We just came back from a wedding weekend in Budapest. It’s a city filled with wonders and the friendliest, most down-to-earth, kind people I’ve ever encountered in Europe — it was almost like being in Mexico.
We took a taxi from the airport to our hotel, checked in, and crawled into the big, comfortable bed and fell asleep for five hours. We woke up feeling zingy and hungry and went down to the hotel restaurant; I had been worried about finding gluten-free food in Hungary, but the waiter understood what I was talking about, spoke fluent English, and guided me to order grilled chicken with cucumber salad. That was the beginning of an entirely successful culinary experience. Budapest is a city of excellent food and wine: Hungarian cheese is as good as cheese gets, and there are far more vegetables involved in the cuisine than I had imagined there would be.
After dinner, we met the wedding party down in the Jewish Quarter at a “ruin bar” called Szimpla, apparently the epicenter of cool in Eastern Europe, which made us laugh at ourselves for being there. It reminded me of Williamsburg in the 90s; it’s an old brick wrecked courtyard with lights strung and plants and glass window dividers, a series of bars tucked into various corners, enormous, packed with people young enough to be my children, and hazy with cigarette smoke. We left before everyone else and went back to sleep.
The next day, we had a lavish, lengthy lunch sitting outside at a restaurant called Mandragora. I had an amazing sour/sweet cold apricot and black currant soup, and a salad with slabs of sweet fried sheep cheese that reminded me of French toast. Brendan ate a curried carrot soup with truffle oil, which he normally hates, but this was made with real truffles, and meatballs; and mangalica, roast pork chops with a ratatouille. After that lunch and the long walk around Buda before and after it, we needed another nap….
That evening, we walked down the steep hill and across the river to meet the wedding party again, this time for a sunset cruise on the Danube. We stood outside at the very front of the boat leaning on the railing with glasses of champagne and watched the city flow by — the lit-up castle, the monuments, a glass-cube nightclub almost vibrating with pink and blue light and loud electronica, the grand facades of the big houses along the river’s edge on the Pest side, the cliffs of the Buda side. We got off the boat at the end and left everyone; we weren’t feeling especially social that night, too jetlagged and disoriented. We wandered around Pest, hungry again and in search of dinner, and stumbled on a young winemakers’ festival in the courtyard of St. Stephen’s cathedral. Beautiful young Hungarians hung around in chatty groups with glasses of wine. The winemakers’ booths were set up around the perimeter. We passed a couple of happy hours there on the cathedral steps, drinking excellent Hungarian rose. It was a warm night, and we watched people and spaced out… at one point we went and ate Thai food, and my curry was simple and sublime, zucchini cut thinly in a mild coconut/lemongrass sauce.
Eventually, we walked across the river and climbed back up to our hotel. It was called Baltazar, and we loved everything about it, including the food in the restaurant downstairs and the concierge, Daniel, who looked like Doctor Watson in “Sherlock” and who took extremely good care of us and had a sense of humor to boot.
It was late, but we were wide awake and up for another adventure, so we gathered up the bag of goat cheese and serrano ham and gluten-free bread and the cold bottle of rose we’d bought earlier and had intended for lunch the next day. We took it all up to the castle, which is built at the edge of a high, high cliff, and sat up in the top ramparts until almost dawn, having a midnight picnic, looking at the river and city spread out below. A violinist on the steps down below was playing Vivaldi, the only imperfection, so Brendan ran down and offered him money to switch to Bach. I was strangely almost in tears at this; it was so deeply romantic, and it was the kind of night that made me feel eighteen again.
The next day we woke up just in time to find some lunch. We ate at a sidewalk meat-and-potatoes place. The waiter spoke excellent English, understood my gluten problem, and brought us tiny aperitifs of a Hungarian apricot brandy called palinka. I ate an enormous garlicky grilled lamb chop with boiled potatoes and a cucumber and tomato salad, simple food, and so good my eyelids fluttered a little as I devoured every molecule.
Then it was time to gussy ourselves up in our finery and go to the wedding. The festivities began in a courtyard of the old Hungarian Congress Hall, a five-minute walk from our hotel, in a flowery garden with fountains, a string quartet, and champagne. We all gathered and chatted and admired the bride and groom, who looked splendid and glamorous and properly bridal. Suriya was Brendan’s high school girlfriend, and now she’s one of his best friends. She’s Indian, English, and Jewish, a willowy raven-haired long-stemmed rose with a self-mocking caustic wit, a foul mouth, and a razor-sharp brain. She’s a lawyer and a diplomat in the foreign service. Meanwhile, the groom, Krisztian, is a six foot four Magyar prince with a thick neck, a sweet handsome face, and a ferociously ambitious career as an international anti-trust lawyer in D.C. Suriya is nuts about him, and he about her, and who can blame either of them?
The ceremony was held up in the castle in the Fisherman’s Bastion, right near where Brendan and I had had our late-night picnic. We all sat in the ramparts; the sun began to set while they said their vows, in Hungarian and English, while Krisztian’s older sister, a tiny merry beautiful redhead, married them. After all the photographs had been taken, we had a parade back to the Congress Hall and entered the banquet room and took in all its grand European splendor. We feasted, toasted, danced, watched Hungarian dancers perform, talked, drank, danced some more. At 5 in the morning, we trooped down to the courtyard where it had all begun and released lit-up balloons into the sky, and then we all went home to sleep.
The next day, our last, was quiet and anticlimactic, after all the preceding excitement. We were sore from all the dancing and muzzy-headed from all the wine, so we went through the rain down to the Gellert thermal baths/spa on the Danube in a grand hotel and soaked in hot mineral pools with Hungarians as well as tourists from all over the world, languages all around us, interesting faces and bodies to ogle.
We got dressed again and walked through the rain, over the bridge, to St. Stephens cathedral to hear a Bach organ concert; but we were too late, it was just ending when we arrived. Brendan was so disappointed, even more than I was. So we took ourselves to a quiet, classic old Hungarian restaurant called Callas, near the State Opera, since the opera season hadn’t begun yet, another disappointment.The restaurant was beautiful, with tiled floors and arched ceilings and an old-world feel, so there was that. I ordered the duck breast, which was perfectly cooked and came with a fruity sauce and pillowy mashed potatoes, and Brendan ordered the “gipsy roast,” chunks of mangalica on a skewer grilled with vegetables and little sausages.
After dinner, it had stopped raining, finally; we walked over the dark, swollen river, back up the steep quiet wet cobblestone streets to the hotel. It wasn’t late, and we wanted to decompress a bit before we went to sleep, so we sat under the awning of the outdoor café and drank more of the light, dry, low-alcohol Hungarian rosé and talked for a few hours about it all – Hungary, the wedding, and our lives. I couldn’t stop ordering cucumbers in any form: cucumber salad, cucumber pickles. Cucumbers are, of course, hydrating and detoxifying, and no doubt that’s why I craved them.
The next day we flew back to New England. We landed in Boston in the late evening, picked Dingo up at Brendan’s aunt’s, and then, after a happy reunion, we all drove up to Portland together, stopping at a rest area for a half-hour nap.
It was good to be in our house again, as always, and so good to sleep in our own bed. When we woke up the next morning, the whole trip seemed like a long, wild, mutual dream.