buda

 
 
 

Buda is hilly and beautiful and lush and green, and the hills and the Castle are great to look at from Pest (as the Parliament is from Buda).  Lots of visitors love it, almost all Budapest natives prefer it to Pest when they look for a place to live, and the tour buses linger over all those photo ops in the Castle District and from the very top of the hills.


Having said that, I have had a really wonderful meal in a place that I was utterly prepared to write off as pure tourist kitsch.  Búsuló Juhász by the Citadella, is a rambling terraced affair with strolling gypsy musicians, tourist prices, and a menu that mixes textbook Hungarian dishes with things that sound like nouvelle nightmares.  But it’s good.  It’s all good.  The music, the food, the milieu.  [The photo on the Hungarian Food page of this website was taken there.]  It’s pricey by Budapest standards, but still well below the new range of high end flashy restaurants.  And it’s best at the traditional dishes that suffer elsewhere ... they understand that so many tourists are looking for flavors they recall from their mothers table, and they have by and large kept faith with the old recipes in ways that very few places have.  And they have a website in English and Hungarian:


http://www.busulojuhasz.hu/index_en.htm


Manna, pictured on the right above, is beautiful, and the kitchen seems to be quite earnest, or at least the person responsible for the menu is, but the waitstaff is so indolent as to seriously threaten diners with starvation before the evening is out.  The actual food ranges from just fair to quite good, if and when it arrives (I may overstate this; the long wait may have made me inordinately grateful simply to be eating).  On a beautiful night, perched on their extensive terrace (in a sense, the restaurant is all terrace, with a semi-permanent glass-walled adjacent tent for inclement weather), sipping a glass from their solid menu of wines by the glass, it’s hard to imagine a nicer way to watch dusk descend into night along the Danube.  Of course, if you happen to want dinner at that time of day, your reverie may turn restless and then surly, because these seem to be the folks who put the hunger into Hungary.


But perhaps I was just there on a bad night.  They make a big deal about grilling various items to order, which seems to be something of a Budapest fad these days, and the pricing seems astronomical, but when the bill came it turned out that the portions are not bad and the pricing within bounds.  In general, ordering anything in Budapest that consists of a large piece of meat other than turkey can bring on sticker shock, though maybe that’s just because you order by, and things are priced by, weight and I refuse to believe that 1/10 of a kilo really is about a quarter pound. 


I had a memorable soup of the day at Manna, and everything I tasted was better than average.  Of course, a starving man will eat gravel with gusto, but unlike others I went with, I’m quite willing to go back and give it another shot; the view and the wine and my diminished expectations about getting fed at a reasonable hour by attentive waiters (did I mention that the people assigned to our table were hostile and unhelpful, on the rare occasions when we could get their attention?).


Oh, and reaching it can be a bit of a challenge...neither of two taxi drivers coming from different directions had a clue how to get to the stone stairs that take you up to the restaurant’s perch above the car tunnel under the Castle District.  Basically, it sits on top of the flat surface created by the entry to the tunnel and you have to walk up the steps from the street below (or down, I think, from the Castle District) in order to reach the entry point.  Since the restaurant itself is visible from a wide swath of the city along the river (just look for that tunnel entry and then look up), it’s hard to get lost in the sense of not knowing where you’re headed, but it can be tricky to figure out how to make use of that knowledge the first time.


They maintain a website in Hungarian, but the contact page is also in English, the photos need no language skills and the menu is multi-lingual. 


The Gellert Sunday brunch is a great reason to head for Buda on a beautiful summer day.  Sunday brunch buffets are becoming popular in Budapest at upmarket hotels, and in some ways the Gellert’s is the top of the heap.  Basically, those ways have to do with the room, the terrace overlooking the river, the grand old hotel (vaguely militarist-cum-socialist) milieu, and the proximity to the Gellert baths and spa; the food is good but no match for the brunches at the Corinthia or the Meridien (both of which are lovely venues as well, but can’t really touch the Danube view on a good day; and the food at the Gellert is more rooted in traditional Hungarian dishes).


