Day 5 in Budapest – HUNGARIAN WINE – and some other stuff…

We had big plans for Day 5 – our first full day in Budapest. First thing – could we make this a walkable city? We decided to do our best. From the top of the hill in the Buda Castle district, we made our way toward the impressive Chain Bridge. The Chain Bridge is a suspension bridge that connects Buda and Pest – only the second permanent crossing on the entire Danube. It’s fascinating and technical and you want to figure out how the heck they built it. So here’s a geeky description by www.bridgesofbudapest.com. “The chain-links have been made of iron plates with a length of several meters, its parts are connected by large rivets allowing for the chain to be a real chain and to make small movements. The chains have been led through the top part of the pillars where they rest on large iron saddles. Between the two pillars, the chains are hanging low, and outside the pillars, they lead to the riverbanks where they go underground with minor fractures. Here, deep underground you can find the so-called chain-chambers in which the descending chain-ends are being anchored by vast iron blocks leaning to the walls of the chambers.” Very cool. And, although it’s not a pedestrian-only bridge, it’s easily walkable – in fact, with some of the traffic we saw in Budapest, we may have gotten over on foot quicker than some of the cars.

Chain Bridge Budapest

Chain Bridge Budapest

Chain Bridge

Chain Bridge

Locks of love on the Chain Bridge

Locks of love on the Chain Bridge

My image of Budapest – relative to Prague – was again how much larger it was. It was also a bit intimidating to me with its tall, modern buildings and excessive traffic. Although a tourist destination, this also seemed to me a place where people lived and worked. It didn’t seem to be completely focused on tourism like Prague did. There were also a lot of recognizable brands – the Ritz Carlton, H&M, the Four Seasons – and tons and tons of construction everywhere you looked.

With the (relative) success of our free tours in Prague, we decided to do the same thing in Budapest. The meeting point was at Vörösmarty Square in the heart of downtown Budapest. It just so happened that we were in Budapest during their annual Spring Fair which is very similar to their Christmas fair/market. Wooden huts scattered throughout the square boasting everything from Rooster Testicles Stew (I swear!) to woolen hats and mittens. The trees were decorated with colored lights and the square was full of people. I’m not sure if that was because of the fair or it is always like that. It does seem to be a very popular tourist spot in the city.

Vörösmarty Square Budapest

Vörösmarty Square Budapest

We’d planned to do the generic free city walking tour like we’d done in Prague. We were to meet at 10:30 at the square. Well, shortly after we showed up (early) we saw a tour being started and assumed it was the one we wanted to go on. So we joined it. The tour was led by a local named Levi and we’d soon find out that we were not on the generic city walking tour but on a free tour of the Jewish Quarter. We decided to just go with it. This was one of those situations that happen while traveling where you just stumble onto something great!

On the top of my list of things to do in Budapest was to explore the Jewish Quarter. I’m not going to lie – most of the reason was because of the food and pubs I’d read about in the area. The Jewish Quarter of Budapest is well-known for what they call ruin pubs. These are bars built in the ruins of abandoned buildings that were left to decay after World War II. They are known for being hip, artsy and funky and each one is reported to be distinctly different than the others.

Outside of a ruin pub

Outside of a ruin pub

Outside of a ruin pub

Outside of a ruin pub

The history of the Jewish Quarter was also fascinating to me and now I’d get the chance to learn even more about it. Prior to World War II this area was filled with a booming and cheerful life for Jewish people. The war changed all that. The area then became a ghetto where Jews were forced to live in cramped, unhealthy conditions. It was separated from the rest of the city by barbed wire and barricades so that no one could exit or enter at will. There are a few Jewish synagogues – 2 of which are still used today. It was interesting – and horrific – to listen to our guide tell the stories of the Jews during the war and to see the sights where they lived and died.

Memorial to the Jews at the Jewish Synagogue Budapest

Memorial to the Jews at the Jewish Synagogue Budapest

We ended our free tour at the first ruin pub opened in Budapest – Szimpla Kert. This pub was specifically on my list to visit so I was really happy that we got a chance to go there. It is a huge pub with multiple nooks and an open-air area and loads of haphazard, mismatched furniture and art all over the place. The pub is inundated with graffiti and patrons are even encouraged to add to it. There’s even an old Trabant car cut in two sitting in the open-air courtyard where you can have a drink or listen to live music. What a super cool place!

