I definitely had this conception that spring in Budapest would be a dull affair. Partly because in New York, the idea of a slow and steady rise in temperature to summer is nonexistent. It will be eighty on a day in February before snowing in April. And just when the weather seems like it’s getting nice… BAM it’s summer and every day is an exercise in avoiding heat strokes in muggy ninety degree weather.
So it’s been nice to experience something like what I imagine spring SHOULD be: warm, sunny, maybe a little rainy, with steady temperatures ranging from 50-70 degrees. Spring in Budapest is BEAUTIFUL.
It’s hard to stay inside when the weather is so nice. Studying outside may be a little counterproductive, but you gotta maximize your time in the sun somehow.
So I’ve been walking more instead of taking public transport, going to parks, etc.
Also, the statues scattered throughout the city look more regal cloaked in green (or whatever…)
In terms of some concrete recs, I have three, ranging from easiest to hardest to get to. First: go to the ELTE botanical gardens! The gardens are in Pest, an easy tram ride away, and the student price is only 600 forints. If you go on a weekday morning the gardens will be relatively empty and you can study/read/chill/admire the greenery to your heart’s content. One caveat though: weekdays are also the days school kids take field trips to the gardens, so be cognizant of that!
Second: head to the Buda Hills! Some friends and I went to Normafa for Labor Day and picnicked there before hiking around the hills. It was honestly kind of shocking how beautiful it was given how easily accessible the hills are from downtown. Also, picnic food is the best food (proof: all things are better outside in 60-70 degree and sunny weather, therefore, food is better in nice weather outside).
Finally, I can see why everyone raves about Pécs. With wide plazas, a Mediterranean feel (must’ve been those occasional palm trees), and tons of art and history scattered through the city (also Roman ruins) it’s just a cool place to walk around. We took a day trip to the city and had a lovely (albeit also sweaty- should not have worn jeans) time taking in the sites, views, sun.
It’s weird to know that the semester is wrapping up, and weird to think about the fact that I’ll soon be leaving Budapest with no idea if/when I’ll be back.
This is the third part of a three-part post about spring break in Istanbul. Check out Part I (where to go, what to see) and Part II (food) as well!
Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish best-selling writer and Nobel laureate, wrote the book sitting in my backpack on the flight to Istanbul. It was my so-called “spring break reading,” and despite the fact that I had tried to start reading it a number of times before the break, all the italicized words and places meant so little to me that it was hard to stay invested. I was dreading opening it again.
Anyway, fast-forward ten days. For the most part, I explored Istanbul alone. I was lucky enough to be staying with some incredible hosts (who took me to their country home for the first few days of my stay and who I could speak to about my adventures in the evening) but for the majority of the time I was by myself.
What surprised me most about traveling alone was the fact that it was hard to get lonely. Part of the reason for this is the sheer wonderful frenzy of the city. Often in between trudging up the winding, cobbled roads inclining what felt like perpendicularly (Istanbul is a hilly city), or figuring out where lunch was going to be, or desperately hoping that the dolmuş, or mini-bus, was going in the direction I needed it to (a mini-bus is a strange cross between a bus and a taxi which picks up around ten people going in the same general direction and drops them off… whenever they feel like getting off), I didn’t have the time or energy to feel lonely.
I interacted with people more than I thought as well, in small moments scattered throughout the week. At the Basilica Cisterns, I met an old Korean couple who proclaimed Istanbul the “best city in the world” and told me where the best place to get kimchi would be. On transit on a ferry back to the European side, a couple with a young nine-month old son asked me to hold their baby, who apparently would not stop fussing until I did.
Hectic as the city was, I also came across a few invaluable quiet moments. Istanbul is not in general a quiet city. Easy counterexample: there are lots of cars and the drivers tend to be very free with the horn. But taking the ferry to the Kadiköy neighborhood on my last day in Istanbul was one such moment to myself. Away from the Historic Peninsula, the tourists are few and far between, and that cloudy morning I was alone on top of the ferry, sipping çay (Turkish black tea) and listening to the call to prayer echo over the indigo Bosphorus.
I loved Kadiköy. One of the few places I went on the Asian side, the neighborhood felt deeply authentic with both an honest-to-goodness market (with actually cheap and good produce/dried goods/sweets unlike the more touristy markets) and cafes that were unabashedly cool. When the morning showers came, I hunkered in one of these cafes and finished the Mediations while sipping another cup of çay– one of my fondest memories in the city.
