Synopsis: Bourdain travels to Budapest, singular not just for its beauty but also for being a crossroads of East and West; the Celts, the Romans, the Mongols, and the Ottomans have all passed through and left their mark on this place. Here Bourdain catches up with Vilmos Zsigmond, legendary cinematographer, and over some dishes liberally seasoned with paprika discusses several more recent attempts to conquer the city: by the Nazis and subsequently by the Soviet Union. How has a legacy of repeated bloodshed, conquest, and resistance shaped this city on the Danube?

The blue Danube’s darling

The newsletter you need Get more Bourdain in your inbox. This week: Mexico.

“Hungary’s capital, literally divided in two; historically a crossroads of Eastern and Western worlds.”

  • “It’s beautiful here. They say that, of course, that Budapest is beautiful. But it is, in fact, almost ludicrously beautiful. A riot of gorgeous architectural styles, palaces, grand public spaces, former mansions of various princelings, the remains of a long-gone empire still here, still here.”
  • “They’ve all been here: the Celts, the Romans, the Mongols, the Ottoman Turks. All had their way or tried. All left their mark, to one extent or another. Then, in the mid-19th century, the curious, seemingly improbable Austro-Hungarian Empire. This is when the city came into its own, fueled by untold wealth, accumulated power, and ambition. Architecturally, intellectually, a great city—one of the world’s greatest.”

“The soundtrack to old Budapest, the ubiquitous Gypsy violin, found at one time in every cafe or restaurant.”

  • “The New York Café is one of the last remnants of a society where artists and writers were valued citizens, regardless of financial means. … Here, like in most cafes at that time, a few cents or a few bucks could buy you space all day long, sipping your coffee, thinking great thoughts. … Today’s New York Café patrons spend both their time and money on things like goose liver terrine.”
  • “Foie gras is everywhere in Hungary, all over every menu. And it’s good—really good.”
  • “One thing that hasn’t changed through the years is the Hungarian affection for ‘taking the waters’: marinating in thermal baths, a tradition going back to the Romans, continued by the Ottomans, and something that survived right through two wars and communism.”
  • “It’s a hard life, that of a professional musician—as true a statement in Budapest as anywhere.”
  • “Hungary is a country that has experienced a lot of heartbreak.”

The light comedic stylings of a lightly buzzed Bourdain  

[Speaking with Zsigmond] “Films could be inspiring, but they could be dangerous—it was so magical to me. I mean, they ought to go to a film, especially a dangerous one … [where] the subject matter and the content was different. And to see that [and feel] ‘Oh, my god, what do I do with my life now?’ after seeing it.’”

  • [Eating a chicken liver pancake at Pléhcsárda] “You know, some of you have noticed—and complained—that I don’t really describe food anymore on the show. That’s a deliberate strategy on my part actually! It’s really a lot like writing porn after you’ve used the same adjectives over and over, like, you know, the Penthouse letters. Look at it: It’s chicken livers, bone marrow, paprika— it’s a delicious pancake. Is it going to make your life better at all if I describe exactly how [it tastes] while smacking my lips, annoying you?”
  • [On Budapest butcher connoisseur Daniel Maté] “Like Saint Francis of Assisi, he wanders the earth doing good works—in this case highlighting the ancient arts of butchery, sausage making, and the preparation of many of the lord’s creatures as he himself would no doubt like to see them prepared.”
  • [Watching how the sausage is made at Belvárosi Disznótros] “Stand by for dick jokes.”
  • [And, as promised, dick jokes at Belvárosi Disznótoros] “Let there be blood—delicious, delicious blood—in tube form, served still steaming, nay, heaving, engorged, as you will, with goodness to squirt across your plate as you press against it with the side of your fork.”

[On the massive schnitzel at Pléhcsárda] “If the big wave came, I could surf this thing back to my hotel … I kid you not, this is a testament to a great culture … also gout. But who’s counting?”

Catching up with legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond

  • [Introducing Zsigmond] “There is another long tradition of artistry here in Budapest. We grew up with their works— visual artists, photographers, filmmakers—where did they all go? Well, World War I happened and with it the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Budapest and all Europe changed forever. A decades-long wave of emigration began. A stunning number of the world’s great photographers fled their native Hungary and took up new lives. Eventually, this man joined them.”
  • [Reflecting on Zsigmond’s craft] “Do we emerge fully formed with a god-given eye for pictures, images that can move people? Or are we the end result of all the things we’ve seen, all the things we’ve done, the places we’ve been—the places, the people we’ve had to leave behind, all that’s happened in your life? Is it those things that bring the light or the darkness to the blank screen?”