Café culture: Alive and thriving in Buda and Pest

The aroma of coffee awakened my taste buds before I had my first sip. Ditto for the warm apple strudel placed before me with a healthy dollop of whipped cream. It was a pinch-me moment during my visit to Budapest, Hungary. The streets in this section of Old Buda were cordoned off as pedestrian-only, which makes sitting outside all the more relaxing. And relaxing over coffee (or wine) is what this part of the world does best. Budapest residents live in a café society and have for more than a century. Maybe even before Joan Miro was born in 1893.
The café where I found my mid-day refuge was named after the Spanish surrealist and had free-form, albeit comfortable, café furniture and tables to honor him. Miro's 39-foot sculpture in Chicago at Dearborn and Washington is titled "Miss Chicago" and includes references to the planet, a star and sunbeams or rays of light. As does the décor at this smallish, corner café in Old Buda.

It was the ambience that captured my attention; I have found that being fanciful often translates to accessible. I had passed three cafes on my way; I was in the Castle District and less than two blocks from the Fisherman's Bastian. Miro Café is not one of the famed coffee houses in the capital. It is far too new for that. But it is inviting, has a welcoming staff and serves delicious coffee and confections.
Cafes in Budapest date to well before the Great War and often are referred to as fin-de-siecle for their gilded splendor. In this newish one, I celebrated the coffee culture with a new wave barista, the wonderful flavors of a strudel made by someone who really knew their way around a kitchen and made time to rethink the experiences of my morning in the "Paris of the East." It passed with moments of history, culture and startling architecture under blue skies with background chatter of foreign-to-me languages lilting in the air.

A few hundred yards away, Matthias Church or the Church of Our Lady looms at the end of a terrace leading to Fisherman's Bastion. The bastion was named in the Middle Ages after the members of the fishermen's guild. They lived below along the Danube. During war or the threat of it, the fishermen left their homes to man the bastion for battle. Their mission belies the fairytale reconstruction of delicate lookout towers and turrets. The seven turrets represent the seven Magyr, or Hungarian tribes, that founded the country in 895 A.D. Originally built for security, today it draws legions of visitors to witness its panoramic view. It is among the top attractions in the city on either side of the river.

The terrace includes a statue of St. Stephen mounted on a horse. Stephen was the first Hungarian King. He is shown gazing at the 700-year old Matthias (Matyas) Church.

The wide stairs of the terrace are lined with other historical statutes including a replica of St. George Piercing the Dragon and 10th-century guards at the gate, both at the top and under the arch.

The view from the bastion is of Pest (pronounced Pest-sh) and the world's second largest parliament building. During a sun-filled day, the grand building often is reflected in the coursing Danube River; at night, the illuminated structure is spectacular. The highest of the spires is 315 feet or more than 30 stories high. Only organized tours are welcome inside the government building.

Public transportation leads to Castle Hill in Old Buda, as does a funicular and tour buses. None can enter the protected area, so passengers walk the final six blocks up the hill to the gates, which adds to the mystic. En route, the sidewalk passes even more sculpture, more modern than what is found inside the walls.

Buda and Pest were two cities until 1873. Both claim a history of coffee houses and cafes, much like Ruszwurm, also located in the Castle Hill district. It opened in 1814 and still offers variations of the original pastry menu. I was told Ruszwurm's confectionery was so fabulous, couriers were sent from Vienna, Austria, for particular desserts.

On the Pest side, there is Cafe Gerbeaud. Gerbeaud is another of the continent's oldest cafes that serves world-class pastries. Emile Gerbeaud, a Swiss patissier brought a taste of Paris with him when he relocated in the late 1800s.

I didn't imbibe at either Ruszwurm's or Cafe Gerbeaud. However, I did add them to a litany of reasons to return to Budapest when I plan to follow a tour called the Cafe Trail. And, to return to Old Buda. This time for a glass of wine while watching the sun settle over Pest.




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