Monday, October 18, 2010

Budapest, Hungary

Budapest became a single city occupying both banks of the river Danube with a unification on November 17, 1873 of right (west)-bank Buda and Óbuda with left (east)-bank Pest. Having spent all of our time on the Pest side of the Danube on our first trip, we decided to explore the hilly Buda side of the Danube.

Caving Under Budapest
Hungary’s capital, Budapest, is famous for its thermal baths, but only a few know that the hot water rushing up from deep underground created something else too. In the limestone mountains, under Budapest, the heated water formed a huge cave system, which is thought to be more than 100 km long. So we donned our overalls, helmet and head lamp to crawl (literally) in the second longest cave of Hungary, the Pál-völgyi–Mátyás-hegyi cave system, which is a real labyrinth system situated mostly under the elegant residences of Budapest. The 2 1/2 hour long tour leads on unbuilt, natural parts of the cave, with the supervision of professional caving guides. Be prepared to crawl, scramble and creep many times throughout this tour. I definitely do not recommend it if you are claustrophobic.

 Wine Tasting Beneath Budapest
The stone Faust Wine Cellar is part of the vast labyrinth system winding underneath Buda Castle. The inhabitants of the castle carved the labyrinth out of the chalk stone to provide escape during a siege in the middle ages. The cellar offers a wide selection of Hungarian wines from the country's best wine growing regions as well as traditional fruit brandies called pálinka. 

Gábor Nagy is the wine sommelier of Faust Wine Cellar and has a wonderful knowledge about each of the wines he serves. I tasted the white lovers and Tim tasted the red lovers. I started off with the pálinka. My white lovers tasting included a dry Egri Királyleányka from 2009, Villányi Chardonnay from 2008, Somoi Aranyhegy Olaszrizling from 2007, the Tokaji Tiszavirág "Mayfly" Cuvee from 2008 and the limited edition Tokaji Aszú from 1993. Each wine was simply better than the one before it.

Tokaji Aszú is the world-famous wine that is proudly cited in the Hungarian national anthem. The original meaning of the Hungarian word aszú was "dried", but the term aszú came to be associated with the type of wine made with botrytised (i.e. "nobly" rotten) grapes. Aszú berries are individually picked, then collected in huge vats and trampled into the consistency of paste known as aszú dough. Must or wine is poured on the aszú dough and left for 24–48 hours, stirred occasionally. The wine is racked off into wooden casks or vats where fermentation is completed and the aszú wine is to mature. The casks are stored in a cool environment, and are not tightly closed, so a slow fermentation process continues in the cask, usually for several years. The concentration of aszú was traditionally defined by the number of puttony of dough added to a Gönc cask (136 liter barrel) of must. Nowadays the puttony number is based on the content of sugar and sugar-free extract in the mature wine. Aszú ranges from 3 puttonyos to 6 puttonyos, with a further category called Aszú-Eszencia representing wines above 6 puttonyos. Unlike most other wines, alcohol content of aszú typically runs higher than 14%. Annual production of aszú is less than one percent of the region's total output.

Tim's red lovers tasting also started with the pálinka, followed by Pannonhalmi Rose from 2009, the Villányi Pinot Noir (our least favorite with a strong taste of vegetables) from 2005, the Villányi A Cuvee from 2000, and the Tokaji Szamorodni from 1999, which was the least sweet Hungarian dessert wine.

The Tokaji Szamorodni type of wine was initially known as főbor (prime wine), but from the 1820s Polish merchants popularized the name samorodny ("the way it was grown" or "made by itself"). What sets Szamorodni apart from ordinary wines is that it is made from bunches of grapes which contain a high proportion of botrytised grapes. Szamorodni is typically higher in alcohol than ordinary wine. Szamorodni often contains up to 100-120 g of residual sugar and thus is termed édes (sweet). However, when the bunches contain less botrytised grapes, the residual sugar content is much lower, resulting in a száraz (dry) wine. Its alcohol content is typically 14%.

I left the wine cellar with a bottle of each the Tokaji Tiszavirág "Mayfly" Cuvee from 2008 and the limited edition Tokaji Aszú (5 puttonyos) from 1993, both sweet Hungarian dessert wines.

Buda Castle District
The whole Castle District in Buda, with its ample historic sights and wonderful panorama of the Danunbe and Pestm is part of UNESCO's World Heritage Site.

The Halászbástya or Fisherman's Bastion is a terrace in neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque style. It was designed and built between 1895 and 1902 on the plans of Frigyes Schulek. Its seven towers represent the seven Magyar tribes that settled in the Carpathian Basin in 896. The Bastion takes its name from the guild of fishermen that was responsible for defending this stretch of the city walls in the Middle Ages. A bronze statue of Stephen I of Hungary mounted on a horse, erected in 1906, stands between the Bastion and the Matthias Church.

