‘Blessed is she who expects nothing, for she shall never be disappointed’ is a motherism that I think I’ve taken to heart. When I went to South Africa a few years back, I had zero expectations. Nada. Zilch. I wasn’t even all that excited about going.
I remember being really busy with work and the thoughts of 2+ weeks off the grid was bringing me out in a cold sweat. The volcanic eruption in Iceland was playing havoc with air travel and part of me (a big part of me) was wishing my flight would be cancelled. But it turned out to be one of my most memorable holidays yet. I met lovely people, three of whom have since died. Had I not gone, I’d never have gotten to meet them and what I would have missed! I learned many life lessons that are still in play. Yep – that South Africa trip is still with me.
Last year, we found ourselves near Miskolcs and made our way to Lillafüred to see the Hunguest Palota. From the outside, it was impressive. Very impressive. So impressive that I resolved to come back and stay a couple of nights. I had this idea in my head that staying there would be like going back in time. Words like elegance and gentility came to mind. I had visions of cocktails in the drawing-room and dressing up for dinner. I imagined myself tucked up in a fabulously ornate armchair beside a blazing fire, reading my book. Dinners would be in the restaurant lit by light flowing through the famous stained glass windows. So when, for Christmas, the lovely CJ presented us with a two-night stay in January, I was over the moon. I really wanted to see if the waterfall had frozen. And it had.
For once, though, for some odd reason, I hadn’t managed my expectations. That’s most unlike me. As I say, I generally don’t have any and if a few do creep in, whether they’re met is neither here nor there. I might experience a fleeting disappointment but I quickly get over it. Nothing lingers. This time, I had too many. I expected too much.
At the end of the short hallway leading from the front door was a lovely old cast iron stove flanked by two armchairs. It was lit with bulbs rather than flames but the overall effect was welcoming and cosy. Then into the grand expanse of reception. With lots of wood. Lots and lots of wood. It was all rather lovely and just how I’d imagined it to be. Stepping up into the drawing-room, with its mahogany bar and big open fireplace was a treat. The murals on the walls showing old-time country scenes were accented by the light coming from the stained glass over the staircase. Comfortable chairs and sofas scattered around the place with a couple of tables set up for chess added to the atmosphere. [It could do with a few large plants though, to break it up a little.] I noted the happy hour from 4 to 6 and figured we’d enough time to drop our bags and come back to down to see who was around.
My first expectation shattered: the bedroom was smaller than I’d imagined it would be. I thought old palaces and big rooms were synonymous. But it was fine. It had all I’d have asked for – bedside lights, a TV, a work table, an Internet connection, a couple of armchairs, and a coffee table. A kettle or a coffee maker would have been nice. We had the bathrobes but I had to ring down for slippers. A little odd. The towels were far from fluffy and the toiletries were low-end, single-serve watery substances in tubes. So much for the locally made, heavenly scented soaps and creams in refillable glass jars that I’d been expecting. But the bed (two singles pushed together) had two duvets. Yay! For the millionth time, I made a note to myself to buy single duvets from now on rather than queens or kings. Death to hogging, I say! The massive old-fashioned radiator had its own control so I turned it off, happily. The pipes piping the water into the radiator stayed hot, though, but we had a balcony and a window. I opened them up to let some air in. In fairness, these days I’m either too hot or too cold – I’ve not been anywhere yet that can adjust the temperature as quickly as my body does.
Back downstairs, we ordered drinks. I’d set my heart on a whisky sour, thinking that the Palota was bound to cater for more than the beer-and-wine brigade. But when I asked how they made them, the egg white was missing. And in my world, a whisky sour isn’t a whisky sour without the egg white. As that third expectation fell to the floor, I settled for a cosmopolitan. Himself chose a coffee from an impressive list of fancy alcoholic mixes and was happy enough with his choice. We’d taken nearly 90 minutes to drive what should have taken half the time across the mountains in heavy fog and my nerves needed soothing. My cocktail did the job.
We sat back to enjoy the lovely room and for the first time, I paid attention to the music. The place lends itself to jazz or classical, not the pop that was being streamed over the speakers. Hungary has no shortage of classical composers on its family tree but we had to suffer through the likes of Wet, Wet, Wet. The first three unmet expectations had already become but a distant memory; this fourth one stayed with me for the whole stay.
