Exploring Budapest: Funiculars, trains, offal and baths

We woke up on our first morning in Hungary to find that Mikey had fallen out long-term, so we left him to convalesce as we set off to explore Budapest. We emerged to the sight of Parliament in the sunlight, a spectacularly lovely building which unfortunately had a bit of scaffolding on one side for some renovations, but, still.

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We chose to walk along the Danube which afforded us beautiful views of the Buda side of the city while also giving us the path of least resistance to our destination,
which was the general area around Central Market Hall, Buda Castle, and the Chain and Liberty bridges.

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We reached the Chain Bridge after a short ten minute stroll and decided to head across to see what the Pest side would reveal. That bridge is so iconically Budapest, it felt a little surreal to finally be standing on it, looking at the cast iron adornments and huge stone arches, taking in the view of all of the incredibly ornate and classically beautiful buildings dotting the riverbank.

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The Chain Bridge deposited us into Adam Clark Square, at the base of the funicular, a rail system which carries passengers in shiny little wooden cars from river level up Castle hill, where Buda Castle awaits. The funicular was built-in the 20’s, destroyed in the war, and then Budapest went without, until it was finally rebuilt in 1983. I’m glad it was; it just has a certain charm.

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We were all experiencing the beginning phases of a crisis of hunger. I asked the tourist kiosk at the bottom of the funicular if there were food options up top, I was told there was, and with that we bought our tickets and hopped into our own cute-as-a-button rail car, the first in the line, which allowed us unobstructed views of the city during our short journey up the hill.

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We exited our car into a large square, where tourists stood damn near shoulder to shoulder, taking pictures of the two lone guards on duty.

We strolled the castle grounds a bit, all of us keeping a sharp eye out for a bite and a beer, but much to our dismay, none were revealed. Wood huts dotted the square, which were presumably the food vendors the tourist kiosk told us about, but we were there early, and they were all shuttered.

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Finally, within the confines of a big, empty looking building, we struck culinary success in the form of a gift shop with grab and go sandwiches on offer. We grabbed a salami sandwich and headed back toward the funicular, pausing to take in the stunning view and castle sights

The changing of the guard ceremony was in process like none I had ever seen before; the guards in question not being spared one ounce of personal space by the surrounding tourists who absolutely mobbed them. One grandma, in fact, physically inserted herself between two of them.

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Not at all satisfied by our paltry, pre-wrapped salami sandwich, we crossed back over the river in search of Borkhonya WineKitchen, where we planned to have lunch. However, a Union Jack suddenly appeared, which meant pints, which meant we quickly scurried over to the John Bull Sports Pub, like sharks to scrum. http://www.johnbullsportpub.hu/index.php?lang=2 They weren’t quite open yet, but a guy came out who told us we could sit at one of the outdoor tables and have a drink, which of course, we did.

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Once we did get inside, the bartender (manager?) brought us the most precious complimentary mini beers you ever did see

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suggested we order their goulash soupa which we did, and looked up the Giants schedule for us to see if/when we could come back and catch a game. It’s hard to put in to words how satisfying that goulash was. We were feeling all funky from jet lag, super hungry, and in need of a comfort in a serious way. That goulash…it was a like a warm, tight, welcome to Hungary bear-hug, full of flavor, hot and brothy, meaty. It punched me right in the pleasure zone.

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We needed to purchase our outbound train tickets to Bratislava at some point, so, having just eaten, we decided to handle that nonsense before heading to the WineKitchen. Our John’s Bull buddy marked up a map, directing us to the metro which would take us to Keleti train station. We could not depart without leaving our mark on the money wall, lest Budapestians suffer any confusion over the state of California baseball.

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His directions led us into the Budapest equivalent of Union Square, an area packed with shops and really terrible looking restaurants with menus set on sidewalk displays. I think this best illustrates the point:

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It was here that we had our first McDonald’s sighting, where both the illustrious “Chicago Classic” and the elusive “Miami Deluxe” were available for purchase. Who knew.

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Things took a turn for the idiotic when we found the metro, which we decided not to take because the sign indicating that it was, in fact, a metro, was yellow, and we wanted to take the red line. To this day, I don’t know why we thought one had anything to do with the other, but this is where I submit my spurilous-at-best jet lag defense. We were 100% in the right place, you know, right where the local told us to go, then made the very unwise decision to walk straight away from it, and into the arms of a lurking, tourist gouging, cab driver who charged us $25 for a five-minute ride.

Keleti station was a sensory feast; above, a long ornate ceiling of glass and metal, below, gray concrete walls and floors, food stands, vending machines and ticket windows scattered about, (and a beer garden !!!) communist era looking trains waiting on the tracks. This oddly comforting and weirdly chimey song would play before announcements, and in the end, I decided a trip to Keleti station is akin to a trip into the movie Twelve Monkeys. I think it was the announcement song that sealed the deal.

Us girls needed a restroom STAT, so we followed the signs to the WC where we were greeted by two thugs listening to techno, eating their lunch, and collecting money to use the toilet. Of course we had no money on us so we had to run back upstairs to find Jake, passing a small room that had meat cooler style plastic strips hanging in the door on the way, one man standing skeevily outside waiting to get in, another inside, playing what appeared to be slot machines. It was called the Jatekerem; a super creepster way to lose money, I suppose.

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Back upstairs, a kind soul from the beer garden restaurant gave us access to their private dungeon bathroom, accessible only by FOB. The natural next step was to sit in their beer garden and refill our bladders.

