Tag Archives: Budapest

Wine is nice

Tokaji Aszu, Mmmmmmmmmm!

I quite like wine. This will not come as a surprise to most of you. I’m not even a beer-drinker so I’ve not really been able to enjoy the famous European beers that are so much better than English lagers (although I did force myself in Belgium. But only to be polite you understand).

Fortunately however, Hungary is the first country on our list that’s famous for its wines and so I decided it would be rude not to taste some of the best properly. There are a few wine tasting places in Budapest, and the one in most guidebooks seems to be the Royal House of Wines. However the one I stumbled upon was not far from Szilvia’s coffee shop, The House of Hungarian Wines (Magyar Borok Haza) at Buda Castle.

Me and Istvan, my wine expert!

I was a bit worried about pottering in on my own and trying not to look like a wino, but the friendly staff soon put me at my ease and my host Istvan (or Steven if you’re English) produced 5 different Hungarian wines for me to sample.

So I’m pleased to say I’m now an expert on Somloi Juhfark, a white wine named after the lambs’ tail appearance of the grape bunches, and one which, if a bottle is drunk on one’s wedding night will guarantee you a boy. 2 bottles will guarantee you male twins but 3 bottles should never be drunk as it may produce a king which is too much!

I also tried the red Villanyi Kadarka, and the Egri region Cabernet Franc, which is made by one of Hungary’s only female winemakers Estok Pinceszet, and contains so many antioxidants compared to even other red wines, the maximum of 3000 bottles a year are sold as “Dr Heart” – definitely a wine to drink that’s good for you! It’s a delicious spicy wine that reminded me of cloves and Christmas – a definite shame enough bottles aren’t made to allow export of this particular grape.

Which brings me to the Tokaji regional wines, Hungary’s most famous wine region, mostly for the heavy dessert wines that are typical. I tried the Tokaji Aszu which was like a really sweet sherry, very fruity and tasty – and one of the Tokaji dry white wines, the Furmint. The Tokaji wines get their distinctive taste from being grown in a microclimate where 3 rivers meet – one of which is warm and another cold.

Istvan was really happy to chat about the wines – I must admit I don’t know all that much about “proper” wine tasting, but it was a good way to find out a bit about the geography and the history of Hungarian wine making. It turns out Istvan has even worked in the UK, once in Inverary, and once in Totnes where he found a fondness for ciders!

So washed down with some traditional Hungarian shortbreads seasoned with sesame, poppy and caraway seeds, I not only got to glug some delicious booze, but actually found out a bit about what I was drinking too! Thanks Istvan! The House of Hungarian Wines is one more place I highly recommend you visit, should you find yourself in Budapest.

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The Good, the not-so-good, and the Ugly

Andrassy Ave

So as I write this (on Thursday morning, 11th Feb), it’s nearly time to leave Budapest, and by the time I get a chance to publish this I’ll be in Romania. I’d definitely love to come back here – two and a half days most certainly isn’t enough, but for now I thought I’m going to sum up what I’ve seen here so far:

Good things about Budapest

Castle

  • The beautiful buildings – residental, presidential, palatial, and worshipful. All breathtakingly splendid examples of architectural design and grandeur, towering 7 storeys and more into the sky if you count the statues that many have on top. The stereotypical 50s block-style communist buildings aren’t especially prominent in the city centre, but you can still see their influence if you look closely. Andrassy Avenue in particular, another of Budapest’s UNESCO world heritage sites, has a vast selection of impressive architectural styles along its many residences, and the city park’s fairytale Vajdahunyad Castle is a veritable schizophrenic delight for architecture and indeed fairytale nerds.

    Andrassy Ave

  • The spa baths. Famous though Budapest is for its healing mineral spa baths, I did not get the chance to go this time. Booo! I love a good spa bath, and if they’re anything like the geothermic baths in Iceland then I’ve definitely missed out bigtime. However, I consoled myself with looking at the Zoo buildings, which are very Turkish influenced (and actually next to a good baths in the city park I later discovered).

