If Buda, explored last issue, represents Budapest's more sedate side,
then Pest on the Danube River's east bank contains the more bustling and vibrant aspects of this wonderful city.
If a movie was to be set in Pest, these two scenarios (that I actually saw) would immediately establish the appropriate atmosphere:
Scene One: A very long subway escalator. A series of posters advertising an ice cream bar, with luscious red lips getting ready to take a bite of a popsicle, lines the wall from top to bottom. Against this background, a young guy and gal descend, lip-locked, not coming up for air, oblivious to all around them.
Scene Two: An outdoor restaurant overlooking the Danube. Two businessmen are lunching. One is talking on his cel phone. Another phone rings. Busi-nessman #2 scoops one out of a pocket-no answer. He takes another one out of another pocket-no answer. Finally Businessman #1 takes a second phone out and proceeds to carry on two conversations.
This contrast of old and new, private and public, passion and commerce makes Pest an enthralling place to explore.
A note on the language: Hungarian rules as one of the most difficult languages in the world, certainly the toughest in Europe. Get yourself a phrasebook, learn "hello," "good-bye," "please," "thank you" and "where is..." and you're halfway there as the Budapesters delight in hearing others speak their language.
BUT make sure you pronounce the words correctly-they're real picky about that. My first day in the city, I asked the subway attendant for a fare to the "Oktogon" stop-close enough to the English for an eight-sided plaza I thought. Not until I pronounced it "Ohk-to-gon" instead of "Ahk-tah-gon" would she sell me the token!
The Best of Pest-Top Sights
ungary's most precious treasure resides at the Hungarian
National Museum (Muzeum Korut 14-16). The Crown of St. Stephen has symbolized Hungarian sovereignty for nearly a thousand years and today commands its own much-trafficked showroom along with other royal relics.
The Museum itself reopened just last year after undergoing a major renovation and now houses an incredible exhibit of Hungarian history from hundreds of years ago to the present. Feeling a bit sated with European history at the time, I rather rushed through (and now wish I hadn't gone so fast) rooms containing archaeological gems, religious icons, Transylvanian church pews, arms and weaponry, textiles, palace objects, even a piano used by Beethoven and Liszt.
Arriving at the twentieth century, however, I had to slow down. For here, curatorial prowess rises even further and turn of the century Budapest comes alive with storefronts, street signs, clothing outfits and early newsreels that demonstrate the city's cosmopolitan atmosphere. Songs from operettas give way to sirens and a World War II air raid shelter appears. Next comes the austerity of 1950s Communism and the prison cell of a protester. As propaganda videos and signs fall to the post-Communist era, even without an understanding of Hungarian, one exults in this composite walk through modern times.
For a stroll through not-so-modern times, visit the Neprajzi Muzeum (Museum of Ethnography, Kossuth Lajos ter 12). Frankly, I didn't think I'd be interested in yet another view of peasant life and folk customs. But this museum is the best of its kind.
Using everything from prayer books to animal traps, baby quilts to coffins, display texts in concise and excellent English provide a clear and fascinating introduction to all aspects of Hungarian village and farm life. It may seem remote, but as a young lady visiting from Pittsburgh whose grandmother still lives in the countryside attested, people really do continue to live this way. As lagniappe, the Museum's building-lots of marble columns, ceiling frescoes and gilt-everything, originally constructed for the Supreme Court--is to die for!
The nearby Houses of Parliament offers daily tours in English at 10am for those interested in the intricacies of Hungarian government. There are numerous other temples of administration and commerce in this area. Stop by George Soros' Central European University (Nador utca 9) if you'd like to look up the finer points of Hungarian history-its user friendly library should have something in English.
To get a sense of living history head over to District VII, or Erzsebetvaros, home to Budapest's Jewish section. The Nagy Zsinagoga (Great Synagogue, Dohany utca 2-8) is the largest temple in Europe, second in the world only to New York's Temple Emmanuel. A ten-year, $10 million reconstruction is nearly finished, underwritten in part by Tony Curtis' Emmanuel Foundation. (His father came from Budapest.)
The newly refurbished synagogue is a tribute to the perseverance of Hungarian Jews who reclaimed it from the desecration that the Nazis wrought. At recent Friday evening services, sun shone through the beautiful blue and gold stained glass windows to illuminate the inner Byzantine-Moorish design style done in teal, sand, coral and gold.
