With Sarah in town, it felt like a little bit of Portland had made its way to Budapest. That feeling was compounded when we woke up on Saturday with the undeniable urge to go to brunch and found Most Bistro.
From the moment we walked in the door and saw the lobby walls papered with black-and-white images of audio cassette tapes, we knew we had found our people. The tables were mismatched, the walls were covered with abstract works of art, and everyone in the place was sub-30 and very hipster-looking. Bloody marys and mimosas were offered up alongside omelettes, eggs Benedict, and a list of indulgent French toast variations. And the soundtrack upon our arrival was Gotan Project’s rendition of “Paris, Texas”, followed by a Clancy Brothers tune. Hallelujah.
After brunch, in true Portland spirit, the next item on the agenda was a gastronomical festival taking place at Erzsébet Square, called Gőzölgő. There were various food items available, but given the fact that we just ate an enormous brunch, and given that we were still hugely addicted to the forralt bor, we opted to drink instead.
A couple mugs of forralt bor later, we decided we did have to indulge in one food item we found: Kürtőskalács, or chimney cakes. If anyone reading this has seen my Pinterest page, you’ll recognize this pastry as something I decided early on that I needed to try. Pastry dough is rolled into a long, thin rope, and then wrapped around a wooden spindle and roasted until the outside becomes brown. Then it’s brushed with butter and rolled around in any number of coatings; on this occasion, we chose one vanilla and one cinnamon to split between the three of us. And oh man, was it delicious! The wooden spindle ensures that the inside of the pastry hovers on just the right side of under-done, which complements the crispy outer side extremely well.
As it turns out, after the brunch we had just come away from, two kürtőskalács between the three of us was something of a feat of strength, but we triumphed. Feeling rather hedonistic at this point, we left the festival grounds to go for a walk, and made it about half a mile before we found a place to stop and have a beer.
The rest of the day continued on like so, with some walking and sight-seeing, and then stopping for beer or coffee. We ended up walking through the tourist-trap part of Pest, which I’d recognized from our first trip because of the H&M– at that time, it was a familiar landmark to which I could desperately cling, but this time around I found myself annoyed at all the commerce going on around me. We pressed on, heading south, to Central Kavéház for some Weiner Mélange and decadent pastries (which I neglected to photograph, but Sarah ordered a giant macaron that looked like a raspberry hamburger, for what that’s worth). Dinner that night was at a place called Vörös Postakocsi, which promised more Fat Thursday prices but failed to deliver, and none of us was up to the task of challenging the bill in our extremely limited Hungarian.
Sunday was a day of work for Jim, so Sarah and I decided to hit the town. Originally we had hoped to see an opera, but when we went to the ticket office, the cheapest seats were around US $37. Not outrageous, mind you, but a far cry from the US $2.50 we were aiming for. So instead we decided to pub crawl our way back to the neighborhood in the hopes that Jim would be finished working by then. The first place we stopped at was called B City Bar, where the walls were plastered with movie star memorabilia. The featured work of art in the room where we sat was a rendition of the Last Supper, wherein Jesus was replaced by Brad Pitt, and the apostles were likes of Marilyn Monroe, Robert Deniro, Al Pacino, etc.
At some point we went from not having any idea where we were to arriving at the main drag where we knew exactly where we were and how to get home. So, not yet ready to call it a day, we turned down a side street and headed away from the apartment. We were looking for another pub, but we came to a tea house instead, and went inside.
We were greeted by the distinct and inviting aromas of nag champa incense mixed with various teas, and a giant mural of the Himalayan mountains on the far wall. Apparently it was a special day, because the place was packed. We ordered the “Advent Tea” because its description contained the most Hungarian words I could understand (narancs, ananász, etc.), all of which sounded delicious. And it was.
After our relaxing tea session, a woman with a friendly face, who was perhaps near 50 if I had to guess, came up to our table. She spoke a decent amount of English and asked us if we wouldn’t mind coming over to where her and her colleague were sitting.
“You see,” she said, “today is a very special day in this place, and we are offering re-energizing service to everyone. But there is someone who has been sitting there a long time, and if you come with me, we can say ‘Oh, sorry, these girls would like to sit down now’ and maybe he will leave.” Sarah and I looked at each other, nodded, and grabbed our coats to go be re-energized.
We were seated back-to-back, and given energized water to drink. The woman working on Sarah spoke no English whatsoever, so the first woman, whose name was Valerie, became the interpreter. We chatted during the whole session, which involved a wand being waved in circles above each of our chakras; she asked if we were students and we said no, to which she reacted with some surprise since, as she put it, “Hungary is a small country and not a lot of people know it is here.” She seemed extremely pleased that we were just there to visit, which pleased me in return.
As the session was drawing to a close, Valerie was summing up what the effects of the energizing process would be. “Tonight, if you are up at 3am, you will think of us!”
We thanked her and paid for our tea, and left to go back to the apartment, thoroughly charmed by our experience. Our plan was to collect Jim and go to dinner. After a brief internet search, our choice destination was the Old Man’s Music Pub, not only because of the menu but because they stream their live music online in real time. We could hear that the band for the night, Mojo Workings, was just getting tuned up, so we refreshed ourselves and headed out.
The Old Man’s Music Pub is down in the basement of the building, and when we arrived, Mojo Workings was in full swing. It’s a group comprised of three men– a rhythm guitarist, a lead guitarist, and a harmonica player– who all wear the same hats and who sing American blues with adorably thick Hungarian accents. I was in love from the first moment I heard the harmonica. One of the songs they performed, “Chevrolet”, has since become an integral part of the soundtrack of this trip.
Sadly, Mojo Workings packed it in before our food came, and a DJ took over. We ended up hanging out there all night, and when it got to be 2:30am on our walk home and we were still in high spirits, I thought of Valerie and her colleague.
The bummy thing about staying up past 3am is that the next day is guaranteed to be a late one. We didn’t wake up until almost noon, and our plan was to go to Castle Hill because it would be Sarah’s only chance to see it. However, Most Bistro had re-awakened our brunch lust, so the first item on the agenda was food at Cafe Brios. The food was good, so good in fact that we opted for breakfast dessert in the form of Nutella-stuffed French toast and fruit. Finom.
From Cafe Brios, we headed down the river to the Chain Bridge, and did and saw many of the same things we did the first time. The exception this time around was a stop at Ruszwurm, the oldest pastry shop in Budapest, and with good reason.
After our indulgent afternoon on Castle Hill, we decided to head south on the Buda side to the Cave Church, a Pauline establishment that was walled up during the Communist occupation. Though I’m not religious by any stretch, I have an historical appreciation for the impact of religion on Western history, particularly as it pertains to wherever I am at the time. Thus I found the Cave Church wildly fascinating, especially since it’s only been reopened for two decades, since the end of Communism. There is a guided tour that leads you by headphone set through the caves, past a host of statues and relics, and gives you the story of each in delightful accented English. By the time we finished the tour, it was dark outside. We thanked the man who was handling admissions and souvenirs and headed back to our apartment, at the end of the day, for one last time.
Thus ended the Budapest portion of the trip (though I’ll be back at the end of the journey in order to fly back to the States). We left the next morning, by train, to head to Prague. I’m excited to get to know Prague, and visit the Czech Republic (or, as I’ve affectionately dubbed it, the Mother Country). What I know right now is that Budapest has captured my heart; the people are friendly, and the city is magnificent without being heavily trod. It’s a city to which I never thought I’d go a first time, but I find myself immensely thankful that circumstance allowed me to come again.
Szia Budapest! Ahoj Prague!