Window on Hungary

Cafes, cathedrals, 'chimney' cakes and chocolate ~

~ some of the clues to the heart of Hungary

OK, this sign is an advert for local tourism, but we also felt it was a good sign about the country we were visiting. Friendly, upfront, bold - and written in English.

With not a word of Hungarian (one of Europe's rarest languages) between us, we felt quite relieved. Perhaps we might be able to make ourselves understood in the few days we would be in this country.

Heading for the lovely Danube city of Budapest, Hungary's capital (above) on our first morning, we drove south from Vienna in a rental car picked up from the airport.

There was so much to take in - staying on the right-hand side of the road being the most important. There had also been the usual gratuitous windscreen-wiping instead of flicking-on of indicators, and missed turns (despite an also new GPS) - that sort of thing. We were just a little stressed.

A good thing about travelling in new countries, is learning the language of a different cuisine. By lunchtime we had passed over the border at Sopron, into Hungary, and finally realised that - we were hungry! Fortunately a well-placed roadside diner, Arcus, a few hundred metres down the road had the answer for us. The laminated menu called our choice (above) penne with porcini, and it was generous and tasty, with more than enough carbs to get us to our destination that night.

Lake Balaton is Europe's largest freshwater lake and in holiday season the area is jumping with tourists, both locals and visitors to Hungary, a country with no coastline or beaches.

Travelling in late April, we saw signs of frenzied preparation for the coming high-season crowds. In Siofok where we had spent the night at Hotel Kentaur in a delightful garden-view room, this peaceful backwater, nearby on the eastern shore, was a tranquil beginning to our day.

Following advice, we took a car ferry across the lake to the postcard-worthy peninsula town of Tihany. Sweet Hungarian paprika is one of the major spices used in the local cuisine and it turns up in goulash (which, interestingly, is not a stew as many non-Hungarians think, but more soup-like) as well as many other meaty gravy-like dishes that are often served with noodles or dumplings.

It was obvious that coach-loads of tourists visit Tihany in summer and take home packets of treasured paprika as a spicy souvenir.

An easy way to get around the town is by bicycle. And while this lovely lavender one serves only as a reminder, it is easy to hire one.

From a high view over the port, Lake Balaton looks immense, but it's quite shallow with an average depth of around three metres. We were only passing through on this trip, but next time we would stay for several days and travel the 200 kilometres right around it, exploring it.

Langos (the name means 'flame') is a favourite local 'snack', and we were delighted to discover it in a back street of Tihany. Hearty and simple, it is fried bread dough topped quite often with sour cream and cheese.

We were certainly hungry after a morning in the town, so ordered one each, but we would have needed to be lumberjacks to have finished these ones! They were made on the spot and ready in ten minutes, but just look at them - the size of a dinner plate - and that amount of cheese....and they were only 1500Ft (forints) or A$7.50.  BTW the small amount we ate was wonderful - and we remained feeling vastly well-fed until dinner.

 

WATCH THIS VIDEO - and see for yourself!

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Beautiful Budapest

(need to know: it’s pronounced Boo-dah pesht)

Perhaps the best way to see a real-life 'map' of Budapest is to begin at the highest point, Citadella, a fortress never-used as a defence.

Here, the mighty not-always-blue river Danube sashays elegantly through the city. You can see the hilly old city of Buda on the left (above), and the more level Pest (pronounced pesht) on the right-hand side.

Every European city is complex and multi-layered. The centuries of each country's history, the many ethnic groups which have conquered and ruled and passed on have left their thumb-prints on so many aspects: architecture, art, cuisine, culture - and more. Even today's tourists shape the way they view a place.

Budapest was established in Roman times, and much later was part of the Hapsburg Empire. With only a few hours in Budapest, recognised as 'one of Europe's most beautiful cities', we decided to fast-track and see as much as possible in the time we had. We took a bus.

It is also possible to organise a private tuk-tuk tour around Budapest.

Central Budapest is noted for its elegant buildings like St Stephen's Cathedral (above) also known as the Basilica.

In 1987 Budapest was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List for the cultural and architectural significance of the Banks of the Danube, the Buda Castle Quarter and Andrássy Avenue.

 

This grand cathedral with a mosaic-tiled square makes an ideal backdrop for selfies....

...and happy snaps.

However, we could see that there were even happier-snaps to take as a bridal party ascended the front stairs.

It would be impossible to have a private wedding in one of Budapest's premier tourist spots, and the bride and her father seemed quite relaxed about the onlookers - us included.

The cathedral's ornate Neoclassical interior can hold 8500 people at any time.

And there goes the bride, approaching her groom at the high altar.