    Budapest Zoo

    They did have have statues of animals at the entrance in the old animals-as-exhibits style, but as this included a baboon, I had to take a photo for my monkey-mad friend Katie:

    Zoo baboon

  • The oldest tube line in continental Europe. The Metro 1 takes you up to Heroes Square where there is a huge monument reminiscent of the Brandenburg gate, constructed to honour the 1000th anniversary in 1896, of the Magyar conquest of the Carpathian basin. Lesser scale statues to national heroes and warriors are everwhere throughout the city which if you care to investigate will give you a starting point to myriad bits of Hungarian history.There’s also a lot of other underground history here, including an underground labyrinth, an underground bunker/hospital that was used during WWII and a church carved into a cave in the Citadel area.

    Heroes Square stop on the M1 line

  • The wine. As we’re here midweek and have been getting back from exploring late and tired from doing lots of walking, it’s been tricky to find time to go out to the bars in Budapest and experience the famous party scene here. It’s definitely somehting on my list for next time though, as well as going to some of the folk music clubs here, and will be easier and more fun to do with longer here and a weekend evening to play with. We took a walk through Franz Liszt square (named after Hungary’s favourite composer son), which in the summer is a hive of cafe culture, wine imbibement and dancing, with trees, park benches and a lively cosmopolitan atmosphere, but in February it’s a little quiet unfortunately. I’ve got a wine tasting session planned for later today, but for now we made do with sampling the delicious Egri region red wines from the supermarket while our host at the hostel regales us with conspiracy theories and plans for world domination through blood type testing, upon which I will make no further comment!

Not so good things:

The buildings may be beautiful but they are in varying states of repair, and if nothing else grubby with pollution. Gold leaf and painted mosaic illuminations that adorn many apartments are covered in grime and it’s not unusual to see large chunks of plaster crumbling off buildings, some of them to the extent where they have to be propped up like this:

Dilapidated

Now I’m not a knowledgable historian nor here long enough to investigate first hand, so I don’t know whether this is just because the buildings are old and have never been repaired, whether it’s neglect from the communist regime, or whether it’s just neglect in general because of Hungary’s poverty prior to joining the EU in 2004 and then the 2008 credit crunch. Part of me actually thinks it’s nice that the authorities are propping up these buildings rather than bulldozing them as would happen in the UK, but realistically, it’s likely bulldozing and rebuilding is too expensive, and maybe bulldozing on its own is too. Still nice though that they’ve thought it through as far as whether they’ll be able to rebuild, something Bradford council could learn from (they have a penchant for knocking down beautiful Victorian buildings and then leaving the city with massive holes for years on end). Despite the poor states of repair of a lot of buildings that I’ve seen, the city’s pride and individuality is still obvious, something which would become much more hidden if it were to be knocked down and “regenerated” (which has already happened in the centre nearest the Danube).

The Terror House

So this brings me to the communist regime, which lasted in Hungary from 1947 till 1989-90 when the iron curtain came down. There is a sense here if you talk to people about this part of their history that they just want the tourists to stop banging on about it, forget about it and move on – and I can’t say I blame them in the slightest. Communist statues have been removed from the city centre and dumped 8 km southwest of the capital at Memento Park, and although I’d planned on going to see them, having been to the Terror House, I just felt it had the potential to be a bit of a gawpingly inappropriate tribute and was glad I decided not to go in the end.
Communism is a very dark period of Eastern Europe’s recent history, but as with the victims of Nazi fascism, there are memorials and museums dedicated to the memories and stories of the victims of the communist regime in Budapest, and rightly so, especially as I think it’s easy to forget, or fully understand as a Westerner who was 12 when the wall came down, just how tyrannical and fearful a hold the communist regime had over the lives of millions of ordinary Eastern European citizens – and also easy to forget how incredibly lucky that as a Westerner I’ve never had to live in fear of my life for thinking the wrong thing, or of losing a loved one to torture, execution, imprisonment, or labour camps with no warning, trial, information or reason.
Budapest’s memorial dedicated to the Jewish victims of the holocaust was set up by the late Tony Curtis (the Nazis occupied Hungary from 1944), and the Terror House, former headquarters of both the Nazi and Communist terrorist dictatorships, has been converted into memorial museum. All along the outside are black and white photos of people executed or disappeared by the Hungarian communists. Under each photo is a name, an occupation, a year of birth and a year of death or disappearance. Many are young, hardly into their 20s, but many are older opponents of the regime. There are a variety of jobs too, from baker and secretary to “intellectuals” such as radio journalists and writers. The roof of the house has a mirror-image stencil of the word TERROR in the overhang, and when the sun shines in the right direction, you can see the word the right way round shining as a shadow on the specially designed walls of the house that extend across the pavement. Always there, never knowing when it will cast its shadow, it’s a powerfully metaphorical tribute.

