There’s often a comparison made between Budapest and Vienna, a grudging admission amongst Hungarians that despite the architectural similarity, the Austrian capital is far prettier because it’s cleaner. Indeed, unlike Vienna, which was untouched by communism, Budapest now stands at a juncture of recovery in which many of the buildings still bear the scars of Hungary’s recently oppressive past. The events that took place here—a string of dictatorships concluding not long ago with a brutal Russian regime—are still relevant and haven’t yet been sorted out, marking every brick and crumble of mortar. A cleaner Budapest would be a fraud, a denial of its history and its current mood, of the profound regret for what once was and the continuing struggle to heal. Though tremendous pockets of beauty exist—especially Parliament, Chain Bridge, the Basilica, the Buda castle and the sprinkle of preserved Art Nouveau architecture throughout the city—it’s too soon for sparkle here.
Walking through Budapest, impressions of a once flourishing country flame my imagination. Apartment building entrances, arched and high ceilinged—fit for horse-drawn carriages to trot into courtyards—are now water-stained and peeling. But a glimmer of their magnificence remains. Detail work on façades—statues supporting iron-railing balconies, lion heads, high-relief carvings—is thickly coated with vehicle emissions and in many cases falling off in pieces, but is nonetheless a testament to a cultural appreciation of artistic sculpture. All are links to the old life, from a time before the downfall of a country when people fought and lost to protect it.
Kodály Körönd is perhaps one of the most beautiful points along Andrássy Út, Budapest’s main thoroughfare. There are four manor-style buildings at this intersection, adorned with turrets and ornate decoration, each forming a quarter segment of a circle. Up close, evidence of corrosion is apparent on all but one of the edifices, the northeast structure by far the worst, supported by heavy scaffolding and netting to protect pedestrians from the deteriorating façade. The southeast corner—once home to Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály after whom the circle is named—is the only one that has been entirely refaced. It is a stark contrast to the others, a stunning representation of 1800s Hungarian glory. Yet I prefer the southwest and northwest corners. The southwest is arguably the most architecturally elaborate. It has been somewhat renovated, but its visibly abandoned attics—now likely home to families of birds—are still in ruins, begging to be explored for whatever relics might be up there, coated in a half-century of dust. The northwest is uniquely hand-painted, although the intricate work is difficult to see from afar. It’s a source of pride for Hungarians who know little will be done to protect or restore this art in a country that has a modest budget for such endeavors.
Standing in the center of Kodály Körönd, surrounded by grandeur, I’m in a time before the collapse. And today the buildings are still being used as they always have been—as homes. Occupied by tenants, they are not roped off as museums (with the exception of Zoltán Kodály’s apartment). They’ve endured the Nazi’s—the circle named after Hitler from 1938-1945—and communism, emerging from those harrowing events a little worn, just like the people who still live in them today.
Hungarian history unfolds more explicitly in many other parts of the city. In October of 1956 citizens rose up to speak out against their Russian oppressors. However, what began as a peaceful protest of students rallying against communist ideals soon broke out into desperate war as Soviet tanks entered Budapest to stifle the demonstration that threatened to overcome the entire country. Russians blasted the streets with Molotov cocktails, and Hungarian militias arose in retaliation, removing red stars, burning communist books, and killing Soviet sympathizers. War consumed the city for nineteen days until the Russians forced Hungary back into submission. Although this story is over fifty-five years old, it still lives and breathes today. Bullet holes etched into building façades tell some of that tale.
This particular pattern of bullet holes around the window brings the reality of war times to the forefront. Someone was in that apartment, spotted by a shooter on the ground. (Note that some of these scars could be from WWII, but the general consensus is that they are from the revolution.)
For all its grueling recent history, Hungary was once an empire, its capital a European center of art and culture, grander than Paris, London, Rome, and yes, even Vienna. Not so long ago thinkers, composers, and inventors gathered in Budapest to exchange ideas and expand their intellectual knowledge. Today this is easy to forget. Not only was the architecture damaged and forced to slowly fade and wither, Hungary’s reputation as a great and powerful nation was also pillaged. Snail-pace renovations are taking place, speaking to the people’s resolve to one day recover. Until then, before the scars are plastered over, the remains will be here, weathered and gritty, telling their stories.
