Friday, July 29, 2016

Bratislavia, capital of Slovakia

It was a 2.5 hour train ride from Budapest to Bratislava, Slovakia. Dropping our bags at the Hotel Devin we headed for Old Town. At Vichy Pat’s lunch, a typical Slovakian dish Halusky, a handmade noodle (like spaetzle in Switzerland) with cheese sauce and crispy bacon chunks..just imagine a really good "mac and cheese". Bill chose the more German Schnitzel. Both worked well with the dry Slovak Riesling.
After lunch we walked up to Bratislava Castle, toured the gardens and got some photos of the old town and UFO Bridge (official name: Most SNP) over the Danube. On the way back through the Old Town we stopped for a beer to cool off.
Looking up at Bratislava Castle
Bill in the castle garden
The UFO Bridge (taken from our room, rather than from the castle)
Later we went out for wine and pate at a truly hidden gem of a restaurant, Pinot U Bruna which is hidden behind the cathedral on a small shady park . You need to be determined to find it. Our two whites and two reds, accompanied by rabbit pate, made an excellent ending for the day
Pinot U Bruna Wine Bar
Yep, that is Rabbit Pate under that layer of fat...
Tuesday we headed for ruins of Devin castle, a 1/2 hour bus ride up the Danube. From it's high, rocky perch the impressive castle overlooks the confluence of the Morava and Danube, as well as, the border of Slovakia and Austria. The castle/fortress had a nearly 1000 year lifespan, being destroyed by by Napoleon’s retreating troops in 1809.

Pat posing in one of the Castle windows
Looking up at a remaining watchtower and to the castle ruins
The museum in the castle tells the story of the area (history and culture) until about 500 AD. It would take us several years to sort out the various peoples and cultures that have lived here. We’ll spare you. We also got some photos of the Danube traffic headed toward Vienna and the countryside. 
A barge heading north around the Devin Bend in the Danube River
We returned to Bratislava for lunch, green salad with grilled salmon for Pat and grilled trout with "crashed" potatoes for Bill. Both went well with another nice Riesling. Later we visited the Primate’s Palace with it’s pale pink and white exterior. No photos allowed inside…you’ll have to imagine the Hall of Mirrors where the Treaty (Peace of Pressburg”) was signed between the French (Napoleon) and Austrian Emperors. Note: Pressburg is one of several names for Bratislava. There is also a series of six tapestries depicting the legend of Hero and Leander and their tragic love. The tapestries were woven in the 1630s at the royal weaving workshop at Mortlake, near London. These were found in pristine condition during the reconstruction of the Palace in 1903 hidden behind wallpaper. Unfortunately they are now displayed in full lights and are clearly fading.
Primate's Palace
On the way back to our hotel we stopped for more Slovakian wine at The Taste where we tasted Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon.  All very good, we were most impressed by the reds. On the way back to the hotel we found a man peering from a manhole along the street. Bratislava has several notable street sculptures but this one, named Cumil is the most photographed. 
Cumil, hard at work
We also listened to a short orchestral concert and some bell ringers from Estonia in the town center. Later we went for a walk in the old town and took an ice cream break, chocolate (excellent) and snickers.

We started Wednesday with a walk from our hotel down along the Danube to “Eurovea” the largest Shopping Mall on the Danube. We think there can’t be many others.  A few interesting stores but nothing special even compared to Bangor, Maine.

On our walk back to the center we paused at the lovely Blue Church (St Elizabeth’s Church).
Nearby was something we don't think we've ever seen before, a working sundial.  It was indeed 11am when we took this shot.

We then visited a group of museums (The Period Rooms at the Apponyi Palace, an aristocratic home from the late 18C, the Museum of Viticulture which included the story of two major sparkling wine producers from the area, and the Museum of City History located in the Old Town Hall, all for 2€ each (because we are seniors). The Viticulture Museum doubles as the Slovak National Wine Collection but, believe it or not, we passed up tasting the wines (it was still before lunch). 
Ballroom attire for the family in front of a ceramic heater 

After the museums, we climbed the narrow staircase to the 45m tower. The panoramic view of Old Town from the tower was especially nice. We sure got our 2€’s worth.
Rooftop view from the tower
We did manage to fit in a lunch of Pizza, crispy pork with basil cream risotto & salad with a flavorful Slovak Red, Frankova. Another good pairing.