The oldest part of the present-day Buda Castle was built in the 14th century by Prince Stephen, Duke of Slavonia, the younger brother of King Louis I of Hungary. The Gothic palace of King Louis I was arranged around a narrow courtyard next to Stephen's Tower. King Sigismund of Hungary greatly enlarged the palace. During his long reign it became probably the largest Gothic palace of the late Middle Ages. The last phase of grand-scale building activity happened under King Matthias Corvinus, when Italian humanists, artists and craftsmen arrived at Buda. The Hungarian capital became the first center of Renaissance north of the Alps.

The spectacular Matthias Fountain (Mátyás-kút) decorates the western forecourt of the palace. It shows a group of hunters lead by King Matthias Corvinus together with hounds, a killed deer, Galeotto Marzio with a hawk and Szép Ilonka with a doe.

To view all our pictures of Budapest, click here.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Visegrád, Hungary

Visegrád is a small town on the right bank of the Danube in the Danube Bend. Visegrád is famous for the remains of the early Renaissance summer palace of King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary and the citadel or "upper castle."

The citadel, atop a 328 meter high hill, was originally built in a triangular shape and had two towers. It dates back to the 13th century and was home to Hungarian kings. It  later became their summer residence. New wings and an external wall were built during the Angevin period. Around 1400 King Sigismund also had a third curtain wall constructed and enlarged the palace buildings. At the end of the 15th century, King Matthias Corvinus had the interior part of the castle renovated. The upper castle also served for the safekeeping of the Hungarian royal insignia between the 14th century and 1526.

The hexagonal Solomon Tower was built in 1258. Vlad Tepes, aka Dracula, was imprisoned here between 1462-74.

To view all our pictures of Visegrád, click here.

Szentendre, Hungary

Szentendre is a small town at the foot of the Pilis Hill along the Danube Bend. Szentendere was part of the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire under Ulcisia Castra from the 2nd centuty AD. In the 13th century the Mongols and then the Turks in the 15-16th century destroyed the town. It was rebuilt in Baroque style in the 17th century and has preserved the townscape since. After the Turks left mainly Serbian refugees settled down then Hungarians, Slovaks, Germans, Greeks and Romanians. Each ethnic group had establsihed its own town part adding a versatility to the townscape. 

In the Main Square (Fő tér) is the Baroque cross that was erected in 1763 to commemorate the fact that plague avoided the town. The Baroque-Rococo Blagovestenska church also stands tall in the Main Square, built in the mid 18th century by settlers living in the Greek quarter next to the church. Above its wooden gate are frescoes of St. Helene and St Constantine. 

Winding streets lead off from the Main Square packed with museums, restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops. Stop by any of the shops to find Tokaji wine, pálinka (Hungarian fruit brandy), Hungarian paprika, and goose liver.

Stop by the Labirintus Restaurant in the National Wine Museum for a delicious Hungarian meal. You can dine in three different rooms: in the Tokaji Room in the cool cellar, in the Kupa Room on the ground level, or in the Vadász (Hunter's) Room on the first level. In The 220 year old cellar system, you can taste and buy fine Tokaji wines.

We dined in the Kupa Room which hosts just 24 people. Its countryside atmosphere is reached through the exhibition of authentic objects from the every-day life of the village. Try the garlic soup in the rye bread bowl and the turkey breast stuffed with peach and camembert. 

Don't miss a stop in the Szabó Marzipan Museum, where you can follow the process of confectioner work and marzipan handicraft. The display cases have marzipan creations of many Disney characters, a 2 meter tall Michael Jackson made of white chocolate, a Princess Diana, the 160 cm long Hungarian Parliament building, and a wedding cake so large that it would need 970 eggs, 25 liters of cream, 15 kg of butter, 35 kg of sugar, 15 kg of chocolate, 20 kg of flour, and 10 kg of icing. 

To view all our pictures of Szentendre, click here

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Dinosaur Footprints in Casera Casavento

On the morning of September 30, 1994, a group of students visiting the Parco Naturale Regionale delle Dolomiti Friulane discovered by chance the first fossil footprints of the "Dinosaur of the Park." They were imprinted on a Dolomitic boulder dating back to the Triassic period, that is more than 200 million years ago. The dinosaur footprints found in the Main Dolomia of the Dolomites open a very interesting issue, since their discovery demonstrates without a doubt that the presence of the dinosaurs in the Italian peninsula was not occasional as it was always thought to be. The footprints, which have been found in Casera Casavento, can be observed on a boulder situated in the nearby stream called Ciol de Ciasavent.

To see all our pictures of the Dinosaur Footprints and Italian fall colors, click here.