It was cold outside in Budapest on the day I visited Széchenyi Bath (or fürdő in Hungarian), a Neo-baroque-style bathhouse built in 1913. Snow flurries were intermittent and wondrous, the chill broken by pockets of bright sunshine streaming between the cloud cover. It was about 34 degrees Fahrenheit and I wore only a swimsuit, my skin goose-pimpled as I crossed the outside courtyard toward the pool. Steam wafted from the surface of the thermal water, purported to be healing. I stepped in and sunk down, wading slowly through the vapor, the air smelling faintly of minerals, icy flakes melting on my shoulders.
There are roughly 1,300 natural thermal springs in Hungary, ranging from warm to scalding temperatures. Mineral water jets upward through a geological fault that runs along the Danube River, creating a lasting supply that the people of this region have been harnessing for nearly two thousand years for both recreational and therapeutic purposes. The Romans built Acquincum bathhouse along the Danube to aid in the general wellbeing of their soldiers stationed in the area. During the Ottoman Empire, the Turks used the springs for their cleansing sauna-like bath practices. And today, even in a modern age where prescription drugs are the globally dominant method of “healing” , visits to Hungarian baths are often medically subsidized for locals. Indeed, Széchenyi Fürdő is one of the largest bathhouses in Europe. Doctors commonly advise soaking in pools of various mineral compositions and temperatures, knitting modern medicine together with an ancient understanding of water’s revitalizing properties.
Although Acquincum now sits in ruins, there are a number of perennial bathhouses still operating. Király Fürdő—renovated and restored over the last four-hundred-plus years—is one of two Turkish baths in Budapest built in the sixteenth century, its Ottoman influence architecturally defined by domes and four octagonal pools. After conquering the town of Buda (on the west side of the Danube), Turkish ruler Arszlan Pasha ordered its erection, choosing the location specifically within his stronghold to ensure he could continue to bathe in the event of a siege, a prioritization that speaks to a significant and elemental belief in the benefits of thermal mineral water.
Király Fürdő building at Ganz Street. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
Arszlan also constructed the domed pools of Rudas Fürdő, later expanded upon by the Habsburg Austrians, and today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Shafts of light pierce the octagonal pool room through stained glass in the cupola, creating a surreal, vibrant warmth of color. It’s possible to bathe naked at this fürdő, but before 2006 it was only for men. The policy has since been amended, and every Tuesday is now exclusively for women to soak sans swimsuits.
Gellért Fürdő is one of the more recently constructed bathhouses, decorated beautifully with mosaic tiles in the Art Nouveau style and found within the world-famous Gellért Hotel. The original bath here was first named mud bath, or Sárosfürdő, because of the rich silt that settled at the bottom of the pools. After its opening in 1918, it has since served as a recreational facility as well as a daytime outpatient hospital that includes an inhalatorium for asthma and chronic bronchitis patients. The curative potential of these particular springs was first discovered as far back as the thirteenth century; evidence shows that the site was a hospital during the Middle Ages. The water in the two pools contains minerals that have been easing and possibly even curing people of their physical ailments for centuries.
It’s easy to take this wealth of spring water for granted when it’s at your fingertips. A twinge of a headache and doctors are scribbling out “bath time” prescriptions for Hungarian citizens. Yet, this seems right to me, that whatever stresses the people of this country must endure, at least they have an affordable and soothing means to help them cope. But it’s more than medicinal. For many, baths are social gathering places, much like a night out at a pub, or a movie with a friend. And it’s also an opportunity for unadulterated repose at the end of a long workweek. This was my purpose at Széchenyi Fürdő. It was a definite form of preventative care, a deflation of accumulated stress as I reclined against the edge of the warm pool, tasting snowflakes, steam rising around me in tendrils.
