THERE are so many cakes on the table I have to stand up and move back to take a photograph. The best angle is a wide aerial. Our guide Katalin has ordered our small party a "sample selection" of treats at the character-filled Cafe Ruszwurm on Castle Hill high on the west (Buda) side of the Danube.
It is morning tea time, about an hour before we will have lunch and at least 10 minutes since Katalin braked suddenly at a mobile van near Matthias Church on our sightseeing stroll for us to try a chimney cake. It is so called, she says, because the mixture originally was rolled around a chimney to form its cylindrical shape.
It sounds like the fanciful stuff of fairytales but the vendor is indeed twirling a doughy mixture around a dowel-like spit until it crisps; then he rolls the hollow confection in cinnamon sugar and almonds and wraps it with a stiff twist of paper. It's like a crunchy Cornetto cone, without the filling.
And now we are cake-taking at the two-roomed Cafe Ruszwurm, a coffee house and confectioner since 1827. It's cosy and cheery in a time-stalled way with its tiled stove, lace doilies and cherrywood Biedermeier cabinets. There are chandeliers and brocade banquettes and a row of outdoor tables where students are smoking, drinking coffee and polishing off sugar-dusted slices.
Katalin recites what she has ordered, pointing to each groaningly full plate. There are apricot jam-filled biscuits, poppyseed and sour cherry strudels, rich walnut Esterhazy cake layered with cream and topped with fondant, and slabs of crumbly Linzer torte. Then she suggests a slug of "Hungarian penicillin": a dose of Palinka, or schnapps. There's plum, pear and apricot: we take too long to decide so she orders the lot.
Next stop is the Central Market, in the 9th district on the east (Pest) side of the river, where there's a small chance to walk off some of the morning's excesses. It's the largest covered market in Hungary, about the size of an aircraft hangar, and ignoring Katalin's entreaties to try pickles and pressed meats from the basement stalls, we scurry around the main floor, only briefly pausing to admire strings of enormous garlic, missiles of extra-hot paprika and "goose-liver specialities".
The three-storey market, with its tiled floors and high vaulted roof inlaid with glass, was opened in 1897 and has been recently restored; you could easily spend half a day here, perhaps picking up the makings of a superior picnic.
As a former vegetarian (now an occasional meat-eater), I am terrified by the market's forests of salami and the prospect of pig's heads with hazy eyes. "The iron curtain might have vanished but the pork curtain was safely intact," notes my colleague James Jeffrey in Paprika Paradise, a rollicking travel narrative about his motherland. "The Hungarians applaud flesh in all its forms," he writes. "My favourite line in Lonely Planet's guide to Hungary was, until it was edited out, an overheard snippet of a waiter berating some helpless backpacker thus: If you don't want meat, go to Romania!"
Leaving my little group of fellow travellers, I take afternoon tea at Cafe Gerbeaud, founded in 1858 by a Swiss confectioner, and still one of Budapest's most popular. In a setting of tall ceilings and marble floors, there are elegant silver stands and glass-fronted cabinets filled with the likes of hazelnut truffle cakes, Sacher torte and flaky pastries chunky with apples and poppyseed. Chocolate cakes come with an astonishing six layers and even the cottage-cheese cakes (surely, comparatively light) look sinful.
And all to be washed down with hot chocolate (an alp of whipped cream on top) or a slug of that racy Palinka spirit.
Cafe Gerbeaud includes a pub and also serves meals (goose liver reigns) in its adjoining restaurant. It's a convivial spot to start the day with a continental breakfast, which includes sweet and salty rolls and a seasoned cottage-cheese platter.
On the afternoon of my visit, on its terrace overlooking tree-lined Vorosmarty Square, couples are rugged in coats against the early autumn coolness, small dogs on long leads waiting expectantly at their heels, no doubt ready to snap up any stray strudel flakes.
Should I also mention that on this piggy day I call into (but do not eat at) the sumptuous fin-de-siecle Cafe New York, its odd name attributed to the New York Life Insurance company, which opened it, on the ground floor of a palatial office building, in 1894? Once the haunt of playwrights and poets, its grandeur matches anything to be found in Vienna; or it did, until it was rammed by a Russian tank in 1956. Now it Is part of the New York Palace Hotel, glammed-up and re-ornamented by Italy's Boscolo Hotels group.
With parquet floors, tall mirrors and painted ceilings worthy of an Italian duomo, Cafe New York is extravagant beyond measure.
Should I confess that I lunch at the busy little Cafe Kor, in the 5th district, where the schnitzels are the size of hot-water bottles and pancakes come loaded with nuts and raisins, doused with sugar powder and chocolate sauce?
Or that I almost have to be carried to my room at the utterly lovely Four Seasons Gresham Palace, as stuffed as a cabbage? I lie down and try valiantly to balance Paprika Paradise on the expanded acreage of my stomach.
After a good night's sleep, you have to love a hotel that offers a breakfast menu featuring goose liver and wild mushroom omelet with roesti and a slug of Zwack Unicum herb liqueur "to make your stomach-ache go away".
The art nouveau Four Seasons Gresham Palace, converted from a grand apartment building, is beautifully located at Roosevelt Terrace on the east (Pest) side of the river. Its Gresham Kavehaz serves freshly baked pastries and cakes in a classic setting.
Most traditional cafes in Budapest offer meals and teas all day; Cafe Gerbeaud, for example, opens from 9am to 9pm. All cafes mentioned, except Ruszwurm, are on the east side of the Danube.
Paprika Paradise: Travels in the Land of my Almost Birth by James Jeffrey
Pictured: Pulling apart a traditional chimney cake.
This article originally appeared as 'Reporter at large in Budapest' on www.theaustralian.com.au and is re-published here under license. Susan Kurosawa is a writer at The Australian and is not affiliated with Qantas.