Undoubtedly just walking around the neighborhoods of Istanbul and taking in the atmosphere was a highlight of the trip. I averaged about 10 miles a day of walking, and finished the week with just over sixty miles under my belt. Besides Kadiköy, my favorite walks included the route from Galata Tower across Galata Bridge (and through Karaköy, another cool neighborhood) to get to Eminönü; the park and glitzy neighborhoods of Nişantaşı; and the beautiful neighborhood of Bebek. Bebek was one of the few places I went to in the city where I could walk by the Bosphorus (along a beautiful boardwalk) without feeling like I was in the way of cars on a major thoroughfare or trespassing in cafes hogging up all the waterfront.
Walking around, it’s impossible not to notice all the cats. I was confused at first about how such masses of stray cats could be so well-fed and groomed before my hosts informed me that the municipality vaccinates them and the locals in Istanbul all do their parts to take care of the cats, leaving cat food, opened cans of tuna, and little cardboard shelters on the side of the road for any passing cat to use. If you’ve ever seen the documentary Kedi… well, it’s exactly like that.
Without further ado, a slideshow of all my best kedi shots (there are plenty more than this on my phone; pruning through them is my gift to you).
If I had to sum up the trip, the glorious, long, lovely, hectic, amazing trip in one word, it would be this: lucky. I was lucky to have had the opportunity and resources to go, lucky that the weather was so good for most of the trip, lucky to have stumbled across the people, restaurants, cats, streets, etc. that I did. But most of all, lucky to have had the opportunity to stay with my fantastic hosts, to get a good sense of Istanbul as a city and not as a tourist destination. I really can’t thank them enough for their hospitality.
My last day in Istanbul was Easter Monday, and after shopping for traditional Greek Easter bread, bittersweet and aromatic from the mastic and mahleb herbs, we died eggs in vinegar and had a last dinner of meze.
On the plane ride back, I took out the Orhan Pamuk book again. I had been too busy (um… exploring) to give it much thought over break, but the seat in front of me had no monitor, and my backpack with laptop was stowed away in the overhead bin, so I had no choice but to try to start the book again. In the first two pages, I read: “… the rumble of a passing car, the clatter of an old bus, the rattle of the copper kettles that the salep maker shared with the pastry cook, the whistle of the parking attendant at the dolmuş stop…” Suddenly, it felt somewhat familiar.
A (spring) break of ten whole days from math requires drastic measures: and for me, that meant spending the entire time in Istanbul, the allure of the Bosphorus too compelling to ignore. Not to mention, I had the good fortune of having some incredible hosts who let me stay with them for the week in their home!
Istanbul is a trip too big to contain in one post, so I’m breaking the tale into three exciting parts:
Part 1 (you are here): my review of major activities + things you MUST do + things I thought were overrated
Part 2: FOOD FOOD FOOD FOOD FOOD FOOD FOOD oh my goodness
Part 3: My love letter to Istanbul: thoughts + CATS
WELCOME TO PART 1:
Istanbul is what some would call a “world-class city” and as such, there’s plenty to do. Even with ten days I had to prioritize what I wanted to spend my time on and what I thought I could skip. Below you’ll find the top three things I did while in Istanbul, a few other great things to do, and a few attractions I thought were slightly overrated.
TOP THREE ACTIVITIES IN ISTANBUL
1. Staying in a country house
Okay, ironic, the first thing on this list is not technically in Istanbul and not technically something available for everyone. But I do want to flex a little that I had the incredible experience of staying in my hosts’ beautiful country home outside of the city to soak in the nature and have some incredible meals.
It was absolutely wonderful to hear nothing but the birds and breathe in some fresh air, and the countryside around Istanbul– rolling hills, lots of wheat fields and fruit trees– was absolutely beautiful in the spring.
2. Topkapı Palace**
It’s one of the major destinations in Istanbul, and probably the most expensive place in terms of entrance fees (95 lira for the palace + harem), but I thought it was by far the coolest tourist attraction on the Historic Peninsula.
