By Rory Winston
A millennium was coming to a close. Paradigm shifts in science and lifestyle were taking place on a daily basis. Many vied for sociopolitical reform. No. I’m not talking about the year 2000 but about 1898. The Millennials who looked forward to change back then were not Generation Y but the residents of Budapest anticipating the 1000th anniversary of their nation. As a member of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Budapest was about to host the most massive expo ever – one that would include the first electrified underground metro in all of Europe. Illuminated fountains, a newly constructed bridge, two major museums, it was the Belle Époque. The allures of royalty existed but they now belonged to a new creative class of thinkers. Philosophers, poets, physicists would sit in cafés discussing culture and change. Decadence and innovation made a vibrant couple – they played in the city gardens, strolled the grand boulevards and like a pair of newlyweds caroused throughout the city of Budapest, reveling into the morning hours. CAFe Budapest, the annual Fall Festival, is a celebration of this longstanding marriage – a marriage that has managed to outlast both the Nazi and Soviet regimes, a relationship that lives on in all that still defines the magnificent city.
CAFé Budapest is an extravagant romp through the world of classical and contemporary music, dance, theater, visual art, design, food and all that which is created by a city whose audience celebrates life – a city whose audience had been painstakingly raised on clever coffeehouse conversations, a city that has for centuries absorbed the cultures of all those who had occupied her. If not for the Ottoman invasion, Budapest would be devoid of its great bathhouses. If not for the Hapsburg monarchy and subsequent Austro-Hungarian Empire, Budapest would not have the grand tradition it has in classical music and pastries. This is a lesson that all xenophobes should keep in mind. The development of a culture does not happen in isolation to other cultures but through repeated exposure.
Budapest is an idiosyncratic juxtaposition of different eras and moods all coexisting with one another. Our hotel was located alongside the Danube – a majestic landscape of hills and castles on the Buda side and an elegant strand on that of Pest. Walking deeper into Pest’s urban landscape one hits the Jewish District, a Bohemian enclave of turn of the century restaurants and pubs and ruin bars built on the premises of long abandoned meat markets and courtyards – a strange cross between regal themes, bordello motifs and a Mad Max film set. As Tipsy Tours go, the district lent itself perfectly to Palinka tasters and a host of amazing local wines and sparkling wines – a tradition that dated back to Roman times and one that includes awarded desert wines like Tokay.
A38 is a floating stage and club stationed smack on the Danube. The Ferry, which hosts a myriad of brilliant acts throughout the year, was a perfect venue for watching St. Vincent. Although Paris may indeed have been burning, Budapest was perpetually on fire. From the Franz Liszt Academy with its golden laurels adorning the walls to the majestic opera house to the Thalia Theatre, each festival venue had as much of a story to tell as the brilliant events they were respectively hosting.
One standout event was the Armel Opera competition – a showcase of international talents that ran the gamut between Sir Hartrison Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy and Mozart’s Figaro. What is more than evident is that in Budapest culture is an everyday affair; and even the most sublime classical music is often introduced with the most off-colored of jokes. Unlike in most places where I’ve been, in Hungary, there is very little pretension when it comes to high culture. Classical music, poetry readings, and contemporary dance is cherished by the masses as much as it is by the elite; so too when it comes to gourmet food – an area in which Hungarians not only excel but have made an art of it. In Budapest, fowl is more than fair; it is exquisite. When it comes to game, goose, duck as well as goose liver, a dish at Gerlóczy Café is enough to explain why even the French are importing these specialties from Hungary. As for desert, the Austro Hungarian tradition in pastries seemed to have been successfully passed survived all the regimes that followed.
As closing concerts go, Nina Hagen seemed a perfect way to end my Budapest escapade. Like the city itself, the punk goddess was a brilliant cross between opera, Goth rock and drag queen extravaganza. With a genuine classical range and true ‘fuck you’ flare, Hagen was emblematic of any true Budapest experience: regal, captivating, rich, over-the-top and, at times, even grotesque… anything but forgettable.