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apple strudelAfter only two short days, it was time to leave Vienna. I arrived at the hydrofoil dock just before 8:00am, ready to cruise along the Danube River to Budapest. The only seating on the boat was indoors, and I felt lucky to grab a single seat by the window. The remaining seats filled up quickly. Most passengers appeared to be Austrian, though there were quite a few speaking English—from the U.S., Britain, Canada, and Australia—as well as a trio from Japan.

Shortly after we departed Vienna, the boat spent a full hour passing through the first of two locks. While waiting, I ate the first part of my snack, which I had purchased the day before: a slice of topfenstrudel, the dough moist and rolled paper-thin with a sweet cheese and raisin filling.

After a stop in Bratislava, Slovakia, the hydrofoil continued on to Budapest. Just prior to arriving, we hit our second lock. Once again, it seemed to take forever to pass through. As the sun streamed through the window to my right, hitting me squarely in the eyes, I came to regret my choice of seat. Some passengers had escaped the claustrophobic heat of the cabin to light cigarettes on the narrow walkway outside, and their smoke kept wafting unpleasantly through the open door (which another woman insisted on opening each time I got up to shut it).

I found solace during this second delay by partaking in my remaining snack: a slice of apfelstrudel, packed with apples and cinnamon, sweet but with just the right amount of tartness.

We arrived in Budapest an hour and a half late. Gray clouds had gathered, obscuring the sun, though it was still a beautiful sight passing under all of the city’s magnificent bridges, the Gothic-style Parliament building on the left and the Buda Castle on the hilltop to the right.

I had chosen my hotel, Hotel Art, mainly for its proximity to the boat dock, Metro stops, and famous pedestrian street Váci Utca. After checking in, I changed some money into Hungarian forints and then walked along Váci Utca to St. Stephen’s Basilica. Although the church was closed to visitors due to a wedding in progress, I was able to peek inside and listen to the strains of “Ave Maria” coming from the altar.

For dinner, I headed to one of the restaurants that seemed to make all of the “Best Of” lists in my guidebooks: Csarnok Vendéglő. I entered with some degree of trepidation, having read that Budapest restaurants were notorious for ripping off customers—even locals—but to my relief, the staff were very friendly and accommodating. As a woman dining alone in a foreign country, I did not feel the least bit uncomfortable there.

My meal was exceptional. I started with the hortobágyi palacsinta, a meat-filled crêpe served in a cream sauce laced with lots of paprika. This was followed by töltött káposzta: cabbage rolls stuffed with rice and ground meat, topped with sour cream, and served on a bed of sauerkraut. Even though I didn’t possess a palate discriminating enough to tell precisely what types of meat were used, I nevertheless determined that the dishes were seasoned to perfection.

After dinner, I returned to my hotel via the waterfront, about a 40-minute walk. The whole river was aglow with sparkling lights—luxury hotels on the eastern bank, the hilltop castle rising to the west, bridges spanning the two sides, and riverboats leisurely cruising beneath—the water alive in a magical, reflective, glittering dance. In an odd juxtaposition of Disneyland fantasy and ancient history, Budapest seemed a fairytale come to life.

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kugelhopfI began my second morning in Vienna with a visit to the famous Café Central, an opulent room lined with rows of cream-colored pillars supporting an elegant vaulted ceiling. After perusing the dessert offerings on display, I seated myself at a small, round table of reddish marble and ordered a slice of chocolate marble kugelhopf. This Bundt cake was practically identical to the one I had baked at home from the cookbook Dulcis in Fundo.

After a little more exploring, I happened upon a tiny sandwich shop just off the Graben: the century-old Buffet Trzesniewski. Behind the glass counter were close to twenty different varieties of finger sandwiches, most prepared with egg salad and various toppings. I chose three: egg with shrimp, egg with bacon, and egg with smoked herring and pickles.

