We meet our guide, Monika, for our Urban Adventures’ Made In Budapest Shopping Tour, at the front of the Grand Central Market — a fascinating place that we’ll definitely be back to. Monika is enthusiastic and keen to welcome us to some of the spots we’d probably never find on our own. Admittedly, we would have found the GCM on our own — it’s at the end of the long tourist shopping Vaci Utca, plus it’s huge, reminiscent of the lovely Budapest brick train station, and topped with those richly glossy tiles that are a Hungarian speciality. What we wouldn’t have found on our own are the shops that Monika leads us to, starting with a bag shop just down a side street from the market.
This, our first shop, designs, makes and sells a wide range of bags right here. From funky backpacks, laptop sleeves, pencil cases to nicely designed large reusable basket-bags for grocery shopping, they’ve got it all. Even more interesting than the designs are the materials — everything is made from billboard poster plastic. They also give lessons so that people can design and create their own bags in the shop, using the shop’s tools and billboard plastic. Recycling at its finest and funkiest!
From here we meander up Vaci Utca from the bottom end, popping into a couple of interesting shops and ogling the embroidery in passing, and loving some quirky, imaginative felt hats, also designed and made here. Vaci Utca is generally known as an over-priced tourist shopping trap but it turns out there is some real gold along this street, too.
We arrive at Paloma, an old five-storey building with an inner courtyard. The top two storeys are residential, the bottom two are why we’re here: for an artists’ cooperative. We’re told the artists were instrumental in restoring their storeys and setting up the place, where each has or shares a small shop with a workshop. It’s a fascinating set-up, with each shop offering something completely different in clothing, jewellery, toys, artwork and leatherwork. Monika is as interested and excited as we are at the originality of the pieces, which makes it all the more fun. How can she even afford to have this job with the constant temptation?!
At the front of the Paloma complex is Auguszt, a fabulous pastry shop which has been in existence since 1870 (barring revolutions, world wars, Nazis and Communism…) It’s a lovely shop with black-and-white pen and ink murals on the walls and epic cakes. Everything looks wonderful, but we finally settle on a poppyseed roll (poppyseed ‘Swiss roll’-style cake with butter cream in the roll) and a Dobas torte (layers of chocolate and butter cream with a crisp caramel toffee topping) plus a pogacha (little scone) each. As with all the Hungarian food we’ve tried so far, the cakes are sumptuous and rich. The excellent coffee balances it out and keeps us moving.
Fortified by decadent cake and coffee, we hop on a bus and head near Margaret Bridge for another shopping precinct. This area has a very different, more laid-back feel. We stop by a porcelain shop to admire the delicate works — primary themes are cornflowers, butterflies and phoenixes — then visit a skincare shop which sells products based on grapeseed oil (eminently logical, in a country that rightly prides itself on its wines) and salts from a local lake. The soaps and body butters smell luscious, scented with locally produced aromatics like lavender.
Here our tour finishes. We part from Monika with hugs, and exchange email addresses so she can email us all the restaurant recommendations and recipes she has mentioned over the tour. We visit one of her restaurants later this same day for dinner; we’re not disappointed!