We flew into Prague and transferred to Budapest. Forty plus years of East-Bloc incompetence have left a mark on what we saw of Hungary. Almost two decades after the fall of the Communism, the Hungarians still have some catching up to do.
If you listen closely enough to tour guides, you can catch some inadvertent revelations. In Spain last year, on a tour of Madrid, the guide continuously referred to the Civil War era Nationalists as the “fascists.” In Budapest, our moonlighting school-teacher guide made several references to the distasteful extravagances and flashy Mercedes’of the new rich, free-market capitalists, wistfully recalling a more egalitarian Hungary.
Our introduction to the city was a well-conducted, guided boat tour on the Danube, which on that day and in that city was anything but blue. Budapest, despite the slovenly maintenance of public spaces, graffiti and uncollected trash, has a lively flair in a beautiful setting. The really old buildings, mostly 18th century, combine with the turn of the century (19th to 20th) streets to create the effect of a mildly sinister 1940s Carol Reed movie set. There’s a bouyant café culture, pre-war trams and an ornate subway system as old almost as those of New York and London.
A friend of a friend, a Hungarian émigré historian, recommended a Budapest restaurant named Gundel, and on our last night in town, we did it. The place has been in business since 1896 and works hard to replicate the dining experience of those times. I felt like Ralph Kramden imitating a Hapsburg Count. Our evening at Gundel was one of the most elegant outings I’ve ever experienced; garden dining, exquisite service, over-the top food and a Hungarian string ensemble complete with a cimbalom (the Hungarian version of a hammered dulcimer). It was also among the more expensive restaurants in Hungary. The tab matched anything a trendy Manhattan joint could have laid down. It was our extravagant gesture of the trip, and worth the price. And as we left the restaurant, a major fireworks show began in the park just across the street. We watched from under the trees and across moonlit water.