From Bull's Blood to Youngbloods Hungary's Wines:
Story: Jordan Simon Budapest: Hungary's Cosmopolitan Capital
Budapest, often called the "Paris of Eastern Europe," is a city of stately tree-lined boulevards, imposing castles, sumptuous churches and graceful Secessionist (Art Nouveau) mansions. After 75% was destroyed during World War II, the resourceful resilient Hungarians built exact replicas of the elegant bridges spanning the Duna (Danube) and restored many historic landmarks. Hungary has always been a strategic crossroads, a vital stop on the trade routes. Yet even when conquered, its people cannily absorbed the best characteristics of their foes, from architecture to cuisine. Hence, Budapest is an intoxicating málange of modern and medieval, exotic East and West. Minarets, keyhole arches and onion domes recall the Ottoman Turk occupation, while the Austrian Hapsburg legacy lingers in colored enamel tile roofs, copper cupolas, bronze statues, fountains and vast green spaces. Even Roman ruins poke up like restless spirits-and the citizens paid ironic "tribute" to their Communist oppressors by gathering the monolithic, hideous "heroic" monuments in Statue Park on the outskirts.
Bisected by the Duna (Danube), the city fittingly has a split personality. The Buda side boasts the longest history. The UNESCO World Heritage Castle District links palaces, citadels and interior courtyards from the Austria-Hungary Dual Monarchy that today house museums and government buildings. You can access the vast network of underground caves (escape routes for centuries) from certain restaurants, stroll cobblestone streets lined with brightly hued houses, admire the neo-Baroque frescoed splendor of St. Mathias Cathedral, then savor the river views from the cloisters and the Fisherman's Bastion. Pest is more modern, with stunning Secessionist buildings, many also containing museums covering a wide array of subjects, from applied arts to the KGB/Secret Police. Near the river, pedestrian Vaci utca is a shrine to conspicuous consumption (Benetton, Clinique, Davidoff, Esprit... even the Burger King is colonnaded!). Andrássy út is Pest's Champs-Elysáes/Fifth Avenue and former Diplomat Row. The exquisite Opera House is a must (Hungary was the home of Liszt, Bartok and others), as are the slinky jazz clubs nearby. It terminates at Heroes Square, a richly ornamented millennial commemoration of the joining of the seven Magyar tribes; the area includes another National Art Gallery, city park, botanical gardens, zoo and 19th century (if somewhat overrated, overpriced) gastronomic temple, Gundel.
Numerous stores offer wine lovers tastings. The House of Hungarian Wines (Szentháromság tár 6, 36-1/212-1030), in the Buda Castle District, showcases producers from all 22 viticultural regions, with more than 50 wines available for tasting. The fee (3,500HUF or $15.75) includes a self-guided tour of the detailed museum, featured wines for self-serve pouring (up to two from each region), logo tasting glass and more. Its retail store sells all 700-plus wines in the cellar, books and wine accessories. Preshaz Borkereskedes (Vaci utca 10, 36-1/266-1100) features attractive, informative displays and a regular "meet the winemaker" program. Monarchia Borászati (Kinizsi ut 30-36, 36-1/456-9800) occupies a charming old Pest brick edifice; the company's entire portfolio can be sampled, including many fine wines not slated for U.S. export and the marvelous Agárdi pálinkas (fruit brandies).
Sofitel Atrium Budapest is ideally situated on the Danube (2/3 of the handsomely appointed, high-tech rooms have splendid views spanning Gellèrt Hill, the Chain Bridge and Royal Castle). Fine Italian and Hungarian cuisine on tap in the two main restaurants, live piano music in the atrium cafá (a virtual jungle of 17,000 plants), casino, fitness center with massage parlor and indoor pool, business center and the old-fashioned, soigná Bridge Cafá. Doubles from 250 euros. 800-Sofitel, www.sofitel.com, Roosevelt tár 2, 36-1/266-1234
Hotel Gellèrt is a restored Art Nouveau gem on the Buda side. The rooms are merely comfortable, but the Danube views compensate, as do the glorious baths-all intricate mosaics, frescoes, friezes, stained glass, arcades and domed skylights. Doubles from 143 euros. www.danubiusgroup.com/gellert, Szent Gellèrt tár 1, 36-1/889-5500.
Hilton, next to St. Mathias, is an odd yet arresting amalgam of '70s disco (mirrored walls and ceilings in the public spaces), faux Deco streamlining and cleverly integrated ruins of a 13th century Dominican convent and part of the old cave system (used as a wine cellar). Amenities and facilities are top-of-the-chain standard. Doubles from 290 euros. www.danubiusgroup.com/hilton, Hess András tár 1-3, 36-1/889-6600
Four Seasons opens spring 2004 after a $100 million restoration of the Art Nouveau gem, the 1904-6 Gresham Palace, on the Danube's Pest side. The painstaking recreation (elaborate mosaics, stained glass, murals, crown moldings, cornices, friezes, coffered ceilings, glass domes and parquet floors) exquisitely evokes the bygone era. Spanish marble bathrooms and Deco-style furnishings complement the latest gadgetry. The rooftop spa/infinity pool is hedonistic; the handsome bar and gourmet Italian restaurant will feature an extensive wine list, including 100-plus Hungarian offerings. Doubles from 410 euros. www.fourseasons.com, Roosevelt tár 6, 36-1/268-6000.
Alabárdos occupies a 400-year-old neo-Gothic building opposite St. Mathias. Octagonal columns, groin vaulting, medieval armor adorning the walls and secluded candlelit niches create a romantic setting for modern Hungarian/Transylvanian cuisine, abetted by an outstanding wine selection. Országház utca 2, 36-1/356-0851
Gerbeaud is one of the world's great pastry palaces (chocolates and goose liver patá are equally divine). The sumptuous interior (verdigris marble floors and tables, pine wainscoting, crystal chandeliers, inlaid rosewood cabinets, outdoor cafá) transports diners to another world. Vörösmarty tár 7-8. 36-1/429-9026.
Kacsa. Nestled in the Buda hills, this cultivated eatery is ravishing (champagne-hued swag curtains, crystal chandeliers and sconces, gilt mirrors and clocks, live pianist and violinist, silver platter service). Kacsa means duck and the specialty is prepared innumerable delectable ways, from duck en croute with dill sauce to wild duck stuffed with oxtail and plums. Those ducking poultry can savor classics from trout amandine to beef carpaccio. Extensive wine list. Fo utca 75, 36-1/201-9992
Nosztalgia's meticulously restored 1860 building screams Empire: mirrors, crystal chandeliers, primrose walls, marble floors and pillars, potted plants, candelabras, gold gilt Doric columns, antique silver displays, vaulted ceilings, palladian windows, hunting paintings, lace tablecloths, Deco-style chairs. Chef Tamás Szilvási utilizes traditional ingredients, albeit in contemporary reinterpretations. Musts include wild boar ham cured for weeks and foie gras with caramelized orange. Október 6 utca 5, 36-1/317-2987