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The New Budapest

The latest hotels are largely foreign-owned, and housed mostly in vintage buildings, where a five-star room can still cost as little as $200. France's Novotel chain has claimed a 1911 Art Nouveau spire, whimsically striped in blue-gray ceramic curlicues, on heavily trafficked Rákóczi Út. The Japanese-owned Le Méridien Budapest occupies a balustrade-topped 1918 building beside Erzsébet Square park. The white stone shaft, originally the offices of an Italian insurance firm, was meant to evoke an Adriatic coastal cliff. Under Communism, it was gutted and turned into a police station. Now the interior is splashed with gilt on metal-filigree spiral staircases and sphinx-legged furniture. The German-owned Art'otel boutique, on Bem Rakpart, was fashioned from four 18th-century Baroque fishermen's cottages near the Hapsburgs' castle, and reimagined in 2000 by American artist Donald Sultan. Paintings depict butterflies and buttons; domino and sewing-thread patterns course through the carpets; metal blackbirds sit high on the walls as if ready to break out in song.

It seems as though every major investor-nation is setting up a Budapest hotel. Even Libya: its Corinthia chain just reopened the Grand Hotel Royal, on a ring road near Andrássy Út, an avenue often compared to the Champs-Élysées. The building's block-long 1896 mansard was shattered during World War II, and again by a fire in 1956. It's now an extravaganza of Art Nouveau Revival, with butterfly-pattern reliefs (based on Hungarian folk traditions) around the lobby columns and gilded nymphs on the stair rails. Soon it will have an Italian neighbor, a Boscolo New York Palace, and, this summer, a Canadian one, when a Four Seasons opens in an Art Nouveau jewel on the Danube, originally a branch of an English insurance company when it was built in 1904. Its sinuous towers are banded in gold mosaic, and its staircases are illuminated by stained-glass portraits of 19th-century Hungarian heroes. Many of the riverfront rooms will be furnished with Central European antiques and have views across the smooth, six-story skyline.

Budapest's new restaurants, like its hotels, have brought high-style design to shabby older structures, and are adopting international dishes. What a fossil I am, to remember when the city's menus consisted of chicken paprikás and cheese sauces. The wine lists had few selections, from vineyards just brushing off state ownership, and the chairs were impossible-to-move simulations of medieval wooden thrones.

The foreign-owned restaurants are some of the most adventurous in the city. A Chinese dive near Andrássy Út has become Ópium, co-owned by American expat Jennifer Webster, who also runs a film production company in town. The walls are covered in Thai silks, and the menu is rich in Southeast Asian choices: lime-marinated minced beef, seared tuna tataki, sesame-fried bananas. David Seboek and Leora Levy-Seboek (he's a Hungarian-American from Rockland County, New York; she's Israeli) transformed a formerly dumpy student hangout just off Rákóczi Út into Baraka. Shirred white netting hangs from the ceiling, and the dishes blend Hungarian, French, and Asian touches: five-spice carrot-cream soup, seared goose liver with quince and crisp wontons, coconut-baked poached pears.

The 20 wine regions outside the city have also undergone a revival since I lived here, particularly the Tokaj region, near the Slovakian border. French, British, Spanish, German, and American investors there are helping to produce honey-cinnamon dessert wines based on 17th-century traditions largely forgotten under Communism. My favorite late-nineties restaurants, meanwhile, continue to thrive; the city's freshest salads are still served by friendly waiters at Café Kör, on Sas Utca, near the Méridien. The bistro is painted a soothing ocher and furnished in bentwood—the interior is so beloved that regulars protested a few years ago when the owners installed air-conditioning vents.

When I moved to town, the red Soviet stars on the bridges and public buildings had just been taken down. With elections every four years since the last Soviet tanks rolled out more than a decade ago, the country's leadership has seesawed between left and right. Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy, an alleged ex-informant, now leads the Hungarian Socialist Party, which is partly made up of former Communists; the right's Young Democrats, headed up by Viktor Orbán, tend to be isolationist, jingoistic, borderline anti-Semitic. Each administration has tried to outshine its immediate predecessor by commissioning ever larger buildings or renovations, with mostly positive results.

The 1896 Venetian-Moorish theater on Rákóczi Út has become the state-owned Uránia cinema, with gilded archways. On my last visit, I almost forgot that this building used to be derelict, looming over pedestrians like a haunted fun house. A few blocks away, the Szabó Ervin Library, built in the 1880's as an aristocrat's rococo palace, was black with grime from Soviet-era car exhaust. Inside its salons, photocopying machines were jammed up against delicate boiserie. Now the façade gleams white, and the salons have been regilded and furnished in velvety armchairs. I used to feel sorry for the place, but these days I linger happily there, reading through piles of International Herald Tribunes.

Other public centers are undergoing restorations, such as the National Museum—a colonnaded temple with brightly frescoed galleries—and the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music, whose iridescent Art Nouveau tiles are being patched and polished. The government has adapted the polluted grounds of an 1890's machine factory, on Fény Utca, into Millenáris Park: its theaters, fountains, and airy exhibition halls are now busy almost 24/7.

The Young Democrats' Victor Orbán commissioned the successful park in 2000. (Though it is still clouded by controversy: a few million dollars of its budget apparently went missing when he left office last year.) He also orchestrated the creation of a new National Theater, along the Danube at the southern edge of town. Critics are savaging the building for its poor sight lines and campy design; it's a disorienting mass of classical statuary, curving metalwork, and opalescent chandeliers.

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