Trabant car table at Szimpla kert

Trabant car table at Szimpla kert

Our graffiti at Szimpla Kert! Aimee + John

Our graffiti at Szimpla Kert! Aimee + John

Our graffiti at Szimpla Kert! I heart John

Our graffiti at Szimpla Kert! I heart John

The tour ended but John and I wanted to stick around and ask a few questions of our guide Levi. Rather than just answer the questions, he asked if we wanted to join him for lunch. Of course we would! So we stayed at Szimpla Kert and ordered their daily special and spent over an hour talking with Levi. We talked about everything from Hungarian wine to World War II to the current state of politics in both our country and his. He was passionate and informative and it was an amazing lunch where we both learned a lot! These are the moments I live for…..

Another thing on my list to do in Budapest was a trip to the Great Market Hall (or Central Market) so we began the trek there. We decided to take a not-so-direct way there and head down the tourist avenue called Váci utca. This is a famous pedestrian-only street filled with shops, bars, cafes, massages…pretty much anything you need or want you can find there. But you’ll pay for it. It is super touristy but definitely worth seeing – once.

The Great Market Hall was incredible! It is huge – 3 full floors literally packed with fruits, veggies, fish, meat, spices, wines, souvenirs and pre-cooked food stalls. I walked in here and my jaw dropped. There is so much in this old beautiful hall. It is noisy and crowded and overwhelming but a definite must-see in Budapest. And a great place to pick up souvenirs as the prices seemed much better than the street we’d just come from. Also, this is definitely a place to eat! If you’re up for very, very good and local food and don’t mind not being waited on or actually sitting down at a table, pick up something hot and traditional here. You can find all of the must-EAT foods in Central Market Hall. Just go in hungry!

Great Market Hall

Great Market Hall

Great Market Hall

Great Market Hall

We had a Hungarian wine tasting scheduled for 5 pm on Day 5 near our hotel so it was time to get our butts back to the Buda Castle district. There’s always enough time, however, for a Thai massage, right? John and I had been intrigued by the Thai massage parlors since we’d heard about them from our fellow Charlotteans on Day 1 in Prague. We finally had the time and the guts to check one out. So down we went into the incense-seeped basement of a storefront called Spirit Thai Massage. We decided to go with the 30-minute, “dry back, shoulders and head” massage. We were instructed to remove our shoes and shown to individual private rooms where we donned humongous pajama-like clothes. There was no massage table; just a mattress on the floor with a pillow at the top. I was nervous but also excited. In came this gorgeous Thai girl who couldn’t have been over 16 years old or 100 pounds soaking wet! We’d see what she could do for me… Let me just tell you – this little girl hurt me – in such a good way. It’s interesting how different it was from an American massage. They are not shy about touching you or contorting your body in ways I’m not sure it was meant to be contorted. Oh my! It was heaven! And also kinda painful. Amazing how the two coincide sometimes…

Finally! We were off to our scheduled Hungarian wine tasting. I’d read about the superior wines in Hungary when I first started researching the country months ago. One forum recommended one tasting in particular so I’d already made a reservation. The tasting was at Faust Wine Cellar. The cellar is located at the end of a huge labyrinth system underneath Buda Castle Hill that was carved in the Middle Ages as an escape route. There are stairs that lead down from the remains of a 13th century Dominican Cloister to get there. As you descend into the cellar, you can feel the temperature drop and the darkness envelop you. It’s very cool – literally, right?!

Faust Wine Cellar Budapest

Faust Wine Cellar Budapest

I was really looking forward to this tasting as I’d read only amazing things about the couple who runs the cellar and the wines they serve. We were sat immediately and choose to go with the tasting that included 9 recommended wines from the sommelier – both red and white. Gabor Nagy is the sommelier and wine cellar manager at Faust. For each tasting, he’d place the bottle on our table, pour the tasting and then provide us with information about the wine. He talked about the varietal and the alcohol content and pointed out the region of Hungary that the wine was from. He seemed very knowledgeable about the wines and they were all simply delicious! John and I both had our favorites, however, and the tasting included “on the final to call back one from the tasted drinks”. So we could choose one of the 9 wines to taste again at the end. It was a wonderful experience and one I’d highly recommend. The wines were amazing and the atmosphere was unlike anything I’d experienced – it was dark and mysterious and romantic. And, I have to say, the company was pretty good as well. We both had a fantastic time!

Starving and exhausted and slightly drunk, we took the recommendation of Gabor and scooted across the street for a late dinner at Vár: a Speiz. It was all we could do to stumble back to the hotel and fall into bed. It was a long, unforgettable, brilliant day! But we did answer the question at the top of this post – YES, Budapest can be a walkable city – just commit and wear comfy shoes!

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