Next, I headed to the Spanish Riding School to see the morning training of the Lipizzaner stallions. I had read that the line to get into this free event, which lasted from 10:00am to noon, would start forming at the early hour of 8:30am. Not wanting to spend all morning waiting in line, I heeded my guidebook’s advice to arrive late, as most people would be coming and going, not staying for the full two hours. Even though it took a few minutes to locate an available seat, I finally found a spot on the uppermost level, where I sat to watch the horses prance around to the rousing melodies of Mozart and Strauss.

I left before the practice session was over and walked to the outdoor market called the Naschmarkt, where I marveled at the vast array of food items for sale. I soon noticed that much of it was either Greek or Middle Eastern in origin—loads of olives, feta, hummus, and baklava. I also found a cheese market selling small tubs of liptauer, one of the Austro-Hungarian specialties on my list to scope out. Unlike the white liptauer I had eaten in Trieste, this one was pinkish orange from the addition of paprika. I balked at spending the money on a full container when all I wanted was just a taste, but I did get a look at the list of ingredients for future reference.

While at the Naschmarkt, I experienced the first inauspicious incident of my trip. I had pulled out my husband’s point-and-shoot digital camera to take some photos of a display of bright orange and green gourds when the camera suddenly started to malfunction. Each time I pressed the button to turn it on, the power would instantly shut down again. The battery was fully charged, but the power would not remain on. Finally, it stayed on long enough to snap a couple shots, but the camera would continue to prove troublesome for the remainder of my trip. By the end of my five weeks, the display screen would start going black as well. At least I had my trusty old Pentax SLR film camera, which I still used for most of my outdoor shots.

On my way back to Hotel Austria, I paid a quick visit to the enormous baroque Karlskirche (St. Charles’s Church). I also stopped in at the bakery and café Gerstner, where I bought two pieces of strudel to take on the hydrofoil the next day—in case I got hungry on my way to Hungary. One was filled with apple and the other with topfen (also called quark, a cheese similar to fromage blanc).

Back in my room, exhausted from my lingering jet lag as well as from the day’s long walk, I napped for a couple of hours before dinner. At around 6:00pm, I reluctantly ventured out again. Not being able to muster enough energy to scope out just the perfect place, I settled on the convenience of Café Vienne, adjacent to my hotel. When I arrived, the restaurant was nearly empty, but it soon started to fill with patrons. Not seeing any of my “to-try list” dishes on the menu, I ordered the salmon with spinach and potatoes. The fish was pan-fried in a light coating of flour and served with a creamy sauce flavored with white wine and thyme. The spinach was garlicky, though not particularly memorable. The real star of the plate was the rösti, a savory, crisp potato cake. I had planned on staying to order the palatschinke (crêpe) for dessert, but as the restaurant had no non-smoking section—and it was becoming increasingly more difficult to breathe—I was rather anxious to leave. The palatschinke would have to wait until another time.

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fave dei mortiFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Fave dei Morti (Almond Cookies). While other countries around the world are gearing up for Halloween or Dia de los Muertos, Italians are preparing to celebrate La Festa di Ognissanti (All Saints’ Day). While variations of these cookies—which translate literally as “beans of the dead”—are found in regions throughout Italy, they are especially popular in Trieste, where bakeries prepare them during the months of October and November. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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Dobos torteMy final trip to Friuli began in late September 2005. Rather than flying into Italy, I had decided to begin with three nights in Vienna and three more in Budapest. The history and culinary tradition of these two cities were closely tied to Friuli—and in particular, Trieste, where I would be spending the remainder of my five-week-long stay. I had hoped to sample classic Austro-Hungarian dishes at their source—dishes such as liptauer, gulasch, strudel, sachertorte, dobostorte, rigo jancsi, kugelhopf, and palatschinke—and compare them to the versions found in Friuli.

I arrived around 10:30pm at Hotel Austria, located in the historical center of Vienna. My room contained both a twin bed covered with a fluffy, yellow down comforter and a separate daybed/sofa. It was quite small, as I had opted for a private bath down the hall—shower and toilet were inconveniently located in separate rooms, though I did have them all to myself.