Notice I starred the name: I’ll use this to denote a place that you want to visit as soon as it opens in the mornings to minimize tourist overflow. The historic peninsula (as I quickly discovered) becomes saturated with tourists starting from mid-morning all the way until the attractions close around four or five, which is a huge headache and (at least for me) ruins lots of the appeal of the attractions themselves. Every day I was in the city, I got up early to try to get to a single tourist attraction before it opened to be one of the first in the building. Then, I could leave the historic peninsula right as it got busiest around mid-morning. This worked really well for me and as a result I had a few precious moments to myself in these beautiful attractions.
Anyway, Topkapi was the residence of the Ottoman sultans (as well as some Biblical relics- you can see the alleged staff of Moses and sword of David, as well as various body parts of the prophet Muhammad, e.g., his beard and a box containing his tooth!). Not to mention the palace is filled with examples of beautiful, intricate Islamic art and architecture, for example, in the sultan’s primary residence:
Or in one of the many pavilions in the third or fourth courtyard:
It was also super fascinating to see relics of the lives of the harem (women in the royal circle) and of the many servants in the palace (there is an entire wing devoted to the cooking staff, including an entire confectionary– sultans like their sweets!).
3. Şehir Hatları Tour of the Bosphorus
I pinned a day of the week when the weather portended to be beautiful and spent the entire day on a ferry on the Bosphorus headed straight for the Black Sea. That’s right, for only 25 lira you can board a municipal ferry that takes you on a six-hour cruise (2 hours sailing there, 2 hours break, 2 hours coming back) to Anadolukavağı, a small, remote neighborhood of Istanbul right by the Black Sea.
When we arrived at our destination, all of us disembarked and pretty much immediately did two things in an order that depended on how hungry we were: 1) Hike up a small hill to Yoros Castle and 2) get seafood at one of the many restaurants by the pier. I did Yoros first.
Spring was in full swing, and beautiful wildflowers abounded. There’s a good-sized highway that goes directly to Yoros, and on the way down I took an alternate route through town which got me some beautiful photos:
After a lovely lunch by the sea, we returned home. A beautiful day, highly recommend!!
OTHER HIGHLY RECOMMENDED ACTIVITIES
This is an obvious must-see, and the most popular tourist location in Istanbul. And it’s spectacular– a melding of Byzantine Christian mosaics and Islamic art unlike anything I have ever seen before. And Viking graffiti! Just make sure to go in the morning, right when it opens. I showed up an hour early and there was still a bit of a line!
I actually love the neighborhood around Galata, but the tower itself has some great views of the city. Make sure to go when the weather is nice (and in the morning, so it’s not so crowded).
Okay, so technically Dolmabahçe PALACE is the attraction that people want to visit. But every single time I was there, the line was too long for me to even think about going in. However, adjacent to the Palace is a tiny mosque on the banks of the Bosphorus. When I was there, this mosque was absolutely empty and quiet, which immediately made it one of the best mosques that I saw while in Istanbul (and I saw quite a few mosques). Highly recommend for some peace amid the hectic tourist attractions.
This was another of my favorite mosques in Istanbul (probably because it was the first one I visited). Overlooking the Bosphorus, the mosque also features several mausoleums with the graves of Sultan Suleiman I and his family, which I thought were beautiful. It was also slightly less crowded than its sisters the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya.
SLIGHTLY OVERRATED PLACES
Okay, you should still visit these places. But due to high tourist activity and general tourist-trappiness, I was not super impressed.
Grand Bazaar/ Spice Market
So in general I DO NOT appreciate when people heckle me to come into their restaurant/ buy their wares and I WILL NOT engage if someone tries to heckle me in this way. Unfortunately, in these markets (and in the historic peninsula in general) this sort of heckling was really aggressive, which really put me off.
The spice market in particular was kind of disappointing. It’s in a very new building, which though decorated nicely has lost the kind of historic charm that the Grand Bazaar, at least, has. The shops (which are all pretty much identical) are pretty overpriced and cater exclusively to tourists, which kind of got on my nerves.
This place SHOULD HAVE been cool, but unfortunately I went at a bad time and it was absolutely chock-full of other people, which made the entire experience kind of awful (save for a few friends I made along the way LINK). Would definitely recommend going when it’s not as crowded.
All right! That’s the end of Part 1! Check out Part 2 (FOOD) and Part 3 (love letter/cats) for more about Istanbul!
