June 17, 2024

Forget what you think you know about cafés.  A visit to Starbucks or any of their dwindling modern counterparts can’t hold a candle to sipping a cappuccino, nibbling a generous slab of Dobos Torte, and watching the world go by in the city where the café began:  Budapest.

If you ask a Hungarian exiled from his country what he misses most,
nine out of ten will tell you:  the cafés
(Paul Tábori, 1939)

Thanks to a long, arduous Turkish occupation, café life became established in Budapest more than a hundred years before the better known café centers of Paris and Vienna.  In their heyday everyone from aristocrats, politicians, soldiers, poets, scientists, philosophers, journalists, and actors all thronged to the inexpensive and respectable cafés, where one could sit for hours over a cup of coffee, reading the racks of local and foreign newspapers, sending and receiving messages, debating politics, negotiating business, writing short stories.  Waiters even distributed free paper and ink to writers.  The café began to function as a clubhouse and workshop, as at times essays acafend entire chapters of novels were composed in the noisy, crowded coffeehouses.  When the Parisian historian Gauthier-Villars said “To write the history of our cafés would almost amount to writing a history of France,” he was surely inspired by the scene in Budapest.  At the noon hour of 1900, Budapest had nearly six hundred coffeehouses and the offspring of that culture had given back to the city the Continent’s first underground metro, the world’s first funicular, the largest stock exchange in Europe, the largest Parliament building in the world, the most spectacular Opera House (true to this day), the world’s largest single-span bridge, as well as some of the most beautiful eclectic and Sezessionist architecture on the planet as Budapest flowered into the most modern metropolis in Europe.

GerbaudThe most famous café is probably the Gerbeaud.  “A rendezvous for the fashion of the town” in 1881, its clientele today is much more of a hybrid, but its interior is no less sumptuous.  It is well worthwhile wandering through all the rooms as its 19th century decoration and furniture is as rich and varied as its selection of confections.  Bought by a Swiss baker in the 1880’s, it was here that Emile Gerbeaud invented the konyakos meggy, a Hungarian bonbon composed of dark chocolate with a sour cherry matured in cognac inside.  Deceptively simple, you’ll not leave without a few extra in your pocket for later.  In the vaulted right hand side, if you find a table near the window you can feel the trains of the old metro thundering underneath, but the place to be is a window on the square where watching life go by with a plate of sour cherry strudel can keep you occupied for hours.

Café Muevéz opposite the Opera House  was once home to a number of starving artists who could not afford to heat their rented rooms.  It was here Hungarian literary hero Esti Kornél staggered home in the early morning after a long night of black coffees and cigarettes, having been stood up by his date.  Nowadays this intimate middle-class joint with grand mirrors, statues and painting gets a bit noisy early on:  not with yuppies yapping into their cell phones, but rather with a group of old show biz hands that show up to trade war stories.  The marble topped tables retain the impression of opera house gossip, its cane back chairs blending with the pattern of tweed. It has a pleasant little terrace on the grand boulevard Andrássy and now that it is open 24 hours a day, parties seem to show up at the oddest hours.

budapest-kobanya-faczanyi-gyogyszertarAs full of literary myth and political intrigue as the cafes of Europe were, can any of them say an actual revolution was launched from within their walls, as happened in Pest at the now gone Café Pilvax on Hungarian Independence Day, 1848?  And forty six years later, when the body of Lajos Kossuth, the national hero of that revolution, was returned to Budapest, it was appropriate that demonstrators marched on the Opera from the long lost Café Fiume, halting performances on the national day of mourning.

