I’m sitting at a battered grey table in a basement, surrounded by rolls of barbed wire. Above my head is a window with bars, and there are other tables similarly enclosed. But instead of being offered bread and water, or meagre amounts of other prison food, I’m tucking into a sumptuous pizza and sipping Hungarian wine.
This is ‘Marxim,’ a restaurant in Budapest with satirical cartoons about Lenin on the walls and a waxwork Commissar behind the bar. The pizza menu is vast and entertaining: I had the choice of ‘Red October’ (lots of tomatoes), ‘Gulag Pizza,’ and the one for which I eventually opted, or ‘Pre-election Promises’ (any toppings you want).
The place is packed with other pizza eaters, most of whom look too young to remember much about Hungary’s Communist past. I’m thrilled to be here, not least because I saw four McDonald’s advertising a ‘sztar menu’ on my way into the city from the airport and feared that uniquely Hungarian restaurants and cafés might be hard to find. Happily, this proves not to be the case.
Mouth-watering pastries line the shelves of the Ruszwurm Cafe, a tiny shop tucked away on Szentháromság utca. This famous cafe, with its Biedermeier interior, began life as a coffee house back in 1824.
In fact, the very next morning, I find another authentically Hungarian one and experience, in the process, a much earlier period of Hungarian history. ‘Ruszwurm,’ a café which was a gingerbread shop in medieval times, is on the Buda side of the Danube. It occupies a prime spot high on Castle Hill near the neo-Gothic Matyas Church. Inside, it’s tiny, like someone’s living-room, albeit an elegant, cherry wood-furnished one. I grab the last available seat at a table with two other tourists. They are examining the souvenirs they’ve just bought: some painted wooden eggs and a nest of Russian dolls – a Brezhnev housing a Khrushchev housing a Stalin.
The sound of a gypsy violinist playing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” filters in through the open door. Incongruous though this is, I can easily visualise Budapest café life in the 1890s, with writers meeting here in ‘Ruszwurm’ and eating ‘kremes’ (cream slices) galore.
An altogether more sobering glimpse of Hungary’s past comes that afternoon with a visit to the Jewish quarter of the city on the Pest side of the Danube. The area was transformed into a ghetto during the Nazi occupation and was all but destroyed toward the end of the Second World War. In spite of this, though, I’m delighted to find that it has managed to retain its distinctive cultural identity. As I walk, I pass several synagogues, countless small, Jewish businesses and both restaurants and cafés offering kosher food.
The delicious cheesy smell wafting onto the street from one of these cafés is too much to resist, and I join a young Australian tourist at a table in the busy and long-established ‘Fröhlich.’ The décor is plain and simple compared with the other two Budapest eateries I’ve visited, but the same certainly can’t be said for the food.
I start with a plate of crisp, warm, cheese savouries, the source of the enticing smell. I then jostle my way to the counter, along with lots of other tourists and locals, and ogle all the pastries and sweet items on display. I’m tempted to sample one of the marzipan figurines – perhaps the beautifully-crafted bearded Rabbi – but eventually, like just about everyone else, I order the café’s speciality, the ‘flodni,’ a three-tiered pastry filled with apple, poppy seed and walnut puree.
‘Hi mum! Sorry to wake you!’ shouts the young Australian into her mobile phone as I savour the rich combination of flavours. ‘I just wanted to tell you I’m in Budapest in this amazing café, and I just ate the best cake of my life!’
I have to confess that had I been carrying a mobile phone, I’d have been tempted to make a trans-global call about it, too.
IF YOU GO
Budapest Tourism Office
Hungarian National Tourist Office