An adventure to the sea: that was what we were after. And when we decided to take the plunge last weekend and head down to the Dalmatian Coast in Croatia, fifteen hours on a night bus (two night buses, accounting for the transfer) seemed like a tiny obstacle.
We boarded the bus on Friday night in high spirits- the first leg to Zagreb was empty and we all took two seats each and played hearts in the aisle. At the midnight transfer, the coastal bus was another story.
We rode all night and tried to doze in the crowded bus, our knees pushed up against the seats in front of us. At 3 am the lights flared on and we groggily handed over our passports at an absurd border crossing into Bosnia because for some reason there’s a mile long chunk of Bosnian land that bisects the Croat coastline. But it wasn’t all bad. Poets with wavy hair like to say the night is darkest before the dawn- in this case, we woke up to see the sun rise along the Adriatic.
And a mere few hours later, the views of the sea only becoming more breathtaking, we arrived to our destination:
Dubrovnik- a UNESCO world heritage site and home of some of the most beautiful sets from certain fantasy dramas on HBO, is a walled city perched on indigo seas and adorned with terra-cotta roofs. It’s a city from a dream, to be slightly dramatic about things.
We spent all of Saturday and Sunday in Dubrovnik, and some higher power must’ve been smiling down at us because in terms of excursion choices, lodging, and food our experiences were pretty darn spectacular. Not to mention, the forecast was for rain all weekend and the weather turned out to be perfect. Anyway, some advice:
1. Go in April.
Obvious advice, but it was crowded in Old Town even in very not-peak season. I shudder to think of how many more people will be visiting in June/July/August. The weather may be nicer but is it really worth it if you’re fighting for elbow room? At that time of year, I think I’d rather stop in one of the many villages along the Dalmatian coast architecturally similar to Dubrovnik and hopefully a little less hectic.
2. Do the stuff you came to see, but be quick about it…
Even if it’s expensive and hot and crowded, ya gotta walk around the city walls and ya gotta explore Old Town. We spent the first few hours in the city doing exactly that- the walls are one of the best places to get any kind of view of the city and surrounding ocean.
But don’t spend all your time doing the generic things because…
3. Go swimming!
Not going to lie, it was probably too cold to swim (in the high sixties). But the sun was beating down on us and we were hankering to get inside the beautiful turquoise water. We headed to Bellevue Beach, which was absolutely empty save for a few sunbathing locals. The more adventurous of us scoped out a cliff-diving spot, and eventually every one of us crazy twenty-something-year-olds could say that we’ve jumped off a cliff in Croatia. To show Avicii we were cool, I guess.
4. Bring your own food (and NEVER go in a restaurant with hecklers stationed outside)
We brought a grand total of five loaves of bread (and other accoutrements) which combined with occasional gelato splurges lasted us four meals. We ate out twice, both at fast casual places. Barba was a seafood place with great salads and fried anchovies. But I’d recommend Preša for the budget traveler. Portion sizes were great, food was hearty and tasty, and price was stellar for the area. I remain deeply suspicious of the street-side cafes with aggressive hecklers. Seem like textbook tourist traps.
5. See the sunset.
This I can’t recommend enough. We scoped out a little rocky peninsula (which jutted out of a park outside of Old Town) that had a good westward facing view and watched the sun set over the ocean. I’m not sure how touristy this place gets in peak season, but we ran into our Airbnb host who seemed surprised (and kind of proud) that we had “discovered” the spot.
6. Wake up early.
I wasn’t a fan of the hard water from the taps in the Airbnb (which, if I haven’t mentioned, is twenty feet from the gates of Old Town for $10 a night per person!) so early on Sunday morning I trekked into Old Town to hit up a grocery store (warning: most of the big grocery stores outside of Old Town are closed on Sundays). The inner city was deserted. I was absolutely alone walking through the narrow alleys and cobblestones, and after I had gotten my water I sat by the sea, utterly secluded with only the chittering of the ubiquitous swallows and the dull roar of the waves to distract me… romantic stuff. The takeaway here is that I guess most tourists are not super early morning people (also the tour buses take some time to get there from the cruise ships) so if you have it in you to set your alarm a few hours early, it’ll be well worth it.
