Hungary

BUDAPEST

Our hotel was clean and efficiently pleasant.  The breakfasts, included for about $85 per night, were internationally generous.  In fact, better than any other food that we found in Budapest, with the exception of the cold sour cherry soup that every restaurant seemed to offer.  That was delicious whenever we ordered it.  Uniquely Hungarian, it is one of the soups that is traditionally the start of every dinner.  Since we had been to Budapest before, we skipped the castle tour route as well as many other tourist landmarks.  Our 7 p.m. arrival left us enough evening to jump on the Metro (too bad American cities can’t have such easy, quick transportation) towards the river and stroll down Vaci Uti, where the shops presented no temptation.  They were closed at that hour, but we could choose from the many restaurants lining that long pedestrian walkway.P7190008.JPG (379656 bytes)

 

The castle looked particularly lovely at night alit upon the hill across the Danube.  Lo and behold, when we decided to head back to the hotel at 11:30 , the custodian waved us away at the entrance which he was just closing up.  It wasn’t difficult to find a taxi sitting at t nearby hotel and he drove us back, all the while talking quietly but continuously on his cell phone.

 

 

 We started our one full day in Budapest with a trip to the Grand Market, which Larry appropriately described as “Pike Street Market on steroids”.  There were three floors of truly impressive offerings of meats, vegetables, fish, and handicrafts.   The huge old building from was impressive enough on its own.  There doesn’t seem to be any scarcity of food delicacies or long lines for food in this part of post-Communist Hungary. 

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 Since Larry was still recuperating from his bout with pneumonia, we opted for relaxation rather than tourist spots.  That meant a walk in the large, shady city park and a trip to the public bathouse therein. 

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Without explorative Larry, I may never have found my way to the outside pools.  The interior of the classic building is a maze of  changing cabins (lockable cubicles)  followed by showers and at least six interior pools of temperatures varying from 28 to 40 degrees  Centigrade (that’s 82 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit).   Some are filled with an ever-changing mix of synchronized bodies performing water aerobics.  Squirreling our way through some of those waters, with at least a toe’s worth of testing, we eventually go outside to the three huge pools there, where masses of people were lounging, bobbing, standing or sitting in various degrees of water.  It was indeed a very enjoyable way to spend a very hot afternoon in Budapest.  After a stint in the sauna and a fast cool-off in the cold plunge pool (chicken Larry wouldn’t join me), we dressed and headed toward the park’s lake where we watched the ducks while sipping local beer and wine.  By then it was time to meander over to the Bagolyvar Restaurant for a traditional Hungarian dinner.  Frankly, I think that my mother-in-law makes better stuffed cabbage, but the cold cherry soup was once again delicious and even I like the Hungarian beers.  Although the red wine did not excite us, the white wine and the sparkling white  that we had tasted were quite nice.

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We had already decided to spend only one full day in this big city, opting for a trip to Eger to visit the red wine area of Hungary.  Now we started wondering whether the red wine would be worth the travel.  However, the caves that the Eger wineries are famous for were holding more and more enticement for us.  Caves mean cool air and that was sounding more and more appealing with this hot summer weather.  The next morning was just as warm.  The train station looked just as grubby as it had six years ago.  Generally, though, I have to admit that Budapest looks like the pressure washers have been busy in recent years.  The old, stone buildings are cleaner now, showing off more favorably their ornate decoration and that seems to be a good deal of scaffolding which indicates renovation taking place. 

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Heading out of town on the train, the view looks pretty much the same as I remembered – a bit scruffy with tall, cheap, flat faced apartment buildings giving way to single family countryside cottages with tile roofs.  Agricultural fields punctuated with greenhouse structures look somewhat dry but productive.  We see fields of corn, but seldom see it for human consumption.  Perhaps it goes only to produce the meat that Hungarians seem to like so much.  And sunflowers – yes, miles and miles of yellow heads turned toward the sun.  Soon we will be in Eger where we’re anxious to taste the local wines, including Tokaj, the Hungarian version of the sweet French Tokay.