Every intelligent person had spent a part of their youth in the coffeehouse….without that, the education of a young man would be incomplete.
(Jeno Rakosi, 1926)

lukacs-insidePreviously the cafeteria and private coffeehouse of the dreaded Communist secret police, Café Lukács has been left a little sterile by its renovation.  However the beautiful original chandeliers and Venetian mirrors still remain intact.  My waiter told me when he was a young boy, you could choose between the Baroque splendor of the upstairs gallery or the elegance of the 30’s on the ground floor.  The service upstairs was infinitely slower, but he preferred it:  you could admire the naked porcelain lady combing her hair on the marble fireplace.  Copies of that statue can still be found in souvenir shops around the city.

cafe-new-york-in-budapestThe coffeehouse to end all coffeehouse was and is the New York.  It says something about the importance of a coffeehouse that the New York was designed by Alajos Hauszmann, the same man in charge of the reconstruction of the Royal palace.  When it was opened, the playwright Ferenc Molnár ceremoniously threw its key into the Danube so that it should stay open day and night.  As the saying went many years ago, every writer has his café and every café its writer.  The New York had most of them.  The most influential journals were edited here, as the caricatures of various editors still hanging on the walls can attest.  Following a long downward spiral at the end of the thirties, the writers are returning to the New York these days.  A literary and social journal is written and published in the café:  the raising of voices and pounding of fists has come home.

matthiaschurchThe tiny Ruszwurm cukrászda near Matthias Church in the Castle District is Budapest’s oldest café.  Opened in 1827 at a cost of 4,000 forints (about $20 then), this is a perfect Biedermeier remnant of another time, ambiance intact.  The confectionery was so legendary that couriers from Vienna were sent to herald treats back to the Royal Court.  The specialty here is the Linzer, named by an owner who shared a prison cell with a man of that name in the aftermath of the war of Independence.  (Ice cream is great here too.)  Intimate and bijoux, surely there is no better place for spending a languorous afternoon scribbling sonnets on coffee-stained postcards in what must certainly be the country’s only non-smoking café.

Zsolany Café at the Béke Radisson Hotel is for those with a super sweet tooth.  A mint green and brass interior and beautiful Zsolany tableware make it one of the nicest places to sit and read a newspaper or just watch the world go by.  Their version of Somloi galushka is one decadent Hungarian desserts:  quenelles of three different cakes are topped with chocolate sauce, mounds of fresh whipped cream and ground nuts.

The Hungarian cannot do without the coffeehouse.
(Joseph Kahn, 1891 Illustrated Guide to Budapest)

ashtray-full-of-buttsI have been sitting in the granddaddy of all cafés, the sumptuous New York, for almost two hours.  Quietly reading the Trib, smoking far too many cigarettes, writing out postcards, and nursing the gritty remnants of a cappuccino.  The waiters pay me no heed, save to empty my ashtray each time it gets to the point of overflowing.  When my pen explodes and ruins a few postcards, a server arrives and offers up his own.  Such patrician decency is imbued with a respect for a past – for the admirable traditions of the Belle Epoque café life and the part it played in society are about all that remain these days.  An intellectual flowering, a cultural Renaissance, even a revolution began in these palaces that were once a center of life in Budapest.  Now they are just buildings.  Granted, magnificent buildings at that; but intellectual life now centers around the universities, the independent newspapers that were once written and published in their backrooms have all gone corporate or disappeared, and the artists and writers who once made them their haunt and home now spend more and more time coffeecompeting for western contracts and gallery shows than fraternizing and arguing beneath gilded crystal chandeliers.  A sign of the times I suspect, as Budapest is truly a modern city these days with all that connotes, good and bad.  Yet many of the buildings still exist, perfect interiors intact, plying their confections and thick coffees:  a genteel respite that harkens back to a time of yellow silk lampshades and tinkling pianos long since forgotten.  Their purpose may have grown slightly less central to Hungarian life as the tourists now come in droves to gasp at the opulence, but sitting over a cup of coffee and sharing a pastry while arguing with a group of friends will never go out of fashion.  The old cafés continue to haunt the streets of Budapest.  In discarded, smoky mirrors we can still dimly discern the silhouette of life on the cusp, intensifying a nostalgia for what is in many ways this city’s most seductive feature — it’s turn of the century promise.

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