Austria/Slovakia/Hungary – Day 19 – Budapest

Sunday at the Paris cafe was a tad less crowded so we returned for coffee and treats in the square outside the market. Then back for Derek & Marketa to pack up and we split ways. They headed to the Gellert spa for the day before returning to Bratislava where Derek had an early morning meeting on Monday. Another great travelling visit with D&M in Europe – a very nice way to spend time together!

I was so glad that I brought sleeveless tops and light pants as the weather continued to serve up an ‘Indian Summer’ in Budapest. Mike and I headed out in the ideal weather for another day of city walking with our cobblestone weary feet. But Budapest is such a lovely city that it’s worth the effort. Our main destination was the palace.

The palace complex was massive with amazing views from the ‘Buda’ side. We passed the art gallery en route, and despite it’s very tempting exhibits we kept on to our main destination. At the palace we managed to catch the changing of the guards.

We paid to walk up the 197 steps of the Tower Matayas – the Peoples King. It was rebuilt following the war, and the bells were only reinstalled in 2010 after massive repairs. Only 2 of the original bells remain. The heaviest weighs in at 4400 kg – they are very big. The museum in the tower contained some interesting artifacts from the builders of the tower over time. The copper time capsules left by workers were full of personal letters and photos as well as lists of common goods and their cost. The oldest capsules also contained official documents signed by the many dignitaries involved in the opening. The tower dates back to the 1400’s, with it’s current style set in the 1800’s.

We returned home for some wine/cheese/fruit and a rest before heading back out to a bar / restaurant on the river across from the Gellert spa. We sat riverside and Michael and I shared his duck with spinach risotto and my basic burger and chips along with the local beer which I quite like. A lovely evening sitting along the Danube and watching the city walk by.

Austria/Slovakia/Hungary – Day 18 – Budapest

Success! We returned to the market to retrieve our forgotten cheese and they were very gracious in returning it. So of course we bought more cheese, this time deer and forest mushroom cheese. They all were fantastic, but the basic old farmers cheese was the best.

Saturday morning was clearly a popular time for the Paris cafe, so we ventured to the subway station for our trip to the National Gallop Races. We found a mediocre coffee shop beside a Starbucks and felt it was better to support local business.

And then the ‘subway event’. It turns out that after purchasing our tickets, we failed to validate them. This results in a SERIOUS fine – $75 Cdn, and there was no talking our way out of it despite the fact that the ‘helper’ we had at our entry station failed to inform us of the need to validate, although he did direct Derek & Marketa to do so. Seems very much like a tourist money grab. We were NOT impressed – Hungary can be quite brusque.

Once at the races, we paid the 1600Ft ($7 Cdn) for wrist bands needed to enter the seating section for the races which in the end we could have skipped. As we were a bit early we strolled around the park which included the largest Budapest spa – Széchenyi. There was also a ‘recruitment’ display set up along the promenade with some interesting army displays (well for Michael at least). Then back to the race track where we ended up trapped in the central area for the opening ceremonies, but at least we did use our seats for the races. Mike & I sat behind the Cseko team support section. They had a horse in the youth races as well as one in race 1 of the formal races. The youth did not fair well, but the main horse and rider were winners in their heat much to the joy of our seatmates. They continued on to the next round to be run the following day. As it was to be a long day of races, and there was so much to see, we decided to venture on.

The promenade leading to the races was fantastic – full of crafts and restaurants and a booth for every team with a horse in the race. Given that the race entrants are based on local winners, that resulted in a great variety of towns and even countries hosting booths. This included many local Hungarian townships as well as China, Britain and nearby countries. It was well over a km long I would guess. After finishing the strip, Marketa wanted to return to an early booth to pick up something for her mother, so Mike & I headed back.

We passed St. Stephen’s Basilica which we were tempted to enter, but the lines were very long, the fee was not cheap, and the inside was very dimly lit so not a great photo op. We did luck out though when a dance troupe put on a show out front, and a procession of dancers from other countries came along waving at us happily.

Back at the apartment we had some wine and cheese and toasts. Derek treated us to another home cooked meal of market goodies. The sausages, peppers and onions accompanied with more wine lulled us all into a quiet night in with a final round of euchre to keep Marketa refreshed on the rules!

