Thursday, February 10, 2011

Budapest, Hungary IV

Do you consider the coffee shop your second home because you'd rather hang out at Starbucks than your messy apartment? You can't have a good day if anything comes between you and your morning cup of coffee. You probably know the coffee menu better than any other restaurant menu. We joke that in Seattle (the birthplace of Starbucks), people need so much coffee to stay perked in the gray, drizzly weather. There's a cafe culture in Budapest that was thriving long before you learned that all the hip people in your home town hang around coffee shops. 

By 1900, there were more than 600 cafes in Budapest, double the amount of Starbucks in Seattle, and more than any other country in Europe (excluding Paris). A cafe in the old Budapest was a social institution, not just a place to indulge in all things sweet and forbidden. It was a meeting ground for intellectuals, writers, poets, critics, and painters. You could get a level of education by hanging out in cafes. One debate that got heated in a cafe led to a revolution. All the cafes in Budapest used to be open 24 hours a day, so you could meet with other crazies at any hour of the day or night. When a new cafe was opened, the keys were thrown into the river to prevent closing. 

And you thought Seattle was serious about it's Starbucks.

These days, the cafes in Budapest are more like traditional cafes around the world, a place for a casual meeting over a cup of coffee and slice of cake. They also open and close at a decent hour every day. However, many of the beautiful buildings that were once cafes are still open to this day. 

We were particularly struck by one cafe that you can find upstairs inside Alexendra Bookstore on Andrassy Boulevard. The cafe is enormous, lined with gorgeous stained glass windows and arched mirrors. Every bit of the walls are decorated with woodwork, gold, and marble. The ceilings are vaulted and covered with beautiful frescoes (painted by the same artist who painted inside the Budapest Opera House and Saint Stephen's Basilica). From the ceiling hang luxurious chandeliers. On one side of the room stands a baby grand piano for afternoons with live music, on the other side stands a confectionary display filled with beautiful edible things. It honestly feels like a room inside the king's palace where a formal ball should take place! Turns out it's just a place to satisfy your sweet tooth and caffeine hankering.

This post starts with some photos from the Alexandra Book Cafe, followed by more shots around the city. 

- Julia

Write the names of you and your lover on a lock and attach here. Throw the key into the river and your love will last forever. You might have seen this tradition in other place places like Paris and Rome, but Hungarians claim it started here.
Beautiful buildings that were bombed in WWII were replaced by simple Communist blocks like this one (under the Soviet occupation). This building has been nicknamed the Spinach Palace because it stands across the river from the Royal Palace and contrasts so much from the other beautiful buildings along the river bank. Also, this is after the Spinach Palace got a face lift on the exterior... it used to be worse.
"The Little Princess" was the first non-communist statue created in 1989. Hungarians love her because she's small and feminine, not like the bulky, muscular communist statues the Soviets left behind. Prince William liked her so much when he visited, that he had a replica installed in the Buckingham Palace in London. Put your hands on her knees to make a wish.