Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Bull's Blood of Eger

For our last day in Hungary I had arranged a private trip out to the Eger wine region for Dayne, Brian, Anne and I thru Taste Hungary. Carolyn Bánfalvi, who is one of the founders, could not have been more helpful and arranged a very nice day trip for us, an especially tricky task as many of the wineries were still closed for the holidays and she herself was going to be out of town.

Our guide Dora arrived with a mini-van early in the morning. As we drove, she explained the area and the wines that we would be tasting. Eger is know for it's Bikaver or Bull's Blood wine which is a blend of Merlot, Cab Franc, Kekfrankos (Blaufrankisch), and Cabernet Sauvignon. Over the years the wine has gotten a bit of a bad rap from communist efforts to dumb down quality resulting in a cheap wine. Now the winemakers of Eger (only the wine from this area can be called Bull's Blood) are focused on making quality wines and reshaping their history and reputation.

I'd like to tell you all about how pretty the drive through the Hungarian countryside was, but the fog was so thick we couldn't even tell if there were hills, trees, or towns outside. After a 2-hour drive east we reached our first stop in the town of Egerszalok, St Andrea, which is regarded as one of the best wineries in the region. This winery is just 10 years old and the wine maker here is one of only two in Hungary with a PhD in winemaking. We had a private tour through the cellars and then sat down for a tasting of their 8 current releases, starting with a very nice rose. The winery was open only to us and it was very informative, delicious and fun!

After purchasing a few bottles we loaded back in the mini-van and headed to Eger for lunch at Imola Wine Restaurant, which is the best restaurant in the town and constantly rated in the country's top lists. If you are in the area and don't have time for a lot of proper wine tastings, this is a great spot as their wine list is very impressive. They do modern adaptations of traditional Hungarian food.
After lunch we had just a short amount of time to walk through the quaint town. Along the cobblestones you'll find a few cute shops selling epicurean items, some tasting rooms offering wine, a handful of cafes, a pretty central square and various monuments as Eger has a long history of battles, sieges and rulers.
Our next stop, just a short drive away, was Nimrod Kovacs, named for the owner who spent a fair amount of time living in the US and is a partner in Starry Night Winery in California. Again we started with a private tour of the cellars, explanations on their wine making process and the effect on aging that the strange moss that grows on the walls, has on their wines.  The area that the winery is located in is one of the oldest neighborhoods consisting entirely of cellars in the area. It's quite interesting and again points to the long history of wine making in the region.
They had planned to have us taste in the caves but there was a strange and unpleasant odor that they hadn't been able to find the cause of, so we crammed in the owners office. We tasted through 6 of their current releases and although all good, I wasn't as fond of these as I was the St Andrea. 
Back in the van, we were off to our last stop of the day, the Valley of the Beautiful Women, just on the outskirts of Eger. This neighborhood is filled with dozens of wine cellars all lined up together, making it quite a tourist draw. Because of that there are a lot of "cheap and cheerful" wines being made but Taste Hungary had arranged for us to try the wines of Hagymasi Cellar at #19 which although still simple and inexpensive, was also well made and interesting. The real draw here is the area, all the wineries have these great caves built into the side of the hills, and it's a fun place to go with your friends for wine drinking. 
It was such a nice day of wine tasting, completely stress free thanks to the thoughtful itinerary provided for us along with our great guide Dora. We snoozed in the van on the dark drive home, still unsure of what the country side looks like!

Upon returning to Budapest and saying goodbye to Brian and Anne, Dayne and I had a light meal at the really excellent Borkonyha Winekitchen. Unfortunately neither of us were that hungry but the small dishes we had were excellent and I'd recommend making reservations for this gem.

The next morning we packed up and checked out of our lovely hotel. Next stop BratislavaThe next morning we packed up and checked out of our lovely hotel. Next stop Bratislava!

