Monday, September 8, 2008

Early in May we rendezvoused with Nan & John, Marti's parents, in Budapest.
Beautiful Budapest.

Upon arrival in this beautiful city on the Danube, Marti & I checked into our hotel, then cabbed to City Hall Park, where the Palinka Festival was underway. Palinka is a potent Eastern European eau-de-vie, or fruit-based brandy.

After sampling a few of the offerings at the many stands showcasing individual brands of Hungarian palinka, we found the food tent, where we enjoyed lunch at a picnic table. It featured one of Marti's favorites: the other white meat.

After lunch Marti & I walked several blocks to find an elegant old Art Nouveau flower shop we'd read about.

We ordered a couple of bouquets for the hotel rooms, plus a small corsage for Nan, whom we'd be meeting up with that evening.

Marti's folks had arrived that morning on the Amadeus Symphony (which I called the S.S. Minnow). They were at the end of a nine-day river cruise from Nuremberg, Germany.

They had invited us to the Captain's Dinner aboard the Minnow. As we charged up the gangplank we were disappointed to find Marti's dad using a cane. Shipboard injury. John's been experiencing balance problems. These veteran world travelers are in their mid-eighties & are just now coming to terms with the hard reality that their touring days are pretty much over. Poignant, to be sure, but it's probably better to get off the bus while you're still vertical than to keep overreaching.

Pin the corsage on the Nan.

The highlight of the evening aboard the Minnow was a 45-minute cruise to see the illuminations of this gorgeous city.

The lowlight of the evening was my father-in-law's earnest presentation to us of a copy of Mark Steyn's America Alone, a racist (or perhaps, merely bigoted) diatribe about how demographics -- specifically, population growth trends -- point to Muslims overrunning Europe. Apparently Amerika will soon be the last bastion of Christian dominance. Steyn is a former disc jockey who has become a hot item with faithful listeners of the lunatic fringe's favorite drug addict/coddled criminal/hypocrite: Rush Limbaugh.
What a shame that an admittedly amusing writer like Steyn is wasting his talent by spewing out this tripe. I told Marti afterward that I'd appreciate it if that tome never made it under our roof. We have dear friends who are Muslims. I don't want them stumbling upon & thumbing through that poison book while visiting our home.

My beloved bride quickly disappeared the offensive book.

Next morning Marti & I collected Nan & John from the boat & brought them back to our charming little 1930s-style hotel, the Cotton House.

We went to Sunday brunch at Restaurant Gundel, which had been recommended to us by our pal Mike. A perfect choice. And a delightful sunny day. Appropriately enough, it was (American) Mothers Day.

At the Gundel.

Following a stroll in City Park, the four of us taxi'd to City Hall Park, where musicians were entertaining Palinka Festivalgoers. We turned Nan & John on to the bracing drink, which proved to be an excellent digestif after the hearty buffet brunch.

That Sunday evening I left Marti & her parents talking quietly amongst themselves & cabbed to the MU Theater in the XI District to attend the 7th Annual Acoustic Guitar Festival. The venue reminded me of hip artists complexes like you used find in Greenwich Village or Adams Morgan (DC), as well as the Point Ephémère here in Paris.

The program featured guitarists from four countries. It was produced, hosted & opened by Hungarian Sandor Szabo, who dazzled with free, imaginative playing. We were off on a good note.

Next up was Andreas Georgiou, an amazing 15- & 16-string guitarist Marti & I first heard a few years ago at our favorite Athens live music venue, the Café Alavastron. When I had trouble a week earlier figuring out how to acquire a ticket for this event, Andreas replied to my desperation e-mail with a promise to have a ticket waiting for me at the MU Theater box office. Traditional Greek hospitality!

Following a marvelous series of pieces on the acoustic guitar, including "Constantia," a personal favorite from his Vananda album (which features the extraordinary Savina Yannatou on vocals & Eberhard Weber on 5-string electric bass), Andreas picked up a mbira (African thumb piano) & conjured up the most exciting, deeply textured music I've ever heard played on that instrument.

At intermission Andreas greeted me warmly, as if I were an old friend. He introduced me to Sandor Szabo, whom I congratulated on putting together a program so stylistically diverse with so much production value. The set design & lighting were lovely & imaginative. A live two-camera video projection afforded an intimate look at the fingerwork of the musicians. Andreas asked me to remain after the concert; he wanted to give me copies of his CDs that I didn't already own. Did I mention Greek hospitality? What a kind, generous man.

After the break Konarak Reddy, the remarkably accomplished Indian guitarist took the stage & regaled us with genre-busting tunes such as "Watching A B-Grade French Film" & "Tara," a composition about his daschund. Excellent.