You have to understand the Gellert’s history, perhaps, to appreciate some of its quirkier touches.  It seems to be one of the grand old hotels of Europe, but it was actually built around a hundred years ago (like much of Budapest).  That doesn’t stop it from having heft and stature; and in its time it was a remarkable place...a thermal spa with opulent indoor and outdoor pools, mineral-rich waters, heated baths and steam rooms, massages and naturopathic treatments on-site, more or less what God would have done at Lourdes if he’d had money. [whose quip was that, and what locale was it applied to originally? it has something to do with Moss Hart and the Algonquin Round Table, but I can’t find the source]


So it was a grand place.  With a swimming pool that had artificial waves for several minutes every hour.  My father used to close his eyes and smile broadly as he recalled those waves from childhood, but I assumed that had to do with growing up in a landlocked country with pretensions of world Empire; I visualized them more or less like what I would do in the bathtub at the age of five (until my mother ran in and found the floor flooded with soapy water).  But then I visited the Gellert as an adult and found myself in the pool as it built up to a crescendo in which it more or less picked me up and heaved me halfway along its length, repeatedly.  It’s worth a detour.


At any rate, this all made it a very luxurious excursion for an afternoon if you were from Budapest and a destination if you were from anywhere else in the world.  The scope of the lobby and the rooms with terraces and views of the Danube put it in a league just below places like the Del Coronado in San Diego or the other grand resort hotels of the world (French Lick, Indiana anyone? Wentworth-by-the-Sea? Arizona Biltmore? Timberline Lodge? ... )


And then came the communists.  The Gellert survived and was maintained as a state-run luxury hotel for tourists.  Which is to say that it descended into a kind of proletarian despair, deferred maintenance, and unique bureaucratic service style that took the military tone of the staff’s training and organization and turned them outward onto the guests.  You will wait your turn, comrade.  I’m sorry, but your request is impossible at this time...  Sort of Ninotchka meets Grand Hotel.


Like much of Budapest, and quite a bit of its most wonderful features (the Jeg Bufé for example, or OTP Bank, or Malev, the national airline now owned by a Russian discount carrier and being run into the ground by Russians for the second time in fifty years), the Gellert is slowly scraping this sludge off its facade and re-educating its staff, and part of what makes it so wonderful is the ability one has if one looks closely and with fondness, to see each of the layers simultaneously: the original grand gestures and opulent appointments, the hard times, the egalitarian mattresses and furnishings, the lurching post-1990 renovation. 


And the same is true of the food.  Some of it is inspired (the Hungarian dishes are quite good; the roast duck excellent), some mass-produced (the desserts in particular, though that doesn’t stop them from being gooey and sweet and varied), some steam-table (but aren’t most brunch buffets largely steam table affairs), some inventive (and you can’t fault them for trying even if there are many far better places to go if inventiveness is your aim).  And the service, with waiters willing to cut side deals and stiff the management at times, a mixed level of attentiveness and indolence depending on who is assigned to your table.  And the view, inside or out, is pretty hard to beat. 


Their website photo of the brunch more or less perfectly captures this mix; with that grand view and remarkable terrace, they choose instead to post a photo that looks like a dark railway hotel ballroom buffet waiting for the guests at a political fundraiser to arrive:




The website can make even the indoor pool seem dour:


http://www.danubiushotels.com/en/budapest-hotels/danubius-hotel-gellert-budapest


And yet, it remains kind of wonderful, in part because of all this; people who go to Statue Park (a for-profit collection of some of the massive communist-era statues celebrating the State, collected for peanuts in the 1990s by a capitalist entrepreneur with vision and carted off to an open out-of-the-way empty lot) should surely appreciate the Gellert.


Other Buda high points? There’s an open-air market along the Danube, north of the massive indoor water sports facility north of the Margaret Bridge that I want to explore.  I passed it on a Saturday and it looked extensive, non-tourist, and worth a visit.  Not sure if it is open other days, but come the spring I’m headed back there to check it out.


And there’s the Daubner pastry shop (cúkraszda) widely viewed as the best in Budapest, slightly up the hill into Buda on a main drag, where people line up out the door and circle looking for parking...



 

I mostly avoid Buda...


...it’s probably a character flaw, the instinctive fat person's aversion to hills when there are adjacent planes.  Although I have tended to think of Buda as alternately tourist-driven and suburban, and I’m not much drawn to either, I'm beginning to rethink my prejudice, and to graze in Buda as I do Pest