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En route to the international ticket office, we spotted a langos vendor; all us being enormous fans of langos and only having had one in America, this opportunity could not be ignored. This version was topped with sour cream and shredded mozzarella, which I think is your basic langos, like, langos classique. It was good, but the dough was cold and it was substandard to our beloved stateside version from Bar Tartine.

Turns out, the international ticket room was an absolute DMV style shit show. We had to take a number, which was 30 international ticket transactions away from the number they were currently serving. Resigned to the long wait, we sat on the floor with some beers where I struggled mightily not to fall into the time zone warped sleep of the dead. When it was finally our turn to go to the window and explain what we wanted, the woman on the other side simply buried her head in her hands and rubbed her head and eyes in exhaustion. I guess she needed to take a minute, right then.

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Tickets bought, we got the hell out of there and grabbed a cab outside to take us to Borkhonya Winekitchen. 5 minutes and $25 later, we were there. The restaurant was very pretty and smartly designed, but we chose to sit outside and enjoy the beautiful weather, lovely surroundings, sunshine, and fresh air. We had schlepped our five-year anniversary wine with us from America and brought it to this lunch, which our servers promptly decanted so it would be ready for consumption during our heavier courses. In the meantime, we sipped on a terribly delicious white that we had ordered to start.

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Lunch at Borkhonya WineKitchen was really a mind blower; the point when we knew that the great meal we had the night before was not an anomaly. The menu was a menagerie of elegant offal presentations, which was such a refreshing experience. Offal is not only used with regularity in Budadpest, but is also presented in delicate, unique, and interesting ways, and unlike San Francisco, it’s not an “edgy” thing to do/serve or a “crazy” thing to eat. Consuming offal makes as much sense to them as eating a steak does, as it damn well should.

The first dish to arrive at our table was the duck tongue ravioli filled with mushrooms; actually, one giant, handmade piece of ravioli filled with a perfectly seasoned duck tongue mixture, complimented by a wonderfully light sauce.

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Soon, a rillette of pate, aspic and diced apple arrived and knocked the wooly socks off of all of us. It was a revelation, eating rillette and pate together, an absolutely brilliant idea that seems so obvious now it must become the norm. It really must.

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The braised veal neck came looking schelacked and glaced, beautifully perched above a sea of fresh tasting, brightly colored greens and brunoised veggies, over a parsnip cream so rich, it was akin to eating gobs of butter.

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The final item was a soup that was poured/assembled at the table. It began with a mound of diced beef, mushrooms and bulls blood (a beet green), which was covered tableside in a broth with layers and layers of flavor. Borkhonya was an incredible experience, a window into the soul of modern Hungarian fare.

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Our server decided it was time for us to try Palinka, a local slivovitzy/gasoline type drink. Let’s just say I was in need a chest shave after a shot of that.

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That entire meal, with corkage, inclusive of a 20% tip? It was $90 US. Total. $90. US. TOTAL.

Back at the Garibaldi Guesthouse, old man Jacobs was calling for some soup. The Garibaldi is located directly above a vegan/raw spot, straight out an episode of Portlandia. When Randi requested hot soup you would think she had just issued a racial slur, cuz you know, RAW. The dude working ascertained that this was for a sick person, then demanded to know his symptoms so he could prescribe just the right natural solution, which made me want to punch him in the face. Of course my dipshit husband thought the whole concept amazing, and ordered himself a beet juice, which “really helped with jet leg.” Poor sick Mikey ended up with carrot soup and flax crackers.

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Knowing Mikey was still alive and in possession of some really disgusting provisions, the three of us headed to the Szechnyi baths, by metro. We went through the usual mind bending confusion of trying to use the metro for the first time in a foreign country, and then, we were confronted with the craziest ass escalator I have ever seen in my life. Firstly, this death contraption moved at a breakneck speed (there were like, jet engines suspended above), secondly, it is so long you can hardly see the bottom of it from the top; the thing is eternal.

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Our brains did not fare much better upon entry at the baths

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where ticket procurement and locker room navigation were like some sort of reality show challenge. I will break that down in another post, as we did return. As for that night, once the process was all figured out and we surfaced from the locker rooms out to the baths, where we were treated to our first magical soaking experience. There were all variety of happy, relaxed, Hungarians in the main pool, high pressure fountains spewing thick streams of water for a nice back massage, long, shallow, curved stairs upon which to sit and people watch, all within the courtyard of a grand, beautiful, Hermitage-esque building.

When we left the baths, we tried to find something called Rocktogon, a music venue in Octogon square, which was a metro stop so it seemed that it would be a breeze. Unfortunately we couldn’t find it, and instead found ourselves in yet another touristy restaurant row with barkers and whatnot, where suddenly and without explanation, Randi and I were hit with a deep, demanding, hunger. We spotted a Doner Kebap place and decided that was our best and cheapest choice, and also I am head over hells for doner kebaps the world over, so we got one, and it was awful. You can’t win ’em all.

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We headed back to the Dog’s Bollix then, where we met Daniel #2, a different Daniel, the most spectacular of all Daniels, and Hungarian bartenders, a guy with whom we are still friends. Daniel suggested that we try the burger for dinner, a dish they are known for at the DB. What arrived was a double-decker of well done pork breakfast patties. and it was literally a double-decker, as in, two entire burgers, one on top of the other.

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And then, we threw in the towel.

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