Budapest

After our wine extravaganza, it was time to move on to some bigger sites so we headed to Budapest. We decided to save ourselves some stress and trouble and bought the vignette for the motorways. The 10 day version costs 2,975 HUF for cars (good job Trevor is small enough). We stayed at Arena camping on the eastern side of the city. The site is very nice with great and very clean facilities. No surprise it was very busy. The only downside was its location next to train tracks and under the flightpath of the airport. Upon arrival, we received a full introduction to the city including a map and tourist booklet. Transport in and out of the center was split into 5 minutes on the bus and about 20 min on the metro depending on the station. We purchased the 72 hour ticket which gave us unlimited use of the whole public transport including boats. It costs 4150 HUF and was totally worth it.

Best ceiling deco ever in a shopping center

The Hungarian capital is a huge place and the biggest city on our summer road trip. It is separated by the Danube into Buda on the western and Pest on the eastern shore. Buda is dominated by the castle hill with the vast palace and adjacent buildings. Towards the other end of the hill are the famous fisherman’s bastion and St. Matthias church. The second hill in Buda is crowned with a citadel (now museum) and the statue of liberty.

The Hungarian statue of liberty

Pest on the other hand has everything you expect to find in a city:shops, restaurants, entertainment and nightlife plus the parliament. This separation means both parts have very distinctive characters.

Since we arrived on the campsite in the early afternoon we went into the city on a reconnaissance mission to get an idea of the place and plan the following days. After wandering the high street we needed a break and found the cosy little Cafe called Molnar’s. Their speciality is super yummy kürtöskalács (tree cakes), a Hungarian delicacy. We tried them hot, filled with ice cream and they were absolutely delicious. This place is also about half the price compared to high street stalls. In the café we met a Polish and a German girl and had such a great time that they almost missed their river cruise. We also opted to jump on a boat to see the place from a different angle and highly recommend this to any tourist. Cruising in the evening meant great photography light on the Pest side namely the parliament which is modelled on the houses of parliament in London. On our way back to Trevor we decided to go shopping but got carried away and didn’t arrive there until 9.30pm. At this time our planned curry turned into pasta and sauce which left us rather sad after looking forward to curry all day.

On our first full day in the Hungarian capital, we went straight to Buda and up the castle hill. All the houses are grand but a lot of them now house hotels or restaurants. One notable building is the Hungarian national archive at the end furthest away from the palace. We didn’t catch a tour but even the outside was impressive. Wandering towards the palace we reached the fisherman’s bastion and the St Matthias church. The bastion is one of the highest lookout points in the city and provides visitors with amazing views over Pest; especially the parliament.


View from Fisherman’s bastion

St Matthias and his church

There are cafes and you can pay 800 HUF to go up to the top level of the bastion. In our opinion that is not worth it as that is only about 5m higher. It was built in the 18th century to provide exquisite views over city and river and not, as the name suggests, as fortification. It is however totally worth paying the 1500 HUF to see the inside of the church. It is impressively carved on the outside with the bightly coloured and patterned roof. Inside the church is painted top to bottom and also very impressive. After admiring all the painting we wandered through the little museum and learned more about the church and empress  ‘Sissi’ Elisabeth and her love for Hungary.

Next point on on the list of must-sees was the palace complex. It consists of a number of grand and huge buildings some of which seem to be still in administrative use. We walked around the different parts and enjoyed the great views from the terraces. Sadly there is no palace as such to visit. There is an art gallery and a four story palace museumm but partly due to the heat neither of us was in the mood to visit them. As there was not much else to do we crossed the river again for some ice cream. Zoë had discovered a highly recommended Italian ice cream parlour so we decided to try and find it. We can say the search was totally worth it. Pomo d’Oro is one of the best ice cream parlors we’ve been to in a long while!

The huge palace of Budapest


The last sightseeing point on the list of the day was the parliament. At the north end of this beautiful gothic building is the tourist center and a museum. We didn’t know that spaces are limited per day and as we arrived quite late, we didn’t get in. It was only possible to see one of the two chambers and a few selected rooms. After getting an idea of the inside from postcards in the shop, we decided not to bother and went into the museum for free. We got a free audio guide so we could wander around freely and still get all the information. The museum is small but very well set up, taking the visitor through about 600 years of Hungarian history. There were a lot of detailed information to listen to but sadly we made it less than half way through when a guard informed us that they closed in 8 minutes. After this we rushed through, only listening to the overview commentary for each section which is a shame since the Hungarian history is a lot more interesting than we thought.

After a super yummy traditional Hungarian dinner at Belvárosi Lucas Etterem behind St. Istvan basilica we met up with our new firends from the café the day before and another friend of theirs and threw ourselves into the local nightlife. Their new friend had been living in the city for a few years and took us to a couple of bars in the jewish quarter.

