middle of the Passover holiday. The weather is brisk but sunny, and we are seeing more people than usual on the streets.
Our day started at the Great Synagogue, built in the middle of the 19th century during a time when the Jews of the city were eager to win acceptance from their Catholic neighbors. Thus the synagogue was built by a Gentile, based on his version of the Temple of Solomon. The Moorish-style towers set it apart and its rose window led some at the time to describe it as “the most beautiful Catholic synagogue in the world.”
We were not able to tour the interior, which mostly survived the war because the Nazis used it as a Gestapo base. What we could see from the outside gates was the Memorial Garden along side the synagogue, and the Tree of Life that replicates an upside-down menorah, with each of its 4,000 metal leaves etched with the name of a Holocaust victim. A symbolic grave for the many heroes who helped saved Hungarian Jews is behind the Tree, with Raoul Wallenberg’s memorial the most prominent.
We were then in the Jewish Quarter, which became the Jewish ghetto. Much of it was abandoned or neglected after the war, but is now returning to life, with Jewish cafés and restaurants along with several other synagogues. They are sharing space with craft markets and the hipster community, which appreciates cheap real estate and atmospheric surroundings.
One touching sight was a remnant of the ghetto wall, which can be viewed through an old doorway. The wall was built within interior courtyards instead of in the streets so as to disguise it. Further on, a stone marks the end of one corner of the wall.
Hungary lost approximately 600,000 Jews to the Holocaust. Today, there are about 100,000 Jews in the Budapest area, which represents the largest Jewish population of any city in Central Europe. This part of the city is now rebounding and is a source of pride for those who survived to remember.
We also saw a small Spring fair along a graceful boulevard. Then there was an amazing lunch (stay tuned) and a stroll back to our hotel. Time to start packing up and getting ready to leave. We have one more morning to spend here, and then it’s off to Vienna.
We saw a lot and we learned a lot, but we are ready to move on from the sadness of Hungary’s story. We only hope there will be some more good times in its future.
Don’s Food Corner
Lunch today was at the New York Café, which is billed as the “most beautiful café in the world.” It’s not clear how that title was achieved, either by self-proclamation or by some outside source, but having seen it, we’re not going to argue.
Built in 1894 as part of the Budapest headquarters of New York Life Insurance, the three-level restaurant is grand in every meaning of the word. It’s vast. It’s ornate. It’s over the top — in a good way.
Considering the huge number of people being served there today — and I assume every day — with a long line stretching outside to get in, we weren’t expecting much in the way of food quality or service attention.
Boy, were we wrong.
Jo started with duck liver pate that was accompanied by a delicate portion of apple chutney and a little pile of fresh greens and radishes sliced so thin that they were translucent. The duck liver wasn’t as smooth and rich as actual goose liver, but none was left behind.
I had a bowl of roasted potato soup with truffles. The color of the soup was what you would expect from roasted potato, but floating in it were the tiniest diced bits of potato I’d ever seen. The bowl arrived with the diced potatoes and the mound of minced truffles in the bottom and then a server poured the soup (from a silver ladle, of course) on top.
For her main, Jo went with (guess!) wiener schnitzel. It came with a side dish of outstanding cold cubed beets in a very subtle vinegar seasoning. Though Jo is loathe to rate any wiener schnitzel outside of Austria higher than B+, she almost broke her pledge today, but got around it by rating it B++. It was really that fine.
I had grilled duck breast, which came with two large pieces of meat, in a blueberry-based sauce and accompanied by fried cheese balls. Sometimes these cheese balls are translated on menus as fried cottage cheese. I don’t think, however, that you just roll some cottage cheese in your hands and drop them into a deep fryer. Something else is going on and I’m sure they depend on a some specialized type of Hungarian cheese. (I’m too lazy to look up the recipes.) However they are made, they were luscious.
The duck was grilled to pink perfection and was tender, tender, tender.
All in all, what we expected would be a disappointing meal in a tourist trap, turned out to be one of our best meals since leaving New York. The service couldn’t have been better or more gracious. (We’re looking at you, Gundel.) And added to the spectacular surroundings was live music, piano alternating with violinists. Considering the size of the rooms and the number of people in there and filling every table, the room was surprisingly quiet. You could hear the other person at the table and not be overwhelmed by the voices of anyone else.
The guidebooks declare that the New York Café is “overpriced.” But we don’t consider something overpriced if the quality justifies it. In this case, the meal cost $105 including tip. I can remember some pretty lousy meals on Columbus Avenue that cost far more for far less quality.