Blogged by Anne
From the high Tatras, we were on our way to Tokaj in Hungary. There is actually quite a convenient train route from Poprad to Tokaj, but the trains only connect properly if you leave at 6am or 6pm so we decided to make a day trip out of it by stopping in the the atmospheric Slovakian town of Kosice. The official Slovakian train ticket lady hilariously showed us how to get cheaper tickets by buying return tickets (which cost less than two times a single) by credit card and then requesting a cash refund for the return leg (the refund is calculated as 50% of the ticket price).
Kosice is the second largest city in Slovakia and it has the largest historical centre which is very well preserved. It has a large oval central ‘square’ containing a number of interesting old buildings and surrounded by good cafes and bars. There is an excellent exhibition in tunnels underneath the square, showcasing some of the medieval ruins that have been excavated. We really enjoyed our afternoon exploring the town.
That evening we checked into the simple but cheap Hotel Tokaj, ready to see one of the world’s most famous wine regions the next day. Tokaj grows exclusively white wines, and is one of the best regions in the world for so called ‘noble rot’ or botrytis which is a mold which makes the grapes shrivel up to raisins on the vine. This concentrates the flavors and sugars and makes for an elegant, complex dessert wine known as Aszu. They also make something called Eszencia which is made exclusively from berries with the rot, allowed to press only by force of gravity (in contrast to Aszu where they allow the botrytised berries to steep in normal wine). Sweeter than honey, Eszencia is the sweetest wine in the world, although there is some argument about whether you can call it a wine since yeast can’t deal with the sugar levels (between 500g and 900g per liter) so the wine is very low in alcohol (1 or 2%). Tokaj wines were the subject of the first apellation control in the world in the 1700s.
We had organized a ‘Wine Bus’ through the town’s tourism office which turned out to be a guy randomly driving tourists up and down at terrifying speed in his beat up old Renault. We did an interesting tour and tasting at a farm owned by French insurance giant Axa and then another one at a tiny family-run place. We were supposed to do a third visit but there was a festival on the go in the village of Erdobenye so we opted to stay there for the evening and get fetched later (hopefully). All the little wineries in the village were open and offering various events like live music, tango classes etc as well as selling wine and food. We enjoyed an excellent wine and cheese pairing event with a local cheese maker and overindulged on Tokaj wine and interesting music.
From Tokaj, Budapest is a 2 hour train away and so that was our next destination. Budapest is the largest (and craziest) of the capitals that we will be visiting on this trip. Most of the picturesque city is built is the Art Deco style and it is built on the banks of the Danube which separates Buda from Pest. We stayed in a great AirBnb right next to the Deak metro stop and the Jewish district but on a very quiet street. Budapest was only captured by the Nazis quite late in World War 2 and thanks to the timing and some brave efforts by Hungarians, more Jewish people were saved than in many other cities. This means that there is still a small Jewish population and plenty of excellent Jewish restaurants and bakeries. However, the majority of the Jewish district is now focused on pubs and clubs and it is now the main Budapest nightlife area and Budapest has an impressively crazy nightlife.
The most famous pubs in Budapest are the so-called Ruin Pubs. They were originally temporary establishments thrown together using scrap and second hand furniture in abandoned courtyards and buildings. These days they are thriving, still very quirky but full of tourists and very busy. Ruin Pub is a bit of a misnomer because there are also Ruin Cafes, Ruin Clubs and even some Ruin Restaurants. The area is overwhelmingly touristy but we did an excellent Sunday Morning tour with Atilla from BudapestFlow (http://budapestflow.com/) showing us a different side of the area which we highly recommend.
Budapest was definitely a major highlight for us!
Next stop: Slovenia!