Literary escapade in Budapest

At the beginning of the 20th century, Budapest had around 500 cafés or kávéház in Hungarian. Some were literary cafés. They were open night and day and were the writers’ second offices. Some even provided them with free quills, ink and paper and waiters granted credit to writers. Sándor Márai relates in Confessions d’un bourgeois how he had to choose a café to become a writer.

Obeying to a tacit convention of our fraternity, I chose myself a café. According to a passably romantic theory dating back to the beginning of the century, any real Hungarian writer spends his life in a café. It wasn’t the same abroad (In London, that kind of places didn’t even exist). But in Buda, I thought, one had to frequent these literary aquariums where writers, like objects in an exhibition, were gathering dust behind bow windows. I decided to choose an old café from before war, located near the Horváth garden and opened until midnight. I befriended the waiter and the tobacconist and I soon realized that my mail and my phone calls were directly transferred to the café. My visitors first came to my “annex”. I settled down in the local climate without any difficulty. I was treated with regard, my whims were taken with benevolence. I always found on my table an inkpot, a quill “made in Great Britain”, a pot of fresh water and matches. All the conditions seemed met for me to become a real writer in the way my country meant it. I started to envision my literary career with confidence. Abroad, in cafés full of noisy clients and rude waiters who are always in a hurry, I never benefited from such a heavenly quiet. There never had been fresh water and an inkpot on my table. As soon as these accessories were in place, I started to work. (my translation from the French translation)

Amazing, isn’t it? I believe the rude and hurried waiters come from Márai’s stay in Paris. I had to visit at least two of these cafés that have been renovated, the New York Café and the Central Café.

The New York café opened on October 23rd, 1894 and was nicknamed the most beautiful café in the world.


It is built is eclectic style, Italian Renaissance and baroque, and it’s beautiful but a bit flashy for my taste.


It’s hard to imagine struggling writers in this place. It’s not exactly the same as Hemingway’s time in Paris. The history of the café is more interesting to me than its architecture. It became the meeting point of the writers of the time. The café even had a writer’s special (a plate with cold meat, cheese and bread) and a writer’s discount! This is where the famous literary journal Nyugat (West) was founded in 1908. It lasted until 1941 and three generations of writers contributed to this journal. Dezső Kosztolányi, Antal Szerb, Sándor Márai, Frigyes Karinthy, Zsigmond Móricz and other writers I haven’t read yet wrote for it. The journal was about literature, poetry, philosophy and it contributed to make psychoanalysis known. They had their editorial office at the New York café. It is reported that the writer Ferenc Molnár threw the key of the New York café in the Danube to ensure that it stays open night and day.

The New York café relies on its famous past but the Central Café has truly been renovated to sing the praise of its literary past.


There’s a wall full of pictures of writers


In this very café, in March 1936 at 7 am, Frigyes Karinthy had a hallucination: he heard a train leave the station. This became the ground material of his novel Journey Around My Skull. In this novel, he describes his operation of a brain tumor. I haven’t read it yet but it sounds fantastic and quite funny. He has his picture on the wall of the Central Café.

DSC_1234And you can see copies of Nyugat journals in displays.


I love to visit places like this an imagining all these great writers lingering, thinking, discussing and creating the books we discover later. I hope for Budapest that other places like this celebrate the city’s literary past and I think it deserves a museum of literature like the one in Dublin.

More to come about Hungarian literature since I gathered names here and there and I want to check them out before sharing the information with you.

  1. April 19, 2015 at 10:57 am

    I love doing these literary pilgrimages, being in the same place where great works were written. I’ve never been to Budapest, but the café culture seems a bit like the café culture in Vienna where people go to read. No shrieking 20-somethings there!


    • April 19, 2015 at 11:07 am

      I love it too. We’ll be in Vienna in the summer, so we’ll see that.

      PS : Have a look at my previous post and the pictures of the library. I think you’ll like them.


      • April 20, 2015 at 12:59 am

        Yes, I saw that… I see all your posts even if I don’t comment on them. They pop into my inbox *smile*


  2. April 19, 2015 at 12:38 pm

    Great post, Emma. I liked Budapest a lot when I was there. Not as much as Prague or Vienna but it’s nice. I’ll be in Vienna in October. 🙂


    • April 20, 2015 at 9:09 pm

      Thanks Caroline. When did you go?


      • April 21, 2015 at 8:11 am

        Maybe seven years ago.