Austria/Slovakia/Hungary – Day 17 – Budapest

The amazing weather continued – no rain and highs about 25 C – perfect for touring beautiful Budapest! We started Friday, October 18 with coffee and danish at the Paris cafe near the market. Then into the market to do some shopping.

We picked up some Hungarian salami, Hungarian sausage (chorizo like), wine, yogurt, fruit and cheeses. After dropping off our supplies (and realizing that I had left our cheeses sitting on the counter) we booked an escape room. Given that Budapest is the birth of the first escape room ever built, we had to try one out!

The walk to the escape room took us past the Jewish synagogue. The ‘Weeping Willow’ monument out front was full of leaves, each with the name of a Hungarian Jew who was killed in WWII. The ‘pillars’ of the trees were named for the people who helped the Jews.

The E-Exit Escape room we opted for was ‘Heaven & Hell’. The first room was the trickiest – a bit ridiculously so. The ‘multiple air organs’ which needed to be stacked to blow open the dangling curtain to reveal a dimly lit clue board was not well designed. Otherwise it was a great challenge with good twists. We technically finished it, but only with a couple of clues along the way and went over time by a smidgen. Lots of team work fun for about $60 Cdn for the 4 of us! On the way back to the apartment we stopped for a kürtőskalács – a ‘donut cone’ pastry – mine filled with ice cream – yummy :-).

We managed to find some sandals in the front hall of the apt which saved us needing to purchase some for the spa. On a recommendation from Marketa’s friend in Budapest we headed to the Rudas Bath spa. We all started with saunas which included dips into the cold pool between stints in both the dry and steam saunas. Then we split up and Mike and I headed to the programmed shower before heading to the Thermal Pools. We cycled through the whole range of temperatures from 28, 30, 33, 38 and 42 C.

We found Derek and Marketa at the Wellness Pools and we swapped venues. We did the ‘cycle’ of 50 seconds in the 42C pool followed by 10 seconds in the 17C pool – and repeat 2 more times, shower and then rest in a body temp spa. Back to the Thermal Pools we found Derek and Marketa where we followed our saunas with a ‘bucket of cold water’ dump and steam baths.

Finally when it was dark, up we went to the roof top with it’s domed top to sit in the whirlpool overlooking the Danube and the river scenes of Budapest. Eventually we were all prunes, so decided we needed to head for dinner.

This evening we feasted on truffle risotto, with a very nice wine and splurged on some great desserts. I had a raspberry creme brulee with pistachio lime ice cream, hazelnut wafers, raspberry coulis and a ground powder with nuts and lime.

Following our indulgence, Mike collected his photo gear and headed for an outing to capture the scenes along the Danube in the dark while Derek, Marketa and I walked along the river to the parliament buildings. We were serenaded by the ‘party boat’ which runs the Danube Friday nights. The river was full of tour boats – both cruise and day tours.

We beat Michael back to the apt, so Derek & Marketa went to move the car to a free weekend spot and I waited at a bus stop outside the apt (one set of keys is a real pain!!!). And I waited….and waited…..and waited. D&M had to deal with a broken parking payment machine so had problems leaving the parking lot. Finally after 40 minutes they returned, and Michael finally came back about 20 min after that.

Despite all my fretting, all was fine after all and I was able to sleep soundly after a very full day!

Austria/Slovakia/Hungary – Day 16 – Esztergom to Budapest

Michael rose early and headed back up to the basilica for early morning photos and the early morning mist assisted nicely. As we were only at the BnB for one night, we needed to move our car before exploring Esztergom for breakfast. We had ‘pizza danish’ and a cream cheese filled croissant and lattes. Derek and Marketa tried some different ones including a cone full of cheese. So many calories!!!

Then the drive to Budapest following the Danube before heading into the forest roads. Our plan was to mushroom gather for a meal in Budapest, so we stopped to explore But the forest here was very dry so not fungi friendly. So back to paralleling the river to a stop for lunch at a small town. Michael had marked on his map, he thinks from his conversation on the plane with the ‘Bratislava lady’ sitting beside him. It was a gem of a little town with a nice church atop the hill.