Santa always came to my house when I was young. My mother—an ex nun from Oregon who strayed far from the path of Catholicism into the realm of astrology and a relatively strong belief in reincarnation—made sure of it. Despite her cynicism about God and Jesus, she clung to this holiday that had marked her own youth with so much joy. Every year she’d whirl about the kitchen in dust clouds of flour and sugar, baking and filling Christmas tins with cookies, letting my brother and I lick the mixing spoons and beater sticks in the aftermath. A veritable paragon of Christmas spirit, she’d pass her delicious delicacies out to the neighbors, her coworkers, to my grade-school teachers. And my father also had his part to play. A Punjabi Sikh whose birthday happens to be December 25, he’d assert that he was Jesus reborn, exaggerating a wink in my mother’s direction while she prepared his favorite foods—crab curry and spiced taro—for our holiday feast. My brother and I barely slept the night of the 24th, waking up at 5 a.m. on Christmas Day, shrieking and squealing, pulling my sleepy parents out of bed and upstairs where treasures awaited us, only to be tortured by my dad’s insistence on setting up the camcorder.
Chima Christmases were tremendous in their own right, but absolutely different from the Christmases taking place in other American households. That’s the nature of life in the United States; there existed—and still does exist—only a loose sense of uniformity where this holiday is concerned, centered primarily around gift sales at the mall. Aside from the shopping, families generally go their own ways. Some folks get their tree on the first of December, some mid month. Some open presents on the 24th. Others wait until the morning of the 25th. It doesn’t seem to matter. Some people have advent calendars. Others take stocking stuffers to insane heights of serious thought while still others are amused by gifting travel-size shampoos and hair ties, maybe a pack of Tic Tacs. For dinner, every ethnicity has their special dish. The unique customs in nearly every home generate that common question: “So what does your family do for Christmas?” Santa seems to be our only constant, burrowing down our chimneys, eating our cookies and drinking our milk. But for the most part, for those who observe it, Christmas in the United States is individual, each family’s celebration born of a hodgepodge of cultures and backgrounds.
Living now in Budapest, I’m in unfamiliar territory. There’s a sense of cultural and Christmastime solidarity here that I never experienced before in the States. During these cold days, residents of the city venture out of their warm homes in search of traditional foods like hurka and kolbász (two types of sausages), roasted chestnuts, mugs of spiced, hot mulled wine and Christmas sweets. There seems to be less emphasis on gift shopping, and, in the spirit of togetherness, people gather socially to eat and drink at the many fairs and festivals around the city.
It’s my first holiday season in Hungary, and although I am still learning what it means to live here, I already have some idea of what to expect. Not on any other random December day, but on Christmas Eve, I’ll be out there with the rest of the country in search of a tree, which I’ll help decorate that evening with gilded nuts and szaloncukor (individually wrapped chocolates) while eating homemade honey cookies and beigli (pastry with walnuts or poppy seed filling). I’ll have fish soup for dinner and sing Christmas songs. I’ll receive a present not from Santa Claus—who already came on December 6th to determine who was naughty and who was nice—but from baby Jesus. And in the morning, on Christmas Day, I’ll attend mass for the first time in my life, joining the rest of the country in celebration, the people connected during this time by a history of beautiful and shared tradition.
Still, I’m feeling a bit wistful for my Christmas, the one that no other but my brother, my ex-nun mother, my Punjabi father and I celebrated. The one with a ten-foot-tall tree we cut down ourselves and lit every night in anticipation of the big day, the one with crab curry, the one totally unmoored in anything remotely religious, the one that isolated us in a little bubble of familial safety and warmth. And although I appreciate the opportunity to partake in the customs of another country, I’ll be thinking of what Christmas used to be like at home, before growing older dulled the magic and my parents stopped pulling out the box of Christmas decorations from the garage rafters. Nothing since then has gotten me willingly out of bed at five in the morning.
The Rubik’s Cube, the iconic brainteaser introduced to the world in 1974 by Ernő Rubik, originated in Hungary. So did the ballpoint pen in 1938; that portable metal tube encasing an internal reservoir of ink is courtesy of László Bíró who grew weary of refilling his fountain pen. And today humanity benefits from holography. Holograms, impossible to duplicate, are instrumental today for security purposes, particularly to help prevent banknote counterfeiting. The science was first discovered by the late physics Nobel Prize winner and Hungarian citizen Dénes Gábor in 1947. This country has produced an astonishing number of geniuses: composers like Béla Bartók (1881-1945) and Ferenc (Franz) Liszt (1811-1886), and physicians like Ignac Semmelweis (1818-1865), who deduced that something not visible to the eye (bacteria) was making pregnant women sick and therefore became known for his advocacy of hand-washing before child delivery. I’m not even surprised anymore when my Hungarian husband points at something mundane and common, but often a necessity for modern life, and says, “Did you know that a Hungarian thought of that?”