        • April 22, 2015 at 10:54 pm

          Was the Musée de la Terreur already opened? It upseted me.


          • April 23, 2015 at 10:20 am

            Yes, I think so but I didn’t visit. I was on a business trip and only stayed a couple of days longer. It sounds upsetting.


  3. April 19, 2015 at 1:29 pm

    They do look very much like the grander Viennese coffee houses, like Cafe Central. At the weekends my parents and I would go to a Viennese cafe and read the papers. They would have coffee, I would have cake or Apfelstrudel, and we would spend the whole morning there… Looking forward to hear your thoughts on Hungarian literature.


    • April 20, 2015 at 9:14 pm

      Thanks for sharing this as it’s very different from what I know.

      In my childhood, only men went to cafés; it was not a family place. It’s become more of that now, things changed drastically when they voted the law forbidding cigarette in public places. Then they started to have families with children who wanted a snack.
      Or maybe these cafés are more like what we call “salon de thé” (these were for ladies)


  4. April 19, 2015 at 4:37 pm

    Makes me think of Skylark from Dezso Kosztolanyi, and the parents in the novel visiting all the restaurants in their daughter’s absence.

    In The Impossible Exile, author George Prochnik makes a lot out of Zweig missing the café culture of Vienna and never being able to find any sort of reasonable substitute in all of his travels.


    • April 20, 2015 at 9:17 pm

      I’m curious about the cafés in Vienna now. If it was what Márai describes, I can understand why he had a hard time finding an equivalent anywhere else.

      Writers spent time in cafés in Paris as well. Everyone has heard of the Café de Flore. But the atmosphere wasn’t what Márai pictures in Confessions d’un bourgeois. (“Translation tragedy” that one too)


  5. April 19, 2015 at 7:28 pm

    It’s great to see the pictures and to hear a little about the history of these places. I particularly like the look of the Central Café – it must have been fascinating to browse through the pictures on the walls. (It’s funny, even before you mentioned Hemingway, I thought of his time in Paris!)

    Very keen to hear what you think of Sándor Márai’s Embers – I’ve looked at it a couple of times.


    • April 20, 2015 at 9:19 pm

      I liked the Central Café too. This other one is magnificent but a little too much for me.

      Embers is an excellent book.


  6. April 20, 2015 at 4:57 pm

    Wow, great Emma. I’m envious! That Márai quotation is terrific, and the café experience quite a bit different from what one finds today (at least in San Francisco, where there may easily be 500 cafés, but where the staff is usually bored and stoned and the clients, bent over their computers, make the places seem more like sweatshops). One gets a sense of the Central in the Karinthy book and of that ritualistic world of the literary café. I assume you sat yourself down to write.


    • April 20, 2015 at 9:23 pm

      It’s a great city to visit. Lots of things to do and beautiful buildings in ecclectic style. For the record, the Danube is not blue.

      I love staying in cafés in France, even if they are not as charming as these ones. I would have loved to spend an afternoon at the Café Central and write a billet from there but my family already has to put up with my literary whims, so I don’t push my luck. 🙂


  7. April 20, 2015 at 7:22 pm

    I still haven’t been to Budapest. How absolutely lovely. The Márai quote is brilliant.


    • April 20, 2015 at 9:27 pm

      It’s a lovely city and well worth the visit. I found a guide book that was actually a collection of small texts by writers describing something about Budapest.

      I’ll have to find other titles in that collection because it was well done.


  8. April 20, 2015 at 8:52 pm

    I think I like the café even more than the library. Lovely places.


    • April 20, 2015 at 9:25 pm

      I’m not sure about that. This library was just “wow”. Or maybe I’m just impressed because I’ve never spent time in libraries in old universities.


  9. April 25, 2015 at 12:07 pm

    Beautiful pictures, Emma. Thanks for sharing. I like the quote, I had no idea such cafes existed. They sounds truly wonderful.
    The first picture reminds me of the buildings in the Old City (Bucharest). I feel nostalgic just thinking about them. I really love old buildings.
    Looking forward to your post on Hungarian literature. I just bought a book by Antal Szerb – The Pendragon Legend, but haven’t started it yet.


    • April 25, 2015 at 1:52 pm

      Thanks Delia. There’s a billet about The Pendragon Legend on my blog and on Max’s. Great book.


  1. April 25, 2015 at 10:00 pm
  2. August 9, 2017 at 11:22 pm

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