We had one last walk around the old town and stopped at the Inn Cafe and Wine Bar for a final glass (or 2) of wine.  We shared two whites (liked the Nové Zámky) and two reds (liked the Frankova). Our observation: like other small wine producing Slovakia has a number of unusual grapes and styles. One thing we noticed is that many are big and a bit spicy upfront but with a lighter finish. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Budapest, capital of Hungary

Upon arrival in Budapest we settled into our apartment (which is pretty much as nice as we imagined...except for the 90 steps to get to it). It's probably a good thing we have all those steps, the food is pretty great.

We ventured across the street to Aszu Cafe. We were off to a good start with the whole grain bread and the evening just got better with the red wine (Sauska 2014 from the Villainy region, a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc). The label description, “Bold and fruity, the wine combines fig and red currant aromas with tart cherry, nutmeg and great tannins. Long, balanced and refreshing.” was right on. It was served in unique glasses with very tall sides.

The entertainment was a two piece orchestra, a string base and a Cimbalom, a concert hammered dulcimer comprised of a large, trapezoidal box with metal strings stretched across its top, common to Hungary. It is played by striking two beaters against the strings. We enjoyed the music which started with a Russian piece, then a Chinese piece, and later La Cucuracha played in our honor.

Perfectly Grilled Duck liver with barley, crispy fried onion & roasted red pepper made a delightful appetizer which Pat followed with a poached egg with summer truffles. Bill had wild boar with kappa bell pepper risotto with sautéed mushrooms. The boar was "cut it with a fork” tender. There was a variety of mushrooms - all tasty and the bell pepper (paprika) risotto was truly yummy. To complete the meal we chose a Valrhona chocolate bar with raspberry/rhubarb sorbet and rhubarb chips (strips). Simply delightful. 

Wild boar with ever so tasty bell pepper risotto 
Dessert. Those "sticks" on the top are the rhubarb crisps.

The finishing touch, Dessert wines: Oremus Edes Sazrmorodni 2012 was excellent (light colored, intense and well-balanced.) The Homonna Edes Harmas 2013 was a little too sweet (Edes & Harmas apparently both mean sweet so maybe that’s a clue for future reference.)

Wednesday morning we went for a walk around the neighborhood visiting Szent István-bazilika (Saint Steven's Basilica), several parks, and the outside of the Budapest Parliament building followed by a walk along the Danube.
Inside St Stephen's Basilica
Parliament Building
Along our walk we came upon a beautiful memorial to gruesome events.  60 pairs of bronzed shoes along the river embankment.  In memory of victims shot into the Danube by the Arrow Cross Militiamen, 1944-45.  The Jewish victims were ordered to take off their shoes and were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away.

Lunch at Tigris Étterem (Tigris Restaurant), where the staff was very knowledgeable on the wines of Hungary. We had two whites wth the amuse bouche and salad and Pat followed with a white for her smoked trout risotto and Bill had a red with his "re-interpreted" Chicken Paprikás. (Pat deemed the chicken to be perfectly cooked and perhaps the only time she actually liked chicken breast.) Pat’s expresso came with cookies!!  Very tasty too.

After a short break we wandered over to the Great Synagogue. We didn’t have time to visit but got a couple shots of the outside. This is the largest Synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world.  (The largest is in NYC.) We learned more about this on our tour of the Jewish Quarter later in our visit.

Then we crossed the street to meet with our “Fungarian" instructor at a small cafe where we sipped a Gere Portuguese wine as we learned a little Hungarian. Egészségedre!  (To your health!)

For dinner we picked up a bottle of wine, some perfect little tomatoes, cheese and salami to have "at home".

Thursday morning we walked from Pest (pronounced "Pesht") over the Danube on the so-called "Chain Bridge". The bridge is guarded by lions and we'd understand if they called it "Lion Bridge" but we saw nothing that helped us understand why the name. We were enroute to Castle Hill which is on the Buda side of the Danube.  
Looking up at Castle Hill with Matthias Church  
Garden at Clark Adam Square with funicular to the left and tunnel under Castle Hill 
Opting not to wait in the long line for the funicular we climbed the stairs (around 230 steps), stopping for views along the way. One of the first things to catch your eye at the top of the hill is the Turul, a mythical bird that led the Magyars to their home in Hungary. We passed up visiting the Palace, which is now a museum and wandered the grounds. 
The Turul
Us in front of the white towered building known as the Fisherman's Bastion. 
One of the outstanding buildings on Castle Hill is Matthias Church. The current building is over 700 years old. The original church, built in 1017, was destroyed by the Mongols in 1242. A new church was quickly rebuilt. Under the Ottomans, it was converted to the biggest mosque in Hungary. The roof was burned and the organ destroyed in WWII but the rest of the building was spared. The Raven on the white tower is the insignia of King Matthias.
Matthias Chrurch
Following a light lunch of bread, cheese & prosciutto with wine, Kékfrancos and Sauska, we headed back down the hill and across the bridge to Pest...along the way we caught another shot of the ornate/beautiful Parliament Building.