 

EGER (we thought)

It makes me sick just to write about our next adventure.  We don’t usually make major mistakes but we did a dandy this time.  The 2 hour train ride was dreadfully hot and very crowded.  Our compartment was full with one teenage girl, two older girls with bags and two older women.  One of those might have been the mother of the other - a generously sized matriarch who talked constantly and dragged various foodstuffs out of her carrying satchel.  All the luggage bins were full and the rest of us were quietly suffering through the hot trip until about destination time, at which everyone started gathering up belongings.  Larry helped get luggage down from the rack and we joined the gathering crowd exiting the train when it stopped.  People were waiting to board as well, so we hastily took off with our two suitcases and the box we had packed with tools for our workweek.  After hauling everything down the stairs under the tracks, we spotted a ramp to get to the other side instead of using the stairs.  This brought us a distance away from the station proper and by the time we walked back, thinking that we saw a taxi there, we found ourselves quite alone.  Larry went inside but found no one there.  We chalked that up to Eger just being a very small town.  After Larry asked two non-English speaking shop owners to call a taxi for us, I stopped at an ice cream shop intent upon getting them to understand my pantomime.  It amazed me that they were having so much trouble finding a proper phone number and not recognizing our hotel name until they finally got across to me that this was not Eger!  That clarified the problem and eventually they arranged for a taxi to appear.  One of the three owners graciously arranged our travel plans and we got an idea of the cost our mistake would make on our budget.  It turned out that the train trip was indeed a direct one to Eger but most everyone got off at the intermediate stop in order to transfer to other trains.  Perhaps luckily, we were only 18 km (11miles) from our final destination; but our taxi ride wound up costing a bit more than our whole round trip ticket on the train! 

Once we got to Eger, we found our charming hotel complete with a dormer window overlooking the quaint old little town square.  The tiny but spotless shower washed away our sweat and frustration and the air-conditioned room make it hard to leave for any explorations.  But our stomachs were calling for nourishment, so we headed downstairs and had an enjoyable meal at the hotel’s outdoor terrace.  While we sat, a medieval parade of characters marched past us.   It turns out that the summer festival up at the castle would be this very weekend and many of the townspeople turn out in costume to add to the atmosphere.

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A stroll around town found us back in the same courtyard, where we spent a couple hours sampling the local wines.  We were hoping to appreciate some of the finer local Egri Bikaver grape offerings, but found them all to have a characteristic sharp acridness that we just couldn’t get used to.  We found that their Cabernet and Shiraz selections were much more to our liking, but they were not the usual local product and naturally, their prices were higher.  A couple that we liked had indeed won honors at international taste-offs, so perhaps Hungarian winemakers may start using more of the non-native stock in the future.  However, it is the Egri name that holds the reputation of “bull’s blood”.  As the story goes, back in 1552 the Eger fortress was under attack, and the defenders were badly outnumbered. To fortify themselves and give themselves courage, they drank the local red wine in large amounts, and the wine spilled on their beards and clothes. When the attackers saw the men running towards them with red liquid all down their chests, they thought the locals had been drinking bull's blood, and they fled in terror.

We also wanted to try the Tokaj but we were reaching our limit so we asked our helpful waitress what she would recommend in the mid price range.  Her 1993 $20 split proved to be exceptionally nice so we bought one as our best souvenir from Hungary.   

The next day, we traveled the short distance to the Valley of the Beautiful Women,  where a cluster of caves serve as winery storage and tasting rooms for a number of small vintners.  Supposedly, the caves had originally been used as lodging for the countrymen hiding out from the Turkish invaders in 1552.  Now they provide a circle of stops for wine tasters and buyers.  Some wines are sold in commercially labeled bottles; more is sold directly from the cask and into plastic jugs of one liter or more.  Once again we selected a few amongst many, hoping to make that “grand discovery”.  I’m not sure what we would have done if we had indeed fallen in love with something except perhaps to be able to rave about it in the future – something like “the fish that got away”.  We had too many hot days of travel to cart bottles of wine along with us.

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Lunching at one of the nearby restaurants with a beer ended our quest for the outstanding Hungarian re wine before making our way to the train station for the return to Budapest.  The train was as hot as before, the pastel colored stucco cottages looked the same, and the fields of sunflowers were still painting the landscape.  Eventually, though, we heard claps of thunder and the sky darkened a bit as a light rain cooled the air. 

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We arrived a half hour later than scheduled into Budapest.  It’s surprising for a European train to be late.  Normally they are so precise, but we made many stops along the way and had to wait once for another train to pass before us.  By this time, the heat was taking its toll on us again but we wasted no time in finding a taxi in the same place we had arrived outside the train station.  That station certainly needs a major overhaul.  Originally, it must have been very impressive indeed, but a crumbling stone façade, peeling paint and major dirt certainly doesn’t create a very impressive entry to the city now.

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