The Empire Strikes Back, Episode 3
And now for the finale. We had been looking forward to Budapest all along, and it did not disappoint. Like Bratislava, it has had more than its share of nasty foreign occupation, although it has bounced back with its own bohemian flavor. There are roughly 2 million people in the city and they spend about 60% of their income on housing. This makes for a tough road to capitalism, making them dependent on tourists to fill the restaurants and buy stuff in the shops. Nonetheless, it has latched on to an arty, shabby chic vibe that gives it more grit than the pristine streets of Vienna.
Buda is the original city, built on the hill, now dominated by the dubiously “reconstructed” Castle. Pest is on the opposite side of the Danube, and is where the heart of the city lies today, dominated by the fanciful Parliament Building.
We stayed at an art hotel called Brody House, not far from the center of everything. It’s unique features were the rooms, each modeled on a specific artist, and the Honor Bar, where you make your own and then write it down on a pad, to be charged later. They also give out club passes to their own artful events like book launches, exhibits and parties.
On our first day we took a walk on Vaci Utca, the pedestrian tourist street full of familiar and not so familiar shops and restaurants. It was here that the first McDonald’s broke into Soviet Bloc. They say that lines formed around the block day and night. We then headed up Andrassy, the Champs Elysee of Budapest – well almost. There we wandered into the Opera House, and by a stroke of luck, were able to buy tickets to that evening’s performance of the Budapest Philharmonic. We nabbed box seats!
The concert was fantastic! They played selections from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, Mendelssohn’s Mid Summer Night’s Dream, and Othello by Dvorak. What a great way to spend an evening. They sang in German, with subtitles in English and Hungarian.
The next day we walked along the river and across the bridge to Buda. We went to the National Art Museum which has a large collection of Hungarian art, and for now, a big exhibition on Picasso and friends.
It was time for a picnic! The best place to get provisions is at Central Market, an enormous industrial building full of veggies, poultry and MEAT. We eventually found a cheese booth, so if you are looking for a business opportunity, they have a serious cheese deficit in Budapest. Mike was testing out a sausage or two, when he was suddenly surrounded by a mob who snatched away the plate before I could get a sample. Aggressive meat-mongers!
Yolanda had read somewhere that he lower level was devoted to one of my favorite food groups – pickles. It took a while to find them, but there were indeed many stalls of delightful, happy pickles. There were happy candies as well, all dolled up for the kids.
We took the Metro to Heroes Square, the entrance to City Park. The statues celebrate seven Magyar Chieftans and National leaders. Beyond that is a 300 acre park filled with fantasy architecture and gardens. We parked ourselves and enjoyed a leisurely picnic.
Yo and I had a nice dinner out that evening at a new hip restaurant called Kiosk. It was there that we saw the most veggies on any menu. These people love their meat! They are famous for duck, and goose liver pate.
We read that no one knows where the Hungarian language comes from. it’s not a Latin-based or Anglo language and is most closely related to those spoken in Finland and Estonia. Try to square that with their Magyar, central Asian DNA. It’s not adding up for me, but then, the only thing I know about is Borodin’s interpretation of the Stepps of Central Asia in the language of music. Good thing for us, most everyone speaks English.
Our last day in Budapest was devoted to Art Nouveau and Terror, the opposite ends of the spectrum of Hungarian experience. The Art Nouveau period was one of peace and prosperity, with a focus on bringing all the arts together as a utopian lifestyle.
Moving from peace to war, we felt we needed to better understand the deep scars the people here carry with them from years of authoritarian rule. The House of Terror was the headquarters of the Nazis, followed by the Communists. They built tunnels to other buildings and an underground prison inside these walls. It was indeed terrifying.
It was time to say goodbye to Mike and return to Vienna for our last day of vacation. It was great to see him. He has many adventures lined up through July with friends and family before he boards the next cruise ship bound for the South Pacific. We had an amazing dinner at Onyx, a meal full of food and fun.
In Vienna we spent our last evening at the Daniel, a quirky hotel with a surrealist boat dripping off the edge of the building, an airstream trailer in the garden, and hammocks in the rooms.
The hotel is right next to the Belvedere, the museum with the largest collection of Sesessionist art in the world. It was time to take another look at Egon and Klimt, including the world-famous “Kiss.” If you have a chance, see the movie, “Woman in Gold,” which is a true story about a woman who fights the Austrian art establishment and the US Supreme Court to retrieve a family painting by Klimt, stolen during the Nazi occupation.
It’s hard to fathom that it was not until 1955 that Austria became a sovereign nation. It was in this Marble Hall where the Austrian Independence Treaty was signed.
Our time was up. We had our final dinner at Motto am Fluss, a ship-inspired restaurant floating above the Danube. That’s the necklace Yo bought in Philadelphia, with the matching earrings from Bratislava.
Despite the aggravation of having my stuff stolen, we had an incredible time exploring the lands of the Austro-Hungarian empire. This area of the world has survived a history of invaders, warring monarchies, evil dictators and authoritarians. They may no longer be the empire of old, but THEY’RE BACK!