Friday, June 09, 2006

Gloomy (Thursday) (June 8th)

Well, now I know why the famous 1930s song that supposedly inspired so many suicides was composed in the restaurant I ate at last night. It wasn't the Great Depression or the rise of fascism; it wasn't the food or the ambience; it was the lousy service.

I got to the restaurant Kulács (near the Blaha lujza tér subway station) around 8:40 and the place was full. The maitre d' told me it would be a 5-10 minute wait, so I sat in the bar and ordered a bottle of sparkling water. And read the local magazine guide. And the back of my map. And the articles in the guide that I skipped the first time around. Then around 9pm, the maitre d' came back to tell me they were paying the bill and it would only be a minute. I went back to reading (again) the brief history of Budapest and Hungary on the map. Then rereading the more interesting articles in the magazine guide. Then looking at my watch. Finally, at 9:30, I was led to a table and seated.

By my waiting didn't end. No one bothered to give me a menu. After 5-10 minutes I motioned to a waiter that I would like a menu. Three minutes later he got it for me (with apologies). I got ready to order, but my first choice -- the goose -- wasn't available. I don't know what I ordered but I'm pretty sure it was pork.

Then I waited for my meal. And waited. And waited. I drank my wine. I listened to the live Roma musicians. The meal came. It was quite good, with the paprika not overwhelming the meat, the potato wedges nice and crispy, and the mixed side salad rather interesting. It was shredded cabbage with tomato and cucumber, with the dressing a sort of sweet-sour marinade. Quite tasty actually.

After finishing my meal I waited to order dessert. I ended up waiting 15 minutes before I was able to get my waiter's attention. My choices were limited so I ordered the apple strudel. It was ok. Then I waited to get the bill. After a few minutes I spotted my waiter and asked for the bill. I swear to God, it took over 10 minutes for the bill to arrive. I quickly paid and left.

In some restaurants service is included in others it isn't. This restaurant did not include service, so I gave them only 11%. The food was quite good, and I know that most restaurants split the tip among various employees, many of whom were probably doing their job.

I was just able to catch the last metro train back to my hotel (11:39 pm).

This morning I headed up to the Museum of Fine Arts for their Titian exhibit. This museum houses Budapest's collection of non-Hungarian artists. They have a special exhibition for the first two weeks of June on Renaissance portraiture during the first half of the 16th century. Only about a dozen paintings in the exhibit, but they got some nice ones, beginning was a very interesting Dürer. The centerpiece, however, was a special loan from the Pitti Palace in Florence of Titian's portrait of "The Young Man with Blue-Green Eyes" (at least that's how it's known in Hungary).

The exhibit was a little gem and both well-signed and enjoyable.

The rest of the museum was ok. They have some nice pieces in their fin-de siécle section, and some good northern renaissance paintings. The baroque room, however, was entirely forgettable. Afterwards, I walked through the park again and checked out the zoo. From what I could see, the elephant house is shaped like a Turkish mosque. Talk about orientalizing!

At noon, I went back to Bagolyvár. The weather was beautiful today, so I was seated outside on the back terrace. This time I ordered the cold cherry soup to start and then a roulade of river carp with almonds and porcini mushrooms, accompanied by rice soufflé and grilled zucchini in something called a wine sauce. The soup was yummy and had a big dollop of either unsweetened cream or sweetened créme fraiche in it. The fish was light and delicious. For dessert, my choice was between something called "layered noodles," or "sweetened walnut or poppyseed noodles." I went with the layered noodles.

It turned out to be kugel. Actually, a warm red and green grape kugel dusted with powdered sugar and accompanied by some lightly whipped cream. It was delicious. The entire meal came to only 5250 forint (at that was because I added an extra 250 above and beyond the 15% service). That works out to about $26. A steal if you ask me.

Afterwards, I decided to visit the Museum of the House of Terror. This was the building first used by the Arrow Cross and later by the Hungarian Communists to arrest, torture, imprison, and execute prisoners. It made an interesting contrast with the Holocaust museum I saw yesterday.

Unlike the Holocaust museum, the House of Terror was anything but subtle. To give but one example, as you wait in line to buy your ticket, there's a continuously looping video of a Hungarian man weeping while asking "Why? Why did they have to kill them? Why dfd they have to die?" I think I saw three times through while waiting in (a very short) line.

It was clear from the beginning that the target audience for this exhibit is almost exclusively Hungarian. None of the exhibits are signed in any language other than Hungarian (unlike at the Holocaust museum which was bilingual). At the doorway to each room was a handout in English (I found out from some Americans that if you get the audio guide you just hear a woman reading the handout to you).

The sound effects and layout is reminiscent in its lack of subtlety to the Museum of Tolerance in LA. I found the entire museum distancing and alienating. Far from drawing me in to the tragedy of Hungary during the last 60 years it had the opposite effect and left me rather cold.

Once I left the museum I went back to my hotel, grabbed my swimsuit, and headed across the Danube to the Gellert. This is the most prestigious (and expensive) spa in Budapest. That means that it cost me a grand total of $12 to use it.

They use the same odd system as the City Spa I used earlier. You get a time card when you enter and then a refund of some of your money if you leave before 3 hours are up. As in all the spas, the attendent opens the cabin or locker and then locks up behind you giving you a token to get back in (not a key, mind you, you still need the attendent to open the door each time and then lock up behind you).

At the City Spa, the exterior pool is rather elaborately decorated, while the indoor pools are communist-era utilitarian. At the Király, the walls and ceiling are dark, lit by small turkish-era windows in the dome. At the Gellert, both the main co-ed pools and the mens' pools are elaborately decorated in blue tile and art deco designs. The co-ed pool is the most elaborate with beige columns and a retractable sky light so you can swim while looking up and blue sky.

All in all, I have to say the city spa is the best deal. Not only is it the cheapest, but you get far more options when it comes to pool and sauna temperatures.

Afterwards, I headed up to northern Buda to track down some small patches of the Turkish era. I trudged up cobble-stoned Gül Baba utca to see the tomb of this favorite of Suliman. Then I walked across the Margit Bridge in the late afternoon sunlight.

I had dinner at Premier, a terrace restaurant on Andrássy utca. I ordered a half liter of draft beer and the veal roulade. Even though the roulade came with paprika sauce (and the required dollop of sour cream), the dill and goat cheese in the semolina gnocci more than countered it.

I skipped dessert to head back to Gerbaud's where I ordered the Dobos Torte. This is another one of those obligatory tortes, like the Sacher Torte, that in the end I don't quite care for. It is made with about 7 layers of very thin, very dry cake, separated by layers of dark and milk chocolate ganache. In the end, it was a little too dry for my tastes, but again, if you don't try, you never find out.

Now it's back to my hotel to rest up for tomorrow.

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