Wednesday, June 13, 2012

ONE DAY IN BUDAPEST, HUNGARY


When you get only one day in a city as sublimely beautiful as Budapest, especially as a crew member, this becomes a “see you at pick up” layover. My very senior crew (40+ years of flying...) wanted to do only two things: stroll through the village leading up to Fisherman’s Bastion, and eat dinner at Café Kör. I, on the other hand, wanted to do everything. I wasn’t sure I would be back to Budapest any time soon, so I opted out of the crew plans for the layover and hit the ground running. Driving along the Danube river on the crew bus the morning of arrival, looking at the beauty of Buda through rain streaked windows, I knew this was a layover that was going to be short on sleep.  

Budapest is a deceivingly vast city, and undeniably breathtaking. The former Royal Palace of the Hapsburg kings (Buda Castle built in 1265) looms in grandiose style at the peak of Castle Hill, high above the Danube; Pest is gifted with the striking Gothic Revival style of the Hungarian Parliament building, hugging the Danube in dominant fashion.  

The Danube is wide and flowing, with its flat bottom boats and barges moving like chess pieces up and down the river. The afternoon proved sunny and warm; I walked as much was possible in my limited one day layover. I started my afternoon making the trek across the landmark Széchenyi Chain Bridge to catch the Castle Hill funicular up to the Royal Palace. The amount of pedestrians, bike riders, tourists, cars, and photographers on the Chain Bridge was constant movement. Crossing the bridge and seeing Budapest’s sweeping beauty was exhilarating, intoxicating - the beauty of is, at every turn, astounding.

My dinner at Művész Café ("artist café") 

was as old world Hungarian as I could hope for. This traditional coffeehouse, wrapped in dark wood, baroque, chandeliers, and red velvet was a reflection to 1898, the year it opened. It was easy to envision dark suits and bustle dressed patrons sitting all around me, conferencing over coffee their vision of the future that I am a part of in the 21st century. My dinner entree of fettuccine alfredo was colored with a few red-ripe tomatoes and slices of shaved parmesan cheese. I picked a light, crisp rosé wine to savor with my fresh pasta - a dinner and drink the anthesis of traditional Hungarian sustenance.  I am convinced the pasta was hand rolled and prepared the minute I ordered as it was as near perfect and fresh as I could wish for in Rome. I ordered an Irish coffee afterwards, and with the first deep pull wished I ordered three more as it was also - perfect.  I asked the bartender about walking back to my hotel alone along Andrássy út (avenue), late on a Sunday night. He assured me I would be fine and confidently waved me on, with a broad smile, and he was right.  

The cafés along the river boardwalk were full of life and patrons, even at midnight, having their last bites of dinner or sips of coffee. I walked in solitude; the cool, evening weather and ambiance transported me to a Budapest that had in earnest shed the shackles of Communism.  I listened to laughter and conversations, and walked beside couples holding hands.  

As much as I tried to pack into my one day, I didn’t even make it to the many of the major sites: the Gellért thermal baths, the Gellért Hill cave church, the Freedom statue, Fisherman’s Bastion, the Parliament, a glass topped/flat bottom boat ride, the Great Market Hall food market, a Tokaji Aszú wine tour, or Margaret Island. Not even a bike ride along the Danube. But, I did see the Art Nouveau artistic and architectural renderings of the Gresham Palace (now a Four Seasons Hotel), the majesty of St. Stephens Basilica, listened to a violinist playing in front of the Royal Palace-Hapsburg gate, a Pest man showing his British girlfriend the view of his city from the Castle Hill funicular, and in a serendipitous moment, a young couple kiss with a view of Parliament behind them. 

The pictures are really the story as Budapest is a city rife with iconic images, a photographer’s dream. 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Cappuccino at Rome’s Pantheon



At the end of a long trip, and commute, I think back to how my morning started. On my recent Rome trip, the morning before my crew pick up at 10:30 am, I was drinking a cappuccino, leisurely gazing at the Roman Pantheon standing out in almost sheer solitude against a pale grey, early morning light. 

Being a Sunday morning in Roman Catholic ground zero, the “day of rest” (well, the morning at least) is exactly that. The hordes of tourists, the tour guides and groups, and the constant stream of college students, free of the bondages of yearly study and now on European vacation, were all still slumbering. I heard them outside my hotel window until well after 1:00 am. Our crew hotel is close to Pope John Paul II’s favorite gelateria, Giolitti, a marked spot on the tourist trail of Rome, especially in the wee early hours of the morning. Now, at 8:15 in the morning, I was sipping my cappuccino at a table adjacent to the majestic and iconic Roman architectural wonder, the Pantheon, in almost utter peace and quiet, in late May, a bona-fide slice of tourist time in the travel tourist season.  
I decided to sit at Di Rienzo, a café in the Piazza della Rotonda since 1952.  The customary black and white outfitted waiters were smiling this early Sunday morning, allowing for the extra flairs and nuances that make Rome the romantic city it is, before the decent of the masses, which within record time can drain anyone of their civility.  My waiter was charming and talkative, his blue eyes twinkling as he scattered rose petals over my table, petals floating down over my cappuccino, and homemade chocolate croissant (which turned out to be filled with Nutella).
A couple of times I saw heads peering out of lace curtains in the high windows above the piazza, windows being cracked open for some fresh, morning air. Two older Roman women walked in for their morning cappuccinos, leaving their equally older dog with crusted, tired eyes devotedly waiting for them at the entrance. A couple of bistro tables over from me were two priests drinking their cappuccinos deep in consultation, as well as an elderly British couple, fluent in Italian, the man drawing the scene in front of him seeing his subject in full view, his box of pastels splayed out on the table, with multi-colored dust on his fingers.
The day before, I crossed the piazza in front of the Pantheon in the afternoon.  I weaved my way through the shady African immigrants selling fake Prada and Gucci bags, the packs of students, and the hordes of camera toting tourists competing for the best angle to take their proof of visit photo in front of the gorgeous rotunda building. I am sure there were some honeymooner couples thrown in the mix somewhere.  But, this morning, it was when I was able to see the piazza, and the Pantheon, look Roman - majestic, an ancient architectural wonder, dominating. 
By 9:00 am, Rome the tourist city was awake and on the move; a large tour group following their leader with her ubiquitous flag on a pole, tourists with cameras, the pushy Gladiators grabbing the attention of tourists for highway robbery priced photos with them.  As the second wave now crested into the piazza, the priests, the artist and his wife, the dog walkers, the joggers, the men peeping out of their windows above the cafés and restaurants below quietly slipped away for the day.