By Travelin’ Gal Maxine Albert
For centuries Budapest and its beautiful Danube River has enchanted composers, royals and romantics. Of late, this charming city has become the darling of filmmakers and movie stars. Not surprising with its gorgeous ambiance, stunning architecture and elegant coffee house culture.
Budapest is a supremely strollable veritable open-air museum of dazzling art nouveau architecture. Every scenic street boasts striking buildings decorated with sconces, statues, bas relief and lovely balconies, the famed Opera House being just one among many. The belle époque boulevard, Andrassy, with its high-end boutiques and chic cafes, is often compared to the Champs -Elysees. No wonder Hollywood comes calling for a set to evoke Paris, with money left to pay the big stars.
Brad Pitt filmed World War Z here with Angelina and the kids in tow. Adrien Brody (of Hungarian descent ) starring as Houdini in the much anticipated series, will be filming in Budapest. During breakfast at my hotel, the luxurious Royal Corinthia, Ian Mc Shane, of ‘Deadwood’ fame, was at the next table. He is shooting the new series about Ian Fleming, the man who created James Bond, here. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, also a guest of the hotel, is currently filming the most famous vampire in history – Dracula.
The 5 star historic Royal Corinthia, in the heart of the city on Budapest’s Grand Boulevard, has a glamorous cinematic past of its own. When it opened in 1896 as the Grand Hotel Royal, The Lumière brothers screened their moving pictures in the hotel’s opulent ballroom, making it the first cinema outside Paris. Women in gowns and tuxedoed men thronged to the fashionable in-spot for a night at the movies. First they dined at the hotel then off to the ballroom for the film, a light supper with champagne afterwards to discuss the picture. The sumptuous Grand Ballroom, adorned with striking chandeliers and gold curtains, is used today for events and weddings.
The legendary hotel, which has been beautifully restored to its original grandeur, with stunning lobby and elegant Le Bar, has long been a favorite of celebrities and movie stars, the great Josephine Baker and Catherine Deneuve, among them. Helen Mirren was a guest when filming ‘The Debt’ in Budapest, as was Andrew Lloyd Weber for the filming of his musical ‘ Evita ’. The General Manager, Tibor, now in his 70’s, regaled me with entertaining anecdotes. “All the stars had a massage at the hotel before they performed, opera singer Jose Carreras, Pink, all of them”, he said. So off I headed to the hotel’s esteemed Royal Spa, and royal treatment I received. After a dip in the expansive pool, a heavenly massage was followed by a moisturizing facial with an eyebrow shaping that made me look ten years younger. Thank you Dora.
When Gerard Depardieu is in residence, he collaborates with the kitchen about his meals– the effect of both being French and playing a chef in a movie. The food is superb whether dining on the tastiest Goulash soup and perfect veal at the hotel’s Royal Brasserie or relishing Asian specialties at Rickshaw. Rock star chef Biro Lajos will wow you with his inspired cuisine at famed Bock Bistro at the Corinthia. Savor creative dishes like goose liver sushi with eel, duck tongue with porcini mushrooms, and paprika sorbet paired with superb Hungarian wines.
I enjoyed delicious pork loin and pumpkin dumplings at Gerlóczy Café, Jeremy Irons favorite. He filmed the Showtime series ‘The Borgias’ in Budapest and likes this café so much that it is not uncommon for him to pull up, unannounced on his BMW motorcycle for his beloved grilled mackerel. The city is awash with creative chefs who veer toward local, seasonal cuisine with imaginative touches – different than the heavy cream based sauces of their parents.
At Menza you can dine in the Austen Powers set-like interior or al fresco on the lovely tree lined street on delectable fare such as sweet potato and coconut soup and trout with almonds. The fashionable and creative set eat, drink and mingle at trendy Egykettő. For the most scenic dining head to Fishermen’s Bastion, high up in a castle-like setting, for panoramic views of the Danube, the impressive Parliament Building and illuminated city. Savoring mangalica heirloom pork with a violin serenade of ‘La Vie en Rose’ and a full moon was unforgettable.
Late afternoons, the action is at the coffee house cafes, where locals meet and socialize over coffee, tea, aperitifs, light bites and the scrumptious de rigueur Hungarian pastries. Everyone has their favorite haunt. Robert Pattinson of ‘Twilight’ fame, filmed ‘Bel Ami’ at the lavish New York Café/Budapest. Called the most beautiful cafe in the world, it boasts Venetian chandeliers, marvelous frescoes and gilded Baroque adornments. Relishing rich butter cream, luscious chocolate and fruit delights while listening to tunes like ‘ As Time Goes By’ on the piano was divine decadence. Other notables are the Parisi Café, with walls and ceilings as ornate as a royal palace, the elegant Astoria Café whose exterior looks like The Waldorf and the grand historic Central Café.
Even before Roman times, and ever since, Budapest has loved its hot springs, lots of them - believed to enhance that movie star glow. Close by The Corinthia, The Szechenyi baths 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, and art nouveau architecture embellishing this city on the banks of the Danube
Etyek, the Hamptons of Budapest, just a 45 minute drive, offers gastronomic dining, beautiful vineyards and bucolic countryside. At Rokusfalvy’s picturesque wine terrace, I lunched on mouth watering plum soup, lamb and freshest vegetables from their garden paired with their excellent wines. Viggo Mortensen was so enchanted with Etyek when he starred in ‘Good,’ filmed in Budapest, he took a wine tour. Nearby is Korda Studios, where ‘The Borgias’ was shot, which offers tours of movie making.
My last night in Budapest, as I cruised the Danube aboard the Legenda panoramic boat, I took in the vista with those glorious art nouveau buildings. It felt like I was in a wondrous fairy tale - or a glamorous Hollywood movie. •
British Airways flies from JFK to Budapest, with a connecting flight in London: