HUNGARY: Please, May I Have Some More?

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By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 20, 2005

After seven days in Hungary, we had come up with a new strategy. Look, my friend Suzy told me while forking a hunk of fried cheese in a crowded, glowing Budapest cafe. "If we don't eat so much at breakfast tomorrow, we will be able to eat more at lunch." Great idea, I told her, but really, I was paying more attention to finding the waitress to make sure it was not too late to order chocolate-covered cottage cheese dumplings for dessert. We had missed them the night before.

I waved the waitress over and she hustled past a table full of very loud Hungarian hipsters laughing and drinking the national Dreher beer. It was hard to take in the scene of the Amstel River Cafe and my plate of eggplant pâté at the same time. Thank God, I whispered to Suzy after the waitress left with our order, it was not too late for the dumplings.

Of all the remarkable surprises of touring Hungary, a place better known for its opera and Turkish baths, the food in this Eastern European country turned out to be one of the most delightful, and there were multiple delights to fill us up.

We ate hard-boiled eggs and crusty bread with soft centers on crowded buses filled with kissing university students and grim-faced old ladies clutching black handbags, as we rolled past colorful stone houses and green fields. We had delicious, spicy Chinese stir-fry at the lively downtown train station in Budapest. We ate cottage-cheese gnocchi with catfish in southern Hungary, dined on the softest, most delicate squid in the north, and chewed everything pickled in between -- cucumbers, cauliflower, cabbage. If it came doused in vinegar, we tried it. If it had cottage cheese in it, we ran to it.

This would go down in my travel yarns as the time I ate my way through Hungary. I did not set out to make a pun of the place. In fact, I knew little about Hungary as a travel destination before I decided to go there on a short break from my temporary base in Iraq. I had taken a poll among the international journalists while covering the battle of Fallujah in November. If you could go anywhere out of the Middle East that would be about halfway to the United States, where would it be, I asked them while the sounds of outgoing artillery shook our tent. Budapest. Budapest. Budapest. It was unanimous.

After being in Iraq for seven months, it seemed fitting to go to a country that is in a process of recovering, where there is a collective sense of hope and resolve. Hungarians have endured a painful history; they can look back through decades of bloody communist rule to a crushed uprising and, before that, the slaughter of 600,000 of 900,000 Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.

One of the poetic and symbolic monuments to the dark years before the country's historic free elections in 1990 is the statue in Budapest's Martyrs' Square of Imre Nagy, a reformed Communist who was prime minister during the 1956 uprising and was later shot by the secret police. Nagy stands on a footbridge looking toward the magnificent -- some say garish -- Parliament building that sprawls along the Danube River.

Today, the capital is full of life. Perhaps people are simply eating through the pain of recovery. Or perhaps they, like us, could not resist the heavy, homegrown, paprika-laced dishes or the fusion food that reflects Hungary's clash of cultures. (Note to my elementary school cafeteria back in Illinois: Goulash is a soup. That macaroni and hamburger dish you passed off as goulash was not the real thing.)

Hungary is a tempting destination in the winter, particularly when there is nothing natural to distract from the cold, hard lines of the architecture that draw you in like a favorite geometry teacher.

When you walk down the street, you see no pretty yellow spring flowers. You experience only the plainness of the street and the lonesomeness of the 700-year-old crumbling buildings. You smell the bread from the bakeries, the chocolate in the subway station. You see the old, feel the ghosts, wince at the intrusion of the grateful future.

Some places you need to experience raw. Hungary is one of them. But if you are not a proud member of the long-underwear travel club, late spring and late summer, when the humidity has passed, are better times to go. With long, sunny days, you can tour comfortably through Wolf's Meadow Cemetery just outside Budapest, where the exiled Hungarian composer Bela Bartok is buried alongside conductor Georg Solti and other poets, writers and musicians. You can explore Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube River. Or you can take a ferry cruise on the Danube, the second- longest river in Europe, after the Volga.

During our December visit, Suzy and I, both members of the long-underwear set, settled for a cold hike up a winding hill to watch the city unfold from the vistas of the medieval Buda Palace, which now houses the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Hungarian National Gallery, the Budapest History Museum and the National Szechenyi Library.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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