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Posted Sep 28 2010 12:00am
When planning a trip to Budapest, I knew I could look forward to unique, awe-inspiring architecture, fascinating signs of a Communist past and the hearty, belly-warming scents of pork and paprika.

Neither Buda nor Pest let me down.  The buildings (if you can even call them that), bridges, statues and historical monuments demanded pause and instilled reverence.  Just amazing.

Even dilapidation evoked beauty.

And yes, pork and paprika were abundant.

However, I should've learned by now - entering an experience with expectations is a habit rarely worth perpetuating.  Expectations can drive our actions, our seeking, our perceptions...and are capable of keeping us from really seeing what is right in front of us.  From experiencing it all.  

So instead of making a point of checking off everything on my "must-see, must-taste" list - Tokaji, plum palinka, mangalica, goose cracklings (tepertos) and chocolate-covered curd cheese, to name a few - I just tottered around, never knowing what was coming to me.  And you know what?  Not only did I encounter everything on said list, but I stumbled into some extraordinary experiences that were better than anything I could have planned.  Experiences that were unforgettable.
I explored hidden doorways and mysterious gardens.

 I stopped and listened.  And heard a serenade in Magyar.

I admired the Hungarians' inexplicable love of yellow.  

I soaked in 600-year-old Turkish thermal baths .  (Also yellow.)

Then there was the ultimate gift for my bold, list-throwing bravery.  

On our final day in town, we were making our way over to a little wine bar on the Buda riverbank, seeking a glass of kekoporto and a bite of smoked ox tongue (okay, so I didn't so much throw the list away, as tuck it in my back pocket).  As we descended the stone stairs to the bottom of the Chain bridge, we stumbled upon a food festival.  I immediately measured my options.  
Food from a stand on sand, or a nice glass of wine in a relatively fancy cafe?  

I couldn't have been happier with my choice.  
There was refreshing lemonade, made with whole citrus and sparkling water.  There were fresh loaves of country bread, perfect for soaking up the sauce from a plate of rooster testicles stew.  And if offal isn't your thing, the fried pork and potatoes is a sure bet (served with a giant spoonful of super strong mustard).

I couldn't leave with out sampling pompos:  a thick piece of bread, spread with sour cream, cheese, onions and pieces of bacon; baked in a wood-fired oven to order.  (You're searching for plane tickets now, aren't you?)  

Finally, there were kurtoskalacs.  After every delicious thing I ate on this trip, I'd say this was my favorite.  I can best describe it as the perfect cinnamon roll - cooked to order over a wood fire.   

First, the dough is rolled out into a long, narrow cylinder and wrapped around a wide, wooden rolling pin with a handle affixed to one end.

The whole lot is brushed with butter and goes on an open fire.  The dough is carefully watched and constantly rotated by hand until every inch is caramelized to a glistening dark brown.

The finished product is lifted off the fire for half a minute to cool before being dipped in your choice of spiced sugar.  Cocoa, vanilla, honey and walnut were all options.  For me, it had to be cinnamon.

As I pulled off a steaming hot piece, I caught scents of the fire from the burnished crust.  A crunchy, sugar-coated interior gave way to a doughy, barely sweet interior.  Kurtoskalacs may be my ideal breakfast, brunch, snack and dessert.  
The stand next door was serving up a superior espresso - the perfect thing to end a most memorable meal.  

But I can't help but think, what if I had chosen to keep walking over the bridge towards the wine bar?  
Have you ever ditched your plans for the unexpected?  Were you rewarded?

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