Outside the synagogue a weeping willow made of metal, its leaves inscribed with names, honors Hungarian Jews who perished during World War II. Unlike Prague, Krakow and other cities whose Jewish population was completely decimated, however, Budapest still boasts an ever more thriving community of about 100,000.
Wandering in this neighborhood, along Kiraly and Dob utcas (streets) and the sidestreets in between, is like going on a treasure hunt. Although some buildings are a bit dilapidated or just plain uninspiring, fin de siecle and art deco jewels wait to be discovered. Three smaller synagogues can be found here. Looking around, street lamps, architectural ornamentation, commercial signage and an occasional piece of contemporary sculpture delight the eye.
Older men, some locals, some visiting from Florida, sit in the courtyards, while children play around them. Interesting little shops beckon you in. And when you're ready for a rest, find a cafe or go to the Shalom kosher restaurant for a hearty, very reasonably priced meal.
Not far away, contrasting with the narrow streets of Erzsebetvaros, lies the wide boulevard of Andrassy ut lined with embassies and stately mansions. Plan a walk along this tree-shaded avenue on a Saturday morning-if you visit the Franz Liszt Memorial Museum (Vorosmarty utca 35) at 11am, you'll not only see the rooms he lived in, but be able to take in a chamber concert included with the admission. I enjoyed a 45-minute piano recital by a local musician, but you never know who might be playing-in March 1987, David (Shine) Helfgott performed there.
Andrassy ut leads to Hosok tere (Heroes' Square) where the grandiose Millennial Monument (1896) commemorates Hungary's thousandth anniversary. To its left stands the Szepmuveszeti Muzeum (Museum of Fine Arts) which houses the country's main collection of Old Masters and features impressive works by Rubens, El Greco, Cranach, Velazquez, Raphael and many more.
Hosok tere serves as the entrance to the vast Varosliget (City Park) which includes a zoo, some museums, an amusement area, a rowboat lake and the large public swimming pool complex, which includes the Szechenyi Baths where gays gather on the nude sunbathing roof.
One last site worth checking out is the Great Market Hall by the Szabadsaghid (Liberty Bridge). Under a snazzy new Zsolnay tile roof, row upon row of gleaming fruits and vegetables, meats, spices and other delicacies entice shoppers. On the second floor of this recently restored, 100-year-old mall, booths offer embroidered fabrics, laces, wood-carved items and other possibilities for the gift-needy-a fun way to pass an hour or so.
The Fest of Pest-Food & Entertainment
ungarians love their food almost as much as New
Orleanians do. If you get the chance to have a home-cooked meal, grab it; otherwise, plenty of fine restaurants can be found in Budapest.
Once a private artists' club, Feszek (Kertesz utca 36) will now let anyone in-after paying an entrance fee of about fifty cents. Enjoy sitting in the charming courtyard as you pore over the extensive menu. A friendly English-speaking waitress was most helpful.
Fatal (Vaci utca 67) is a country-style restaurant popular with locals and tourists alike. I could've made a meal from their soups and appetizers alone.
The goulash soup and chicken paprika at the Ambassador Restaurant were quite yummy. Adding to the pleasure was the panoramic view from the sidewalk tables of the Royal Palace and Castle Hill across the Danube.
The nicest meal I had was in the art deco splendor of the Astoria Hotel. A delicious cold fruit soup gave way to an excellent chicken and asparagus dish. As cliched as they are, the strolling violinists added Old World atmosphere and inspired one diner to stand up and sing a Puccini aria followed by a lovely Hungarian folk song to her paramour.
While I wouldn't recommend Gyocker (Eotvos utca 46) for its food alone, which is good in an unpretentious way, if you want to hear Tanchaz (folk) music, a visit here is a must. I was lucky to catch Vasmalom whose jazz-influenced ethno music combines a driving beat with ear-tingling rhythms. See them at 8:30pm on October 30 if you happen to be in town.
I was not as lucky with the opera where the season had ended by the time I got there. I had to settle for a tour of the house (Andrassy ut 22), but if what occurs on stage is as spectacular as what surrounds it, make certain to attend a performance. Rich woods, silk wallpaper, mythological frescoes, gold leaf, marble statues, the royal box-you get the picture.
I was similarly frustrated that the theater season was over by the last week of June. I would've liked to have seen My Fair Lady or Man of La Mancha or, perhaps, some classic play done by one of the local theater companies. And I absolutely would've crawled over broken glass to see what I believe was a musical version of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? that had been in repertory. Imagine hearing "But you are, Blanche, but you are" and "Eat your din din" in Hungarian!