We ended up arriving in Budapest at rush hour but the drive along the Danube was so lovely that the snails pace crawl was just fine. We passed the Shoe Monument on the river wall with its 40 or so pairs of shoes as left by the Jewish women, children and men. They were forced to strip naked, march the river bank. They were then shot and killed and their bodies fell into the river. Very moving to see.

We were checked into our place by a very unfriendly Hungarian woman. The key situation is very bizarre – you need to lock yourself in and out of the apartment and we only had one key. Derek went to move the car to a better long term parking spot, and upon returning, he proceeded to try to use the apt key on the front main door. It jammed in the lock which required a call to the owner. So Michael, Marketa and I were locked in the apartment for a lengthy wait for someone to come and replace our key (and lighten Derek’s wallet by 30 Euro). So we snacked on what we had – wine and almonds. Luckily there was no fire alarm as we waited!

When we finally reconvened we headed off for a walk along the river esplanade and over the ‘green bridge’ to check out the Gellert Spa. Nearby the church built into the caves required a visit – where I wandered in not realizing it was actually closed for the day. It was quite unique and amazing. Then a walk along the other side of the river in Pest…..or was it Buda…..?

The moon was amazing – huge and orange. Then a bite to eat. Mike & I opted for a 2nd rate Hungarian food pub – which actually was very interesting with lots of music paraphernalia including the Stones, Red Hot Chili Peppers, a Dave Gilmour video playing and photos of Yes. Derek & Marketa chose Korean which looked much better than the 3.6 rating it scored on Google.

We continued walking to the chain bridge was was lit up red and then looped back to our apartment on the other side of the river. We briefly considered a late night visit to the Ruina Bar to hook up with Dan, Suz, Natalie and Duncan, but once back in the apt we decided that was enough walking for one day. And so to bed!

Austria/Slovakia/Hungary – Day 15 – Piestany to Esztergom

A small spattering of showers did not spoil the day. Mike & Derek were out by 8 am for their ‘hands in burning hot mud’ spa (7 Euros each) and were back by 9 am. After a cheese/toast & jam/ tea/fruit breakfast we headed back to the square for coffee when it started to rain. Saying goodbye to the gaudy apartment we had no regrets as we headed out on the drive to Esztergom.

The drive was through farmland, forests and small Slovakian towns. It is much like Czech but seems poorer, and certainly not as affluent as the Austrian countryside. As we approached the twin towns of Sturovo, Slovakia and Esztergom, Hungary the giant basilica on the hill greeted us. You could see it for miles along with its palace and fort. Crossing the Danube, we left Slovakia and headed to our final country, Hungary. Esztergom was the capital of Hungary from the 10th to mid 13th centuries which is apparent from the extravagance of the basilica.

We found our accommodation no problem and our hostess greeted us at the gate with private parking leading to the courtyard. We started our orientation tour there, framed by ivy crowding every wall and the fort and castle cliff wall rising behind the house. Next to the private wine cellar with foosball room, stocked cellar, and room with table and antique cabinet where we later played cards. Finally to the house with its 2 full baths, massive bedrooms and well supplied kitchen with nespresso maker and large common sitting/dining area. All very spacious, light and very tastefully decorated – a refreshing change! We are all very sorry that we are only here for 1 night :-(.

For dinner I jumped at the chance for Chicken Paprikas and spaetzle which brought back wonderful memories of my childhood friend Michele who would cook it for her Hungarian father. Mike had his favourite port knuckle with wine sauerkraut and potatoes w. onions. We all shared a smoked ox-tongue appetizer and of course a couple beers to complement. And our waiter was more than happy to help out with the photo taking…by filling in for Michael!

In an attempt to walk it off, we headed up to the castle to take a peek. We started by taking the ‘outside’ route which was interesting but lead us to a locked back entry. So retracing our steps we headed back up the hill to the main entrance. There were many statues in interesting poses and styles, but no indication of what or who they were.

The light spattering of rain enabled a beautiful bright rainbow. We were almost alone for our exploring until peak sunset when massive tour groups suddenly appeared for the moment. That was our signal to head out.

