I have been in Budapest 24 hours, and already I have sipped coffee at three cafes. Budapest culture is all about the cafe and music scene. My introduction to the city included a lazy evening at a cafe and an evening of boisterous opera. After checking into my hostel, I headed out into the bustling city down the main drag called Andrassy ut, looking for a place to eat. Instead, I stumbled upon a crowd of people in front of the opera house. There was a huge screen set up in front of the opera house, the street was blocked off, and chairs set up. Women dressed in 19th century gowns were passing out programs. I had happened upon a rather huge event – the 125th anniversary gala for the Hungarian Opera House. The theatre was sold out inside, but the opera was showing the event live on the large screen outside for free. While the crowd gathered, a small brass ensemble performed a repertoire of 19th century music from a balcony. I came back after my dinner to be a part of the city’s celebration, and it was a fantastic cultural experience. Along with locals and tourists, I listened to the first opera performed in the Opera House 125 years ago. Chills still run down my spine when I think of it!
The cafe scene here is a mix of the grand imperial old, and the modern, hip new. Today I tried two cafes from the days of the 19th century Hapsburg Empire. This morning was the Gerloczy Cafe, tucked away on a quiet street (at least quiet for Budapest!). The inside is a picture of 19th century grandeur, with elaborate wallpaper and gilded mirrors. I sat outside and sipped my cappuccino while the world marched by. One thing I already love about Budapest – fantastic people-watching! In the afternoon, I took a seat inside the famous Muvesz Kavehaz, across from the Opera House. Another imperial 19th century beauty. I imagined the women in their gowns and the men in tails and white tie conversing beneath the crystal chandeliers after a night of opera. The service at cafes is super efficient and orderly, but not overly friendly. This is not a bad thing. They do their jobs well and are very helpful when you need a menu translation. They just don’t make small talk like American waiters. You can sit the whole day away in a cafe, all for the price of one coffee – the waiters never hurry you. The check is brought only when you ask for it. A clueless American tourist could find themselves growing frustrated, wondering why the waiters never bring the check! Again, it is not bad service; it’s a waiter making sure their patron is never rushed. In that perspective, our waiters are rather rude for pushing us out the door!
I got a couple of the typical tourist sites out of the way today, what some might call the tourist traps. A stroll along Vaci ut is almost a prerequisite here, but don’t get stuck shopping here. There is so much more to this city! I took about half an hour, admiring the menagerie of architecture. During Communism, this street was considered a visit to the West for people all over Eastern Europe. They would come to Budapest to shop this street and eat at the first McDonald’s behind the Iron Curtain. There are a number of upscale shops here, but most sell what you can easily find in the States. My eyes stayed up on the building facades. Intricate and beautiful! A range of styles, from Viennese imperialism to modernism to secessionism.
At the end of Vaci ut – and a Budapest must! – is the Great Market Hall. A giant market, vibrating with energy. The first floor is a mix of produce, spices, meats, breads – I tasted some spicy paprika, which is essential to Hungarian cooking. Upstairs are the crafts, souvenirs, trinkets, and even old Communist bric-a-brac, like hammer and sickle flasks, military hats, and old pins. I am fascinated with all the intricate embroidery, much of it done by hand. You could easily lose the whole day here shopping!
I am staying at a unique hostel, called Homemade Hostel. It is tucked behind a nondescript door on a busy street. Behind the door is a quiet, almost secret courtyard, filled with apartments and a grand, elegant staircase. It is a faded beauty, wise and serene and a little tired. The hostel itself is a quirky place. It is based on an ethic of environmentalism, so all the furniture inside is secondhand and has been repurposed, sometimes in surprising ways. For instance, an open suitcase attached to the wall becomes a shelf. The kitchen is huge, there are three bathrooms, and a total of 18 beds between the various rooms. Everyone I have met here is a little quirky themselves and friendly. The Hungarian staff love to chat with their guests. A laidback vibe.
A note on my health: I have hit my “wall”. Tomorrow I am tossing all plans out the window and heading to the local baths, maybe spend time in a cafe. No other plans. Fatigue is in every muscle and bone, and my brain is foggy. Time for rest.