Budapest – from the lesser known to the iconic
I can’t remember the number of times I have visited the capital of Hungary. Budapest will never stop to amaze with new stories about lesser known foundations and its jewish life. It is common knowledge that one of the highlights and a must see is the famous Dohány Synagogue, the largest in Europe, built in 1859. Buses of tourists and queues at the entrance are a common scene. But only a few are aware of another magnificent synagogue with a moving history. One you have to knock patiently on its doors and wait a while till someone will open it for you – the Óbuda Synagogue by the river, in-front of Margaret island.
Óbuda was a town in Hungary that was merged with Buda and Pest in 1873 and now a city neighborhood. Jews settled in Óbuda in 1712 at a time when they were forbidden to live in Buda. A synagogue was constructed in 1737. At that time the community was the largest in Hungary. These were the glory times of this marvelous synagogue, however the community shrank throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as members moved into the flourishing city of Pest. The congregation diminished and the structure was closed in the 1970s, but experienced a renaissance with a reopening a dozen years ago. It is live again and certainly worth a visit. Óbuda Synagogue has a bimah that boasts four impressive corner columns in the form of the then popular Egyptian obelisks. Fourteen chandeliers hung from the ceiling and history is felt when touring the synagogue, which is busy with prayers mainly on weekends and high holidays. “Hungary’s jewry is experiencing a true rejuvenation. The revival of our synagogue is a symbol. It’s not just the building and its walls, it’s the jewish life and the kicking spirit which are back”, says the synagogue Rabbi, Slomo Koves.
Fast backwards in time, in almost the very place where the synagogue stands stood Aquincum. An ancient Roman city, situated on the northeastern borders of a province next to the Danube river. It is believed that the famous Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote there his book about Meditations. Amazingly the name is commemorated today by a hospitality structure – The Aquincum hotel, built in 1991, 32 years ago when Hungary wanted a change after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. investors chose the location with proximity to thermal water. During the construction enormous amounts of ancient Roman relics were excavated. Many are exhibited in museums and a few in the hotel itself, as part of the interior design. Names of conference rooms carry Roman names, such as Hadrianus or Marcus Aurelius and the main dining room is called Apicius – an ancient manuscript collection of Roman cookery recipes.
“Together with proximity to the main tourist attraction of Buda, we are also extremely proud of our Aronia Spa & Wellness center”, says pleasant ever smiling General Manager, Phlippe Mahuas. If there is a place to be reminded of the Romans and feel like emperors, this is indeed the one. A spa named after a plant that presents medicinal and healthy effects. Enjoying the Roman style swimming pool (26˚C), 2 hot water baths (33˚C and 38˚C), a pampering jacuzzi and sauna are a must in this 130 rooms and suites hotel, which became our home away from home in Budapest. “Our proximity to the Óbuda Synagogue turns the Aquincum hotel to a home to visitors who wish to sleep in a hotel, pray over the weeknd and high holidays, and also during private families festive occasions”, says General Manager Mahuas. What a unique rendezvous of Romans and jews by the Danube river bank.
If there is an original and exciting way to discover Budapest it is by a 4-wheeled electric vehicle – the Ezraider. Amit Tarshish, a pleasant jewish Israeli who followed his heart and his loved one, is operating these comfortable vehicles from his center (ezraidereu.com) in downtown Pest. The raider is handled by an adult (a child or baby can join on a safe, designated seat) and it is also suitable for people with disabilities or walking difficulties. We enthusiastically followed Amit and discovered hidden gems of the city, together with the popular tourist sites. The mock bastion with the pointed towers and turrets and breathless dceney of the river and the House of Parliament , Castle Hill, Buda Castle, Matthias Church and the main attractions of the Buda side of the city. Climbing up the 235 m high Gellért Hill, overlooking the Danube, was suddenly an easy task. There we were surprised to meet the world’s greatest religious figures that gathered silently on “The Garden of Philosophy” artwork. Tucked away overlooking famous landmarks, this creation meant to symbolize the confluence and continuing development of human culture. Hungarian sculptor Nándor Wagner selected Abraham, Ekhnaton, Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tse, Mahatma Gandhi, Bodhidarma, and Saint Francis as his top philosophers. Definitely a place to visit.
Never miss a Hungarian public spa while in the city and the selection is endless. After experiencing in the past the marvelous Gellért and Szechenyi Baths, this time we went for Rudas. Some say it is probably the most popular medieval Turkish bath in Budapest. As a public place it is crowded. However this disadvantage for some is what is unique here. It provides the visitor the opportunity to join local Hungarians and understand their obsession with thermal baths. I must say that Israeli passion for beach therapy, surrounded by hundreds of people, is not that different. The outdoor roof heated pool is the highlight here, enjoying the city and the Danube view is just divine. Don’t forget to bring slippers, towels and your washing kit with you.
Hungarian cuisine is globally reputed and Budapest is offering the best opportunity to enjoy this amazing kitchen. My top three places to eat with authentic food dishes are the following:
‘Mangalica’ is the sugested main course at the Aquincun hotel popular dining-room Apicius. It is a traditional Hungarian homie dish that contains pork cheek stew with bulgur, duck liver confit, toasted mushrooms and green peas. Chef Gábor Szilágyi is a magician combining tradition with a modern twist here and his ‘Mangalica’ is indeed unique.
Downtown dining is recommended after or between discovering Pest gems at the ÉS Bisztró at the five-star Kempinski Hotel Corvinus. A Viennese-Hungarian cuisine is offered by chef Géza Kónya here. Hungarians and Austrians might carry a mosaic of a historical ambivalent relationship, but both people surely have a lot in common when gastronomy is on the agenda. I couldn’t miss his famous ‘Tafelspitz’, the restaurant’s signature dish. Enjoying it was going back to the glorious Austro Hungarian empire era. ‘Tafelspitz’ is a boiled veal or beef in broth, served with a mix of minced apples and horseradish. It was Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria’s favorite dish and chef Kónya presented professionalism with a fantastic presentation.
It will be sin not to dedicate an evening to the greatest of them all while visiting Budapest -Gundel. This restaurant, located near Heroes’ Square that houses the iconic Hungarian symbols, was opened in 1894. It bore the name of Käroly Gundel who was the owner, but not a chef. Käroly had brilliant ideas for new flavors and for composing new dishes. He advised his chefs on which elements to combine and when the new meals had been created, he tasted, altered, and refined them to perfection. Kings, writers, artists, musicians, or simple working families adored him. Our dinner was a true time travel to the past. Obviously I never had a chance to be served by Käroly Gundel, but I surely met Gundel’s current Sommelier and restaurant manager, Istvan Arva. His service and attitude towards customers is first class
which I never encountered before. The traditional Gundel dishes were top quality, both in style and taste. Goose liver pâté coursed with spicy pig cheek served with pickled baby watermelon salad and paprika textures was divine. Tokaji flavored grilled goose liver, quince ragout and smoked walnuts was majestic. The Goulash soup with homemade noodles was first class. Lamb “Palóc” soup was amazing. We missed a heartbeat while having the Kárpáti pike perch filet with mushrooms and shrimps in butter sauce. The Bakony style filet of beef with a smoky taste of cottage cheese pasta, prepared by chefs Viktor Moldován, András Wolf and their team, was pure art. Who can resist the Gundel crêpe (original Gundel palacsinta) for desert? We didn’t. In 1939, The New York Times wrote, “The Gundel Restaurant does more to promote Budapest’s fine reputation than a shipload of tourist brochures.” This did not change. It remained an iconic establishment. A must whenever you are back to this ever surprising city.