Back to sight-seeing we discovered that there are several companies that offer Hop-on Hop-off tours of the city.

Each tour follows basically the same route and here we saw beautifully-tiled Matthias Church. To the right is the four-star Hotel Hungaria City Center.

The river is fully navigable and river ships dock here all through the warmer months. It is also possible to take a day cruise to Danube Bend to the north and other nearby beauty spots.

And then there is always time for a joke, as this man saw it, and maybe also the one behind him. They no doubt sensed a certain camaraderie with the bronze Fat Policeman. Rubbing his stomach is said to bring good luck.

Key to Budapest's history is this 375 metre-long bridge. Designed by an English engineer, and opened in 1849, the Chain Bridge was the first to permanently link the two sides of the city.

Today the structure has another more modern use as lovers attach padlocks to show their endless love.

Just beyond the end of the Chain Bridge on the Buda side is the Funicular, taking visitors to the Castle District.

High above, overlooking the Chain Bridge is Buda Castle, which also houses the History Museum and the National Gallery.

There are many parks in the city, places to relax and admire the reminders of great local heroes....

.. or, these days, a place to underline your undying affection. Judging by this fence, soon the city will need to build a few more to satisfy the love-lorn locals.

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Tasting Budapest

While beautiful architecture and a mighty river might feed the soul or the intellect, no amount of baroque buildings will help a hungry stomach.

Fortunately, Hungarian food is tasty - and filling, as we had discovered a couple of days earlier.

Hungary is surrounded by seven countries. This, combined with over 20 million tourists annually, means that this country hosts a world of different tastes, and it is possible to find almost any cuisine in Budapest.

An absolute must to try is the local specialty - kurtosh, or chimney cakes because of their shape. These are something no visitor should miss, and you will find them easily. Just inhale and follow your nose to where they are cooking.

They taste like a crisp doughnut and one is large enough to share if you wish. That said, once you begin, it IS hard to relinquish any of it. Maybe you should buy one each, and be done with it!

Pancakes, with savoury or sweet fillings, are also popular, as well as salads and sharing plates as this cafe sign shows.

Hungarian cakes have a long and very sweet history. Here in a small shop near the cathedral....

...artisan cake-makers and decorators at the simply-named Cake Shop provide not-at-all-simple creations.

Pork features strongly in Hungarian dishes, and is never better than when paired with some good local beer.

For trendy cafes and bars look for them, tucked away in the more artistic student areas...

...and there is always plenty to suit most palates: fish and chips, burgers, and steaks, at places such as this downtown diner.

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Arriving in Budapest on the May Day weekend, it was a happy surprise for us to discover that parking in the city is free on public holidays.

Our parking spot was close to the Great Synagogue the largest synagogue in Europe, capable of seating 3000 people. On this occasion it was undergolng extensive refurbishment, and we were unable to enter.

Regular Jewish Heritage group and private walking tours (including tours of the synagogue) are available, every day except Saturday. 

The distinctive architecture is Moorish Revival, influenced by Islamic buildings in North Africa and Spain.

Later in the day, returning to our car we made this poignant discovery at the rear of the Synagogue. These gravestones recognise only a few of the many Hungarian Jews who lost their lives in World War II, but we found it very moving.

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This is an appropriate place to mention a book written by a good friend of mine, Liz Posmyk. Her parents and three older siblings fled the 1956 uprising in Hungary to make a new life in Australia, where Liz was later born.

An amazing cook and talented writer, she has used these skills ito author the memoir of her family's Hungarian heritage. 

Their story is not uncommon as many fled the unrest in Budapest at that time, but too few have recorded their stories. Here it is told it beautifully, as Liz Posmyk also seasons the text with authentic recipes and family photographs.

Read the review HERE...

What the T-shirt says.....our opinion too.

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Sizzling Szentendre

Most travellers know how much serendipity features in their enjoyment of a trip.

Before leaving home, and booking a room in Budapest (well, trying to book a room in Budapest!) for the weekend we would be there, almost everything - except the places outside our budget - was booked solid. Soon I started looking further afield and discovered Szentendre (pronounced Szin-TOND-re) a twee village I had never heard of.

I liked that it was only thirty minutes or so from Budapest by road, that it is an arty, crafty town - and that it is on the Danube river.

When booking this trip to Europe we were only vaguely aware that May 1st (May Day) would fall during our visit to Hungary.

The free parking was a bonus, and we certainly liked that, but we hadn't expected this - a food fair celebration - right on the waterfront in quirky little Szentendre.

