French wines I knew a little about and Italian wines I knew a little about, but of Hungarian wines I knew nothing before arriving. This may be because their wine export levels are very low, but whatever the reason, Hungarian wines are very historied dating back as far as Roman times from when there are extensive records of vineyards. Today, the best known wine is Tokaji, the dessert wine. While touring the Budapest castle, Gabe and I spot a wine museum/tasting, and figure that it doesn’t hurt to explore further. We enter the museum, and maybe because the temperature was so nice in the cellar, maybe because they offered student prices, or maybe because we hadn’t enjoyed a degustation recently, we decided to tour the museum and try the wines. We sign up for the cheapest wine tasting including only three wines, but after making friends with our pourer, we received tastes of four great wines. And by tastes, we actually tried four full glasses of wine. As a result, we were more than ready for lunch upon leaving.
The whole event increased both our awareness and appreciation for Hungarian wines. I will attempt to provide at least a sense of the diversity and magnitude of these wines here. Within the country there are twenty two wine regions with Eger and Tokaj-Hegyalja probably being the most famous. Located in the northern part of the country, Eger produces the well known Egri Bikaver, or bulls blood of Eger along with some good whites (like the rest of the country). That said, Hungry’s most famous wine region is hands down that of Tokaj-Hegyalia located in the foothills of the Zemplen Mountains in the far north. The region provides the perfect conditions for noble rot to take place. Noble rot is caused by the friendly grey fungus called Botrytis cinerea. Under certain conditions, this “rot” can be quite harmful, but at other times, if picked correctly, grapes covered by this fungus can produce concentrated sweet wine. These botrytized, late-harvest grapes make the sweet wine that is so famous in this region. Know as Tokaji aszú, this wine was famously christened by Louis XIV of France.
After walking around and site-seeing the day before, Gabe and I decide to spend our second day in Budapest at a famous bath house. We arrive relatively early around 10:30am to Szechenyi Baths, which is located in the middle of a beautiful city park. We get our locker and explore the many different bath options that surround us. The bath house has about ten to fifteen different baths, steam rooms, and saunas all at different temperatures. Some are indoors and some are outdoors. Some have forced water currents running through them and some have jacuzzi jets in them. Some have chess matches being played on their edges and some have fountains for people to stand under. As we walk around, we see only old Hungarian men enjoying the baths; however, after a couple hours, the average age goes down substantially and we fit in slightly better. We learn that we may have arrived a little too early.
In all, we probably spend between eight and nine hours at the bath house. This includes a couple hours out of the baths when we eat a little lunch and play cards. The day is wonderfully relaxing, and once we reach an advanced level of pruniness from being in water for so long, we are ready to return to our apartment.
Budapest starts with blue skies and just enough clouds to make for surreal photographs. Gabe and I arrive on the overnight train from drizzly Prague and are excited about our potential vitamin D production over the next couple days. After settling into the apartment, we pack a day bag, grab a couple delicious pastries from a nearby bakery, and set off to the famous castle across the river. This historical castle and palace of the Hungarian Kings of Budapest was originally built in the 14th century only to be destroyed and rebuilt many more times. We climb the hill to the castle, and enjoy the expansive views of the city to one side and the large castle on the other. The castle district, Várnegyed, however, offers much more than just a castle. There are many historic attractions, museums, charming crooked streets, cafes, restaurants and more. Walking around with camera in hand and the sun above makes for a very pleasant afternoon.
Our Budapest apartment, which again is found using airbnb.com (this time from someone named Barnabi), cannot be more centrally located, and that does not even give the apartment credit for its own charm. There is a small loft where the bed is located. The kitchen is small but complete and has a little bar separating it from the main room. There are wood floors and artsy paintings. There is a full bookshelf and and an iMac on an old desk. Just outside is a delicious bakery, a few steps farther is a market, and right around the corner is a public park, which apparently is the best place to spend evenings for locals who are between 20 and 30 years old. The youth of Budapest purchase a couple beers and make their way to this park to enjoy the cool evening air and each other’s company. Gabe and I befriend a couple of them one evening as we try to fit in to this fun local culture. In addition, only about a five minute walk from the apartment, we find a delicious dinner at a spot called Cafe Kor. For a very reasonable price, this apartment is the perfect location from which to start exploring Budapest.