Ingenuity is an important part of the country’s pride. The people who live here know that the intellectual and artistic contributions they have made to the world have been significant. We are able to keep our food cool and fresh because Leó Szilárd worked closely with Einstein between 1926 and 1930 to develop the world’s first refrigerator. Thanks to István Győrffy’s work in 1959, those of us who always felt self-conscious and nerdy in our thick, bottle-bottom glasses can wear soft contact lenses. For two generations the United States music industry recorded albums on long-playing microgroove vinyl phonograph discs (otherwise known as LPs), developed by Károly Péter Goldmark in 1948. In 1940 Goldmark also gave us the color television, of which at least one is found in every household in America—and in many cases, found in every room of every household. József Petzval invented opera glasses in 1843, which led to telescope and microscope lenses, as well as binoculars. And the world-famous prize awarded to those people possessing special journalistic, literary and musical merit was established by Hungarian-born József Pulitzer before his death in 1911 and first awarded in 1917.
The list of historical inventions is long, but Hungary also continues to produce a unique wealth of clever ideas. Last decade, Áron Losonczi developed light-transmitting concrete, a combination of concrete and optical fibers (each one of which is pure glass no wider than the width of a human hair). As strong as traditional concrete but semi-transparent, the energy-saving possibilities for high-rise lighting are enormous. The material has even been considered as a protective casing for New York’s Freedom Tower. Also, in 2010, Dániel Rátai created a virtual reality kit called Leonar3Do, allowing users to fashion 3D drawings on the computer and move them around “in the air.” And the Hungarian company iPont has created a screen that allows several people, positioned at different angles from a television, to view images in 3D without glasses.
Hungary is tiny and most people don’t even know where it is. It’s been through a rough patch since the beginning of the 20th century when it was drastically partitioned to a pea size of its former glory. But that hasn’t stopped the people of this country from continuing to do what they have always done. They dream and pioneer, blazing trails. They invent.
In the days leading up to the yearly Budavári Borfesztivál (a Hungarian wine festival), the buzz of excitement and anticipation sparked a major inquiry around Budapest: “What kind of wines do you like? Cab or Chardonnay?” In other words, do you like red or white? For many novice wine drinkers—and not just in Hungary—it seems to me that wine is merely an idea. It’s a stocked cabinet, a shiny display of quantity for when guests come over. It’s a sense of status, as if the exorbitant amount spent on a bottle—which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good—defines the very essence of a person’s sophistication. And sometimes wine signifies pride in one’s culture, which is a far cry from actual knowledge. I know one gentleman who quite regularly—and vehemently—maintains that the wines of his country are the world’s absolute supreme. He insists on this point without flinching, without a trace of self-consciousness despite the fact that he pours raspberry syrup into Dom Pérignon.
The question of red or white, I now know after beginning my wine education in Austria, is intensely limited. What types of wines I like to drink depends on a number of variables. The more I learn, the more particular I have become about what I drink and when. It’s not simply about the intrinsic balance of the wine itself, the importance of which I discovered during my first serious tastings. External factors are equally as important. It matters now if it’s cold out, or hot, or if it’s raining, if I’m reading a book, or what dish I’m eating.
To further my education—and to continue on my quest for quality wines—I attended Hungary’s wine festival, which takes place up in the Buda castle overlooking the Danube and all of Pest. Throngs gathered in the outside courtyards, listening to live Dixieland jazz, leaning against princely statues, and swarming the trendiest winemakers’ booths for a taste of their country. These people were here for some no-nonsense drinking. There were no spittoons. Pour buckets were usually empty. Very few seemed to actually be sampling. It appeared as though the majority of the crowd preferred full glasses, purchasing without discernment.
