Budapest CAFe Festival 2014
By Rory Winston
„I’m just a bad believer,” crooned St. Vincent a good one night after I had arrived to Hungary – just the right amount of time for me to go from being a bad believer myself to being an unabashed enthusiast of CAFé Budapest, the city’s annual Contemporary Arts Festival.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m no cynic when it comes to art or even to the exotic charms of a given country’s cultural scene. Nevertheless, the notion of flying in for an all-encompassing happening – wherein the attempt is made to squeeze an entire nation’s versatility and appreciation for numerous art forms into a single week made me skeptical to say the least. The fact that I was rushing in for the last three days of this farrago had me all but convinced that the experience would be akin to riding a cannonball into a three-ring circus. Though I’d try my best to catch something, I’d likely end up with emotional whiplash. At least that’s what I thought prior to landing. Twenty four hours had passed and I knew my suppositions had been terribly wrong. The Contemporary Arts Festival, whose acronym was CAFe, turned out to be a café in the Austro-Hungarian sense of the word: a cornucopia of splendors to tantalize the senses that still left room for what central Europeans have long indulged in, a deeply stirring coffeehouse conversation embellished by sumptuous fare.
Arriving at the centrally located Zenith Hotel, I was immediately struck by the majesty of Budapest’s fairytale landscape. With a bustling metropolis on one side of the Danube and a kingdom’s worth of castles and bastions on the opposing hillside, the city was an ongoing dialogue between several cultures and eras. As the Danube sliced its way between Belle Époque and Neoclassicism, between ancient Magyar sturdiness and Austro-Hungarian embellishment, between national romanticism and Ottoman flourish, it became easy to understand the ever present duality of cultures – both east and west, both historic and new. Budapest was a place that had absorbed the best of all those who had overrun her. It was a Viennese table of eclectic motifs where nuances shared space with the past and rediscovery was a daily event.
Located on the city’s historic Andrassy Avenue in short proximity to both the ornate Opera House and the world renowned Franz Liszt Academy stood the Thália Theatre, an evocative music box realm where oak and cherry wood tones played off the plush Bordeaux colored seating. Here the much-lauded Armel Opera competition was taking place. Replete in upcoming Mezzo sopranos, coloratura, baritones, and both lyrical and heroic tenors, the event was a showcase in international talent whose range ran the gamut between Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy, winner of both the audience and Production award, and Mozart’s Figaro whose Marion Grange took best performer. With singers like Tamas Altorjay and Richard Rittelmasnn from Hungary, Jean-Philippe Biojout and Marion Grange from France, Kris Belligh from Belgium and Boram Lee from South Korea, I instinctively knew I was listening to the upcoming generation of opera stars. Hosted by Gabor Gundel Takács and directed by Gyögy Böhm the show benefitted from a contagious mix of virtuosity and frivolity. The humorous approach underlined the idea that high culture need not be a dry ordeal. On the contrary, in Hungary, culture is an everyday affair that is highly appreciated but never entombed in affectation. Conducted by Daniél Dinyés the event turned out as casual as it was sublime.
Soon I was off to Gerlóczy Café, a brilliant Bistro, where an outdoor terrace and extensive wine list lent itself to a culinary approach that was a masterful juxtaposition of regional Hungarian dishes and French execution. From the onset, Hungarian specialties such as goose and duck liver made an appearance in the auspicious form of terrine, Ganache as well as seared form. Artisan and aged cheese platters are available both prior to and after the main course, while soups include both chicken ragout and classical goulash. As for the main course, it varies from fish to seafood to poultry, pork and veal. Although, I am a big fan of fish, in Hungary I would recommend the duck breast with goose liver, the chicken breast or pork (the pork being the Mangalicia, a succulent variation unique to the region). As for desert, it is wise to opt for one of Hungary’s Austro Hungarian pastries. In this case, the Azelia Chocolate cake or praline cake make for an illustrious ending.
From there it was ’tipsy tour’ time – a unique drink-your-way-through-it journey that crosses over from fact to fiction, from ancient times to present days, where the museum-like installations of trash bars throughout the renowned Jewish District create a mood unlike anywhere in the world. Like some crazy cross between a Robert Rauschenberg creation and a 19th Century Eastern European city, the seventh district is alive with more nightlife than seemingly anywhere on the continent. Filled with Williamsburg-styled hipsters and artists, the crowded courtyards and markets-turned-clubs and slaughterhouses-turned-pubs are all decorated with odd gewgaws and antiques like some retro bazaar created for some post-apocalyptic futurist film. After a few shots of the many available Palinkas, it’s likely you’ll begin to see some logic and order to the wild motifs running through the ’ruin pubs’.
Though I can’t be certain, I assume at one point I had passed out in my hotel since the next thing I recall was waking to my alarm moments before having to dash off to the Széchenyi Thermal Baths. Located in the city’s very own central park (Liget), Széchenyi is the largest medicinal bath in all of Europe, its expansive neo-baroque structure a testament to an earlier and grander period. With two thermal springs supplying water – their respective temperatures being 165 °F and °171 each – the complex includes a series of baths and pools that have very different temperatures. There is an outdoor and indoor area, a stream bath, a whirlpool, a massaging water beam, a sauna, a steam room, and numerous massage salons. Since thermal water has high levels of sulfate, calcium, magnesium, bicarbonate, fluoride and metaboric acid, the venue is a haven for those suffering from chronic and acute joint inflammations.
After a long swim, I decided to take in the city, ending up at the Franz Liszt Academy, one of the most illustrious music academies and performance halls in all of Europe if not the world. Just adjacent the walking street that houses the academy is Menza, a local restaurant where I popped in for dinner. As high quality service and food are concerned, the bistro is a pleasant surprise at a very reasonable price. Soon I headed for the Danube where I boarded A38, a massive stationary ferry perpetually poised on the Danube. Finally, St. Vincent was performing Bad Believer, the songs refrain making more sense than ever before: „Give me life, Give me life, Give me life.” It could as easily have been the slogan for the Café festival as well as for all of Budapest itself.
By the third and final night rolled around, I knew that leaving Budapest would be no easy matter. It was a city with punch – one that exuded style, history and activity. Though New Yorkers love boasting about being part of the city that never sleeps, those living in Budapest could easily make the same claim. With twenty-four hour nightlife, grocery stores and eateries, the city is a metropolis in every sense of the word. It is both on the pulse of the times and in touch with the past. Its attitude is ageless. Lively, elegant and with just the right amount of panache, Budapest is a punk princess born of a genuine monarchy – an endearing concoction of diverse cultures and styles. Though a quick in and out at most city festivals leave one with the feeling of a one-stand stand, Budapest had left its mark. It was only fitting that I spent the last evening of the festival watching the punk queen, herself, Nina Hagen. As in-your-face diva as the city in which she was performing, she was a force of nature as overpowering as she had been twenty years earlier. There alongside Müpa’s new palace of performing arts, draped in her very own circus tent, the ageless iconoclast belted it out with all her usual furor. Large eyes, mouth agape – she was my mood incarnate. She looked exactly the way I felt throughout the entire duration of the Budapest’s CAFe Festival.