Posts Tagged ‘Hungary’

Budapest (Hungary)

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

August 20, 2010 (Friday) – August 24, 2010 (Tuesday):

It was bound to happen. Six months traveling, we were bound to coincide with the visited country’s national holidays. The irony is, we left for this trip on July 4th from the US, which was America’s Independence Day. But leaving in the morning on that day, we missed all the holiday festivities (i.e., fireworks). As it were, while we were in Belgium, we coincided with their National (Independence) Day (July 21). But fell asleep in our hotel room before the fireworks display started. And now, while we were in Budapest, we coincided with their National (Independence) Day (August 20). I think someone is trying to send us a hint and really wants us to watch fireworks this year. So who are we to fight fate. After dinner, we took a stroll along the Danube and watched as fireworks exploded above all along the river. I’d say it was probably a better fireworks show than the one in Cerritos would have been.

Budapest has definitely trumped all the other cities we’ve visited thus far on this trip as our favorite. We loved Scotland for its preserved historic buildings and architecture throughout the city, especially the castle situated atop the hill overlooking the city below. Well, Budapest has all that, plus the added bonus of the might Danube River running through. I can see why people have referred to Budapest as the Paris of Eastern Europe. We came to Budapest without any expectations and not knowing much about Budapest other than it is a major hub for airlines, and after four and a half days in Budapest, we fell in love with the city. The city still has a historic medieval feel, decent (and cheap) food and drinks, vibrant nightlife.

Speaking of Budapest’s nightlife, which we were really didn’t partake in, but kids (high school kids / young adults….I guess they’re kids to us) would pack liquor stores / convenience stores and stock up on drinks, then walk over to the many public parks throughout the city and drink/eat/hang out, while DJs would set up outdoors in the parks and spin loud music into the wee hours. We noticed that the first night and thought that maybe it was just some special rave because of the holiday, but no, we noticed it on several of the other nights too. Very interesting culture.

Our first full day in Budapest was quite packed. We started the day early (nowadays on this trip, early means getting out of the hotel around 10am…though I have to say, Miriam does still wake up around 7am, while I still go to sleep around 3am). We headed off to the Great Market Hall to grab food from the local food stalls, as well as peruse the various knickknacks Hungarian culture had to offer. Paprika. That’s what Hungary is famous for apparently. There was paprika hanging from almost every stall as well as various flavors of paprika powder being sold from almost every vendor. We abstained, and resisted the temptation to buy any. Although, Miriam did find this cute wooden Hungarian container to use for storing salts on the table. Of course, me being the skeptical bargain shopper thought we should wait before buying; afterall, this was only our first full day in Budapest, we might find a better bargain / more selection elsewhere if we wait. We didn’t. Miriam didn’t get to buy it. I’m sure/hope she’ll forgive me one of these days…

As for the rest of the busy day’s activities, we wandered across the Liberty Bridge to St. Gellert Hill, where atop the hill stood the Liberty Statue. Standing at the foot of the hill and spying the seemingly laborious steep steps amid the sweltering heat, we opted the Liberty Statue would best be appreciated from afar at ground/river-level. So instead, we hopped on to the next tram and headed towards the Parliament building, arguably one of Budapest’s most recognized buildings, looks kind of like the British parliament building but with a little Ottoman flair.

And of course as luck would have it, all the tickets to visit inside the Parliament building were given out for the day, presumably swiped by the hordes of tour groups waiting outside selling tour packages of the Parliament building. Wonderful. But I guess what could possibly be so interesting about seeing the inside of a government building. So having bailed on the Liberty Statue and failed on visiting the inside of the Parliament building, the next logical step in our grand quest of touring Budapest was naturally, to go get some ice cream and dessert. So we hopped on the trusty tram (public transportation in Budapest is quite convenient, might I inject here), and headed to Gerbeaud, where we got cake and coffee. With our fill of caffeine and sugar, we were ready for the second leg of the day, visiting City Park, Hero’s Square, the timewheel and walking down Audressy, a lovely tree-lined boulevard home to embassies and estate houses. (Sounds like a lot of activity for one afternoon, but they are all relatively in the same vicinity). Making our way down Audressy, in the direction back to our hotel, we stopped off for dinner at M. Restaurant, a lovely and quaint street-side restaurant serving affordable good food. Back in the hotel room, I spent the evening updating the blog and posted the Amsterdam entry (yup, about a whole month behind). Wish all my days on this trip were as productive, but alas, they are not. At any rate, that was our day sightseeing around Pest. Yeah, I didn’t know either before coming here, but one part of the city is called Buda, and the other, Pest. Hence Budapest. Either quite clever city planners/namers, or really lazy ones. (I live in Cerri, but my friend lives in Tos).

The following days were spent walking around / sightseeing around Buda, Castle Hill, Grand Palace, Fisherman’s Bastion and St. Stephan Basilica. One of the more unique (to the trip, not unique in Budapest) was going to one of the many hot springs / mineral baths. Like Japanese onsens, these hot springs are created by natural mineral waters flowing up from mother earth, nourishing the very bodies honored to soak in such goodness…with the baths predominantly frequented by older people hoping to find some fountain of youth. Not normally accustomed to relaxing in public baths, I found the public baths (we went to Szechenyi bath) not at all too bad. If nothing else, it was a good experience. And fortunately, it wasn’t one of those nude public baths. The onsens in Japan, on the other hand…

To view more pictures from Budapest, visit the Photos.

