Budapest has always sounded like an exotic place for me to visit -- maybe because of its odd sounding name or its location in Eastern Europe -- as well as in history.
We arrived here around noon after being in transit almost 20 hours, and I quickly learned two important things. 1) Budapest, a sprawling metropolis intersected by the Danube, was, until 1873, two cities, Buda and Pest, which were then united to form today's capital city. Buda is the hilly side, home to the Palace and former site of a medieval castle, while Pest is the flat, modern, business section. 2) How to pronounce the name - Pest or Pesh? Neither. It's actually pronounced "Pesht.
The drive from the airport took us through Pest and to the Kempinski Hotel, our home for the next 3 nights. It is well situated across from Vorosmarty terrace with its magnificently large Ferris wheel and only a block away from Vaci Uta, the main upscale shopping street. A block further is the Danube, lined with tourist boats, riverside cafes and a local tram line. While Ed napped, I walked the area, checking out spots to see later in the week and finding a place for dinner. I was successful on all fronts.
We headed out at 5:30 to Cyrano's near Vaci Uta and enjoyed traditional Hungarian fare - I had chicken paprikash complete with dumplings and he had lamp knuckles (didn't know they had them?) with sausage and potatoes, also in a paprika sauce. Everything here has paprika in it, but the sweet kind.
Then we went to Budai Vigado where we were greatly entertained by the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble. The Ensemble consists of 34 dancers and 6 members of the Gypsy Orchestra -- 3 violinists (fiddlers?), a cellist. Clarinet and an instrument that resembles a hammered dulcimer. The six players produced some lively and energetic music. But it paled in comparison to the dancers. They were amazing. The first 45 minutes was mostly couples dancing, all wearing knee-high black leather boots and stomping in a staccato fashion. The women wore knee length full peasant skirts, embroidered tops and scarves tying back their hair. Their footwork would have put the Rockettes to shame. The men were the most exceptional with their high kicking, from the knee backward, and often with both legs at the same time in a kind of jump. Picture "Lord of the Dance" but with higher stepping and lots of arm movement, including thigh slapping. The first act was also highlighted by a female solist who sang in a low guttural voice that was so beautiful as to be haunting. The second act featured more dancing, but different ethnic costumes as well as choreography. The highlight was a piece by the 16 or so women of the group who assembled on stage, some seated and some standing, who performed an acapella folk song. It wasn't just singing, but some made their voices resemble instruments or unnatural human sounds, but was so perfectly timed as to flow seamlessly. Again, so hauntingly beautiful that you did not want it to end. The choreographies are all based on authentic dances, some collected in isolated villages with dance elements dating back hundreds of years. It was so good I would see it again anytime.
When we return to our hotel, it was such a gorgeous night that we decided to take a walk. We went down to the Danube esplanade, which is a sidewalk along the River lined with restaurants. There was a small combo playing at one on the corner of a plaza. People outside the restaurant on the plaza were dancing to the music. One paunchy middle-aged guy who had some very good moves was a big hit with the ladies and they were lined up to take a turn dancing with him. Such fun to see a city still alive at 11 pm on a Thursday night.
We had to remind ourselves it had been a long day and it was time to turn in.