I had thought that I would find Budapest interesting—that's why I wanted to go. I had not imagined that I would fall in love with it.
I was staying with a friend in Vienna, who had, in fact, suggested years earlier that if I came to visit, we could go to Budapest. We took the hydrofoil, flying down the Danube, past green fields, forests, and towns. At one point, swans flew alongside us, keeping up with the boat. We passed through Bratislava, then through the locks that control the water level on the Danube—a 20 meter drop. The region became more mountainous and greener. Four hours out of Vienna, Esterhazy Castle, from which King Stephen ruled Hungary in 1001 AD, came into view. The river took a sharp left turn, towns now alternated with the mountains, and in another hour we were in Budapest.
Budapest occupies a splendid, broad, island-dotted stretch of the River Duna (Hungary's name for the Danube). Steep hills rise up on the Buda side, while the Pest side is flat. Graceful bridges cross the river, uniting physically the two halves of this glorious whole.
Our hotel was on the Pest side of the Duna, facing Buda's cliffs and castles. The first time I walked out of the hotel after dark, I actually gasped. Budapest is lovely during the day, but at night, it's magic. The castles and cathedrals perched on the hills across the river were spotlighted, the city's bridges were outlined in lights, and everything was reflected in the water.
But it was not just the city's physical beauty that made me fall in love. Imagine a place that combines the clean streets and general tidiness of Austria with the vivacity and flare of Italy. It is a city of quaint charm and immense sophistication, a city of sidewalk cafés, open markets, artists, artisans, musicians, flowers, and joy. It felt to me as if the whole city was laughing.
Though Buda and Pest were combined administratively in 1872, each retains its own special "flavor." I would not, however, be able to choose between them, because I found so much to delight me in each.
The Pest district offered amazingly varied architecture, some of it splendidly restored after decades of neglect by Communist rulers, some of it still in disrepair, but all of it fascinating and beautiful, with tall windows, columns, mosaics, carvings, and wonderful detail work. We walked around the ornate, spired and domed Parliament building, wandered amid museums, statues, and open squares. We visited the imposing St. Stephen's Basilica, where there was a wedding in progress, so the normally dark neo-Renaissance cathedral was floodlit, and all the stops were out on the huge pipe organ when the recessional was played. What a treat.
In Pest, we visited arcades with tile floors and glass ceilings. We browsed the length of Váci utca, considered the "street of fashion" for two hundred years, and still living up to that reputation, based on what I saw. I had csirke paprikas at an outdoor restaurant, bought bags of paprika in the market, enjoyed decadent, dark-chocolate dobos torta and coffee at the famous Gerbeaud, a glorious 19th-century establishment considered the best café in Central Europe. I did much of my Christmas shopping at the folk-art market, where I was dazzled by the carved wood, exquisite enamel work, and hand worked lace and embroidery.
Buda, on the other hand, delighted with amazing views, sikló (cable car) rides to the top of Castle Hill, exquisite Baroque buildings, cobbled streets, and elegant restaurants, like Fortuna, where we had dinner our first night in town. We were regaled with outstanding hungarische food, and enjoyed passionately performed gypsy music and some of Hungary's legendary wines, including Tokaji Aszu and Tokaji deo likór. Yum.
The town of Buda dates back to the early Roman Empire, and there are ancient ruins among the merely old ones. The Fisher Bastion, a relatively recent white-marble confection of arches, stairs, and turrets at the edge of the hill, offered splendid views of Pest. We toured Matthias Church, a neo-Gothic building that invading Turks turned into a mosque in 1541. Then, 145 years later, it was converted back to a Catholic church, so you have Turkish arches near Gothic windows, Moslem designs with an occasional over-painted angel—strangely wonderful and very colorful. Outside, a statue of King Stephen watched over the musicians in Trinity Square, with their violins and hammer dulcimers.
Buda, too, offered its share of outdoor cafés and folk-art markets, which we enjoyed. We explored Buda as well as we could in the time we had, ending up at the Royal Palace. The imposing edifice was built in layers, from early 13th century Hungary, to Mongols, to Ottoman Turks, to Habsburgs, all still visible in spots, though the magnificent Habsburg buildings dominate. Again, the views were splendid, and they remained splendid as we hiked down the long stairway and across the bridge. Then it was back to the hotel, to get our luggage before heading for the train station. Sigh.
Paprika is intrinsic to Hungarian cooking. Considered the finest paprika in the world, Hungarian paprika is astonishingly better than the paprika with which most Americans are familiar. It has a rich, deep, beautiful flavor and a heady fragrance. It is also vividly red. The sweet paprika is almost fruity, while the hot is sufficiently fiery to get your attention. I brought home bags of both, but that was a few years ago. Fortunately, my local grocer now carries "the good stuff," in both hot and sweet.
This recipe uses sweet Hungarian paprika, so it is flavorful without heat. This dish is simple but absolutely delicious.
2½ to 3 lb. chicken, cut up
3 Tbs. butter
3 Tbs. olive oil
3 medium onions, coarsely chopped
2 Tbs. sweet Hungarian paprika
1 tsp. salt, or to taste
1½ cups chicken broth
1 cup sour cream
Rinse chicken pieces then drain on paper towels. Heat 2 Tbs. oil and 1 Tbs. butter in a large skillet or frying pan. Add the chicken and fry lightly, turning occasionally. Chicken should be golden but not brown. Set aside.
In a stew pot or large Dutch oven, heat 1 Tbs. oil and 2 Tbs. butter. Sauté the onions gently until soft and just beginning to yellow. Then stir the paprika and salt into the onions until they are well combined. Nestle the chicken down into the onions, turning some of the onion/paprika mixture up and over the chicken pieces. Add the chicken broth, cover, and simmer for 1 hour over low heat.
Remove the chicken from the pot and place on a serving platter. Blend the sour cream into the liquid in the pot. Pour some of this sauce over the chicken and the rest into a gravy boat.
Serve with egg noodles or potatoes.
Combining butter and oil when frying something makes both behave better—the butter doesn't burn as easily and the oil doesn't smoke.