Keep Them Hungry
by Sarah Shuckburgh
After the grey days of
communism, Budapest is now a lively, beautiful city. Shame
about the cooking, though, says Sarah Shuckburgh.
Budapest worked its magic - the majestic grey-green sweep
of the Danube, the lively music, the cobbled streets of
Buda, the graceful boulevards of Pest, the soothing thermal
baths, the elegant cafes. The city was perfect - except for
one thing . . . but more of that later.
Since the collapse of communism, Budapest has become a
vibrant, romantic, beautiful European capital that recalls
the golden age of the Habsburgs. Although familiar signs of
globalisation are there - McDonald's, KFC and others - the
atmosphere is subtly fin-de-siecle and inexorably Hungarian.
Neo-classical, Baroque and Art Nouveau buildings in Pest
have been renovated; gypsy fiddlers play at outdoor
restaurants; stalls sell brightly embroidered tablecloths
and blouses, and everywhere Hungarian flags flutter, green,
red and white.
Buda, on the Danube's hilly west bank, retains a particular
charm. On Friday afternoon, my friend Caroline and I rode to
Castle Hill on the 19th-century funicular and strolled along
narrow, cobbled streets and past houses with stucco walls
freshly painted in muted yellows, pinks and terracottas.
We marvelled at the exotic interior of St Matyas Church,
where ceilings, walls and pillars seem to be swathed in
Turkish carpet. Hardly an inch of the building, inside or
out, escapes the exuberant geometric daubing. Then, as
darkness fell, we crossed the Chain Bridge, and, on the spur
of the moment, bought tickets for an evening river cruise.
We sat on the upper deck, blankets covering our knees, our
cheeks brushed by a warm breeze as the floodlit city wafted
The next day, on the flatter Pest side of the river, we
sampled three schools of Hungarian music. After breakfast,
we headed for the old Music Academy, Franz Liszt's former
home, which now houses mementoes of the composer's
flamboyant life. After studying casts of his extraordinarily
huge hands, and portraits of his handsome face, we listened
to a mid-morning recital of six dazzling piano compositions.
Our second concert was at an outdoor cafe when flirtatious
members of a gypsy orchestra serenaded us on hurdy-gurdy,
zither, pipe and violin - haunting music played on an
eastern-sounding five-note scale.
The third performance was an unexpected joy. Caroline and I
had intended to be highbrow, but the State Opera was closed.
Instead, in a glittering foyer we bought tickets for an
Operetenkonzerte, and were escorted, with misgivings, to a
tiny fourth-floor theatre festooned with gold nylon and
The orchestra struck up and a troupe of singers and dancers
bounded through the golden drapes to sweep us into the
kitsch world of operetta. We were immediately entranced. All
our highbrow pretensions vanished with this intoxicating
blend of musical professionalism, gusto, camp and
tongue-in-cheek. Each Lehar, Strauss or Kalman aria provided
an excuse for another staggeringly ornate costume fairytale
dress with tightly laced bodices and dozens of petticoats,
outer skirts hitched up to reveal embroidered flounces, or
strewn with rosebuds, sequins and sparkling jewels. We
appeared to be the only foreigners in the audience and we
enjoyed every minute of the show.
Hot and dusty on Sunday after some strenuous strolling, we
visited the Gellert Thermal Baths - where some of Budapest's
120 hot springs bubble forth. In the lofty foyer, we puzzled
over a menu of aquatic cures, bought tickets for the
gyogyfurdo vasarnap - which we hoped meant thermal bath -
and pushed our way through a heavy turnstile.
We found ourselves with a choice of many doors, each guarded
by a white-uniformed harridan, all of whom briskly flapped
us away as we approached. Eventually one stern old woman
shrugged and pointed down a dimly lit staircase. This led to
a tiled subterranean corridor with portholes through which
we glimpsed legs kicking through bubbling water, then up
more stairs and round several corners to a maze of lockers.
We accosted another white-coated Rosa Klebb, who watched
impassively as we mimed undressing, then led us to a distant
cubicle. "No forget number," she barked, tapping at the
figure 472 on the door. She gave us a disc with 85 on it,
scribbled on a slate inside the door, drew a hieroglyph on
another slate outside the door, and crammed us both into the
cubicle, pushing the door shut.
When we emerged, Rosa Klebb was still there. "No forget
hat," she shouted, thrusting two blue plastic bathcaps at
us. She waited for us to put them on before stomping off.
Giggling nervously, we set off in our bathcaps through a
labyrinth of antechambers, passing other white-coated
guards, who sat with legs akimbo and wagged disapproving
fingers at us.
Eventually we happened upon a magnificent domed hall with
pillars and balconies surrounding a large pool, into which
stone lions spewed jets of water. Nearby, in a
crescent-shaped wallowing bath, dozens of blue plastic caps
bobbed. From beneath the bathcaps peered an assortment of
faces - professorial types, children, middle-aged women in
heavy make-up, octogenarians.
Wandering farther into the labyrinth we found the women's
section - another cavernous hall of faded grandeur, with
warm pools, gushing springs, stifling steam rooms and a row
of ancient showers with enormous rusty pipes spouting water
at unusual angles. In a network of white-tiled chambers,
naked women lay like beached whales, being pummelled and
prodded and basted with oil. Here, swimsuits were abandoned,
and patrons were revealed in all shapes and sizes.
Caroline and I felt splendidly young and slim as we lolled
in the thermal ripples. When our faces were puce, and our
fingers and toes thoroughly pickled, we emerged into the
bright sunshine to explore the outdoor pools, and were
startled to find a very different clientele - beautiful
people, sleek, tanned and bikini-clad. We hastily removed
our plastic bathcaps, hurried down to our cubicle and set
off in search of comforting food.
And meals, alas, were what made our weekend less than
perfect. Budapest waitresses retain a Soviet look - peroxide
blonde hair is de rigueur, with turquoise eye shadow, folksy
embroidered blouses, and more often a glare than a smile.
But worse than the service was the food itself. Every meal
we ordered was stodgy, bland or downright inedible.
But it wasn't all bad news. Before our flight home, we
headed for the famous Gerbeaud cafe on Vorosmarty Square. We
wove a path between the outdoor tables and sunshades, and
made for the cool, elegant interior with marble-topped
tables, armchairs upholstered in velour, chandeliers hanging
from an embossed and gilded ceiling, and tall, draped
windows. Sturdy counters of polished wood, brass and glass
displayed an assortment of rich and even richer cakes.
Caroline chose a wedge of dobostorta, a six-layered
confection of sponge, chocolate cream and caramel. I wavered
between a "banana omelet", a circular tower of cream, and an
Eszterhazy torta, topped with flaked almonds, but finally
plumped (in more ways than one) for a Budapest szelet - a
sumptuous arrangement of peaches and cherries cushioned with
cream, perched on a biscuity base. We sipped tiny glasses of
Obarack palinka, a delectable apricot liqueur, and agreed
that while Budapest's culinary moments are few, they are
well worth the wait.
First published by the Telegraph