Reddy was followed to the stage by Claus Boesser-Ferrari, who pulled out all the stops for the concert's closing set. A cheesy little fog machine covered the stage in clouds. Boesser-Ferrari began by "strumming" his strings with a tiny battery-operated personal fan, then used a mallet. Needless to say, he was generating previously-unheard sounds from that acoustic guitar! His setlist was all over the place: "Zucco's Dance" from a play about the Italian serial killer Robert Zucco, "Light My Fire," a snippet of "Everything Little Thing She Does Is Magic," Kurt Weill, Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue." I made a note to check out his discography.

For an encore the four guitarists played together, apparently an improvisation. An ear-opening evening of music. I was sorry Marti missed it. I chatted briefly with Claus, then Andreas afterward. When the merch table cleared, Andreas laid three CDs on me. I offered to pay but he wasn't having it. Yum. New iPod fodder. The cute young woman behind the bar phoned for a cab & I was whisked back to the hotel.

We had planned for a sightseeing expedition on Monday. Both of us were concerned about John's limited walking capacity (which was basically half a block, poor fellow). Consequently, I was soooo glad we'd already engaged a car service; the four of us traveled around the city in a roomy Mercedes driven by a uniformed English-speaking Hungarian driver named Andy. (I always try to avoid those on-off tour buses.) Andy picked us up at the Cotton House.

Hungarian Parliament Building.

Dohány Street Synagogue. The largest in Europe.

Hungarian State Opera House.

Park on Margaret Island.

Nyugati railway station (1877). Designed by August de Serres, built by the Eiffel company.

Castle District.

I had asked Andy to conclude our three-hour tour on Castle Hill in Buda. He recommended a lovely restaurant called Café Pierrot for lunch. After lunch we did a bit of boutique shopping, then hailed a taxi to take us back to the hotel at the end of the afternoon.

Andy was great. He'd worked at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, so his English was flawless. I realized almost immediately that it had been well worth the 150 euros just to have some other unlucky soul answer my mother-in-law's interminable series of questions while trying to negotiate traffic. (My old job.) I may have dreamed this, but I swear next morning there was a picture of poor Andy on the front page of the Budapest Times. He was found hanging from the shower rod in the bathroom of his little apartment with a cardboard sign pinned to his chest. On the sign he had scrawled a giant question mark in red magic marker.

View of the Danube from Castle Hill.

Late afternoon chill-out/e-mail session in the Louis Armstrong room at the Cotton House.

That evening we accommodated John's request for German food at the Haxen-Kiraly restaurant. Very tasty.

Next morning we visited the Nagycsarnok (Great Market).

We found a men's bench for John, then Nan, Marti & I explored the vast array of market stalls.

Fresh produce was out of the question, but I acquired jars of pickled peppers & red cabbage, paprika, jam -- even a loaf of bread -- to bring home.

Marti. Nan. Meat.

Later that afternoon we went to see the apartment-studio of Franz Liszt.

Composing desk.

After lunch near the hotel Nan & John took the rest of the afternoon off. Marti & I went to see the fabulous Belle Epoque Applied Arts Museum.

The white marble central hall was inspired by Spain's Alhambra.

A leisurely stroll through the narrow streets of the city brought us to the baroque University Church.

Marti & I were greeted warmly by a retired philosophy professor, who gave us a private tour of the church. The easiest language for the three of us to use was French. This led to a discussion of cuisine, of course. The professor took us to the church office, where he sold me an edition of a Hungarian cookbook -- in English! -- that had been left over from a rummage sale.

Six euros for this 1960s-era gem. I cooked from it as soon as we returned to Paris.

That evening we all went to dinner at the retro-chic Menza.

Check out those lighting fixtures. And the warm orange decor. Very 1970s school cafeteria.

Nan & John departed for their flight home early the next morning. After putting them in a cab, Marti & I headed to the Museum Of Fine Arts in Heroes' Square.

The neoclassical building houses a remarkable collection of Old Masters.

Annibale Carracci, Christ And The Woman Of Samaria, 1597.

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, Portrait Of The Wife Of Juan Augustin Ceán Bermúdez, 1790s.

It was great to be able to stretch our legs again. John's injury had relegated us to taxis, even for short distances. Marti & I strolled down elegant Andrassy Street.

We saw many lovely homes . . .

. . . many of which have been converted to embassies & institutional headquarters.

Marti stopped to smell the blossoms . . .

. . . then we enjoyed a coffee & pastry break at the beautifully restored Lukács Café, which dates back to beginning of the 20th century. In 1949, the Communists "relieved" the café from the Lukács family, closed it to the public & turned it into the meeting place of the secret police.

Our sojourn in Budapest was winding down. Marti & I had lunch at a Russian-Azerbaijani restaurant with the improbable name of Marquis de Salade.

The food here rocked. I had rabbit, preceded by piti, a robust lamb stew. After our late lunch Marti & I walked back to the hotel, ordered a taxi & drove off to the airport to catch our evening flight home to Paris.

Budapest. Beautiful.
(Or did I mention that already?)

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