Move over Paris - there's another 'City of Light'

"I have never seen so many people standing up on an airplane."

I glance up from my book and, sure enough, myhusband is right.At least 25 people are milling around the aisles of this jumbo Malev (Hungarian) airliner.

"Maybe Hungarians are a different breed," my husband jokes. "Maybe they just can't sit still."His teasing is directed at my own Hungarian roots. But there is some truth in his words.Among these smiling passengers is a sense of energy and excitement. Conversation flows,laughter is frequent, and I half-expect people to start dancing in the aisles.

I find the same enthusiasm in Budapest.Certainly history has laid a heavy hand on this beautiful, fairy-tale city, intersected by the Danube.Occupied by Romans, invaded by Turks, ruled by Austrians, flattened in World War II, and suppressed by Russians - Budapest (once two separate cities, Buda and Pest) has rebuilt itself time and time again.

Roman, Turkish, Austrian, and Russian influences remain.But intermingled is a sense of newness and sophistication.

Visitors will experience both.

Tea cakes, strudel, and confectioneries (Austrian influence) are abundant in this city.As are coffeehouses.Introduced by the Turks, coffeehouses became a staple in Budapest long before they appeared in Paris or Vienna. By the turn of the century, there were more than 400 coffeehouses in Budapest.

"This was by far the most popular, the most beautiful, and most lively," says Eniko, our guide. We are standing inside the still-elaborate, still-grand New York Cafe, which today attracts mostly tourists.In its heyday, the coffee house was a meeting place for writers, many of whom came for the free paper and ink, and "discounted" writer's plate of cold meat, cheese, bread, and coffee.

"There was a saying that when the cafe opened, the writers took the key and threw it into the Danube so it would never close," Eniko says.

For years, Budapest's coffeehouses thrived.Books were written, music composed, and plays created in them. Walls were removed to create an outdoor-garden setting and gypsy music added.But the lively artistic scene came to a halt under the Communists, when coffeehouses were ordered closed, and replaced with humble eszpressos, which were not conducive for talking, lingering, philosophizing, or intellectualizing.

A decade into democracy, Budapest'scoffeehouse culture has, once again, ignited.And perhaps nowhere is the resurgence more evident than Liszt Ference Square, where finding an empty cafe table after 10 p.m. is equivalent to finding parking in midtown Manhattan at rush hour.Impossible.

"This square was made into a pedestrian zone in the early 1990s," says Eniko."One cafe opened, then another, and another, and another."

We enjoyed an amazing dinner at Owl's Castle, the only place in Budapest where prewar, Hungarian home-style cooking is still prepared daily.

The idea for Owl's Castle came from New York City restaurateur George Lang, who was born in Hungary.In 1991, Lang, along with Ronald Lauder (heir to cosmetic giant Estee Lauder) bought Budapest's 105-year-old Gundel restaurant.

Their dream was to refurbish the "sleeping beauty," which, in the early 1900s, was the most famous restaurant in central Europe.Mr. Lang created a casual and more affordable restaurant run entirely by women.

"We serve all the traditional, comfort foods of Hungary," says Lsuzanna Sandor, manager of Owl's Castle, dipping hot chicken soup into white porcelain bowls. "Mr. Lang wanted a place where he could get the foods from his childhood.He eats here all the time when he's in Budapest."

I can see why.All my life, I have heard tales of my great-grandmother's cooking.One taste of this delicious broth, followed by a much-too-generous plate of paprika chickenand egg dumplings drizzled with sour cream, and I finally know what my mother and grandparents raved about.

One of the great attributes of this city is the architecture: the Applied Arts Building and its impressive green-and-gold mosaic roof line.The Post Savings Bank, with its replica beehives and bees, symbolize saving and collecting.And the very elegant, very elaborate, green-purple-gold Elephant House at the zoo in City Park (next door to Owl's Castle).

The greatest architectural marvel (aside from Parliament building) is the opera house.Fifteen pounds of gold were used to gild the intimate auditorium; 260 bulbs light up the enormous chandelier.

The box office is closed when we visit, so we make our plea for tickets at the concierge desk of our hotel. A half-hour later, the TV screen in our room flashes a message to pick up tickets.They are for box seats, and are surprisingly cheap ($20 per ticket).

We spend our final Budapest hours - still in opera attire - aboard a late-night sightseeing boat.Audiocassettes, available in 20 languages, tell the history of the buildings, river, city - but we opt not to listen.Instead, we simply watch and savor this not-very-blue river, so memorably celebrated by Johann Strauss in three-quarter time.

Our daughter's eyes move to the Buda side where a thousand lights sparkle, illuminating the medieval Castle District.Ahead, the Chain Bridge - typically choked with traffic during the day - appears quiet and reflective against the water.She knows well the "City of Light," and absolutely adores it, so I know her declaration does not come lightly.

"I can't believe Budapest is actually prettier than Paris."

Unless you speak Hungarian or German, an English-speaking guide - at least for a day to get you started - may be helpful. Many guides work as freelancers and will arrange a driver.Average charge is $50 a day.E-mail EnikoGasko at gaskoe@matavnet.hu.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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