There are a lot of similarities between the “Queen City” of Buffalo and Budapest, the “Queen of the Danube,” a recent honeymoon in the exotic Hungarian capital revealed.
Buffalo, a port city of 260,000 people, sits on the eastern shores of Lake Erie across the Niagara River from Canada. Budapest, a landlocked city in Central Europe, straddles the Danube River and is home to 1.74 million people who represent a Eurasian melting pot.
Each is an affordable city with a large Roman Catholic population. Each has welcomed wave after wave of immigrants. Both Buffalo and Budapest are chock-full of architectural masterpieces that tell the story of a rich yet tumultuous past. In Budapest and Buffalo, you’ll find people who are resilient, warm and proud that their gritty cities are finally starting to turn around.
Many of Budapest’s defining landmarks were constructed to mark Hungary’s 1,000th birthday in 1896.
The Museum of Fine Arts, located on the edge of a huge City Park – think Delaware Park – is neo-classical in design and features the largest collection of El Grecos outside Spain. An exhibit of lithographs by French painter Henri de Toulouse Lautrec was showing when we visited in late May. The exhibit that marks the 150th anniversary of the pint-sized lithographer (1864-1901) runs through August. Toulouse-Lautrec – who stood a hair under 5 feet tall – befriended prostitutes and from time to time lived with them in brothels. He died of a stroke at age 36.
Buffalo’s Broadway Market resides in Budapest’s Great Market Hall, another millennium souvenir about three times the size of Buffalo’s market and twice as tall without a rooftop parking ramp. Filled with produce stalls, pastry stands and butcher shops, the section that appeals to foodies was piled high with paprika. Packaged in colorful tins, the fragrant spice was available in sweet (edes) and hot (csipos). Also available, folk art displayed in aisles of stalls that included embroideries, lace, midnight blue- and creme-colored ceramics, steins, wooden boxes and hand-crafted toys.
Largely Roman Catholic, residents of Budapest venerate their country’s first king St. Stephen with a yearly parade of his Holy Right Hand. On Aug. 20 of each year, the mummified forearm is carried by priests past nearly 2 million people who gather in front of St. Stephen’s Basilica for the daylong celebration. The national holiday is capped – Buffalo style – by fireworks over the Danube.
The Holy Right Hand has a permanent home in the Holy Right Hand Chapel near the main altar of St. Stephen’s. (Seriously damaged during World War II, the giant church can hold 8,500 people. The great St. Stephen’s bell, the largest bell in Hungary, is located in the south tower and weighs 9.5 tons.)
The well-traveled hand (said to possess miraculous powers) was reported in Dubrovnik, Croatia, under the watchful eyes of Dominican friars. Eventually – and only after it was purchased by Queen Maria Teresa – the hand was taken to St. Stephen’s where it is displayed in darkness in a jewel and glass multitiered reliquary.
For 200 forint (89 cents), a stern-faced basilica worker flips the light switch and the hand is illuminated for two minutes allowing tourists to take photos. Visitors are advised to ask the worker to point out the best vantage point for photography, but on the day we visited, there was no talking to the stout woman with a gray-haired bun who watched over the hand. Posted information described the hand’s backstory.
The hand of St. Stephen may remind you of the three vials of blood discovered in the coffin of the Blessed Nelson Baker in March 1999. Baker’s body was exhumed 60 years after his death when church officials decided to move his body to Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna. The viscosity of the blood, which was sent to Rome for examination, pushed the “Padre of the Poor” further along the road to sainthood.
Repeatedly, we were reminded about the affordable nature of Hungary, a country that favors its own currency (forint) over the Euro. A shining example was our Danube Riverside hotel – art’otel Budapest – where $89 (off-season) afforded us a beautifully decorated room with a king bed decked in red. The hotel features 600 works of American artist Donald Sultan from Asheville, N.C., who is known for large-scale still life paintings and the use of industrial materials such as tar, enamel and vinyl tiles.
In this hip hotel, every furnishing is designer quality from the sleek distressed leather high-backed chairs in the art’bistrobar to the multiroom solarium where a generous breakfast buffet is served each morning.
By all means, cap off one night with a late dinner in the bistrobar at a table by a window where you can soak up the Danube River. A night highlight is Hungary’s neo-Gothic Parliament. Full of spires with miles of halls, it is jaw-dropping when viewed after sundown and bathed by spotlight. Sprawled along the banks of the blue Danube, it opened in 1902 after decades of construction. The Parliament building is anchored by its Domed Hall, the first section of the building that was completed in time for the country’s millennium celebration. Standing 315 feet tall, the dome is the same height as St. Stephen’s Basilica.
When you can take your eyes off the Hungarian Parliament, feast them on the people strolling, biking or pausing riverside.
A roasted salmon fillet served with grilled polenta and green peas with leeks and mint sauce mint sauce is 3,900 forint. Add a glass of perfectly chilled Szürkebarát – a descendant of Pinot Gris cultivated in the Badacsony wine region – for 1,100. (A simple way to calculate the exchange rate: Divide by 2, drop two zeroes, and smile.)
The similarity to Buffalo dawned upon arrival at Liszt Ferenc Airport, located 10 miles southeast of Budapest’s city center. Maybe it was the animated chauffeur who held a sign with my new last name, or the ease with which we found him in this low-key airport. His smile and blunt discourse as we navigated the short walk to his vehicle smacked of home.
“Parking at Budapest is tragic,” he said, echoing a true Buffalo pet peeve. Driving us to our hotel, he set a leisurely pace pushing 45 mph on the highway. Our introduction to Budapest – in which we were advised to stay away from the locally brewed beer – was to the point. The driver also made no secret of his hatred toward Nazi Germany for the epic destruction inflicted on his homeland.
The perfect Budapest/Buffalo moment occurred in a restaurant called Platz or the Place located near St. Stephen’s Square. Owned and operated by Ludanyi and Enter Galbor, the recently opened restaurant was an open-air wood and glass bistro that featured Van Morrison oldies and classic rhythm and blues piped through Bose speakers. The beer was icy cold and the goulash soup was served piping hot in a red enamel kettle with ladle. There was no macaroni in sight as the steaming broth with tender beef cubes was brought to the table. Mixed with potato, tomato, green pepper, carrot and onion, there were hints of cumin, garlic – no hamburger – and paprika, of course.
Our hosts were sincere, and by treating diners as friends they created a level of comfort you come to expect in many of Buffalo’s independently owned neighborhood restaurants. As the evening unfolded the restaurant filled. Solos gathered at a community table. The bells of St. Stephen rang.
And then we heard our wedding song – “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King – playing as we sat in Budapest under a moon that was near full on a night that should never end.
Platz was the place to be.