While Balkan, Baltic and other Eastern European countries have been in the throes of traumatic economic and political changes of late, Hungarians have slipped easily from the distinct brand of "goulash Communism" that had set them apart and ahead of their neighbors for the past three decades.
Nowhere is this entrepreneurial spirit more apparent than in bustling Budapest with its brimming shops and air of optimism.
Even during three centuries under the Hapsburg yoke, and later as a somewhat junior member of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, the fiercely independent nature of its people eventually asserted itself in armed uprisings, often unsuccessfully.
From almost any perspective, including the tragic uprising of 1956, Budapest is where Eastern Europe began to unhinge itself from the Soviet Bloc.
The ageless Danube still weaves its magic as it curves between the green hills and ancient castles of 2,000-year-old Buda and the more modern city of Pest, officially united in 1873 to make the Jewel of the Danube sparkle even brighter.
Times change, but Budapest today still exudes the nostalgic aura of bygone days as Gypsy violins cry out their soulful zigeunermusik in restaurants. Chestnut trees and baroque villas line cobblestone streets laid in another era. Old and young alike sit in cafes to sip a coffee and engage in the great Hungarian pastime: the latest gossip laced with biting Magyar humor.
Getting here: Fly KLM, Pan Am, Swissair or SAS with changes, the Hungarian airline Malev nonstop from New York. An advance-purchase, round-trip fare from Los Angeles will cost from about $1,203 to $1,381, depending upon month and day of week flown.
How long/how much: Give the city three days, plus another for a drive up to towns along the Danube Bend. We found lodging costs moderate, and great Hungarian dining very inexpensive.
A few fast facts: The official rate for Hungary's florint was recently 63.2 to the dollar (available at all hotels). Late spring is a wonderful time to come, midsummer is pleasant but a bit crowded, September-October still beautiful. You'll also need a visa.
Getting settled in: We've been checking on the Hotel Palace (Rakoczi utca 43; $76 B&B; double) since our first stay there three decades ago. It's still a fine old place with a turn-of-the-century air, and a dining room in the grand style of a 1920s ocean liner.
Bedrooms vary from moderate to generous in size, baths are small and basic, but TV and mini-bars were added during refurbishing in the early '80s. You'll find most Hungarian specialties on the dining room menu, and the cold cherry soup is delicious.
Hotel Astoria (Kossuth Lajos utca 19; $82to $97 B&B; double) is another fin de siecle house of 129 rooms at city center on the Pest side. The gold-embossed ceiling and walls of the lobby, combined with period furnishings, add to Astoria's Old World atmosphere. The restaurant also picks up this feeling, and there's a delightful coffeehouse that would please Franz Josef.
Hotel Gellert (Gellert ter 1; $136 B&B; double) is the grande dame of Budapest hotels and first-class in everything but price. The stately building, resembling a Central European chancellery, is just across the Danube on the Buda side.
What sets Gellert apart from other luxury hotels is the indoor pool with enough marble columns and other regal trappings to make a potentate feel at home. There's another pool--outdoors in a terraced garden--that has artificial waves. Both pools are fed from Gellert Hill's thermal waters, which provide complete spa treatments.
Regional food and drink: Hungarians claim that most of their favorite dishes are made with red, green or white paprikas, the colors of their flag. Goulash and goulash soup are on most menus, and there probably aren't heartier dishes on earth. The stuffed cabbage, also made with red paprika, is actually a mound of sauerkraut topped with sausage, sliced pork and bacon. It's much like a dish the Germans and Austrians call bauernschmaus (farmer's feast).
You'll find some type of palatschinken (crepes), strudel and other pastries everywhere. And the red wines of the Eger, Lake Balaton and Sopron areas are smooth and robust.
Good local dining: Margitkert (Margit utca 15) dates back to the 18th Century and is a typical Hungarian csarda inside and out. Csarda derives from the Turkish word for "resting place," where farmers bringing produce or stock to market could sleep and feed their animals. Csardas were also favored by highwaymen, who hid out there.
Dine in the outdoor garden or in one of the colorfully decorated rooms. You'll find all the specialties there: bean soup with sour cream and smoked knuckles; grilled perch or trout; paprika chicken or goose liver sauteed Hungarian-style, all downed with good wine and Gypsy music at lunch and dinner.
Kispipa (Akacfa utca 38) has 160 Hungarian dishes, plus continental fare, and is a favorite spot for upscale locals. The place is small and in the bistro style, decorated with old food posters. It has one of the town's best pianists holding forth in the evenings. So book a day ahead, at least.
Hungaria Cafe-Restaurant (Lenin kourt 9), formerly the New York Cafe, has been an institution here since 1894 and a favored hangout of writers and artists. It's a belle epoque, art nouveau extravaganza, with coffeehouse on the ground floor and dining in a sunken room surrounded by balcony tables. A visit here is a must, if just for coffee and a look around.
Going first-class: Forum Hotel (Apaczai C. Janos utca 12; $165-$175 B&B; double) is considered by many to be hands-down the city's best, with a marvelous location on the river and spectacular views of Old Buda, the Chain Bridge (lighted at night) and the gigantic former Royal Palace.
Everything about the Forum is world-class, including bedroom amenities, indoor pool and spa, fine restaurant and the best breakfast buffet in town. The Vienna Coffeehouse pastry spread is spectacular.
The Duna dining room of the Gellert has a formal ambience, impeccable service and great Gypsy music every evening. The paprika fish soup was outstanding, as was the veal with goose liver and platter of Lake Balaton fish.
On your own: Start to explore the city with a stroll through Vorosmarty Square, the town's meeting place, and make sure to stop in at Gerbeaud's coffeehouse, Eastern Europe's finest. Pest also holds two opera houses drawing the world's finest singers.
Now cross to the Buda side and see the beautiful houses, antique shops and lovely streets of Old Town around St. Matthias Church.
One of the true delights of a Budapest visit is a drive around the Danube Bend. Take road No. 10 to Esztergom (Hungary's first capital) and then continue on No. 11 beside the Danube to Visegrad, Szentendre and on back to town. This route is Hungary's most scenic and takes a half-day. A meal at the tiny Aranysarkany restaurant in Szentendre makes the trip a joyful one.
For more information: Call Hungarian Hotels at (213) 649-5960, or write (6033 W. Century Blvd., Suite 670, Los Angeles 90045) for a brochure on Budapest that includes a city map and sights' locations, another on travel information for the entire country.