7. Go to Lokrum Island (on a government ferry) and hike as much as possible.
Lokrum has some vague historical buildings (a fort, a ruined castle/gardens, etc.), but these all paled in comparison to the island’s natural beauty. By far the most beautiful things to see were the Dead Sea (not sure why they call it that- all those annoying peacocks strutting around trying to steal our food were alive enough) and the views along the southern edge of the island.
Pro tip: if you hike due east from the Dead Sea for about half and hour and brave unmarked paths and rough white rocks and scratchy pines (it won’t be too bad, the foaming indigo vistas will be worth it) you’ll stumble upon Pigeon Cave and will get to walk around the perimeter of the sheer cliffs there. It was breathtaking.
8. Make sure to have a 3-hour-layover in Zagreb at the most inconvenient possible hour.
Our trip winding to an end, we took the night bus from Dubrovnik once again on Sunday night. Right before we got on the bus, we realized that our layover in Zagreb this time was about three and a half hours instead of an immediate transfer. So when we awoke at 3 am in Zagreb (starving, too, I might add) we trekked into the city to find something, anything open with food.
Luckily for us what seemed to be the only 24-hour joint in the city was only a 30 minute walk away, and turned out to be a pleasant pizzeria in the heart of town. I cannot tell you how delicious the four-cheese and mushroom pizzas were at four in the morning steaming between my fingers. Five stars to the owners for making fresh pizza for us at such an ungodly hour.
Afterwards, we decided to walk around the city a little bit as it shook itself awake. We were dead on our feet (except I guess for Kevin and Daniel, who had reserves of energy from I-Know-Not-Where) but gosh darn it, we saw the capital of Croatia.
At 7:30 am we stumbled back to the bus station and took the last leg of the journey back to Budapest: when we arrived at Kelenföld, the afternoon sun was shining and we were positively dripping with what I like to call “bus grease.” So with the remains of salt from the Adriatic sea still clinging to our hair and faces, we parted ways to head home, shower, and get some much-deserved sleep!
Seeing as this week marks the beginning of Midterm Season at BSM, all of us students are stumbling around looking more grey-circled and out-of-it than usual (which is saying something– we are, after all, a bunch of math majors).
So I thought it might be a good time to do a little café review/ranking of all the places I’ve studied (or tried to) here in Budapest as I’ve explored the vibrant café culture in the city. A note about my own tastes: I’m not very big into coffee (definitely a tea person) so the cafés that most impressed me drink-wise have been those with the best tea offerings. Unfortunately, I have not been taking very good photos of the cafes I’ve been in, so all the photos you see here (with one exception) have been taken directly from the café website (with website linked in caption). And we’re off!
11. Massolit Books & Café
This was actually the first café I visited in Budapest, and while the wooden-shelves bookstore vibe was pretty nice, there wasn’t a lot of seating. The big dealbreaker for me was the mediocre “apple tea” which was essentially apple juice warmed up and sprinkled with cinnamon.
10. Goat Herder
The closest café to the BSM building and a haunt for caffeine-deprived math students who don’t feel like indulging in the 75 cent coffee from the machine at school. The café is pretty, bright, and airy, with nice couches and tasty cakes. But I wouldn’t recommend for studying- it’s quite small and as a result gets a little loud and cramped.
Solinfo really tries to be aesthetic, and to some degree it succeeds– its furnishings and decor are impeccable, and there are some nice spots of greenery. It’s also good for studying: it’s quite big and has a lot of seating and plugs. But, ultimately, it’s a little too clean-cut for my taste. But you really can’t complain- it’s a nice café.
8. London Coffee Society
I liked this place. I wouldn’t come here to study regularly, but the one time I did I bopped to electronic music (the only thing they play) and had some delicious banana bread while at it. Its vibe is super chill (and German) and the brunches look absolutely delicious. A cool place.
7. Mon Cherie
Out of all the cafés on this list, this one felt most like a chain. It’s clean, big, and has a ton of tables. Its decor is generic but tasteful, and its cakes (I had a chocolate-pear tart) are very good. This is a dependable option if you just need a decent place to study and aren’t looking for a special vibe.
6. Nem Adom Fel Kávézó és Étterem
I loved the vibe here: it’s vaguely cellar-like with flowers and pictures dotting brick walls. The space somehow manages to be large and bright but maintains an aspect of coziness. The sandwiches are cheap and good. The only real downside (or upside?): they tend to have a lot of events. I got caught in a random Bach concert while there. Check their website for event offerings!
