Sunday, 28 February 2010

Budapest - More Pest than Buda in Feb

February is never a good time to travel. It’s the time when winter launches its final attack before giving in to damp spring. Budapest came up because I loved Prague, and some patriotic Hungarian said Budapest was even better.

This was my parents’ first visit to the Eastern Europe. Dad didn’t bear much positive feelings as we hopped onto the airport shuttle bus, which had windows so heavily scratched that it might as well be a white wall. Deserted construction sites, graffiti-ed highways and ancient underground systems… but he was more relieved as we reached the city centre with wide pavements and modern buildings. The contrast in 10 miles was stark.

Like Prague, accommodation was relatively cheap, so I booked 2 rooms at Intercontinental overlooking the river and the Castle Hill. I think Dad liked the city a little more.

The once-white snow has turned into dirt-grey ice. The depressing grey sky did the Chain Bridge little justice; the mist blocked the eminent river view. We made our way to the Buda and rode the funicular to the castles.

Gosh it was glacial. The grandeur of the Royal Palace was magnified by its openness, and so was the wind. Although the sinking sun did little to warm our frozen faces, it did put a smile back. The Fisherman’s Bastion was under maintenance work and Matthias Church was closed. It wasn’t long before we thought it was time for dinner and some warmth.

Gerloczy was recommended by the patriot as a cosy restaurant that served Hungarian dishes with a slight French influence. The entrance was sheltered by thick red velvet curtains. It was a small two-storey dining room with a full size harp, softly lit by a dimmed chandelier and candles. Ambience was relaxed with people chatting away over glasses of wine. We took the last available table.
Roast pork with peas and onions
Goulash Soup
Baked Escargot with Parsley Butter
Paprika soup with Gnocchi and Bacon
Lyon-style salad with poached egg,
 Goose Rillette, Air-cured Parma ham
Admittedly we didn’t enjoy all the dishes, whether it was the fault of Gerloczy’s execution or the Hungarian recipe, I wouldn’t know. Both soups were watery and salty; roast pork was dry and tree skin-like; casserolet was, dare I say, inedible with too many mushy chick peas and a duck leg that tasted of chick peas. The others were quite good.

Budapest was also known as a Spa City. We chose the more touristy Gellert bath house, this time crossing the Independence Bridge and walking pass the Cave Chapel. The bath house was beautiful, mosaic walls, sculpted marble pillars and fountains. The water in the public swimming pool felt sub-zero, so I stuck to the 36 and 38 degrees pools, which were apparently beneficial for health. After half an hour in the sauna and steam rooms, we were pretty cooked and ready for lunch.

The Market hosts a few food stalls on the first floors. After bagging a few cans of foie gras and pates, we bought some goulash soup, bratwurst, Hungarian stew and some bread. Yea I am not a fan of Hungarian cuisine.

We browsed the St Stephen Basilion, which was grand and empty, strolled through the wide streets of Pest and marvelled at its disparity to Buda. It wasn’t the same leisurely wander as Prague though. Apart from the super-slick restaurants around the Basilion, broken roads were heavy with traffic and deserted buildings lined a few main roads. The city felt unwanted.

On our last day started at the Parliament, which was fended off for visitors. I gathered something big was going on, since our hotel was constantly guarded by what looked like G4 securities, and black Mercedes with EU flags were parked in the area. On a better day, the Parliament would be breathtakingly magnificent. On a hazy day, it looked tired and dirty.

Our last meal in Budapest was taken in Gerbeaud, a royal cake house, heavily curtained with small marble tables. Despite the regal décor, there was no service. We were cramped around this tiny table and none of the servers noticed until they realised they could only fit 2 out of the 4 dishes we ordered. The salads and sandwiches were very salty because of the cheap cured ham; cakes were okay but I definitely miss Harrods.

The few hours before we left for the airport, the sky cleared. The view from the Chain Bridge overlooking the river was beautiful. Sadly it was too little too late. I liked Prague better.