All pictures from our wine tasting day are here.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Christmas in Budapest

After our really nice day of sightseeing Brian, Anne, Dayne and I were excited for our Christmas Eve dinner. We had booked at the 1 star Michelin Onyx Restaurant as they were putting on a special multi-coursed meal complete with wine pairings, many of them Hungarian.

The restaurant was absolutely beautiful. I wish I could adequately describe the richness of the wallpaper, decor, table settings, purse stools and chairs. Especially the chairs! Anne and I were seated in these massive black thrones, we felt like queens. It was a fantastic evening, starting off with glasses of Billecart Salmon Champagne, then being catered to by men in white linen gloves through seven courses of gorgeous dishes.  Some, like the goose liver torte with coffee gelee paired with a demi sec Tokaj, really were amazing.
Another stand out was the venison filet with truffle jus (even though it also had beets!)
We all rolled out full, happy and feeling festive! I'd absolutely recommend the restaurant to anyone looking for a Michelin experience in Budapest.

Dayne and I slept in on Christmas day and had a long lunch at the delicious and historical Central Cafe. The huge coffee shop attracts tourists and locals alike. They have delicious goulash and a drool worthy pastry case. We experienced it all.
After a relaxing walk around town to burn off some of that torte we headed back to our hotel to get ready for our Christmas night out. We were attending a chamber concert and then having dinner on a river cruise. 

The concert took place in the Danube Palace which was very old, small and a bit tatty (not the palace you see above, it was in one of the buildings to the side). But the music was great, the musicians were really having a good time and we loved putting titles to the music we'd heard for so long. Vivladi, Brahms, Strauss and Erkel were just some of the composers represented. 
After the concert we headed to the river and boarded one of the cruise boats. This is much more of a typical tourist thing than we normally do, but being Christmas and not having many choices we were looking forward to seeing all the magnificent buildings along the waterfront lit up. They were serving dinner also, which we weren't expecting much from, but it ended up being better than average. The views from the outside deck of the boat were just as incredible as we had hoped. It was a very twinkly, tasty and musical Christmas!

To wrap up our Christmas, the next day we had another wonderful lunch, this time at the Gerloczy Cafe. The cafe sits in a charming little square and is known for their delicious fresh baked bread, all warm right from the oven. Paired with the wild boar soup and a cucumber, sour cream salad, it was just enough to tie us over so we could spend the day soaking at the famed Szechenyi Bath House.

We arrived by metro, the tiny subway cars and stations seem hardly big enough for the population of the city. It was mid day and still light out as we entered the main door. We had read all the ins and outs about bath culture in Hungry and rented a shared changing room/locker in the coed area. It was almost impossible for us both to change out of our bulky jeans and sweaters and into swimsuits in the tiny compartment. Giggling we quickly went out and stepped into the first warm pool we saw. It was probably 34F outside! This pool was warm, not hot, and in the very center of it the water was an "adventure pool" moving in a fast circle, taking shrieking bathers with it as it flowed round and round. It was so fun! It's hard to describe but we took a "ride" in this over and over again.

Szechenyl has a total of 15 pools, some small, super hot baths, others large lap pools. Only 3 are outside and that is where we chose to stay. As the day turned to dusk and a slight drizzle fell, the glow from the pool lights and the steam rising all around seemed magical. We moved to a much hotter pool and just bobbed around soaking for hours.
Do not miss a trip to the baths while in Budapest! Take your own towel from your hotel, some flip flops and your suit. It's a relaxing and super enjoyable way to see how the locals live :)

We wrapped up our day with really amazing drinks at the Boutiq Bar, chatting with the bartender Akos who just happened to have spent some time living in north Seattle. Fantastic cocktails and a really interesting space (Anne & Brian have you finally gone?). And then dinner at the Callas Cafe which was good if you are in the area, but maybe a tad expensive.

We turned in a bit early as we had a full day coming up exploring the wine countryWe turned in a bit early as we had a full day coming up exploring the wine country!

All photos here!

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