5. Café Csiga
Café Csiga, I learned, is expensive, but only if you order from their regular menu. On weekdays they have a student menu with cheap, delicious food available at a bargain. The great thing about this café is that in the evening it seamlessly transitions into a dinner location while maintaining a vibe that’s chill enough to have your laptop out on the table (make sure to sit near a plug– I recommend the corner table upstairs). When my roommate had strep, I exiled myself from the apartment and spent a good six hours here ordering various goodies and dinner from the student menu while studying.
4. Neked Csak Deszo
When one of the people in my project group suggested coming here one evening to do work, I was skeptical that we’d be able to pull out our laptops at a place that Google Maps called a “brewpub.” Surprisingly, I was wrong. The place is fairly well lit with a super great vibe (and plugs!), and on a weekday night we got a project proposal typed up while sipping on well-priced beer and cocktails. Unexpectedly fun. I recommend the cucumberry!
Located by the ELTE library, this is the OG study café in Budapest. I can see why. The vibe is picture-perfect, with big windows letting in lots of light and pleasant wooden decor, and the desserts are lovely. I had a mango-blueberry cake, but there were plenty of other healthy-ish (plant-based) and traditional offerings. The tea was a real winner– a big pot of Rooibos vanilla that lasted me a good hour costed me only 600 forints or so. It’s crowded though, and fills up quickly even on weekday afternoons.
2. Írok Boltja-Parnasszus Bookstore
I came here on a sunny Saturday afternoon to pick up a book to read over spring break, and I was pleasantly surprised by how lovely the bookstore is. Situated on Andrássy Út, I expected this place to be busy and loud, but it was neither of those things. I spent a couple of quality hours in the cozy upstairs surrounded by books and using the free Wifi after I had purchased my book. There are only three tables up here, but I was the only one who was sitting for an extended period of time. Refreshingly quiet after so many other crowded study spots!
My ABSOLUTE FAVORITE café in Budapest. It’s a well-lit, beautifully decorated place with an entire wall of books and lots of window seats to set the mood. The desserts are to die for, and if you’re only going to be there once I highly recommend the cheesecake– light with an unbearably delicious crust, it’s easily the best cheesecake I’ve ever had. The tea, too, is phenomenal, with custom herbal blends like goji-pomegranate or grapefruit-apple in good-sized pots. The music is great (I’ve been here long enough and often enough to hear their entire playlist, can attest to every song they’ve got). Also, if you’re a fan of dogs: lots of dogs come here. It’s a great place. HIGHLY recommend. My only piece of advice: go before 4 pm as they tend to close early.
What do you do when a huge fluffy monster in a terrifying mask jumps on you to give you a hug, stroke your face, ruffle your hair, or jump around you maniacally? (or possibly all of the above?)
Well, on March 3, Carnival Sunday, in Mohács, Hungary, I would learn the answer to that question. It was the Busó Festival (which, if you’ve been reading along, you should know is pronounced “boo-sho”), an annual celebration, as I would quickly learn, of fertility and beating those damn Turks. But mostly fertility.
Wikipedia had told me the legend of the festival far before I stepped onto the cobbled streets: when the Turks occupied the village in the 16th and 17th centuries (read about Eger for more about these nasty Ottomans), the villagers hid out in the woods, and, on the advice of an old Slovak man, waited until a thunderstorm to dress up in terrifying costumes, make as much noise as possible, and march back into town. Those cowardly Turks thought the busós were literally demons and allegedly ran out of town. In some more boring versions of the legend, it’s winter that the villagers beat back, but what fun is that?
Anyway, ever since then, the people of Mohács celebrate that glorious victory by dressing up in the costumes of their ancestors (the women dressing either in traditional garb or as witches with carrot noses), making a lot of noise (with strange wooden contraptions that make your eardrums feel like they’re rattling out of your head), getting rip-roaring drunk (can’t speak for every villager but that was generally my impression) and generally embracing their fertile sides by accosting unsuspecting women tourists.
Mohács is a small place. Eric (friend I came with) and I spent the first half of the day walking the length and breadth of the town multiple times, stopping every so often to admire the ubiquitous street shows, folk performances, and spontaneous busó processions happening on the crowded streets, and jumping (or at least I did) every time they fired a cannon (blanks, I hope) about once every two hours.
