Its river has inspired composers, guarded empires and nurtured a culture of romantics, revolutionaries and refinement. Having outlived the imperial fantasies of Hapsburgs, fascists and Soviets just in the last hundred years, Budapest now finds itself an object of fascination for the mightiest power in history -- Hollywood.
Budapest's architectural masterpieces, rivaling better-known European capitals, offer filmmakers everything they need to make their magic.
Renaissance princes, deathless vampires and Cold War spies have cut a figure in this city that was home to Austro-Hungarian royalty. Brad Pitt stayed for three months with Angelina and children while killing zombies, Jessica Chastain and Helen Mirren took on Nazis and Spielberg hunted the PLO. It is here that Adrien Brody (he of Hungarian descent) plays Houdini in a new miniseries, Jeremy Irons was Rodrigo Borgia and Ian McShane gets close to the man who created James Bond.
I ran into Ian (McShane, not Fleming) at breakfast at the five-star Corinthia hotel. Since opening in 1896, the Corinthia has long been regarded as one of Europe's finest hotels, and artists from Josephine Baker to Catherine Deneuve have graced its opulent lobby. Gerard Depardieu is known to collaborate with the kitchen staff on the preparation of his meals when he stays here. Jose Carreras and Pink take advantage of its first-class Royal Spa for massages before performing.
The Corinthia has its own starring role in film history. The Lumiere brothers screened their moving picture in the Corinthia's opulent ballroom in 1896, making it the first movie house on the continent. Enchanted by the exotic technology, society regularly donned its finest attire to have dinner, watch a movie and discuss it afterwards over a champagne supper in the hotel. The ballroom served as a cinema through the 1970s. No longer a theater, it's been lovingly restored to its gilded grandeur.
The Corinthia is well located in the heart of the city on the Grand Boulevard, close by fashionable Andrassy avenue (with its opera house and designer stores), nightlife and all the city's attractions. Like the stars who shoot here, visitors to Budapest find world-class cuisine, elegant art nouveau cafes and a fin de siecle atmosphere.
You'll never go hungry in Hungary
Hungarian cuisine has come a long way since the time the world's best-known Hungarian was Zsa Zsa Gabor. Expecting heavy dishes slathered with sour cream-based sauces, I was pleasantly surprised to find "New Hungarian," based on locally grown seasonal ingredients, often from a garden next to the kitchen.
Gerloczy Cafe, a jewel box of a café is Jeremy Irons favored lunch spot. Veal has a place of honor on the Hungarian menu, and the chef made it a lunch special, roasted and perched atop ribbons of zucchini in goat cheese. I couldn't resist a side order of porcini dumplings, savory as a walk in the forest and light as clouds.
The village of Etyek is the locavore mecca of Hungary, a gastronomic center of cheese, fruits, vegetables and wine. Purple plums hung heavy on the trees alongside our al fresco table at Rokusfalvy wine terrace, making the cinnamon-flavored cold plum soup with gingerbread foam (a traditional summer offering) an inevitable choice. Curried yellow beans and carrots accompanying the rump of lamb came from the kitchen garden just steps away. I opted for a leg of rabbit which came surrounded by grits cakes flecked with porcini.
In addition to producing artisanal food and wines, Etyek also produces films. The nearby Korda Studios, named for the legendary Hungarian-born filmmaker Sir Alexander Korda, offers tours.
Back in Budapest, the Royal Corinthia's superb Brasserie restaurant serves a most excellent goulash, spiked with paprika, beef and vegetables in a broth more soup than stew. For the main, a filet mignon-sized nugget of veal served kedvessy style was so tender it could be cut with a fork.
When you feel goulashed out, the hotel's Rickshaw restaurant puts the Buddha in Budapest with a variety of pan-Asian dishes.
Lajos Biro, the star chef of the Corinthia's Bock Bistro, is credited with reinventing Hungarian cuisine. Goose liver appears in the expected ways, seared in its own fat, and the unexpected - as sushi topped with ginger and a thin slice of eel. Deep fried chicken breast arrives after a palate cleansing paprika sorbet. Desserts include ice creams in unlikely flavors such as bacon and tobacco (I'm not making this up). Mayor Bloomberg would not approve.
Menza looks like a set from Austen Powers with a menu that features both traditional dishes and modern creations. A sweet potato and coconut soup is definitely nouvelle, while the seasonal trout with almonds lemon sauce and French beans is a traditional favorite of this landlocked country.
Award for best scenic location for a restaurant goes to the Fisherman's Bastion on a bluff hundreds of feet above the river. I dined on goulash and mangalica heirloom pork filet as a full moon rose over the city, the fairy-tale parliament building and the Danube bridges spread before me like a jewel box and necklaces of twinkling gold.
With this much coffee it should be The City That Never Sleeps
Like its royal consort Vienna, Budapest is renowned for its elegant café society. Art nouveau coffee houses serve patrons coffee and the pastry chef's fantasies in butter cream. The New York Cafe rightly bills itself as the most beautiful coffee house in the world, all pink marble, gilded ceilings and belle époque grandeur that rivals Versailles. (Robert Pattinson's Bel Ami was filmed here.) Other coffee houses notable for their decor include the Pariszi Café and the Astoria Hotel.
If you have a ruin, make a ruin pub
In the 19th century, coffee houses served as cultural incubators where artists, writers, intellectuals and revolutionaries fed on ideas and Eszterhazy tortes. Today, the so-called "ruin pubs" have a similar role (without the Esterhazy) for a new generation. The avant-garde of youth culture, ruin pubs occupy the interior courtyards of abandoned buildings, mostly in the Jewish Quarter, with an irreverent décor of second hand furniture and other flotsam and jetsam of the streets. Szimpla is the first and some say the best ruin pub of them all. On weekend nights, it's jammed with a diverse crowd drinking, eating and smoking shisha as DJs spin. On Sunday morning, there's a farmers market. Other times, you'll find an eclectic program of live music (Balkan psychedelic, anyone?), screenings, design markets, readings and even Hungarian lessons.
In the beginning, there was water ...
Before there were ruin pubs, coffee houses, vineyards or artisanal gastronomy, Budapest had hot springs -- lots of them. The Romans, the Turks and everyone since have loved their thermal waters -- and still do. The Szechenyi baths in the city park offer a dozen pools fed by geothermal springs and three outdoor pools. The men playing chess in the outdoor pool are as emblematic of Budapest's unique culture as the elegant coffee houses, ruin pubs and art nouveau architecture embellishing this city on the banks of the Danube.
Hungarian-born Bela Lugosi was a vampire before Twilight or True Blood
She embellishes the doorway to the Gucci store on Andrassy avenue
Pariszi Cafe: Art nouveau reigns over Budapest's cafe society
The New York Cafe, a coffee house that's more Versailles than Starbucks
Streetlight on Andrassy
The Lumiere brothers screened their moving pictures at the Corinthia hotel in 1896
The Parliament reflected in the Danube
Statues watch over Budapest
Art nouveau bas relief adorn the buildings
Central Market: Ornate tilework and brickwork are de rigeur in Budapest
Inside Szechenyi baths
Note men playing chess in the pool (left side) at Szechenyi baths
Budapest rococco: This building was once the police headquarters