The coffee-houses of Budapest are reminders of a grand, and often times, tragic past of the Hungarian twin-cities. Once, a part of the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Buda hills and the flatlands of Pest across the Danube, are now a faint reflection of that glory. Nevertheless, efforts are now on to refurbish the past, for the present.
After a hectic bout of sightseeing, sitting out your tiredness at one of many classic coffee-houses in Budapest, sipping a hot cuppa with a slice of some delicious cake is just what the doctor ordered for relaxation. Allow your mind to wander back to the 19th century when artists and writers created their works at these tables as they could ill-afford to heat up their homes. (Not much seems to have changed for their modern-day ilk either). Fearing underground communication, the Communist regime closed down every coffee-house there was in 1948.
Restored to its former glory, the Ruszwurm located in the Castle District in Buda is the oldest such coffee house. Small, but cosy, you just cannot have enough of their coffee and a finger-licking treat the owner reportedly invented. It is called the Linzer biscuit and is a sandwich of shortcake slices glued together with apricot jam. I was given to believe that their cakes and pastries were a must at the breakfast table of Elizabeth, Empress of Austria.
Across the Danube standing in the heart of Pest is the Café Gerbeaud, another one of the oldest, and also the most famous. In fact, it was recommended as a must-visit by practically everyone I met in some of the other countries of the European Union. Once I got there, I could see why. The café’s three shops and a terrace opening out at the Vorosmarty Square exude tradition and style. Named after Emile Gerbeaud, the Swiss pastry chef who bought it in 1884, his tongue-twisting creation, the konyakos meggy is to die for. Or die of. This bonbon is in effect sour cherry soaked in cognac and covered in dark chocolate.
Another sinful concoction is their flagship home-made cake called, simply, the Gerbeaud cake: layers of sponge filled with ground walnut and jam, and coated in chocolate. However, I went back more than once to dig into another of their sweet delights, a chestnut puree with whipped cream called Gesztenye puree. They served a variety of strudels, too, but I must be true to the poppy seed ones prepared by my hostess. If you are a lover of ice-cream, they do some mean servings throughout the summer months.
Then there’s the New York Café, now re-opened along with a luxury hotel of the same name. It was the most elegant café at the turn of the 20th century and hosted some of the greatest writers and poets of the time. One of them apparently wanted the café to remain open around the clock and threw its key into the Danube!
The fashionable Andrassy Avenue, likened to the Champs Elysee, is home to another much loved café, especially by the elderly. A bit like our Indian Coffee House, the Muvesz Kavehaz leaves you with an impression of a past well-spent, minus the original grandeur. A place for quiet moments, mulling over the bittersweet history of the proud Magyars, all but silenced by the goose-step.