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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 past.

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 gaudy flowers.

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

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