After some little absence, as the bright day trembles everywhere with wind, outside, I turned our afternoon and evening of the fifth day in Budapest (Tuesday, October 25, 2011) into many more words than I had anticipated. I connect repeatedly to a map because I keep talking about details a map might make clear. Anyway, we spent the morning and midday at the Museum of Fine Arts and Heroesʼ Square, and then got on Metro line 2…
We got off at Oktagon, Janet in particular having gotten intrigued with Andrássy út, me vaguely still considering a visit to the Terror Museum (never to be realized), both of us interested in seeking out one of the guidebook-recommended coffeehouses — the New York Café. The old turn-of-the-last-century neo- (or perhaps pseudo-) Baroque splendor advertised for this place sounded worth the price of admission (not seriously admission, but the café does insist visitors actually order; and we were feeling like an afternoon pause and refreshment might be in order). Unfortunately, at Oktagon, my resurfacing problem arrived, with me* totally screwed around as to which way was north or south or east or west. I suppose a study of a map, closely, might have revealed where the Metro outlet was located on this complex intersection — actually the roundabout/crossing of Andrássy út and Erzsébet körút/Teréz körút); but the map-containing guidebooks remained in my vest pocket(s) as we looked around and, me spotting an arriving tram, rushed across/around some streets to climb aboard on the tram-access island in the middle of a boulevard.
I had figured out that the New York Café lay along the Grand Boulevard toward the south (i.e. along the portion labeled Erzsébet körút**, the Teréz körút stretch swinging off northward toward the Danube and the Margit híd — about eight blocks before which the name becomes Szent István körút), and my gut felt (incorrectly, as reality fairly quickly made clear) that this tram was heading south. It was taking us northward, as I realized finally when the river appeared, so we hopped off just before the bridge to wait, briefly it turned out, to catch a southbound vehicle (No. 4 or 6 — donʼt remember which: it was going the right way).
So we journeyed back through Oktagon (this was one strange time that retracing a route didnʼt seem shorter than the unknowing first experience) and on around onto the actual Erzsébet körút where, in my nervous excitement I got us off one stop too soon (although I see clearly now on my DK map and in Rick Stevesʼs guide that the correct exit is two stops past Okatagon; but as I have said, I was, um, nervous and excited). So we walked a couple of blocks to the Wesselényi út intersection, where the cornerside café was splendidly evident (if only for the number of tourists hovering around at the door outside).
We entered behind other gawkers in groups of two to eight, all but a pair of whom turned back at the maitreʼd for the cheaper haven of the streets. The couple ahead got seated and then it was our turn. We got a table not far from the door, not far from a very busy waitersʼ station, along a railing, with a nice view of things (unfortunately I only have one poor picture [to the right] to reveal the multi-storeyed, gilt-and-plaster spectacle wrapped around a — to us — distant courtyard). And we ordered… a little midafternoon sweetness (a feature of the place) and of course some coffee. I got a special combo of mini-desserts, and every one of them was delectable (lots of chocolate involved). And we ogled the décor. The place was truly spectacular, very Baroque in influence — lots of white plaster, painted dome ceilings and gilt; my one photograph doesnʼt capture even a hint of the spectacle.***
From there, once we paid our hefty tab, we climbed aboard another tram to continue around to eventually connect and reach the Great Market Hall (once again in our visit), where we wandered around in much more detail this time, exploring the second floor, where the tourist mementos are found (none of which fit our budget) and back around the first floor food stalls, searching to buy paprika for our neighbors (what else for a souvenir?) and Janetʼs brother-in-law and even a bag for me to use (so far still unopened). We also descended (via escalator, I believe) to the basement for the supermarket there, which we wandered, sometimes in incomprehension, checking prices and even acquiring some foodstuffs and wine (it was here we found that our hotelʼs price for a bottle of St. István, red or white, was actually pretty high, regardless how cheap it had seemed to us). I even figured out the costs and got us checked out without major incident or (typical-for-me) screw-up.
It was getting late in the afternoon, or early in the evening, by then. We walked Váci utca back home and debated in our room what to do that evening for food, searching through the guidebooks, considering a return to any of the three places we had enjoyed so far, settling at last on another Rick Steves recommendation, Café Gerlózsy (which, in checking the spelling, I just noticed is listed among the coffeehouse sights by that author, right with the New York).
We dressed (I had wisely this trip finally brought along only one suitcoat — works to keep one warm outdoors and dressy if necessary — and just two choices of shirt and sweater, a single pair of nonjeans pants****) and headed out into the night, crossing once more by Erzsébet tér and around some very dark streets/almost-alleys to the restaurant, where we saw smokers/grills going high-aflame outside in the courtyard, where a good number of diners sat at tables in the chill nocturnal air. Entering, we got accosted peremptorily by an aloof (maybe even rude) maitreʼd, taken to a seat right off the entryway in the overheated interior and proceeded to have a horrible time.
Café Gerlózsy turned out to be a mistake — overpriced, haughty and gentrified. We were treated poorly (the only such experience this trip; even the New York staff was nice to us, obvious scum-tourists that we were), and the food wasnʼt worth the cost. At all. Janet loathed her salty smoked mackerel (the daily special), although I was more tolerant of my lamb shank in a vegetable mash. Admittedly, that shank had to be from the tiniest lamb in recorded slaughtering history (about the same size as the duck legs we had enjoyed the second evening, before the concert), but it was okay. I kept offering to exchange meals, but My Beloved refused, getting increasingly displeased by every event (including the excessive heat, the staff bumping by our table… smoke, noise… everything). Basically we paid up as quickly as possible and stalked rapidly back to the hotel, burning off offended energy in our quickstepping pace, not really appreciating any sights we revisited en route.
Oh well, canʼt be right every time.
* (Janet never knows what way is what, particularly when weʼre away from home regions, like on vacation or a trip somewhere. Recently, for instance, we were in Schaumburg, and until our last day, she always turned the wrong direction getting off the elevator. The same thing can happen to me, as the story above indicates, but I try hard to keep track of directions for both our sakes, particularly in strange locales.)
** The southward-swinging route changes names just as confusingly when the boulevard crosses particular major thoroughfares — becoming first Jozsef körút and then Ferenc körút just before the route crosses the river via the Petöfi híd, amusingly just past the Boráros tér tram stop, which we had reached, nervous and a little discombobulated, on our first tram day, taking the No. 2 along the river southward. The whole Grand Boulevard follows the old walls of the medieval city of Pest, by the way.
*** Coffeehouse culture was a huge aspect of civic life in Budapest a hundred years or so ago, as in Prague (where Kafka among so many others spent considerable time in these sociaable, civilized environments) or Vienna, any of the cultural centers of the Austo-Hungarian Empire.
**** Also my first trip with no sneakers/trainers. My rubbery-plastic pseudo-dress shoes worked great (kept my feet dry on these two rainy days), felt comfy and passed muster among all the Euro-footed, fancy-leather-shod stylistas (and I am talking about men).
We still have several days to go. And weʼll get to it all… one of these days.