The dwindling day brought us back across the river to Pest and the magnificent Hungarian Parliament. To get to the building, however, we resorted to the beloved mode of transport of locals – the Budapest tram. It is little wonder that many claim the best way to see Budapestis through the sometimes grimy window of a tram. The history of tram transport in Budapest goes back for more than a century, when horse tramways were established in order to better connect Buda and Pest. To cope with ever-growing demands for public transport, steam-propelled and electrified lines were soon commissioned, and the first of its kind was opened to the public in the late 19th century. After the infrastructure and economic downturns following the World Wars and the 1956 revolution, the tram lines were modernised and streamlined, ultimately leading to the vast 40-line tram system we see today.
Among the many tram lines, Tram No. 2 is particularly scenic. The tram mostly zooms along the Pest bank, offering views of Gellért Baths and their namesake hill, as well as the royal complexes perched upon Castle Hill. Even on the Pest side, the tram passes the Great Market Hall, Gresham Palace, and the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, offering interminable views of the Budapest skyline, before finally coming to an end near the Hungarian Parliament.
Other scenic trams traverse the city. The No.4/No. 6 loops between Margaret Bridge and Petőfi Bridge, showcasing the Grand Boulevard of Budapest and zooming past the Oktogon and the Király Street bar district. The No. 41/No. 19 are the counterparts to the No. 2, starting by gliding along the Buda embankment under Castle and Gellért Hills,before the trams continue onto Bartók Béla Boulevard and into the rolling hills of Buda.
The building which houses the Hungarian Parliament is exemplary of neo-gothic architecture, but is scarcely 100 years old. Commissioned in 1885, the building was inaugurated on the 1000th anniversary of Hungary. The building is exactly as tall as St. Stephen’s Cathedral, a deliberate architectural decision to emphasise the equal standings of church and state. During the Communist era, a large red star was installed on top of the Parliament’s spire, heralding a time when the Soviet-led government towered over the city. The star has since been removed, restoring the third largest parliament in the world to its pre-war state.
The interior of the Parliament building is even more impressive than its neo-gothic exterior. Requiring 40 kg of gold and half a million precious stones, the innards of the building are decadently gilded. Guided tours of the inside are available when Parliament is not in session. The tour begins with a climb up the red-carpeted and gold-plated staircase XVII, along corridors with stained glass frescoes to the grand stairway, 96 marbled steps which lead up from the main entrance to the building.
The grand stairway leads into the triumphant into the Dome Hall, the centre of the Parliament building. Two unmoving guards flank a glass case holding the Hungarian Crown, as well as the coronation insignia of a sceptre and a sword. The crown is among the oldest in the world, and was used in coronations in most of Hungary’s history. Looking up, the hall contains stone statues of past monarchs, between which ribbed pillars and stained glass windows prop up the dome. Moving further into the belly of the building, we reached the gilded Upper House where parliamentary sessions used to take place. Oak-panelled seats and are bordered by gold-plated walls and murals depicting the history of the Hungarian nobility. Just outside in the lobby, personalised cigar holders decorate the hallways. This is truly the most ludicrously decadent of settings, a fitting symbol of Hungary’s glorious yesteryear.
Dinner brought us to Tanti, a restaurant at the Hegyvidék Centre deep within Buda’s verdant hills. Tanti is named after the German word “Tante”, meaning “auntie”, reflecting the reliable and feel-at-home sentiment of an auntie’s cooking. Despite being an erstwhile Michelin-starred restaurant, Tanti is laid back and has a pleasant atmosphere, and was almost empty the evening of our visit. We enjoyed a two-course meal of modern and reimagined Hungarian cuisine, notable comprising dishes such as thirty-hour chicken consommé, braised beef short rib, and apple and dill risotto for a very reasonable price, accompanied by the delectable St. Ilona Taposó-Kút , and, for digestif, the world-famous Tokaji Aszú dessert wine.
Hungary has a long and complex history with food. The mention of Hungarian cuisine evokes images such as paprika, Hungary’s piros arany or ‘red gold’, in both erős (“hot”) and édes (“sweet”) varieties, which is used ubiquitously as seasoning and a condiment. Traditional Hungarian cuisine is fairly rigid, often incorporating a leves (soup) as a starter (the most notable example of which is beef goulash), and containing an often astounding amount of meat. Other items you might associate with Hungarian food include boiled or fried kolbász (sausage), or lángos, a deep-frieddough snack topped with cheese and sour cream which quickly became my favourite Hungarian vice.
Modern Hungarian cuisine has undergone something of a revolution. It was scarcely 20 years ago when people from Budapest would tell you that the city’s best restaurant would be one serving Italian or French cuisine; traditional Hungarian food was largely uncelebrated. Since then, there has been a resurgence in étterems (restaurants), cukrazdas (confectioners),and cafes. More and more chefs are pushing the boundaries of Hungarian cuisine, incorporating foreign ingredients and techniques, all the while retaining the core of Hungarian food.
Of course, the drink is a crucial component of the Hungarian culinary experience. Small pálinka breweries and wineries have sprouted across the country, and local spirits and wines are increasingly incorporated into this contemporary culinary movement. Hungary was one of the most important wine producers in Europe a century ago, but experienced a downturn during the World Wars and throughout the communist rule. Today, thankfully, underrated Hungarian wines are making a comeback. Some of the best known varieties include the well-known Egri Bikavér red blend (also known as “bull’s blood”), rich in tannins and spices; the Villány, the earth and fruity reds reminiscent of Mediterranean reds; and my personal favourite, the Tokaji. The Tokaji Aszú is made from grapes affected by a particular fungus; the dried and shrivelled grapes are then mashed and soaked in dry wine or must for 4-5 years, in order for fermentation to fully take place. By this time, the Aszú is extremely sweet, and is classified by puttonyos, denoting the amount of sugar in the wine. This perfect dessert wine evokes tastes of peaches and tangerines, with the bright acidity balancing out the nectar-esque sweetness.