A bath in Budapest

Budapest, Hungary

We started today, the last of both our trip and the year, with American coffees and pastries at Gerbeaud, the most famous café in Budapest. Founded in 1858, it has survived the ages — and continues to serve up over-sized sweets some 150 years later.

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The café is right next to the Metro, which made it easy for us to buy a ticket and hop on the yellow line for a short ride to the Széchenyi Baths, the largest thermal baths in Europe. It’s a huge and somewhat confusing complex; there isn’t much help for non-Magyar speaking tourists, as we learned while trying to operate the lockers and rent towels.

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Finally, we were suited up and ready to hit the outdoor baths. Steam rose from the pools, heated to around 38 degrees Celsius, as the outdoor temperature hovered around freezing. Hungarians around us had already begun celebrating the New Year with bottles of champagne; after the morning’s trials, we didn’t even think about asking where the refreshment stand was.

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Thoroughly pruned, we got out and made our way back to the changing rooms (which had begun to smell a little funky). Our Sofitel slippers got left behind as we walked across Hero’s Square to the Millenary Monument, a 36-meter high pillar, topped by Angel Gabriel who is holding a cross and the Hungarian crown (the same one we didn’t get a chance to see at Parliament).

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Afterward, we took the Metro back into the city center and returned to Culinaris, a small specialty food store, and bought some meats and cheese to snack on with a freshly baked baguette. On our way out, we picked up a bottle of champagne to share before our New Years Eve with Parov Stelar, a well known DJ from Vienna, at A38, a venue housed in a boat permanently stationed on the banks of the Danube.

Our Air France flight back to the States, via Paris, departs at 12:50 p.m. tomorrow.

Overcoming a crushing setback

Budapest, Hungary

We left room 645 a little after 10 a.m. this morning and walked up Budapest’s main pedestrian drag, Andrássy út, passing by the Hungarian State Opera House en route to Lukács, one of the city’s most decadent cafés with a gold-leafed ceiling and crystal handeliers hanging from above. The Continental Breakfast, with its pot of coffee and two freshly baked pastries, hit the spot.

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Right next door was the House of Terror, a haunting museum that focuses on two tragic periods in this country’s history: the Nazi and Communist regimes. The building itself, at 60 Andrássy Boulevard, is historic, having served as the headquarters of both the Hungarian Nazis and, shortly thereafter, the AVH, or communist terror organization. Its rooms are filled with exhibits that tell this story — perhaps most profound were the basement’s reconstructed prison cells.

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It was a pretty draining visit, so we walked back to the hotel and across the Chain Bridget to Pest. From there, we boarded the Siklo, an aging funicular that brought us to the top of Castle Hill. The wind had picked up and the temperature dropped, so we bundled up, avoided the touts for classical music concerts and checked out the former Royal Palace. The views of the Danube toward Buda were pretty impressive.

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Matthias Church was largely under renovation, which fortunately did not take away from the magnificence of the interior stained glass.

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We strolled Fishermen’s Bastion, a neo-Gothic masquerade built as a viewing platform in 1905 before retreating to a small café for sandwiches and fruit salad and then heading to the day’s main attraction: the House of Hungarian Wines.

We had read that this Budapest institution offered a crash course in Hungarian wines; a $20 ticket was to have given us two unlimited tasting hours of 50 varieties. When we arrived, thirsty and read to go, an absolute crushing setback: the House was permanently closed after a fire this summer. Needless to say, we were devastated (even more so than yesterday’s Parliament fiasco) and retreated to the lobby of a Hilton across the street to regroup.

It was there that we hatched a genius idea. If the House of Hungarian Wines couldn’t provide us with our introduction, we’d organize our own wine tasting. Conveniently, La Boutique de Vins, one of the city’s premiere wine shops was just a block from our hotel and the helpful owner offered up some suggestions.