The next day we went to see Europes largest (second largest in the world) synagoge and its museum. We had done some research and it seemed to be well worth a visit. This feeling quickly changed once we arrived. The entrance fee is an extortionate 4000 HUF per person! Once we passed the airport like security check, Matthias was handed a paper kippa and hairpin to cover his head. The synagogue was nicely decorated and had some very unusual features like an organ and two pulpits as well as three naves. Seems like the architect got a few things wrong here… The entrance included a free tour. Quite cleverly, flags of different countries had been spread around the pews to show were each tour starts. Our guide gave us a well informed and interesting tour and explained differences between the mostly neolithic (or more assimilated) jewish communities in Budapest and Hungary. We found it a bit hipocritical to say that they worked on a sabbath if they had or wanted to, but invited a non-jewish person to play the organ during their service as jews are only allowed to play a trompet made from sheeps horn. Oddly, they also don’t see the organ as part of their synagoge since it is placed behind the cabinet with the torah scrolls. Supposedly only 5-10% of the community are conservative jews; the others are more liberal and are even happy to eat non-kosher meat every now and then. It also seemed strange that they used a small synagoge located in the garded due to they high heating costs of the bigger one. Surely they earn enough money from the rip off entrance fees to be able to afford some heating; especially as they seem to be getting a fair amount of donations, judging from various plaques on the walls. The museum was very disappointing. Located on the third floor of the adjacent building, there was an info desk but only 10 of the estimated 200 items on display had any information attached. There were no descriptions attached to the rest and no hint to were to get them from.


Inside the synagoge

 Sadly this experience ruined this otherwise awesome city for us as we were very wary paying entrance for something which might not be worth it. Without it, we also might have stayed an extra day to explore some gardens and parks. We still went to the St. Stephens (Stz. Istvan) basilica and were glad we did it. Entry is free but donations are suggested (viewing tower and treasury cost money). The basilica is grand and impressive yet not overloaded with gold and paintings. Hungary’s second biggest basilica impresses more with the huge open space inside than its decorations and should be on every tourist’s top 10 list.


Grand interieur of the St. Istvan basilica

Ted found his basilica too

One last note: You might have expected us going into at least one of the famous thermal baths (notably the art-nouveau Gelert baths). We might have done that in bad weather (which we didn’t get) but we also discovered that the big baths are expensive. A full day with locker starts from 4900 HUF per person per day which gives you only access to pools. They also seemed to be nice but a lot less exciting than the cave baths in Miskolc.

The day after we left Budapest with mixed feelings. It is a definite must-see and awesome city but not everything is worth going to just because somebody recommends it. 


Zoë presenting our ice cream flowers

Bathing and Bull’s blood

So much sweet white wine left us feeling a little worse for wear and in need of some fresh air and pampering. After meeting a lovely British couple on a campsite in the middle of nowhere in the centre of the Bükk national park we decided the baths we had missed in Miskolc were worth a look. But first, our experience of a Hungarian national park was a little disappointing. The palace of Lilafüred on the edge of the national park with its lake, waterfall and terraced garden were quite nice and there was a map of the walking paths. We drove to our campsite with plans to go for an afternoon walk to a nearby cave. We set off on our walk, hoping to walk through some of the beautiful forest we had driven through. Sadly, although the paths were marked, the signs were confusing and we spent the best part of an hour walking along a main road or within 15m of it. When we did manage to get off the road and follow some signs, the path quickly deteriorated into piles of sticks and fallen trees. The highlight of our walk was spotting a Ural owl in a clearing and seeing it fly across to a different perch. After that gem we turned back towards our campsite along the road.

Our best bird yet

The campsite was by Hungarian standards average with very old facilities and not much flat land to park on. Alright for one night but we didn’t really want to stay any longer. In any case we had a spa day to look forward to. Miskolc has special thermal baths carved into a cave system. To reach the baths, we followed the satnav religiously including round half of the housing estates in Miskolc and down a questionable gravel road/river, so when we finally found a car park and signs we were quite relieved. A four hour ticket costs just 2500 HUF per adult and gives you access to all the pools and outdoor areas although saunas and flotation pools cost extra. The baths ranged from 28-34 degrees Celsius and included massage fountains, a jacuzzi and a lazy river. The pool system is a bit of a maze but thankfully there’s plenty of signs in the cave corridors. We really enjoyed the lazy river, which was pretty fast and powerful but there were also lots of pools to relax in. The limestone is growing over the tiles and walkways in many places so looks really natural. We were so glad we made a detour to see them and relax a little.