After a short rest we ventured out into the world of Budapest shopping, Andrássy Street. From the Rodeo Drive boutiques in the first block to shops and business more typical of a downtown in the next you can find most anything along this street, including the elegant Opera House. (Regarding shopping, The GReat Market Hall and Vaci Street are better and I found some nice shops on Castle Hill.)

Later we visited a local wine bar, Di Vino. We started with olives and vegetable tempura with a Chardonnay and a Furmint followed by a blend with Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay and Semillon. The second course, Chorizo picante and shrimp along with potato wedges with truffle oil, was accompanied by red wines, a Gál Tibor Egri Bikavér (Bull's Blood), Takler Martina 2009 (Cabrnet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Kékfrancos), and a Kékfrancos Superior Nagy-Eged 2013.

Later we watched flower petal ice cream cones being created. While they are quite lovely, it takes almost longer to create them than to eat them...

Friday, we enjoyed the guided tour of Parliament where we learned a little history of Hungary and the various groups, countries and families that have dominated the government (including the original Hungarians, the Ottomans, and Communists). There are two nearly identical sides of the building designed to accommodate its original “bicameral” government structure. The key difference between the sides being the blue carpets of the more royal “Upper House” and red for the “Lower House”.  Today the government is unicameral and needs less than half of the building, making it convenient to offer guided tours of the other half. 

The building features lots of gold ( 40kg/88 lbs), lots of stained glass and many wonderfully detailed sculptures of Hungarians from all walks of life. And they paid extra for numerous faux / fake marble columns (made via a special Italian technique) that truly look like marble. You can only distinguish the difference in that the real marble sections are cooler to the touch. As part of the tour we saw (no photos allowed) the Holy Crown of Hungary aka, the Crown of Saint Stephen. The crown has been used since the twelfth century and features a bent over cross on the top, allegedly the result of damage to the crown that happened centuries ago. 

Golden Halls of Parliament

The Great Hall
Full size sculptures on a faux marble column
The "Lower House"

We took the metro along the Danube to the Nagy Vásárcsarnok (Central Market) and Vaci Utca, a shopping street. The size of the market and food selection were impressive. 

Vaci street had a mix of shops, restaurants and Thai massage parlors (Thai massage seems to be very popular in Budapest). 

Lunch was at Terminal where we split a Porcini Risotto and a Veal Liver with paprika wax beans and  a side of grilled vegetables with Pinot Noir, two styles followed by expresso. 

After lunch we took a tour of the Jewish quarter, one of the worlds largest Jewish communities. Our guide was from Brooklyn!!

During the Holocaust nearly half of Hungary’s 200,000 jews were killed. The Holocaust Memorial, in Wallenberg Park, is a stainless steel weeping willow tree with names of Hungarian Jews killed during the Holocaust inscribed on each leaf. Also part of the memorial are four red marble plates, commemorating 240 non-Jewish Hungarians who helped save Jews during the Holocaust. Among these were diplomats noted for rescuing thousands of Jews, Carl Lutz from Switzerland and Raoul Wallenberg from Sweden.

The Carl Lutz Memorial leans against a wall in a small park a block or so from the Great  Synagogue.

Further along is the Rumbach Street Synagogue which is under renovation but features a great display of photographs of Synagogues around the world sorted by architectural style from farmhouse to gothic cathedral-like. We particularly noted two we hope to visit in Prague. 

The finale of the tour was the Great Synagogue, aka the Dohány Street Synagogue, itself. Its Viennese architect, Ludwig Förster, believed that no distinctively Jewish architecture existed and thus chose designs used by ethnic groups related to the Israelite people, and in particular the Arabs. Hence the style of the Synagogue is Moorish but its design also features a mixture of Byzantine, Romantic and Gothic elements. Two onion domes sit on the twin octagonal towers at 43 metres (141 ft) height. Similarly to basilicas, the building has three spacious richly decorated aisles, two balconies, a rose stained-glass window and, unusually, an organ. Its ark contains various torah scrolls taken from other synagogues destroyed during the Holocaust.

