Saturday, July 17, 2010

European Trip Diary, Part 2: A Full Day in Budapest (July 9)

After a good night's sleep, Nicky, Mom, and I meet in the New York Palace's breakfast rooms and partake of one of our "semi-packaged" trip's key perks: an all-stops-out, included-in-the-price buffet breakfast. And we're not just talking "breadels," mini-muffins, and stale coffee here, folks. I've seen Golden Corrals with a narrower selection of menu items. In addition to cereal, juice, milk, coffee, fruit, yogurt, and croissants -- the standard lineup for what's commonly known as a "Continental Breakfast" -- the spread includes Hungarian and Italian cheeses and meats, prepared salads, compotes, scones, and cakes. These big breakfasts will prove to be a real money-saver as time goes on, since we will generally be able to "get away with" only one additional main meal each day.

Our first "target" of the day is one of Budapest's landmarks -- Heroes' Square on the city's original "Millennium" Metro line. This line dates back to the late 1890s and has carefully maintained decor and scrubbed wall tiles to match, but graffiti is still visible on the subway car. The same holds true, remarkably (and depressingly) enough, at Heroes' Square itself, despite the much nicer, parklike neighborhood. Given that the square commemorates the great heroes of Hungary's past, this is a little like someone spray-painting the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial. One object that the vandals haven't disfigured is the imposing central monument representing the seven Magyar tribal leaders who founded what would become Hungary over 1100 years ago. You can easily imagine these fellows spurring their horses on in pursuit of Ring-bearing Hobbits in their off-duty hours.

The broiling sun soon convinces us to get off the shade-less square and find a cooler place to explore. The Budapest Museum of Fine Arts, which flanks the square on one side, seems like a good choice. A surprise awaits us, however: no air-conditioning! We'll need a water break before we're through with our exploration of the exhibits. An English-speaking docent gives us a brief introductory tour before leaving us in the "Old Masters" section, which features a wide variety of paintings from the 14th through the 19th centuries. The "Masters" include Velasquez, Goya, Tintoretto, "El Greco," Gainsborough, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. These great works are, for the most part, left to brave the overheated conditions AND hot, incandescent overhead lights without any protection! Granted, the Museum is scheduled to undergo "renovations" soon, but what about the damage being done in the meantime? It's enough to cause an art-lover to despair...

Luckily, Rodin discontinued his usual practice of using me as a life model before going on to sculpt "The Thinker"

Right around the corner from the Fine Arts Museum is our lunchtime destination: Bagolyvar (Owl's Castle). This restaurant holds the unusual distinction of having won awards for the best place in Budapest to have a "power lunch," while, at the same time, having all of its food cooked and served by women, giving it a special "Mom's homemade" touch. The place's spread-eagle appeal is further illustrated by the giant plush figure of the 2010 World Cup mascot by the door coexisting with coy advertisements inviting "soccer widows" to come in for food specials during the tournament. Nicky decides to fulfill one of her culinary missions and have schnitzel, while I content myself with barbecued pork, garlic mashed potatoes, and the obligatory cucumber salad. For the three of us, the bill comes to about $55 US. Not bad, all things considered.

Having penetrated deep into Pest, it's now time to hie ourselves across the Duna to "Old Town" Buda and the Castle District. We take the Metro down to the river and walk across the famed Chain Bridge, taking care to keep in the shade as much as possible (which isn't easy at this torrentially warm time of day). Then, it's up the equally famed Budavari Siklo (funicular railway) to the Castle... come along with us for the ride!

We now begin to feel the effects of the unseasonably hot weather. We do manage to visit the courtyard of the Royal Palace, St. Matthias Church with its distinctive tiled roof, and the terrace at Fisherman's Bastion -- memorable sights all -- but we intersperse our wanderings with frequent breaks and one pit stop for water and sunscreen lotion. Nicky and Mom are having some trouble walking on the cobblestoned streets, as well. We finally decide to cut our losses and catch a bus to take us to Moszkva ter M2 Metro station, a Communist-era eyesore built like a badly-fashioned bundt cake. From there, we travel to downtown Pest and the Central Market -- sort of the Budapest equivalent of Baltimore's Lexington Market, only with much more class and much less crime -- but we get there only five minutes before the place closes. We take that as a suggestion to take a break back at the Palace.

A further word about the M2 Metro line. American lawyers would wet their drawers dreaming of potential personal-injury lawsuits if they saw how this line's escalators operate. The steps move at least twice as fast as an American escalator's -- and there's no disclaimer included to warn the terminally dim of the potential danger. Nicky took a video of one escalator ride; if you listen closely, you can hear the air whistling!

The New York Palace's pride and joy is the New York Kavehaz (Coffee House), a sip-and-sit salon where literary movers and shakers liked to gather during the halcyon days before World War I. It went into a long decline, along with the hotel itself, before the recent renovations restored it to something closely approximating its original splendor. Since the only other eating place "on site" has a dress code, we have our "snack-in-lieu-of-dinner" at the Kavehaz. Here is where I have my obligatory plate of authentic Hungarian goulash -- which many people think is a stew, but is actually more like Chunky Soup (did I really just draw that analogy? My bad). The place is pricey on the real New York level -- 16,000 forints (about $60) for what amounts to a deconstructed (the technical term is "reduced") sandwich, a cold plate, a plate of soup, two ice cream dishes, and drinks -- but we aren't cheated in terms of quality. I was a bit disappointed, however, with the repertoire of the piano player we shared with the snootier establishment next door. He could have done so much better than cycle through show tunes and tread-worn movie themes... like, play some Liszt, for example?

Before we went to the Kavehaz, we received an unexpected but gratifying piece of news: we've managed to make contact with my relatives! Before the trip, Mom had written my cousin Agnes (Agi) using an address Nicky had obtained from the internet. The letter arrived and was "processed" just in time for our arrival. Agi's husband Csaba, who speaks English, left a message with the front desk asking for a meeting. Mom calls Csaba, and we're now set to meet everyone at 5 pm in the lobby of the Palace, after the three of us take a planned side trip to Szentendre, an artists' colony a few miles up the Duna. We're not sure exactly who is going to be able to attend, but, whatever the lineup, it will be a much anticipated event and one that I'm so glad has finally come to pass.

Up next: Szentendre; Margaret Island and some heartfelt moments with the relatives.

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