Saturday, June 27, 2009

Eger

I decided to take my search for a plateful of meat to the Hungarian countryside. And what better place to go than to the heart of the wine producing region where they make a vintage affectionately known as “Bull’s Blood.” How on earth could anyone pass an opportunity like that up?

So off I went on the train. It was a short ride made all the more interesting because of the transition from “warm” Budapest to the frosty countryside. One minute you could see the colour of the grass and trees, the next it was a sea of white. Wherever Eger was, it was going to be cold.

Two things stand out about Eger: the wine and the awesome outdoor bath complex. I got my fill of both.

First up, the wine. It goes great with red meat (big surprise, eh?). If only I had more time, I would’ve spent a fair amount of time “taste testing” at the winery.

The real story from the trip was the baths. I met some Australians and a Brit just after getting of the train. Our conversation moved quickly to the idea of drinking a lot of wine and going to the bath. The next day, we were sitting in a 40 degree outdoor pool in an air temperature of –9 drinking champagne. It was the perfect way to spend New Year’s Eve day.

What made it that much better was the locals. They were popping champagne bottles every couple of minutes and truly having a good time. I can imagine that this kind of stuff happens all over Hungary on New Year’s Eve. All the more reason to go back…

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Budapest

Like meat? Go to Hungary. Want a taste of the Warsaw Pact with a little “glory days of the Austro-Hungarian empire” mixed in? Look no further than Budapest.

Hungary is an anomaly in Central Europe. Its people do not share ethnic roots with its neighbours, the food is entirely different (to the point that it’s actually flavourful), and the language is about as indecipherable as Mongolian.

As far as Budapest is concerned, you get the feeling that it once had a charm that I can compare only with modern-day Tbilisi; something I can only describe as a “unique cultural enclave.” Alas, a lot of that history has been swallowed up by EU health standards and development money. Gone are the days of the exotic markets and palancinka (thin pancakes) street vendors. In are exorbitantly expensive tourist restaurants and more souvenir shops that one cares to imagine. What I wouldn’t give to go back to Budapest circa 1925. You could probably smell the paprikash upon arrival.

I’ve heard people call Budapest a “grander version of Prague.” You only need to see the parliament, Andrazi Avenue, and the two magnificent train stations to realize this. But the city has something that Prague most certainly lacks: the most ornate and glorious bath house ever conceived. Once inside, you feel as though you are bathing the way the Austro-Hungarians kings intended.

What disappointed me most about Budapest was the lack of old-school goulash joints (the places where you could get a plateful of heavily paprika’d meat). This is what I had been dreaming of. I imagined entering from a side street through a non-descript door and being greeted by the sweet smell of roasted paprika. I would then sit down and be brought a plateful of meat and a jug of red wine without even asking for it. But I digress….

One final thing must not go unmentioned: the Museum of Terror. Like the Warsaw Uprising Museum, it is a chilling, yet fantastic look at life under Soviet oppression. The museum itself is located in the former KGB headquarters, so the underground cells can be seen up close. Perhaps the most provocative exhibit is the one that tries to re-create the smells of a prison cell.

Paprikash, anyone?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Vienna

Two things about Vienna will stick with me for the rest of my life: bacon for breakfast the day we arrived and the selection of desserts at the plethora of charming coffee houses throughout the city. If you’re surprised that I only remember food, don’t be. It’s really the only reason I travel anymore.

Vienna was recently rated as the world’s second best city to live in and I can see why. The history, the architecture, the culture, the sweets, the transportation system, the multiculturalism. It’s all there in its magnificent glory. Some might call this too orderly and boring. And while that might be true, you shouldn’t really be going to Vienna for an exotic experience, should you?

What you should be going to Vienna for besides the culture vulture stuff I’ve never fully appreciated (museums, ballets, operas, etc.) is the appreciation that the Viennese have for the things they are good at. Chocolate. Austrians don’t mess around with that stuff. Classical music. When was the last time you heard a bad Austrian composer? Exactly. Coffee houses. Nothing short of legendary.

Let’s not mince words. When you’re walking around a Central European city at the end of December, your main goal is to stay warm. And what better way to do that than spending a majority of your time drinking espresso and eating cake in beautiful, high-ceilinged cafes. Austrians just do the whole cafe culture thing right. We mortals around the rest of the world don’t. That’s one thing I learned very quickly.

One point a want to stress is that when I say “cake,” I don’t mean the crap you find at the supermarket. Oh no. I’m talking cakes, torts, and strudels made with history and tradition in mind. The grand daddy of this wonderful world of desserts is the Sacher Tort. Tourists actually line up for a slice of the stuff at the Hotel Sacher, where it was first made. I couldn’t bring myself to do that.

Vienna is one of those places I would go back to with a lot of money. And of course to pay homage to all those desserts I wasn’t able to try.

Christmas and New Years 2008

I think it’s about time a regale you on my end of the year “get out of the country I’m in as fast as possible” adventure to Riga, Vienna, Budapest, Eger, Zagreb, and Ljubljana.

Enjoy.