After a bank machine visit for local currency we returned to our own castle for wine and cards and enjoyed the amazing space. Mike headed out in the dark of night to try to get some star shots from our courtyard – but the castle lighting was too bright, so no luck.

And then to bed where we encountered the only negative of the accommodation – the mattress left something to be desired. So one night may do just fine after all.

Austria/Slovakia/Hungary – Day 13/14 –Bratislava to Piestany

Having raved about Zeppelin, Marketa was keen to check out their chestnut sweets. So Monday morning we headed back for coffee and cake breakfast. This time we pared it back to one chestnut crescent for the 4 of us to share along with our coffees.

Mike & I headed back to pack up and clean up while D&M headed back to Roberts to pick up their bags and the car. After a bit of a delay we reconnected at the edge of the Stare Mesto (old city) near the US embassy – the only one caged and surrounded by armed guards! We were off to spa town of Piestany for some self indulgence.

We took a drive thru the ‘high’ part of Bratislava with its gorgeous mansions and views to match overlooking the river, city, and castle. En route to Piestany we stopped in Modra where we bought a piece of handmade pottery off a local at his workshop. We were on the hunt for halusky but after 3 failed attempts at finding a restaurant (closed on Monday….), we ended up back in Modra where we found a good cheap lunch. Mike splurged with sauerkraut soup and ribs (excellent), and the rest of us had the daily soup and pork dish special – a real deal at 5.8 Euro.

Our Piestany abode was decorated in what is best described as ‘Arte Grotesque’, or possibly ‘Arte Remnant’. The previous Arab owners seemed to enjoy gaudy in every shade of red with black and gold, including a full wall mural of Dubai. But there was lots of space which functioned well.

The spas in Piestany are mostly on the island section of town. We managed to get a same day 5:15 pm appt for the 4 of us at Spa Irma. Men and women are separate. So Marketa and I headed to our change room where you undress and wrap in a sheet to head to the first ‘mirror’ pool. Calm, clear, mineral water at 39C. We soaked there along with 3 other women for about 10 minutes in the mandatory silence. Unfortunately the boys on the other side were chatting annoyingly and we were forced to scold them. Next we were moved along to the even hotter mud pool with its bottom layer of several inches of rich mineral mud. We served ourselves mud facials as well as neck and shoulders. I took turns alternating my knees out of the water to allow the ‘healing muds’ to infuse my joints. Finally we headed to the beds where you are wrapped in dry warm sheets to rest before a final cleansing shower. A great way to spend 1 hour and 15 Euros.

We followed the spa with a walk to the end of the esplanade on the island. I experienced my first encounter with a female ginko tree – quite a stink and a very messy and slippery fruit.

Derek & Marketa supplied and prepared dinner of wild mushrooms, peppers, onions, garlic, olive oil with pasta and a side of fried green tomatoes. We finished off the borcak and then some white wine from the same vineyard. Very enjoyable.

After an exhausting evening for Marketa trying to learn euchre (it is quite complex when learning from scratch!), we all slept in. Marketa headed to the local shops and picked up yogurt, cheese, bread, apples, jams and tea which we shared for breakfast before heading out for coffee along the quaint main street.

We spent the day looking for bookings at the other spas, but they were all quite booked up. Back at Spa Irma, Marketa managed to get a Thai shoulder and neck appt, and I a Thai foot massage. The boys wanted a hand treatment, which they only managed to get for 8:30 the next morning. All else failing, we all decided to go back for another round of Irma spa cycle. No complaints 🙂

We headed to Slovensky Dvor for dinner where we finally found halusky (grated potato dumplings) with Bryndza cheese and bacon. We also tried fried cheese and the potato dumpling with sauerkraut. Dessert was poppy seed dumpling and chocolate brownie with raspberry (unfortunately they were out of chestnut cake). With beers, coffees, shots, and a kefir like drink, it was a great deal at 60 Euro all in for the 4 of us.

Back for more euchre to help ingrain it into Marketa’s memory. Tomorrow morn would see an earlier rise for the boys to get their hand treatment and to fill our water jug with stinky, but supposedly curing, sulphur spa water.