Whilst families across Europe were setting off for two weeks of holiday, Mr M and I stole ourselves away for a weekend in Budapest. We are both big fans of the Hungarian capital, which honours its past as a bulwark against the Ottoman Empire, an island of Finno-Ugric culture on a Germanic, Slav and Romance continent and as one of the capitals of the Austro-Habsburg Empire but nevertheless looks firmly to the future. The city is perfectly situated: it hugs both banks of the Danube with the old castle looking down to Pest and the Parliament – reminiscent of an elaborately iced cake – looking out to Buda. Its stately Habsburg avenues define the city’s route map and its streets are dotted with public buildings in a style that reminds us that the Magyars are a warrior race.
Apart from the city’s vista, Budapest is also a firm favourite weekend destination because we have never had a bad meal there and at this time of the year it really comes into its own. During our weekend there temperatures plummeted to eight below zero and steady snow fall slowed our gait as the core muscles kicked in to save us from the embarrassment us slipping. In the face of these wintry conditions the meat cuisine is a natural choice. Veal, goose or duck are welcome options for dinner but our favourite is undoubtedly traditional goulash. The hearty beef and paprika stew, served with a swirl of soured cream, is like an internal radiator and works perfectly with a Hungarian Cabernet Sauvignon.
My favourite culinary haunts in Budapest are, however, reserved for the smaller meals and degustations of the day, in particular, lunch, afternoon tea and the digestif after a hearty dinner.
As I only do rich food in light doses, I keep returning to L’Enoteca – an Italian wine bar – on Beograd Rakpart overlooking the Gellert Hill and the Soviet memorial. The small bar has walls lined with bottles of local and Italian wines. Its menu is decidedly Italian. Although risotto, pizzas and traditional Italian secondi piatti are all options, I usually order a platter of cured meats and cheeses and choose wine by the glass. As in much of Central Europe, wine is served in 100 ml measures. This may seem miserly compared to London bar measures of a quarter or a third of the bottle but makes eminent sense in a wine bar as it allows you to try different wines with various courses and still leave two hours later having consumed less than half a bottle.
Another firm favourite on my Budapest list of culinary hot spots is the Lukács Cukrászda on Andrassy Utca – one of the main boulevards leading from the city centre to Budapest’s main park. Cukrászdas are the Hungarian take on Austrian Konditoreis or Parisian grand cafés and Lukacz is a particularly superior example. Set in a high ceilinged Habsburg building with mirror lined walls and chandeliers, this café offers cakes and patisserie that are true works of art as well as bitter coffees, fine teas and thick creamy hot chocolate. Retreating there with a book in the afternoon is my idea of the height of indulgence and sums up what city breaks mean to me.
My final recommendation is the bar in the Gresham Palace, the renovated Art Nouveau hotel at the foot of the chain bridge. As the Gresham Palace is a luxury hotel it boasts a fine restaurant too. Whilst this serves good food, I usually limit myself to a drink in the bar. Set in the heart of the hotel, the small bar is reminiscent of those frequented by the interwar writers and journalists. The leather armchairs, granite columns and alabaster ceiling add to the subdued but cosy atmosphere. Although the setting is pure delight for a fan of the fusion of Art Nouveau and Mid-Century Modern, the key attraction is the palinka – Hungarian fire water. As in Austria, the Czech Republic and the former Yugoslavia, fire waters can be made from virtually any fruits. My favourite Croatian or Serbian variant is sljivovica – plum brandy that has fuelled many a Balkan conflict. In Hungary, however, I opt for the barack palinka – apricot brandy. The Gresham Palace Bar‘s preferred brand is so fine that you can smell and virtually feel the soft skins of the apricots and the flavour is so delicate that it warms the mouth and stomach without burning the way the Czech or Austrian equivalent might. After a hearty dinner and bitter espresso, it is just the thing to finish off the night and warm you before venturing out into the cold to head home.
* Daily is a slight exaggeration.