Tokaj (Hungary)

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

August 18, 2010 (Wednesday) – August 20, 2010 (Friday):

Who’s Hungary for dessert wine!? We are! When we were planning our round-the-world trip, it didn’t initially occur to us to visit Tokaj, Hungary, home to one of our favorite dessert wine regions. It’s a city not always easily found on a map, and definitely not a metropolitan destination. But since we would be traveling on a eurail train pass through Europe, which allowed us up to 15 stops to most cities in Europe, why the heck not make a trip out to this rural Hungarian region and witness firsthand the birthplace of our beloved dessert wine.

Unfortunately, things almost didn’t turn out so. Leaving Zagreb, we were on a 5am (yes, a god-awful time of 5am) train departure to connect through Budapest, then onto Szerenc, then finally to Tarcal to arrive at 2:30pm, from there our hotel would pick us up and take us to the hotel. Simple, sound like a good plan. Not quite. Our 5am train didn’t arrive until 7:30am, which meant we were already over 2hours behind schedule. Once we finally got to Budapest, we of course missed our connecting train. No thanks to several unhelpful train ticket agents, we finally managed to figure out what trains we needed to take to get us to Szerenc, then onto Tarcal…by then a good five hours later than scheduled.

The train ride out to Tarcal was in and of itself quite an experience. Having hopped onto the train last minute with no reservation meant we would be standing a good portion of the way. But that wasn’t the worst part, these trains were not those modern bullet train-types with modern amenities, they were essentially communist-era transport trains. Although the train did have seats, we were relinquished to standing in the stairwell/entrance area of the car. The eastern European summer heat was beating down at a good 85 degrees with our only respite being the open windows of the train car. But that meant the deafening noise of the outside world passing by at 75mph to drown out your own thoughts. And even if you were lucky enough to formulate any thoughts to yourself, your concentration would be broken by the constant stench of cigarette smoke emanating from your fellow comrades stuck in the stable with you. .But hey, we’ll be sipping on sweet Tokaj wine in a just a few, let there be no complaining.

One of the most amusing incidents did happen going to Tokaj (and it wasn’t the train ordeal). Once we arrived at the Tarcal train station (it was really more like a depot, than a station…something you would see out of an old wartime movie when the train would slowly approach the depot and through the windows of the train, you would spy soldiers standing guard armed with machine guns and a German shepherd). Anyway, once we arrived, we went to the street-side of the depot waiting for the hotel car to come pick us up. Tarcal is a small town in rural eastern Hungary, with the population of Hungarians probably close to 99.5%, and the other 0.5% being outside tourists, with Asians probably rarely ever visiting. So, as we were waiting for our ride, about half a block down the street to our left, we noticed a group of about six junior high / high school kids gathered together. We could hear them mumbling stuff to each other and giggling, obvious that they were looking at us and talking about us. After about a few minutes, two of the girls mustered enough courage to walk over to us and ask in their Hungarian broken-English, ” Do. you. speak…..English?” Then they giggled at each other proud to have made first contact with these humans with small eyes and black hair. To us, it was as if they’ve never seen Asians before, and have only read/heard about them from their textbooks. When we replied back in perfect English that we did in fact speak English, they continued to giggle some more and turn back to their friends who were all still standing half a block away at a safe distance, that yup, these foreign-looking beings are safe, and indeed do understand the English language. Then our car arrived, and we said goodbye to our two curious Hungarian ambassadors.

Finally, Tokaj wines. I was looking forward to our upcoming two-day binge-fest (so to speak) on Tokaj dessert wines. The hotel we were staying at, Grof Degenfeld, arranged all of our tours and tastings. The hotel itself also had a sprawling winery, which we would taste their wines on the last day. As for the following days’ activity, we started out with a morning visit to Chateau Dereszla winery. After a 30 minute tour of their cave, we had tastings of their library of wines, from lighter (and less sweet) furmint wines to edes szamorodni to various aszu wines. Nice and yummy, just like how we like our tokaj wines.

Afterwards, following lunch and a stroll through the town of Tokaj, we took the car to the second winery, Disznoko. Again we took a tour of their facility and learned about the process of making Tokaj aszu wines (i.e., that puttonyos are the traditional wooden “baskets” used to collect the grapes and the number of baskets of grapes used would determine the sweetness of the aszu wines, anywhere from 3 puttonyos up to 6 puttonyos).

Although it feels like we could never have enough Tokaj wines, spending two days in the Tokaj wine region we definitely had our decent share. Despite the (minor) ordeal we went through to get to Tokaj, the end result made up for the inconvenience. Now onto Budapest.  (And wouldn’t you know it, just so things would come full circle, of course our train leaving Tokaj was delayed two hours…)

To view more pictures from Tokaj, visit the Photos.