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.