Inside the Great Synagogue
A bottle of Hungaria brut sparkling wine accompanied our evening snack. A little Tokaji Szamorodni sweet wine served as dessert.

Saturday we went to the Ethnology Museum near Parliament. The museum's permanent exhibition, "The Traditional Culture of the Hungarian People", features about 3,000 items. Hungarian folk traditions from different eras, clothes, handicrafts, every day items, manuscripts, bridal dresses, folk music recordings and much more are on display. Besides the Hungarian finds the museum also features collections of European furniture, ceramics and textiles. Special exhibit on an explorer of the Congo and a surprising exhibit on Mexican Fiestas with great details on the background of days celebrated throughout the year.
The entry hall to the Ethnology Museum
A mask in the congo exhibit
Heroes of the Mexican Revolution in the Mexican Exhibit
"Angels and Skulls - Festive paper decorations from Mexico"
Southern Slavic dress

Pottery display reminiscent of displays we see in Mexico
After the museum we went to lunch at Réskakas Bistro. We enjoyed glasses of Hungaria demi-sec sparking wine  (excellent, better than the brut) with our celery and potato amuse bouche. Pat’s “authentic” Jókai bean dish with pork knuckles was basically two types of fresh shell beans and amazingly tender pork that went well with her Hungarian Syrah. Bill had “ Eszterházy game filet (venison) with sliced dumplings (seasoned with typical stuffing herbs) with a Hungarian Bordeaux blend. Bread pudding with a 5 “puttonoyos” dessert wine (puttonoyos is a sweetness rating, this was very sweet but very well balanced) and expresso filled in the time while waiting out the rain.

Our Bread Pudding
After lunch we met with our guide / instructor for a photo tour of the city. From around Parliament building to Margit-sziget (an island in the Danube), Chain Bridge, Kopaszi-gát (a small park in Buda), and Városliget (Budapest City Park). Lighting, composition and taking selfies were among the photography tips. Pat is still working on mastering selfies, but she finally got one that she didn’t throw away. Among our stops was a Geller Hill overlooking Buda & Pest. There we saw a sculpture garden featuring noted philosphers and nearby was a lovely sculptures of Buda & Pest "uniting".  From this perspective the massive size of the Buda Castle became very obvious.
At the Philosphers Garden with Ghandi, Bhudda, and compatriots...
Buda and Pest uniting - sculpture looking over the combined citiy
Buda Castle from Gellert Hill
Our next stop was at one of the "Ruins Bars".  This is a concept that has become quite popular recently. Some of the rundown buildings have been "refurbished" with mismatched collections of castaway furnishings. We stopped at Szimpla Kertmozi with decorations including a mermaid and a garden gnome.

From there we took the metro our to City Park and took photos of some of the local landmarks.
Heroes' Sauare - This sculpture is a primary symbol of Budapest
Palace of Art
Vajdahunyad Castle
Monument of the 1956 Revolution against pro-Soviet elements of the Communist Party
For our evening snack, we popped back to Di Vinos to buy a bottle of wine.  While waiting for the wine, Pat was impressed to see how many wine glasses one person can carry in one hand. The photo was taken after several glasses had been put away...we think he is holding at least 12 glasses in the photo.

Last day in Budapest!! We took a train along the Danube to the small town of Szentendre. We wandered through the streets and along the Danube admiring the churches, shops and a local market.

Pat stopped to observe the roasting of Sekler Cakes, a traditional sweet from Transylvania...pasty wrapped around large iron bars and cooked over open coals. They are then served stuffed with ice cream. Sadly enough, it seems to be broken into pieces before being served...we envisioned it being sliced.

Sekler Cakes being grilled
We also liked the portable cafe...

Lunch was at Aranysarkany Vendeglo (the Golden Dragon). Lamb knuckle with vegetables and polenta for Bill and Pijeskavica  (ground Serbian spiced meat - beef, pork and lamb) in Pita Bread with  fries for Pat with a 1/2 liter of Sauska (red wine). There is a great Open Air museum nearby but we had a late start and had too little time to visit the museum.   
We had a little language lesson while deciding what to order for lunch

We wrapped up our visit to Budapest with another visit to Di Vinos. We still had “forint” (Hungarian currency)  and couldn’t think of anything better to spend it on than more wine. And while we were there, Pat finally got an acceptable selfie.