These empty pour buckets illustrated that despite a growing fashionableness, wine here is not yet a staple of culture. Russian communism ended only twenty years ago. Now, as an independent nation producing—and learning to taste—wines, there simply hasn’t been time to elevate the quality or to heighten the education. It therefore required a bit of digging to find what best suited my palate. But, after meandering through the maze of booths and crowds, I managed to discover several good wines, two of which made an impression.
Malatinszky Vineyards are situated in the rolling slopes of Villány, Hungary’s region best distinguished for its red varietals. Winemakers commonly filter their wines to create a clearer, more stable liquid. Csaba Malatinszky, however, foregoes this process while bottling some of his wines in order to better preserve their true essence. Filtering is suspected to remove elements that affect taste and nose, stripping the wine of important characteristics. Though still a bit young, his light-to-medium-bodied unfiltered Cabernet Franc had an intense mineral flavor that I found unusual but enjoyable, as well as a high concentration of tannins.
Although Hungary is not internationally recognized for its wines—most stay exclusively within the country, made, sold and bought by locals—several produced in the dessert-wine region of Tokaj have a healthy and well-deserved reputation abroad. Those from Oremus Vineyards were by far the most complex I tasted.
The Oremus winemaker’s skill with the aszú grape, which flourishes in this area of the country, is what sets this vineyard apart. The concentrated dessert wine these grapes produce is the result of a condition known as noble rot, in which the grapes become partially raisined on the vine. After each is individually picked, the full harvest is then crushed into a paste and combined with a non-aszú wine made from a mixture of other varietals, such as Furmint or Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. It is then left to ferment. The resulting dessert wine is intricately nuanced. As Szabolcs Ujfalussy, Oremus’s representative at the festival, aptly described it, “These wines are so nicely balanced that at the end of a meal, even when you’re full, it can still refresh you.” Their acidity makes them stimulating rather than simply heavy and syrupy.
In this freer, new age of independence—as Hungary endeavors to hone its winemaking expertise—a blossoming of wine culture is taking place, as illustrated by the popularity of the Budavári Borfesztivál. The only problem I foresee is a continued isolation from the rest of the world. Not only does Hungary not export much of their production, but they also don’t import much. Without greater exposure to wines of other cultures there is no basis for comparison, and increased quality of Hungarian wines will likely be inhibited. Still, for as long as I live here, I will continue my search, trying new vineyards and varietals, determined to find the perfect Hungarian bottle.
I used to pretend that I knew a little about wines. At a restaurant, when a server brought me a bottle and held it label-forward for my approval, then poured a taste, I’d sip, trying to seem easy about it. I’d then nod knowledgeably as if mildly pleased, indicating he should fill my glass. Once I did that with my husband. But after passing the glass to him for a taste, he paused, sniffed and sipped, then handed it back to the server to take away. It was corked. Corked means that the wine is compromised, that it’s either entirely tainted or certain characteristics are choked. Smell and flavor are not what they should be. Now I let him taste first, and I don’t pretend.
Instead, I’ve embarked on a journey to educate myself. And because Austria is right next door to Hungary (which is where my husband and I live), we traveled there for five days to begin my lessons. Although not as well known for their wines as France or Italy, or even California, winemaking in Austria is serious business. It’s a cultural staple. Indeed, Aldo Sohm, the top sommelier in the world, is Austrian. There’s not one region of the country without sprawling vineyards; every town, small or large, has a vinothek. Austria is often culturally lumped together with Germany, perhaps because it’s a neighboring, German-speaking country. Everyone thinks Austrians are German, or as I’ve often heard in the U.S., “What’s the difference?” For starters, the Germans, although not ignorant about wine, live in a predominantly beer culture.
We began at Winequartier, a vinothek in Retz, Weinviertel, the country’s region best known for the world-famous Austrian white grape, Grüner Veltliner. Wine Monger (www.winemonger.com) describes wines made from this varietal as crisp, light-to-medium bodied, and dry with an edge of spice. “It can have mineral, herbal, floral, and even fresh pea or lentil notes, and it’s known for having a slight white-pepper taste on the finish.”
