On Vörösmarty Square in Pest, Gerbeaud has been around since 1858. Some say it’s touristy and over-priced. Me, I adore the atmosphere of another era in this Budapest cafe: high ceilings with plaster rosettes and crystal chandeliers, silk wall papers, solid brass-footed tables, and heavy velvet curtains separating the different rooms.
The Royal Habsburgs came here, as did the ill-fated Empress Sissy. It’s easy to imagine all kinds of goings-on in these rooms over the years: secret assignations, clandestine meetings, whispers across the marble table tops.
Being here is like transgressing the boundaries of time. Whenever I enter, I get this striking image in my head: two people – a man and a woman – here for a seemingly innocent cup of coffee while secretly passing a scrap of paper across the table inside a menu.
So vivid is this picture, it’s as if I’ve mysteriously been transported to 1938. They’re right in front of my eyes. She: short, dark hair, a small blue hat at an angle, red dress with a belted waist, stockings with back seams. He: wavy brown hair, dark grey suit with broad shoulders and baggy trousers cuffed at the ankles. They both look confident and cheerful, yet very aware of the surroundings.
What are they thinking? What are they talking about? And what about the piece of paper? I have a thousand questions for my imaginary 1930s twosome.
Back in the present, the cafe is mostly empty. It’s almost closing time. But not quite. Those that are here are buried deep in their mobiles, even couples seemingly on a date, barely aware of each other.
I first visited Gerbeaud back when the Iron Curtain was still in place. The concept of customer service didn’t seem to exist in Hungary of the late 80s. Today, the waitress waits impatiently while I take my time deciding between all those heavenly high-calorie gateaux. Finally, like a stern nanny, she just tells me what I’m having. I find her attitude oddly endearing, glad that some things, at least, haven’t changed. And the Esterházy cake she places in front of me is out of this world.
Disclosure? No, nothing at all. I’m just magnetically drawn inside. Very curious.