Iron Curtain

If this isn’t moving enough, outside the house is a sculpture symbolising the iron curtain, and on each end is inscribed words which really bring home how much the regime was hated, and how hard Eastern Europeans fought to overturn their countries’ dictatorships and win their freedom from terror:
“Shall we live as slaves or as free men? (Sandor Petofi)

It isolated the East from the West

It split Europe and the world in two

It took away our freedom

It held us in captivity and fear

It tormented and humiliated us

And finally we tore it down”

Days since leaving the UK: 5

Kilometres travelled so far by main train journeys:  still 1911

Countries travelled through so far: 6

Cities visited: 5

Weather: sunny and 5 degrees. And then drizzly

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Beautapest

To Budapest!

I’m sitting on my bed in my hostel in Budapest. We’re just on the eastern side of the Pest part of the city centre, in the old Jewish quarter, and our hostel, which we have to ourselves, is a converted apartment in an old neo-classical block with an enclosed courtyard which contains a staircase which makes it easy to imagine you’re in ancient Rome.

Our hostel’s internal coutyard

We arrived here yesterday and the first thing I noticed (apart from the shock of seeing a Tesco on the outskirts) was how beautiful it is. The international rail station Kaleti has a huge canopy to rival St Pancras’ (where we started our journey), and if you ignore the building site that’s currently outside (which although it looks a bit like Bradford’s Westfield Hole, there is work being done on it), the outside facade is every bit as spectacular as inside.

Budapest’s International Rail Station Kaleti

If I thought the opulence of imperial Vienna was grand, it’s clear the riches of the Austro-Hungarian empire were good to Budapest. It feels much grander, much more historic, and much more real. Proud in fact. In just the short tram ride to our hostel, I know this is a place I’m going to love.

Matthias Church

Yesterday was spent wandering around some of the Castle Hill area. Breathtaking views is not the phrase. Much of it is a UNESCO world heritage site, including the beautiful Matthias Church, and the views from the back of it across the Danube to the Parliament building (modelled on the Palace of Westminster back home apparently).

Parliament across the Danube

We stopped for coffee at a warm (in welcome and in temperature) coffee shop called Walzer Cafe. Here I had a hot chocolate with chilli (EVERYTHING comes with paprika in Hungary), made with real chunks of chocolate which was DELICIOUS.

Proper hot choc and chilli

My friend Dave had a cappuccino which wonderful owner Szilvia offered to blend specially for him from the vast selection of fine coffee beans she keeps in stock (the best quality ones she can find she tells us – and her Italian visitors agree her coffee is as good as theirs!).

Lovely Szilvia

It’s been Szilvia’s dream to open a coffee shop, and she’s had it for 6 years, lovingly preparing a huge menu of coffees and hot chocolates from scratch, not to mention her teas, cakes and snacks. But she’s just off the beaten track and most tourists don’t automatically walk past her cosy and friendly shop, and with the economic crisis in Hungary dragging on, she’s having to seriously think about whether she can keep open. So if you’re in Budapest, go and see her, tell her I sent you, and order a huge coffee, you won’t regret it!

Walzer Cafe Map. Thanks google! (click thru for original)

Today we’re planning on visiting the Memento Park, a sculpture park where all the “unsuitable” communist and soviet statues have now been relegated, a wander round the Jewish quarter, and I may even force myself to sample the Hungarian wines in one of the local bars here. It’s a hard life but someone’s got to do it!

Thanks to my friend Malc for the title of this post!

