Hungarian Vine Part 2 - Budapest

In vino veritas

- in wine there is truth

Budapest… a modern city that reminds you that the world is never static, that old and new can exist simultaneously, that your place in it is both wide open to the possibilities yet constrained at the same time. The richness of history, culture and architecture here is unlike anything to be experienced in North America, and every where I went I couldn’t help but wonder what historical event or incident had transpired there. But at the same time, there’s a feeling of forward momentum and diversity that feels unique to this city in the region.

During my 2003 trip, I spent a fair amount of time in Prague, a beautiful city in it’s own right. Dubbed the “new Amsterdam” at the time by many, Prague had all the makings of a major tourist trap, and didn't seem very inviting to an outsider such as myself (they were suffering from “tourist burnout” I was told). But Budapest was different then, and remains so for me today. The city never makes you feel like an outsider, it invites you in to share in its vibrance and wealth of experiences.

We began our first day in the city the way most people do, wandering the streets, taking in the sights and sounds, and sampling authentic Hungarian cuisine. Nothing in Central Europe moves at the speed of America, which is a refreshing change when you’re used to being rushed in every aspect of life. There is the familiar sound of car horns and the smell of exhaust in the air that permeate New York or Toronto, but one need only to turn a corner to find a quiet street lined with cafes reminding you to slow down and enjoy life as it is at that moment. Modernity is mixed with reminders of times past…its not uncommon to see a contemporary-looking building right beside another whose exterior is centuries old, or the odd car from the Iron Curtain era mixed in with brand new Mercedes and BMWs.

Our search for a hearty Hungarian lunch took us through some of the trendier areas of downtown, lined with souvenir shops and restos. John had already picked out a spot to grab food that he’d been to on a previous trip, but as is common in any major city, that resto had given way to another. There’s no shortage of places to eat in Budapest however, so it was only a few short minutes before we found a place down a quiet side street made up of cobblestones and umbrella-covered terraces. Servers lined the sidewalk waiting to seat anyone who wished to enjoy a relaxing meal outside. We randomly picked a place based on both the menu (it had to be Hungarian-based food) and the outside seating, which gave us plenty of opportunity to observe locals scurrying to and from work or play. No one seemed to be in too much of a rush however, which suited us just fine as we had spent hours traveling with very little sleep. A quiet lunch, good company, and incredible views…not a bad way to start our first full day in Hungary.

Of course, one of our first stops after eating was to hit up one of the cities best local wine shops, Bortársaság. “BOR” as it’s known to locals (the Hungarian word for wine), had a great selection of mostly local wines for us to choose from. We grabbed a couple of bottles to last us the next few hours before we headed off on our wine country tour. As we made our way back to our flat in Buda, it was becoming increasingly clear to me that large parts of our days would be organized around what and where we would be eating and drinking…which felt strangely comforting and a very European outlook on daily life.

We took the “long way” back to the flat, heading up to the famous Buda Castle which overlooks the entire city. The weather was less than stellar, a constant drizzle that muted the striking visuals of the area. This didn’t stop the throngs of tourists walking the castle grounds, nor the Castle’s ceremonial Changing of the Guard, a regular attraction that takes place in front of the Sandor Palota at Buda Castle.

Luckily, the weather passed and the skies began to clear up just in time for our return home. Our balcony afforded us a spectacular view of the clearing skies above the city, and after walking at least 10 miles around Budapest during the day, we settled in with a couple bottles of authentic Hungarian wine and took in the view.

There is something about being in a place which makes you feel small that lends perspective to our place in the world. This is one of the major reasons the Mountains call to me so loudly, for standing among their vastness one cannot help but feel insignificant. Budapest is a historical and cultural mountain, wandering among its winding streets and ancient buildings makes one realize the vastness of human experience that has occurred here. In an age of social media narcissism and myopic populism, its refreshing to be in a place that takes you away to another time and gives you a much-needed perspective.

To be a student of history means that one understands that we are inexplicably linked to events from our past, yet not beholden to them. The hubris of humanity aside, it is our desire to forge our own paths and not accept foregone conclusions that nurture our hope for the future. It would be easy to let the events of the past influence future possibilities. That would be foolish, and thankfully there exists places like Budapest to remind us that the only things constant are change and the directions in which we choose to wander.  

Another trip down into Pest for dinner, and quite possibly the one of the best burgers I’ve ever had (who knew Hungary makes incredible burgers??). We walked around the dimly lit streets afterwards, John regaling me with stories of his previous trips to the region and both of us still in awe of actually being in this place. As excited as we were to be venturing out to wine country the following day, we couldn’t help but feel rushed with our first day in the city, and not-so-secretly couldn’t wait to get back in a few days when we’d have more time to explore. We took our time heading back to the flat, as in the morning we’d be heading off to our first wine destination, the world-renowned region known as Tokaj.

Stayed tuned for Part 3

scott tribby