Before dinner, we visited the spa. As spas go, it’s lovely. And it has plenty of lounge chairs and a quiet time (read: no kids) for a couple of hours in the morning and again for a couple of hours in the evening. A nice touch. There, and in other common areas of the hotel, you can find a daily summary of news from around the world printed in both English and Hungarian. Another nice touch.
I was really looking forward to dinner. We changed. Yes. Changed. Nothing terribly fancy but we made an effort, navigating the fine line between being overdressed and underdressed. But we needn’t have worried. It was more a jeans and tracksuit affair. My fifth expectation fell flat, rapidly followed by my sixth.
I’d been expecting a select if limited menu. A choice of three starters, three mains, and three desserts would have been fine. I’d imagined lingering between courses over a nice bottle of wine, light subdued, soft music overlaying the strains of quiet conversation and the occasional laugh. It was a serve-yourself buffet dinner. We had a candle but there was no need. The lights were on in full force and with the high ceilings and rows of tables, I felt for a minute as if I was in a home for ageing priests or nuns. Yes, there was an elegance about the place but it was had an institutional feel. As the place was far from full, there were too many empty tables. Some tables could have been removed, or they could have been staggered. Part of the room could have been closed off. Even dimming the lights would have made a difference – anything to make it more intimate.
The food was grand. I’d been practising my bókunk a séfnek (compliments to the chef), feeling sure I’d get to use it. And I did. But not at dinner. Or at breakfast. At lunch the following day, we ventured downstairs, past the spa, to Mátyás restaurant where we had a delicious wild boar ragout. If I had to do it all over, I’d go B&B, have a late lunch there (it’s only open 12-4) and skip dinner. The stained glass windows are quite something. And the service was top notch – nothing endears me more to a waiter than their showing patience with my Hungarian.
I’d been looking forward to the advertised tour of the Palota, expecting to get all sorts of insights into its colourful past but it was January. And they don’t offer them off-season. The whoosh I heard was the sound of expectation No. 7 flying by. I couldn’t help thinking of the Gilmore Girls. Had this been the Dragonfly Inn, Loralei would have taken me herself or had Michel do it. I was disappointed that no one could spare the time. But they did offer up the key to the exhibition room in the tower accessed from the third floor. The views from the top would be amazing on a clear day. But I know better than to expect clear skies and sunshine in January in Hungary.
The exhibition (in Hungarian) was picture-heavy so definitely worth looking at, even if you’ve no idea what’s being said. I caught the gist of it all. And it made me realise just how much I’d been looking forward to stepping back in time and how let down I felt.
Of course, it’s no one’s fault. The hotel has worked its way up from 1 star to 3 stars to the 4 stars it has today. It has everything it needs to be something spectacular. And maybe in high season, they do pull out the stops. But a real test would be if guests both on- and off-season had the same experience.
We awoke both mornings to a chair parked outside our door. They were doing some work on the services room adjacent to ours. Again, I wondered. This work had to have been scheduled. And judging by the few other guests I saw there were plenty of rooms available. So why put us there? The first morning we were up very early and only noticed the chair when I came back to get my laptop. I figured they’d be done in a while and I wasn’t in the room anyway so they weren’t disturbing me. But the second morning, we slept later – and the work was still going on. Not ideal.
Hats off to the staff for their helpfulness. Working in the drawing-room one afternoon during happy hour, the bartender noticed that we had two laptops and one wall socket. Unasked, she brought us an extension lead. I rang reception to enquire about an appointment for a pedicure. No one answered. I hung up and got a callback minutes later asking if he could be of assistance. He called the offsite pedicurist and arranged an appointment for the morning we were to leave and also moved our check-out time from 10 am till noon. They really are trying.
The Palota is a beautiful building. It has a history that is tangible. It has so much promise and could be something truly spectacular. But maybe it’s happy being what it is. It’s by far the grandest looking of the Hunguest chain of hotels in Austria, Hungary, Montenegro, and Croatia, but sadly, it didn’t quite live up to my expectations.
Oh, but I had listened to my mother and had no expectations in the first place. And therein lies the lesson. Thank you CJ. It was a lesson I needed reminding of.