The waterside road had been turned into a pedestrian walkway for the event, and it seemed every local (and quite a few tourists like ourselves) had descended on the stalls for homemade cakes and pastries, breads and beer, and some of the local harder drinks too! There was buzzing excitement from the children, some great aromas, and a general atmosphere of fun, backed by heavily amplified music. 

Next morning we walked from our hotel along a deserted pathway towards the tents and stalls in the distance. Szentendre is one of the Danube Bend towns and there are boat trips upriver to explore the second-largest stretch of the Danube, and we made a note to do that - next visit.

This time we left the stalls and clambered steep laneways to the town itself to discover another gem. Here the food offerings were less home-style, more tourist-fare, but that was to be expected. If in doubt, serve Mediterranean, seems to be the default position for most restaurants in tourist areas throughout Europe. Simple, tasty and it works.

One gift shop caught my eye. I have a growing 'family' (or should I call it a 'brigade') of chef figurines collected all over the world. I almost bought the artisan-made cake cook, here, but brought home her brother instead.

Szentendre has long been an artist's town, and we saw many impromptu 'street galleries' like this.

The town was also prettily decorated to celebrate the advent of spring, and we followed a trail of these pastel lampshades through the narrow cobbled streets.

Finally we could ignore the sugary, cinnamon-scented, fresh bread aromas that were overwhelming the main square. I knew immediately what it was and nothing could keep me away any longer.

Called kurtosh (translated 'chimney cakes') in Hungary, we were to find these doughnut-like breads right through central Europe, usually with a local name and always just as addictive.

The makers of these called them 'seklen cakes' and promoted them as Romanian - so there you go!

Szentendre, population around 25,000 has enough cafes and restaurants for everyone. This laneway spot was beautiful whichever way you looked...

...and this one is well worth the steepish approach.

While most of the town's eateries are very easy to find, this was one we had to search for. I wanted to see it as I'd read about it years ago, and it was described as 'very unusual'.

Rab Raby Restaurant is an eclectic mix of whimsical acquisitions. It is like a display from an ethnic exhibition, including an unexpected welcome from a knight’s medieval coat of armour. The curiosities hanging on the wall cover a wide range of themes and times - musical instruments, sculptures, gadgets. 

In case you think this place is just another tourist gimmick, you need to know that the food alone is worth stopping for. The tables in this room are named after famous people who had dinner or lunch in Rab Ráby Restaurant and Some of the tables have a mirror with a small drawer underneath, in which there are messages from guests left for future visitors.

Read more...

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Szeged in the sunny south

Travelling south from Szentendre on motorways that looped around Budapest, we quickly found ourselves on the Hungarian Southern Great Plain, flat agricultural country that merged into the horizon many kilometres away. As we kept well under the 130kph speed limit, we had time to watch the colours shift endlessly from brown, freshly cultivated soil to green crops and highlighter-yellow canola fields in bloom.

Our next adventure was Serbia, a couple of hours' drive away, and finally, almost at the border, we stopped for a late lunch in the university city of Szeged

Despite the sunshine it was a chilly spring day and apparently we were too late for the lunches all those hungry students would have consumed hours earlier. The only thing left was this - but did I complain?

Szeged's gastronomy of course extends to more than cake and coffee, good as they are. Find out more here....

The Lobby Cafe is in a pedestrian street close to the University. This bronzed fellow seemed ready to serenade us, but we wanted to take a quick look at the town centre before heading off.

Tourists meet students. Here anyone can relax in Dugonics Fountain Square, surrounded by university buildings.

Welcoming students to the university is Nobel Prize winner, Albert Szent-György, winner of the ‘paprika prize’ for his research on fresh local paprika - known as capsicum or bell pepper in other countries. He discovered that this vegetable was rich in vitamin C, and was one of the founders of the university's faculty of science. 

Much of the town's architecture is eclectic, like this dainty Art Nouveau tower...

..while other buildings are more traditional.

We found this flying proudly near the fountain. Szeged's Coat of Arms was originally awarded by King Charles (Károly) III in 1719, when the city became a Free Royal City. The symbols tell the story of its long history.

Read more about it....   

So perhaps this city was the ideal place from which to farewell a country with such a rich and vibrant back-story - one that is set to have an even brighter, more exciting future.

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More information about travelling in Hungary....

 


Sally and Gordon Hammond travelled independently in Hungary.

Words and images: ©Sally Hammond

Video: ©Gordon Hammond

 
 

Comments  

 
0 #1 Good ThingsLiz Posmyk 2019-01-17 08:22
Oh Sally, what a delicious, considered and informative article about Hungary! Now I'm longing to visit again. Thank you for the very kind mention about my book. xxx
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