Days since leaving the UK: 3

Kilometres travelled so far by main train journeys: 1678+233=1911

Countries travelled through so far: 6

Cities visited: 5

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Hello World

This is a rather long-overdue post. Which I blame partly on Christmas and mince pie eating, partly on me doing a fair bit of other writing work in December (I’m putting all my written work on my portfolio now and keeping this blog for posts about travel and other generally cool experiences), and partly on spending time trying to co-ordinate madcap adventures – which I can proudly announce today I have just about finalised!

Reykjavik city centre will have to wait…

Some of you may know that spending 6 months volunteering in Iceland was my original plan for February, but unfortunately there’s been a problem with funding and the place I was promised has fallen through. I’m still hoping to go in May for a 4-6 week stint volunteering but that’s yet to confirm still.

But May’s a long way off right? Yup. Am I going to sit in my flat waiting for May? Nope….

I’m a big fan of slow travel, a concept embodied nicely by the Slow Travel Berlin Website. Take the time to soak in your surroundings, experience the culture and quirks of where you are, find out about what makes it tick, and enjoy yourself. So in this spirit I and my lomography-mad friend Dave are embarking on a 2-week train journey from St Pancras to Istanbul, via Brussels, Vienna, Budapest, Transylvania, Bucharest, and Veliko Tarnovo. Probably. From Budapest onwards we’re going to play exact timings by ear and explore the mystery and uniqueness of Eastern Europe. We plan to keep a photo blog on the trip in addition to my own entries here, although as Dave uses film a lot this may not be practical! I shall post details when I have them of course.

St Pancras to Istanbul. Click through for the original on seat61.com

But 2 weeks won’t keep me occupied for long, so in addition I have applied to live and work with the Maasai people of Kenya for 6 weeks. I will be working teaching kids at primary level and doing some blogging for them to help promote the Maasai culture (although this all could change of course). I’ve been anxious about making plans so different to my original ones, and have been agonising about where I’m going, why I’m going, how long to go for (and whether to keep my flat on or put everything in storage) and who will look after my cats (I’ve found them a fantastic holiday home with my other half Jamie’s best friend and his wife – phew! Their last cat lived on roast chicken though, let’s hope they don’t lose their taste for cheapo biscuits when I get back. At least I know I can always win Tinker over with a bit of broccoli and some cat crack (aka Whiskas Temptations in Salmon flavour…)).

Apparently there are elephants in Kenya

Most of all if I’m honest I’ve no idea what Kenya will be like – while a lot of people I’ve come across have either been to or done voluntary work in Africa, or at least have a burning desire to visit and meet the locals, I’m a bit Africa-naive. It’s always been the northern and baltic countries I’ve been drawn to – Russia, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Japan. Even central America has had more of a draw to me than Africa has, which is odd because it’s undoubtedly a stunningly beautiful and diverse continent. Perhaps it’s because I had family in Kenya when I was a kid, so even though I never went to visit nor was in much contact with them, it somehow seems not as mysterious, and consequently not as interesting . Or perhaps I’m wary of the legacy that white meddlers from just a few generations ago have left and I’m just not sure what my place would be. Yet.

MEAC volunteer with some of the Maasai

This has been part of the reason I have chosen to volunteer with an organisation run by the Maasai, for the Maasai, called Maasai Education and Advocacy for Change (MEAC) – rather than a Western organisation working with local Africans. The Maasai in particular are an intelligent and proud people with a pastoral heritage who have been marginalised by even their own Kenyan and Tanzanian governments, and denied use of their ancestral lands which have been designated game reserves for tourism. I like an underdog and I think that’s another reason why this particular organisation appealed.

Satellite image of Kimuka in the Ngong region. Click through for the original interactive GoogleMap

So I’m now booked and paid up to go as of today, and I’m starting to feel more confident and excited about my adventures. I think it’ll be a pretty fast learning curve over the next few weeks until I go (I’ve managed to order 11 books and novels on Eastern Europe and Africa which will at least keep me occupied for a while), but I think it’ll be worth it. If anyone has any questions, tips or advice then please feel free to ask and either way it’ll help!

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