The entrance to the cave maze

Refreshed, we set off to Eger the home of the famous red wine Egri Bikaver (Bulls blood); we obviously haven’t had enough wine yet. Rather naively, we took the scenic route and spent the next hour on winding roads skirting the national park. Our campsite in Eger was beautiful and full of fellow wine tasters, not forgetting the campsite cat who we named George. With one full day to enjoy both town and wineries, we got up early. First we wandered through the old town and visited the Basilica. Eger has lovely narrow streets of shops and cafes with a large open square in the centre. Later we walked up to the castle which is a great museum complete with English signs and an exhibition on the history of the castle. The castle was used as a Bishops seat for the Hungarian empire and each bishop improved the defences and increased the size of the castle chapel until it became a monumental cathedral. Unfortunately only ruins remain of the castle and cathedral, but most of the castle has be reconstructed. Eger is also famous in Hungary due to the novelist Gezer Gardonyi  who wrote about the love stories and struggles of Eger castle, a novel that was made into a film in the 1960’s. The film included 10,000 extras and the actresses and actors were selected by a vote of the Hungarian people. After his death, he was buried in the castle grounds and an exhibition about his life and novel was created.

Inside Eger castle

A view of Eger from the castle

Our last stop in Eger was the valley of the beautiful women. This valley contains 48 wine cellars and a few restaurants. The wines produced here are not quite as fascinating as Tokaj and its Aszu berries but they are still pretty tasty. We sampled Bulls blood, rosé, Menoir, and Merlot to name a few, but it seems they grow almost any grape here. The Bulls blood is a blended wine consisting of at least 50% Keckfrancos grapes and up to five others. It comes in regular and superior versions with the latter being aged in barrels for at least two years before being aged on bottles for another two. The name comes from a legend about the Turkish invaders not knowing what the local people were drinking. They saw the red colour and how bold and courageous it made people and thought it must be Bulls blood. Ever since then it has been known by this name. We enjoyed tasting wine and had a yummy dinner but discovered that wine is not kept in the cellars nowadays, they are purely a tourist attraction.  

A small part of the valley of beautiful women

Wine, goulash and paprika

There are three things Hungary is famous for: wine, goulash and paprika. Since we like at least two of them we had to go there. Because we entered the country in the northeast from Skovakia, our first stop was the famous white wine region Tokaj. Our choice for a place to stay fell onto the namesake village of Tokaj (pronounced Tok – eye).

There are two campsites in this village: Tiszapart camping is part of the outdoor baths at the river Tiaza and Hegyalia camping is on the other side of the main road. We stayed on the second site since it had proper showers, toilets and nice shady spots for campers. It cost 3000 Forint (roughly 310 Forint are 1€; 346HUF are 1£) for the three of us and Trevor. The other very handy aspect is that we only had to walk across the bridge to get into the middle of the village (very handy for winetasting!). On the downside some ice hockey team had gathered there for partying three evenings in a row. We did consider wild camping but since the weather was hot and showery and shady camping spots were on offer highly we decided to stay. Strategic parking and keeping the toilet block between the party and us ensured bearable noise levels.

After setting up camp we walked into the old part of the center with the majority of shops, restaurants and wine bars. We were lucky to get a map and some info from the nice lady in the tourist office even though it was already officially closed. For our first Hungarian meal we went to the restaurant Bacchus at the main square opposite the church. The food was good and very reasonably priced. We also had a first taste of the local wines.

The Himmesidvar wine celler

We had one day set aside for wine sampling so the next day we got right into it. One of the vineyards recommended to us was Himesudvar. It is a small family business located in an old converted royal hunting lodge up a small side street. The tasting offer consists of six wines (30ml each) covering the whole range from dry to sweet for 1500 Forint per person. The woman running it was very nice and gave us information leaflets about the types of wine, the production and the region and explained the speciality of the wines as we tasted them. We started off with a very dry Furmint (0g sugar per liter) and finished with a 2013 aszu at 161g/l. The aszu is what everybody knows as ‘the’ Tokaj wine. It is made only from ‘noble rotten’ grapes (grapes affected by a grey fungus called botritis cinerea). They are manually separated from the other grapes and production of this wine is different from normal wine.

Aszu and normal wine grapes (Copyright: winewittsandwisdomswe.com)

Since the fungus requires long warm autumns and rain at certain times, the volume achieved varies greatly between years. There is even an essence, where aszu grapes are pressed purely by their own weight over a long period of time. The resulting liquid can contain up to 600g of sugar per liter!

We enjoyed our tasting experience very much and highly recommend this vinyard! The only other tasting offer we saw was for 3x50ml of wine and 100g of homemade cheese for the same price. There was no aszu or other higher grade wines included though.

After our morning tasting we went to a street on the edge of the village which had lots of cellars. We found five places open and went to four of them, trying different wines. Even though Matthias is not normally a white wine drinker, he found some wines he really enjoyed. Ted got charmed by a lovely lady but didn’t get any wine.


Ted and his wine queen

The Tokaji region was declared a protected region in 1757 by royal decree and there are strict laws governing types of grapes and wine production in the 29 villages of the area. This has lead to a distinct wine character. The whole region is lovely and not overrun by tourists so the villages still have their charm. You can spend a long time going to different vinyards and sample delicious white wines but we think 2-3 days is enough. We recommend visiting the region if you like wine and are visiting Slovakia or Hungary anyway.