Palinka – Special Hungarian Juice!

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Mexico has tequila, Italy has grappa…Hungary’s nectar of the Gods is Palinka.

A traditional fruit brandy, it dates back as far as the fourteenth century and is made from plums, apricots, apples, pears, peaches, or cherries (or as a Hungarian saying goes, anything that jelly can be made from).  Created via a double distillation process, the alcohol content can be as high as 86%. 

Hell, this stuff is so powerful, it even has its own patron saint, Saint Nicholas.  A traditional Hungarian greeting is “Pálinkás jó reggelt!” which means “Good morning with pálinka!”

While I didn’t hear that greeting, I felt it!  On a couple of occasions I had the pleasure of partaking – all in the name of research, right?!  Pear, plum, and cherry, but at some point along the way, after two or three or four, can you really taste the difference?

Budapest is known for its nightlife and whether your weakness is wine, beer, or palinka, there’s plenty to offer!

Egészségedre! (CHEERS!)

Badascony Balaton Wine Tasting, Henna Tattoos, Zsirokenyer, and Drunk Hungarians!

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While visiting the Hungarian region of Lake Balaton, my friends Viktor and Aniko took me to the west side of the lake for a day of wine tasting.  We took the double hulled ferry from Fenyod to Badascony (I think!).  The ferry was packed with Hungarians having one of their last holiday weekends, as the weather will soon change and children are now back in school.

Badascony is a well known wine area with a picturesque volcanic mountain.  As you leave the ferry, food and drink purveyors abound, as well as the trinkets you would expect in a tourist area.  As you meander up the mountain, you leave the trinkets behind and local wineries and vineyards pop up on every turn.

The wineries are lovely, rustic, and authentic – no Napa snobbery here.  The views up and down the mountain, as well as across the lake are breathtaking and the wines are exceptional.  I lost count of how many places we stopped at, each with its own charm.  Since I was with Viktor and Aniko, I didn’t have to figure things out for myself but each stop did have a list of wines and prices (not much English!) and they asked if I wanted red or white, dry or sweet.  This seemed to do the trick, so perhaps this is a good starting point if you don’t speak Hungarian.

Bread with Fat - Zsirokenyer

Now to the food part….If you’re drinking this much wine, you must have something in your belly to cushion it (and boy does this make a cushiony belly).  Many people, including us, love a Hungarian traditional snack called Zsirokenyer (bread and fat).  Yes, I said FAT.  The bread is thick, soft, and chewy.  On top, a room temperature pork or goose fat is spread (think along the lines of a more flavorful butter), sprinkled with chopped purple onions, and dusted with Hungarian paprika and salt.  Words cannot describe how utterly divine my first experience with this was.  Perhaps if I could remember my first time eating bread with butter it would be similar.  Throw in the towel, forget your diet, and go for this without thinking twice.  You won’t regret it!

Henna Tattoos!!! Promise it's henna, Mom!

Toasted and full of zsirokenyer, we headed back down the mountain to catch the last ferry home.  With a few minutes to kill, Aniko and I decided to get matching henna tattoos.  With the sun setting over the water as we crossed the lake, we were not the only ones filled with merriment and cheer.  A big group of Hungarians began singing traditional songs, dancing in a circle, and started what I’ll call a congo line! 

All in all this was a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a day.  Badascony – I hope I get to see you again!

For information on the ferry, click here:

Lake Balaton, A Beautiful Hungarian Retreat

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I’m fortunate to have extended family in Hungary. They were kind enough to welcome me to stay with them at their vacation home at Lake Balaton, about 2 hours outside of Budapest. Balaton is the largest lake in Central Europe and peaceful retreat from the hustle and bustle of Budapest.

En route to Balaton (note – they don’t say ‘Lake Balaton’ just ‘Balaton’), we stopped at Rege Cukrazda.  In a picturesque small town, this cafe was the perfect place to stop.  Perched atop a mountain (or tall hill?) the cafe has a view nearly as good as its desserts.  I think it had been a long day for everyone so the espresso and cakes were precisely what was needed.  If you find yourself on the west side of Balaton, meader to Rege and you won’t be disappointed!

The west side of the lake is mountainous with deeper water while the east side is flat with more shallow waters. I stayed in idyllic Fenvyes, on the southeast side. As it was September, the tourist season was over but fortunately the weather was perfect, about 80 degrees, sunny, with a gentle breeze. The sunsets from this side of the lake are stunning, with a view of the mountains in the background and the water glistening in the foreground.

Along the waterfront are restaurants (etterems), food and drink stands, souvenirs, water bikes and boats, as well as a sidewalk stretching the length of the waterfront. As motorboats are not permitted (sailboats only), the water is much more peaceful and serene than I am accustomed to…Swans glide by, windsurfers dot the horizon, families wade out far from the shore in the shallow waters, fisherman abound, and sun bathers basque.

