Budapest, the capital of Hungary, is formed from two cities - Buda and Pest. They are divided by the Danube, Europe's second-longest river. In the mid 19th century the first permanent bridge was built linking the two (although it was sometimes closed depending on weather). In 1873 Buda and Pest officially became Budapest, and now of course there are many ways to get from one side to the other.
Today Pest is busier and more touristed. On the hilly and more sedate Buda side, most international visitors may go to see the Castle or the Gellert Hotel & Baths. Few venture further into the residential area where locals live and shop.
"Taste Hungary" is a company offering walking tours of Budapest to give a taste (literally!) of local life. Their tour of Buda gets underway with a visit to one of the city's historic coffee houses, a family business over 140 years old. (The family did lose ownership during the communist years but were able to regain it later - for a substantial price.)
In the 19th century and early 20th century Budapest was home to a great many coffee houses. These were cultural centres where artists, writers, poets and intellectuals could mingle. For the price of a cup of coffee anyone was welcome to work or socialise in a warm and well-lit place, long before many homes had electricity.
The pastry chefs of the coffee houses created cakes that are still famous today, and cherished (and sometimes secret) family recipes have been passed down through the generations.
A later stop in the tour is at one of the Communist-era coffee shops still in existence, where locals come to pass the time and read the newspapers. The look of these is more functional and less glamourous than the pre-Soviet coffee houses. But for some older locals these too may evoke a sense of nostalgia for an earlier time in their lives. And there is always Starbucks for the younger generation not as interested in retro ambience!
Buda has a number of neighbourhood markets where residents shop for produce and groceries. One of the best in the city is a rather drab looking multi-story building where farmers and artisans from the countryside come to sell fresh produce, jams, pickled vegetables and more.
Several butchers in this market specialize in indigenous Hungarian animals, selling top-quality meat from the local Mangalica pigs and Grey Cattle. Hungarians are big meat-eaters and traditional Hungarian cooking is rich in meaty soups and stews, sausages and cured and roasted meats. Most dishes are traditionally cooked in rendered pork fat, and everything is seasoned heavily with paprika, the national spice made from dried red peppers. Paprika was introduced by the Turks around the 17th century, enthusiastically adopted and is now synonymous with Hungarian food.
A classic snack for any time of the day or night is Langos, deep-fried bread dough smothered in garlic, sour cream and perhaps cheese - or in this instance plenty of bacon. Did I mention this is not the lightest of cuisines? Each one here is made fresh to order by the Langos Lady.
Lunch is at a small place offering home-style 'grandmother's' cooking. On the handwritten menu today is Tokany, a rustic sour cream stew that is hard to find on restaurant menus. It is served, as most main courses are, with boiled dumplings.
The tour finishes up in late afternoon at one of Buda's thermal bath houses. It's possible not only to bathe in the healing mineral waters but to drink them, and a stand at the entrance is selling the water by the glass. It is pretty sulfurous stuff and one hopes it at least has a lot of health benefits, as it wasn't exactly the tastiest way to wind up what has been a delicious day!
(Photos by Gretchen Klatt)