Our first day was a success. We tasted nearly forty-five wines from the area. The development of my palate is just beginning, but by the end of the first day, the whites yielded grapefruit, papaya and citrus tones on the nose, the reds cherry, berries, and even leather. Each glass was beginning to smell individual, although the tastes were still a little difficult to distinguish. I’m understanding better—or rather, my senses are—that the balance of acidity, minerals, tannins, body, texture, sugar content and finish is key when determining a wine of good quality. The only way to learn this balance is to continue tasting.
We tasted over forty wines at a vinothek in Deutschkreutz , Burgenland, the area famous for the Blaufränkisch grape. This varietal is spicy and tannic with good acidity. Next stop was Wagram, but unfortunately the local vinothek was closed on the day we drove nearly an hour west from Vienna for tasting. Wagram is best known for more full-bodied and aromatic Grüner Veltliners, as well as Roter Veltliners. I was hoping to try them, but instead we made our way back toward the capital, heading East beyond the city to Sooß¸ (pronounced Sōse). Quite a number of winemakers’ pubs were also closed for the day here, but we did find a tasty Grüner Veltliner and Sauvignon Blanc at winemaker Johann Hecher’s establishment. His Grüner Veltliner was on the sweeter side, although sweet is not the correct descriptive terminology. Instead, it’s fruity. No wine, either red or white, should simply be sweet. Quality of a wine increases when the sugar content is balanced with acidity. Acidity tends to bring out more characteristics, like a touch of salt in food.
The best part about wine tasting in Austria is that it’s sometimes possible to visit the winemaker directly. This is a distinctly different experience than wine tasting in Napa, near my parents’ home in California. Private tastings are personal, and the senses are unhurried. In Langenlois, Kamptal we met Thomas Leithner, who invited us into his home. He’s a former string guitarist who still strums on occasion with his son, believes Bob Dylan is the godfather of guitar, is a whisky lover, and though he was not always certain about his future as a winemaker, eventually grew into a passionate and skilled one.
Born into a long ancestral line of winemakers and viticulturalists (his great-grandfather cross-bred Blaufränkisch with St. Laurent to create the Zweigelt grape, the most commonly grown grape in Austria today), Leithner knows his craft. It’s evident in his gestures, which are matter-of-fact while describing his wines. He knows quality and is confident that his are good. He pulls out various bottles and pours with such nonchalance that it’s hard to question this self-assuredness, even before taking a sip. It’s not hubris he’s full of. It’s knowledge passed down through five-hundred years of family tradition.
After tasting so many wines over the course of several days, my palate has begun to open up. I can tell now what he means when he says, “I make wines that I would like to drink.” These are wines for whisky-loving guitar players. As my husband put it, they’re mature and complex. I agree. I thought they were better than most I’d tried.
After a tour of his wine cellar, Leithner spontaneously picked up a fifteen-year-old bottle of Riesling and asked if we’d like to taste. The label was illegible after so much time underground, the bottle wet and coated in dirt, like a treasure pulled out from the cargo hold of a long-sunken ship. Something happens to a Riesling when it’s aged for so long. It loses its crispness in favor of a rounder, raisiny, more velvety quality.
Another personal favorite from our tour was winemaker Johannes Reinisch, in Tattendorf, Thermenregion. Self-effacing would best describe Reinisch. He’s a gentleman, reserved and not much for words. He lets the wines speak for themselves. That’s also how he bottles them. Staying as close to nature as possible, his wines are organic, but he doesn’t tout this on the labels. Yet, like Leithner, he also knows he provides quality. Modest, yes, but with my husband shaking his head in admiration at every taste, it was hard for him not to nod somberly as if to say, “Yes, I know.” His wines don’t explode on the palate. They’re intense and beautiful, subtle and graceful, with the absolute right amount of everything, creating that balance for which we’d been searching.
Five days is certainly not a sufficient amount of time. Winemakers live and love their business, their fingers in the earth, the grape in their line of sight from harvest to barrel. Certified sommeliers study rigorously for years to hone their palates. One glimpse of the color, one sniff, one taste and they can tell the grape, the region, and the vintage. They know quality wines. I may not be so knowledgeable yet, but I’m on a quest to continue learning, and I’m much better now than I was a few days ago.
Next stop, Hungary.