While I was only there for a weekend, it was a much needed respite in the middle of my trip. Along the waterfront we ordered the best lemonade I’ve ever had. Each individual glass is made fresh with mineral water, something sweet, limes, and lemons. It was a refreshing, sublime thirst quencher.

If you do go to Balaton, you can reach either side by train. The trains are a bit old but they run along the water and provide a beautifully scenic view the whole way. I took the train back to Budapest and the first class ticket cost 3850 HUF or about $18.75.

While I by no means am an expert, I feel confident in asserting that to only go to Budapest is to miss out on so much of what Hungary has to offer. Don’t miss Balaton!

Rudas Baths – A Must Visit While in Budapest

Rudas Baths

Hungary is one of the few countries in the world with an excess of water resources. Having been invaded and occupied many times throughout the centuries, each group of conquerers added something unique to the culture of Hungary. The Turks brought their tradition of baths and the natural mineral waters here went hand in hand.

Main Thermal Bath - Rudas, Budapest

The city is dotted with bath houses, many of them along the Danu (Danube) where there is a natural thermal fault.  Built by the Turks in 1550, the Rudas (pronounced Rudash) Baths are quite famous. I recommend going but warn that it may be a bit complicated as the culture of service isn’t as helpful as one might imagine and very little English is spoken at this facility. It took me a bit to figure things out and then I had to help three different women as I was leaving.

The baths contain a thermal pool area and a larger, more traditional pool.  I went on ladies day and used the thermal pool (traditional pool is open on the weekend for both sexes).  The thermal baths themselves are beautiful, with one large pool in the center situated under an arched dome sparkling in the dim light with colored glass and beautiful mosaic tiles. The saunas (wet and dry options) are sublime and by the time I got out of them (I couldn’t handle more than a couple of minutes) I was like a rag doll, utterly relaxed.  There are also five smaller pools of varying temperatures, from very cold to very hot.  As usual, I found it most effective to go from very hot to very cold, which relaxes the major muscles in a way nothing else does.

Rudas Pool - On Coed Days

If you decide to go, here’s a tourists guide:-

– Tuesday is ladies day while weekends are mixed and the remainder of days are reserved for men, in the tradition of Turkish baths.

– It is located below Gellert Hill right by the Danube, close to Elisabeth Bridge (Erzsébet híd), on the Buda side of Budapest.
– Address: Rudas Gyógyfürdő és Uszoda, H-1013 Budapest, Döbrentei tér 9.
Phone number: 0036-1-3561322
– Take the 86 bus along the Buda (west) side of the river, which stops right in front of the building.
– When you hop off the bus, don’t be too alarmed that the exterior and lobby look a little worse for wear, the baths themselves are very clean and architecturally/historically beautiful.

PRICES (200 HUF ~$1)
– Morning swimming pool tickets cost 1350 HUF, all day tickets cost between 1800-2000 HUF.
– Steam room tickets cost between 2100-3000 HUF.

– The night-bath ticket is 3500 HUF
– Massage prices vary from 2900 to 4800 HUF for 20-40 minute treatments.

– Upon entering, ask for thermal bath ticket. They’ll provide you with a plastic device which you will put on like a watch and wear during your entire bath visit.  
– Scan the ‘watch’ at the turnstile to get in, and proceed to your right where you will pick up a sheet (to be used as a towel) and a thin apron like cloth.  Turn to your left to go into the locker room and scan your watch at the white device on the wall (you may have to hold it there for a few seconds). The machine will flash a number, this is the dressing room that has been assigned to you.
– Find the dressing room with the number and scan your watch again to open the door. You can disrobe in the dressing room and leave your things here, it will lock as you close the door again. To get back in your dressing room, simply scan your watch at the door.

– On single sex days, go nude….when in Rome after all!  For my fellow American women, there is no need to be shy, there will be bathing beauties yes, but many more will be women whose breasts have long been laying atop of their rounded bellies. There is nothing to be shy about!
– You can, of course, wear your bathing suit, but there is no need. Do wear your flip flops, though, and bring your sheet along as well as the small apron like sheet (which I found useful to sit on in the sauna as it protected my girlie bits!).
– I think it is best to visit in the afternoon as you’ll likely leave quite wet. Their hairdryers may be okay for very short hair but after two full cycles, mine was still dripping.
– Also bring water with you as you’ll need to hydrate often. If you don’t bring it, buy it before entering the dressing room (in the entry hall) as you cannot reenter later.
– Finally, be prepared for a bit of a mineral smell. This is what makes the waters so therapeutic so don’t be alarmed.

Drinking Waters

Relax, enjoy, and soak in this extraordinary bit of Hungarian culture.  It’s unlike any other experience I’ve ever had and well worth it!

**Note, I had to borrow pix off the web, it would have been terribly uncouth to take pictures whilst ladies were bathing au natural!

Rudas Thermal Baths