Like New Orleans, Budapest seems to take pleasure in its festivals. I was fortunate to be there during one featuring classical, pop, rock and big band concerts, folk singers and dancers from all over Eastern Europe, and a parade led by the Swedish Volvo marching band that also had large walking puppets and a wedding couple in drag. Made me feel like I never left da Quarter.
Zest in Pest-The Gay Scene
ith its relatively small scene
and somewhat conservative outlook, Budapest may not be as comfy a home for gays as other major European capitals. But if a visitor can't have a fab time here, honey, you just ain't trying!
Gays and lesbians travelling to Budapest would be well-advised to book a room with KM SAGA, a guesthouse centrally located by the Oktogon. Proprietor Shandor Madachy spent 25 years as a professor of economics at the University of Connecticut before moving back to Hungary four years ago. As such, he speaks English, and five other languages, fluently.
Close by the Opera House, Gyocker and Andrassy ut, you enter KM SAGA off of a somewhat drab street to find charm in abundance. The large room I stayed in emanated Garden District elegance. The other single and the double were similarly decorated to the nth degree.
Better yet, Shandor is a friendly font of information-it's almost difficult to get him to stop talking! He'll gladly pull out xeroxed maps and colored pencils to plan a day's (or night's) outing for you. At $24/night for the single, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better bargain. (Eotvos u. 26/D, fsz. 1, 1067 Budapest; tel. 18.104.22.16842)
Not content with Shandor's maps, I tried to get a "Budapest Gay Guide" and had a pleasantly homophobic-free experience in so doing. The travel agency listed in Spartacus no longer carried them but kindly directed me to the Cruise Victory Travel Agency (Vaci utca 9, ste. 11) which did. Viktor Abraham, who seems to be trying to develop a gay tourist market for Budapest, was out of the office but Thomas and a lady there were most helpful in getting me the guide. Call or fax Victor and friends at (36-1) 267.3805 for information on a Magyar vacation.
While Viktor can help you with a cruise on the Danube, the Danube cruise is something else entirely. As twilight descends on the Korzo, a pedestrian promenade between the Marriott Hotel and the Elizabeth Bridge, so do the men. Perhaps you can meet someone here, but don't be surprised if they start talking about money--yours.
Hustlers, from many of the former Communist countries and supposedly under the control of the Ukranian mafia, can be found on the Korzo, at the bars, in the Baths. After a couple of days you can sense who they are. Frankly, I thought most of the guys just seen on the streets were better-looking than they were. But if you're into that kind of experience, at about $30 bucks a pop, at least it's not like the $250 charged here. (Funny how hustlers are now making about what lawyers make per hour.)
When day becomes night, the scene shifts from the Baths of Buda (discussed in our last issue) to the bars of Pest. Like other cities, it helps to know which bar to go to on which night of the week.
On Wednesdays, head to Capella Cafe (Belgrad rakpart 23, along the Danube) for the male strippers. Large-spirited manager Laszlo exemplifies Hungarian joie de vivre. My visit coincided with a chic underwear fashion show. The three hunky and two lean, dancer-type models were interspersed with performances by two drag queens, one pretty and one comic, that made for a classy and fun, Fun, FUN show. Dancing followed on the small dance floor with a dj expertly spinning the records into the wee hours.
No one place dominates Thursdays, so you may want to check out Mystery Bar (Nagysandor Jozsef utca 3) a nice neighborhood establishment in a quiet area near the American Embassy. Or return to Capella where a more mixed crowd turns up for the cabaret with Zsazsa Tax and friends. Zsazsa may be a drag queen of a certain age but she can still put over a number. And her friends, two gorgeous guys and a beautiful woman singing in Hungarian and English, displayed talent that could make many a New York performer jealous.
Fridays the boys head to Angel (Szovetseg u. 33), a large, two-level dance club with drag shows at midnight, while Saturdays, the leather/levi crowd flocks to Action Bar (Magyar utca 42) with its videos and darkroom. (Note: Currently, there is virtually no lesbian scene in Budapest. Sorry, ladies.) Somehow I got this reversed and found Action to be rather lifeless on a Friday night, but still had a wonderful time at Angel on a Saturday.
Keep in mind, though things may be changing, Budapest is not exactly a gay-friendly city. Yet I got the feeling that the Budapesters would rather have you be in love with someone than no one at all. 'Nough said. Get there if you can.