For food it was definitely a heavy Hungarian kind of day. We stopped at a stand for lunch that had giant iron cauldrons full of all manner of Hungarian foods and essentially picked the two that looked the most delicious. What we ended up getting (to share… it’s a lot of food) was my absolute favorite Hungarian dish Toltott Kaposzta (cabbage stuffed with pork and rice) and another dish… which we assumed was beef. It was not beef, and when we cut into it and realized it was less fibrous and more porous than expected, we asked the woman next to us what it could be. She responded “blood.”
Aha, we rationalized, the kidneys filter blood. Maybe we are eating kidney.
Since then, after consulting two Hungarians and doing some Internet research, I have come to the conclusion that what we were eating was actually congealed pig’s blood fried with onions and spices… called sült vér, it’s a traditional breakfast dish at Disznótor, a kind of Hungarian pig feast where a giant pig is slaughtered and eaten all day and nothing is wasted.
So after fueling up with the blood of my pig-enemies (I guess?) it was back on the road for more busó madness. We headed to the river along with a giant procession hauling along an ornately-decorated coffin, which was put on a barge and then allowed to float gently down a river (one of the witches, I assume she was part of the act, followed the coffin and screeched and carried on about letting it float down the river).
It was late afternoon at this point, and I had decided after one particularly aggressive busó chased me around the square in order to give me a big bear hug that I was going to avoid eye contact and fast-walk whenever the busós were around. It was all in good fun, but at a certain point you get a little tired of the face-stroking and hair-ruffling.
For dinner we decided to top off our cholesterol-heavy day with a nice load of grilled meat, including some fatty, tender grilled pork and an enormous spicy sausage (notice a theme here, anyone?).
As evening fell, Eric and I (along with the entire crowd) gathered in the town square to watch a gaggle of busós light a giant bonfire (along with a man (Turk? Winter?) made of straw) on fire. Some cheerful folk music played in the background as the fire roared in the twilight countless embers flying into the sky and falling into the thrilled crowd. After watching the bonfire burn for around ten minutes, us (and the other day trippers) marched out of the town to catch the 6:40 buses, lined up like ducks in a row at the station, back to Budapest.
Behind us, I like to imagine that the witches and busós were dancing around the bonfire as their town slowly emptied of tourists and they could reclaim the night.
Eger is a beautiful place, a couple of hours by train outside of Budapest. It’s the kind of town where a ruined fortress overlooks the burgundy roofs below.
We started our day there at Károly College, where a famous Astronomical Tower resides with one of the only existing functional camera obscuras left in the world (our guide claimed the only other one is in Scotland). I wasn’t sure how much to be impressed by this, but it’s actually pretty cool- something like the oldest version of a periscope that gives you a 360 degree, projector-like view of the city. The creaking of the metal rods our guide used to control the camera obscura assured us that this is, indeed, old technology!
Another plus of the Astronomical Tower: killer views of the city!
Afterwards we headed to the historical castle, in which “a small Hungarian garrison” famously fended off a Turkish invasion in 1552 (before the Turks captured the town forty years later- anyone feel the bitterness yet?). Some two hundred years later the Austrians demolished half of the castle in order to save money, so naturally as a demonstration of the usefulness of… I guess gunpowder, in the museum tour I had the unorthodox experience of actually setting a small mound of gunpowder on fire (probably would not be a thing in America).
By far the best thing about the castle was wandering the ruined walls. There were remnants of snow and beautiful views of the nearby Basilica and Turkish minaret. Sightseeing in the winter means not many other tourists, and there’s something profoundly magical about walking alone in a castle somewhere in the middle of Europe…
In the evening, we went to the Valley of Beautiful Women, because conveniently Eger is also home to some famous wine country. This was wine tasting number 2 for me, and the highlight is Eger’s Bull’s Blood wine (Egri Bikavér) so named allegedly because sixteenth century Hungarians would smear the wine on their faces and around their mouths, using its deep red color to scare the invading Turks into believing that they actually drank blood. Scary stuff. It’s good wine, though!
So happy and buzzing with bull’s blood, all of us crazy American students sang on the train ride home. It was a wonderful day.