Bottles in hand, we walked back to the Sofitel and set up a wine tasting in our living room. We had a 2006 Le Sommelier Merlot (from the Malatinszky Kuria region); a 2006 Chardonnay from the same region; and a 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon from Malatinszky Villány. Some glass cups from our mini bar worked just fine.

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Here are our tasting notes:

  • Merlot: Meaty and full-bodied. Pairs well with steak and our uncomfortable couch.
  • Chardonnay: Lemony, would go well with chicken picata. We love watching International Travel Channel and uncensored German MTV reality television while drinking this.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon: Didn’t quite get to it.

Our wine tasting ended in a short nap, after which we headed out for dinner at Kheiron, a restaurant that billed itself as “The place where the gastronomy meet with the mitology and art.” Despite the terrible spelling and translation, we split a delicious caesar salad and then had solid steak and rosemary chicken dishes. After the sour cherry strudel disaster last night, we skipped dessert and instead jetted back to our pillow-topped bed.

Highs and lows in Budapest

Budapest, Hungary

It was kind of nice to sleep in this morning after three jam-packed days in Vienna. When we did venture out, the air was wicked cold and a thick cloud of pollution hung above the city. The Sofitel looked a bit nicer last night than it did in the daylight — perhaps we’ve been a bit spoiled — and it’s clear that the hotel’s recent remodel focused on some areas (lobby) and not as much on others (room furnishings). Not to say that this is slumming it, and to the Sofitel’s credit, the concierge and front desk have been fantastic.

Adorned in hats, mittens and scarves, we arrived for a breakfast of museli, fresh fruit and lattes at Negro, one of the city’s new breed of modern cafés. It did the trick and at $15 bucks for the two of us, sure beat the 29 euro (per person) offering back at the hotel. The café was in the same square as the Basilica of St. Stephen, the city’s cathedral, whose Baroque interior, with its stained glass, was impressive. We really enjoyed checking out St. Stepehen’s petrified hand, enclosed in a glass case in a back chapel, while surrounded by Asian tourists frantically snapping pictures.

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On our way to Independence Square, featuring one of the city’s few remaining memorials to the Soviet army, we passed a Mercedes SUV that might have made a slight wrong turn a few miles back.

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Next, we crossed four busy lanes of traffic to see Shoes on the Danube, a memorial to the Hungarian Jews who were shot and thrown into the river by the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party. Sixty shoes, cast in metal, line the river and offer a poignant reminder of past atrocities.

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There was a really long line for a tour of the Hungarian Parliament, an imposing building on the river’s banks, so we huddled up with the masses to wait for a ticket. An hour later, we were freezing, but had nearly made our way to the front.

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Just five people stood between us and a peak at the Crown of St. Stephen, a Hungarian national icon housed inside. Wouldn’t it be just our luck that moments from warmth, a fur-hat wearing guard would spin around and plop down this sign, which curtly read: “There aren’t any tickets left for today.”

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Defeated, we walked to a nearby café for a cappuccino. With hot fluids coursing through us again, we set out for the Great Synagogue, the second largest in the world. Completed in 1859, it can seat 3,000 worshippers. Thankfully, there was no line, so we spent some time checking out the sanctuary, a museum and a Holocaust memorial — a metal tree with victim names inscribed on leaves — in the back courtyard.

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The stop got us hungry for Jewish delicacies, so we headed to nearby Carmel Prince for matzo-ball soup and an Israeli salad sampler.

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Back at the hotel, we hit up the gym, which was kind of small and outdated. The pool was overrun by far too many Speedo-clad tourists. Having left mine at home, we passed. Our late dinner at Dio was a contemporary take on traditional Hungarian food. The pork chops with fresh herbs & cheese potato pancakes were delicious; the sour cherry strudel for dessert didn’t taste like sour cherry and was missing sugar. We would have been better without it.

With the wind whipping up and the pollution cloud rolling in, we high-tailed it back to the hotel and were welcomed with a warm blast of air after passing through the revolving doors.

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