I awoke my first morning to find a bountiful buffet downstairs in the breakfast room. With crystal chandeliers overhead and Mozart playing in the background, I enjoyed a feast of muesli cereal, cantaloupe, tomato and cucumber slices, a bit of salami, and a banana. Then, under a cold, wet, drizzly sky, I set out to explore the city. I first walked to Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral), then took the subway to the Danube River. There, I found the boat dock and purchased a ticket for my hydrofoil trip to Budapest two days later.

After taking the subway back to the city center, I visited Peterskirche (St. Peter’s Church) and strolled along the Graben, Vienna’s famous pedestrian shopping street. Midmorning, I stopped at the renowned café Demel, where I sat upstairs in the nearly empty non-smoking room and indulged in part one of what would turn out to be an exceedingly decadent lunch: a slice of dobostorte. Following the classic recipe, five thin layers of sponge cake were iced with a luscious chocolate buttercream and topped with a caramel-glazed wedge.

From there, I walked to the Hofburg Palace. It was by then too late to see the Lipizzaner stallions training at the Spanish Riding School, but I arrived just in time to watch the riders leading their white horses across the street to the stables. Next, I visited a few more churches—Michaelerkirche (St. Michael’s), Augustinerkirche (St. Augustine’s), and Minoritenkirche (Minorites’)—before walking by the Rathaus (city hall), through the Volksgarten park, and past the Vienna Staatsoper (opera house). On my way back, I conveniently passed by the Hotel Sacher, where in their elegant 19th-century café I enjoyed part two of my “lunch”: a slice of sachertorte and a cup of hot chocolate. While the demitasse was half-filled with whipped cream—too much for my taste—the cake was rich and chocolaty, filled with tangy apricot jam and enveloped in a smooth, dark ganache.

I continued my walking tour of the city by visiting a couple more churches: Dominikanerkirche (Dominican) and Jesuitkirche (Jesuit). The latter was a Baroque masterpiece with colorful marble columns and a trompe l’oeil ceiling gilded in gold. On the upstairs level, an organist and soprano were rehearsing the ethereal melody of “Ave Maria.”

At dinnertime, it was a welcome change to head out at the early hour of 6:00pm, rather than having to wait until 7:00pm or later, as was customary in Italy. I went straight to Gulaschmuseum, a restaurant that (quite obviously) specialized in gulasch. When asked for my seating preference, I requested the non-smoking section, although those tables were only about three feet from the bar, where the waiter would spend most of my meal lounging and smoking. Flipping through the illustrated menu, I scanned through photos of all their different variations of gulasch, including beef, roast beef, pork with sauerkraut, veal, turkey, chicken liver, fish, potato, bean, and mushroom. I went with the traditional beef gulasch, which came with a side of boiled potatoes. Needless to say, after my indulgent two-part lunch, I skipped dessert.

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apple strudelFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Strucolo de Pomi (Apple Strudel), in honor of the Festa della Mela, held in mid-September in the Carnian town of Tolmezzo. While apple strudel is popular throughout Friuli, this version using puff pastry is based on the recipe given to me by Trieste’s Pasticceria Penso. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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Risotto alla MaraneseFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Risotto alla Maranese (Marano-Style Seafood Risotto). This risotto is named after the coastal village of Marano Lagunarewhere chefs typically use local wedge shell clams—called “telline” or “arselle”—along with squid, langoustines, and occasionally mussels. My version, in which langoustines are replaced by shrimp, was inspired by the one at Trattoria Alla Laguna. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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crostata alla marmellataFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Crostata alla Marmellata (Mixed Berry Jam Tart), in honor of the Festa dei Frutti dei Bosco in Forni Avoltri. The jam is freshly prepared with raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries (although store-bought jam may be substituted). The cookie-like crust is enriched with almonds and flavored with cinnamon, cloves, and a bit of lemon zest. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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