Budapest was once two cities: Buda and Pest, separated by the River Danube. Buda is the hilly one on the left/west bank and Pest is the flat one on the right/east. Get your bearings by heading straight to the part-mediaeval/part-baroque Buda Castle, otherwise known as the Royal Palace. The view from the so-called Fisherman’s Bastion on Castle Hill across the river towards the Hungarian Parliament Building and over the flat expanse of Pest is as fine as that of any European capital.
What to see
You can spend hours in the castle’s National Gallery where the collection of Hungarian Secessionist pictures alone is worth the trip. Stroll along Váci utca (Budapest’s Oxford Street) down to the vast and heaving neo-gothic Central Market, built in the 1890s and full of stalls selling paprika in all its forms along with smoked meats, pickled vegetables and the mouth-gloggingly unpalatable local speciality lángos – a calorie-laden lump of deep-fried dough slathered in sour cream and cheese.
After one (even one mouthful) of these, it’s only prudent to make for the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath, the largest of its kind in Europe with its 15 indoor and 3 outdoor thermal pools, and famous for the old men who sit outdoors in the water and play chess whilst others elect to endure strange treatments at the rubber-gloved hands of stout, white-coated matrons. Underwater curative gymnastics or complex balneotherapy anyone? Equilibrium can be restored with some fine goulash at Gundel next door, the city’s most famous restaurant.
What to drink
Budapest could keep you occupied for days but I recommend, too, a trip to Mád, an easy 3-hour car ride north east of the city, across the Great Hungarian Plain. This is where they make the sublimest of all sweet wines: Tokaji. Louis XIV referred to this nectar as ‘The wine of kings and the king of wines’, Schubert extolled it in song and Catherine the Great ordered a Cossack detachment to be stationed permanently in the town of Tokaj to guard the wines purchased by the Russian Imperial Household.
Communism almost put paid to it, of course, but thanks the pioneering efforts of the Royal Tokaji Company – founded by Hugh Johnson, Ben Howkins and others in 1990 – there is now a flourishing industry once more with other top producers including Oremus, Disznókó, Patricius and Szepsy.
The wines are like no other, being tongue-coatingly, marmalade sweet and yet also remarkably fresh, thanks to a searing natural acidity. Indeed, so fresh are they, unlike any other sweet wine I can think of, they don’t need chilling before drinking.
Dried and shrivelled (aszú) grapes – namely Furmint, Háslevelú and small amounts of Muscat de Lunel – are picked one by one and gathered in a plastic bucket or a traditional wooden tub called a puttony. The grapes are placed on a rack, their weight eking out a small amount of free run juice (essencia) which is collected and put into glass jars after which it can take an astonishing ten years to ferment, thanks to its intense sweetness of around 550g of sugar per litre. This becomes that rarest of wines – Tokaji Essencia.
Where to eat
A modern, long, narrow metal (think rusty chic) and plate glass pavilion-like edifice, this is the perfect pitstop for those visiting Buda Castle, below which it sits.
The ideal spot with which to get to grips with Hungarian food and wine. Tuck into catfish tartar and sauerkraut, goose liver sushi, pork cheek stew and hortobágyi pancakes (savoury meat-filled pancakes smothered in a paprika and sour cream sauce). Oh, and make the most of the ‘wall of wine’, a floor to ceiling wine rack crammed with the best that Hungary can offer.
The most celebrated restaurant in Budapest – probably in all Hungary – is a swanky place and no mistake, set in the city park right by the entrance to the Budapest Zoo and the Széchenyi Bath. Enjoy goose liver three ways – smoked, truffled and pâté thereof – calf’s head and river catfish combo or venison tartar followed by crispy roast duck and red cabbage or pigeon, sprouts, salsify and mango. As for pudding, look no further than the Gundel pancake, a ubiquitous Hungarian delicacy invented here.
This fine neo-classical house near the village of Mád is set by the roadside on the edge of the vineyards of the Disznókó wine estate. If it’s sunny, sit in the leafy garden and enjoy dishes such as goose liver (Hungary is not only the 2nd largest producer of foie gras in Europe but also that of goose down feather pillows and I bet you didn’t know that), veal ragout soup, tripe and gnocchi, catfish stew, roast pike-perch, pork knuckle and cabbage salad.
Where to stay
You won’t find a more conveniently located place to stay than the Nemzeti, just off Blaha Lujza tér, a bustling junction named after a famous Hungarian actress. There’s a tram stop right outside, a metro station around the corner and Keleti station is only a few minutes’ walk away in one direction and the heart of Pest ditto in the other. The hotel is celebrated for being where the gypsy violinist Rigó Jansci used to play in the early 1900s. Jansci caused a great scandal by running off with the married American socialite, Clara Ward, and, inevitably, there’s a chocolate pudding named after him on the menu.
Gróf Degenfeld Kastélyszálló
The Degenfeld Castle Hotel, a former hunting lodge between Mád and Tokaj, has striking views across the Great Hungarian Plain and positively reeks of empire and past glories. The food is top notch and comforting with locally sourced duck, goose, rabbit and wild boar featuring heavily. The wine list is extensive and there are plenty of bottles from the Degenfeld estate, the vines of which run almost up to the door.