Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Paprika! Paprika!

Taking a quick break from my "French tales" to give you a Hungarian one, hope you don't mind...
In 2009, I went to Prague (which I loved) and Vienna (which I...liked-ish), but this time I pushed even farther east to the other former capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire--Budapest.

Parliament in Pest
Hungary had a long road to independence--from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to the Nazis, to the Communists, and still seems to be working on recovering from all of this, but Budapest is definitely a metropolitan, cosmopolitan, cultural-filled, tourist-friendly, and beautiful city that can claim a number of World Heritage sites--according to Wikipedia, it was named the most livable city in Central/Eastern Europe and is called "the jewel of the Danube."
Budapest was actually 3 separate cities until 1873: Buda and Obuda on the right bank of the Danube, and Pest (said Pesht) on the left. In 1873, they were united to give us the capital city we know today as Budapest. These 3 names now simply designate three parts of the same city. Buda is hilly, residential and quieter (other than the tourists buzzing around Buda castle and the Matthias Church) than the more bustling, flatter, commercial and business area of Pest. Both areas can boast pretty, colorful, historical buildings and must-see sites, as well as excellent views of each other. Budapest definitely reminded me of Prague--Central/Eastern European cities, significant Jewish histories/sites, similar types of cuisine, crazy, impossible to decipher languages (that interestingly enough, are not at all related--could have fooled me!), lots of art nouveau architecture.... Though I found Budapest a bit less well-preserved and quaint, but with better food--Hungarian goulash soup and paprika chicken (well paprika everything really), cream cakes galore, their own thinner-pastried strudels, langos (mmm fried dough) etc etc...YUM. If pressed to choose (or recommend), I'd  definitely say Prague (but hey, why not both?).

Two things I really liked about Budapest--the coffee shops (not the Amsterdam kind), and the money. Coffee is definitely an important part of Hungarian culture, as it is in most of Europe, and they have a lot cafes, many of which are establishments from the 19th century, with beautiful interiors and a "story" in their menus. Besides these though, Budapest had actual American-style coffee shops, and I'm not just talking about Starbucks. I even saw one place called "California Coffee." I realized this was something I missed about the US, as, other than Starbucks, the "coffeeshop" doesn't really exist in France. Sure there are a gazillion cafes, but it's just not the same thing. I was even able to get a chai latte at one of these coffeeshops! As for the money, though Hungary is part of the EU, they, like the Czech Republic, are not yet on the euro--though this is kind of a pro and a con. A pro, because the exchange rate is highly favorable--1 euro=270 Hungarian florints, but a con because new currency is always a little confusing, plus it means getting charged for the exchange. Unlike expensive Switzerland, where technically the exchange rate is also favorable, but everything is still super expensive, Budapest actually was a pretty cheap place. In the oldest cafe in Budapest, I was able to get a pot of tea and a fabulous pastry for about 4 euros. Score!

My first day in Budapest woke up on the wrong side of the bed, so to speak: I woke up to light snow (when promised mostly sunny), and a very unwelcome cold. Not a great way to start a trip. Well, after sleeping in for another half hour, I forced myself out of bed, swallowed a couple of day quill I had luckily brought just in case, bundled up, and walked along the Danube to the Parliament building to get tickets for the 10 o'clock English tour. After a tour of the gorgeous interior of the world's 3rd largest (and Europe's largest) Parliament, including Europe's oldest crown, the snow had stopped, blue sky was appearing, and the day quill was working its magic. I was ready to explore Budapest! And explore I did, until both my knees and ankles hurt.

After the Parliament, I headed back to the Danube to find what turned out to be my favorite thing in Budapest (besides the Parliament and the pastries): a WWII Holocaust memorial of copper shoes to remember Jews who were shot into the river near the end of the war when the Germans knew they were losing. The shoes represent the real shoes left behind along the bank. It reminded me of the exhibits in the DC Holocaust Museum and London Imperial War Museum which have piles and piles of shoes gathered from concentration camps, but even more moving because of the fact that they were "on location," and though made of copper, looked every bit as real as the shoes in the museums.

Then I continued my tour of Pest (the left bank), walking through different squares, snapping photos of statues, art  nouveau buildings and churches. I took another tour (not by choice) in the Synagogue, the second largest in the world and largest in Europe. The tour guide reeled off her memorized schpiel in heavily accented English so that I probably only understood like 75% of what she said, as she went over "the history of the Jewish people" in like 15 minutes. Anyway, I did learn that Poland and Hungary lost the most Jews in WWII, Hungary losing 600,000 out of a population 1 million. Today, there are only 125,000 Jews in the country. The rest died, escaped, or were never given the chance to be born.

Buda castle behind statue of "the Little Princess"
From this sad site, I once again worked my way back to the river to watch the sun set behind the palace of Buda hill. Little did I know this would be my only sunset, as the forecast for the next day was "sunny." Ha. My second day was less-than ideal. My cold was worse, the sun disappeared after about an hour, and the tendinitis in my left knee (dormant for the last 3 years), decided to come roaring back, causing me to walk stiffly and painfully around Buda hill and City Park as I attempted to complete all of the "must-sees" of the city before limping back to my hotel room at 3pm to rest my leg and escape the icy wind, which was really not helping my cold. In between, I was sort of able to enjoy said sites, and most especially, my tea and pastry break at Ruszwurm, the oldest cafe in Budapest, dating from 1827. I had some absolutely scrumptous cream cake and vanilla tea, in the small cafe, surrounded by French tourists, who naturally, were everywhere in Budapest (a welcome sound for me, especially after hearing way too much Hungarian).

Great Market Hall
The next day, my last, I had a few hours before I had to leave for the airport around 1:30, so I was able to make it to the Great Market Hall for some souvenir shopping and a "street food" lunch of apple-nut strudel and langos. The market was great, you could easily spend several hours in there, shopping and sampling local delights amongst fellow tourists doing the same and locals picking up produce and meat. As it had snowed--and snowed--the night before (which I had to limp through to eat my last Hungarian dinner, appropriately enough of goulash, paprika chicken and their version of crepes), I also wandered back to a few sights to get some pictures of them covered in a light icing of snow, which began to melt not long after. Before heading to the airport, I stopped in one final cafe for one final tea and pastry. A delicious end to a lovely trip--a trip I was relieved to bring to an end, looking forward to recovering from all of my aches and pains, and, as always when I spend a few days in another country, eager to return to la belle France.

Et voila! Next time, we return to France!

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