Three Bars in Three Cities

If there is one thing anyone can rely on when traveling in most parts of the world — it’s that there will always be a bar. When traveling, bars are not just a place to get a drink but a place to meet other travelers on the road and swap stories.  In my experience, it’s a place to meet the locals who can tell you more about the area you’re visiting and maybe even give you some good recommendations for getting off the beaten path. These are the places (drinking or not) that you start experiencing more of the place you’re visiting rather than just being a casual observer.

Budapest, Hungary — Szimpla Kert

I had heard about Szimpla long before I was even considering going to Budapest. Friends of mine from Germany, the U.K. and not to mention my Lithuanian husband had all been to Szimpla on their own respective trips to Budapest. So by the time I took my own maiden voyage to Hungary in October — I had high hopes for the bar.  Ruin pubs are unique to Budapest and they sound exactly like what they are, which is old buildings that are turned into bars. Szimpla is the ultimate ruin pub — it’s a massive old factory that has no roof (so everyone can smoke inside) and  multiple levels which include numerous bars. The place is covered in spray paint over it’s dingy walls, bath tubs cut in half serve as couches and old rusty bicycles hang from the walls tangled up in Christmas lights. I had never been to a bar quite like it. But, it lived up to expectation. When we were there we made friends with other pub goers who were from all over the world. People from Chile, U.K, Somalia, Romania, Italy, and of course Hungary were all happily sipping beer, sharing cigarettes as well as  stories. It was a fantastic place to go if you were looking for a friendly bar in Budapest.

Prague, Czech Republic — Hemingway Bar

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Hemingway Bar could tie first with Szimpla but it is a completely different type of experience. Hemingway was a huge highlight for my friends and  when we visited Prague in the fall of 2012. After a day of sightseeing we came upon a speakeasy style bar near the Vltava on the Old Town side of Prague.  This was a bit of a surprise as I’ve never seen speakeasy bars outside the U.S. and I admit I was skeptical. I rarely drink cocktails when I’m outside of the states because they often are over priced, way too sugary and just not as good. But, Hemingway won me over. They made a fantastic gin fizz and one of my friends couldn’t stop raving about his Manhattan which we all agreed tasted “magical.” In addition to great cocktails, Hemingway Bar offered a wide variety of cigars to enjoy with your cocktails. The atmosphere was incredibly laid back and we enjoyed our Cuban cigars and drinks on plush couches and chairs at the back of the bar.

Vilnius, Lithuania — Alinė Leičiai

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I am always on the hunt for a good home-brewed beer when I visit a new country. I find its a good cultural experience — especially if the country you’re in is renowned for it’s brew. My husband had been telling me for ages that Lithuanians make good beer and often win international brewing competitions. So when we visited his old stomping grounds in Vilnius, I was anxious to see if he was right. Leicai (pronounced Lay – chay) is a brewery in the old town of Vilnius that serves their signatures brews (light, dark and everything in between) as well as traditional Lithuanian food. Leicai is more of the perfect place to meet up with old friends (which is what we were there to do) than to go for a big night out. It’s a  place to relax and have a couple of beers and maybe a cheese/meat plate (which was enough to stuff three people).

What are some of the best bars you have been to?

Photo Credit: Aline Leiciai photo from Aline Leicia’s Facebook page; Hemingway Bar photo from Hemingway Bar photo’s Facebook page

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The 19th Century Coffee Houses of Budapest

Indulging in the cafe culture in Budapest was a high point of my visit to the Hungarian capital.Budapest has a long coffee tradition that started in the 1600s with the Turkish occupation. Later during the 19th century, when Hungary was experiencing their Golden Age, there were over 400 coffee houses in Budapest alone. These coffee houses catered to writers, poets and artists during this time by providing them with free paper and ink as well as a special discounted menu. It’s no surprise that these cafe’s became a mainstay for Budapest intellectuals. Unfortunately, the tradition of these grand coffee houses fell to the wayside under the communist rule of the 20th century. But, in recent years they have seen a revival. Many of the large cafe’s from the 19th century have been restored and are now open for business serving coffee to tourists and locals alike. I was lucky enough to visit two of these coffee houses during my trip.

The New York Cafe

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The New York Cafe is on the ground floor of the immaculate Boscolo Hotel. Walking in, you’re almost overcome with just how decadent the interior is. I’ve read  a few guides where  people remark that it’s “just like stepping back in time” and it truly is. The cafe’s interior is incredible with white marble floors and stairways, gold molding, painted frescoes and of course sparkling chandeliers. The tables are all topped with white table cloths and the chairs are plush and red. There isn’t a plain or ordinary spot in the entire place. The cafe was opened in 1894 and was a particular favorite for writers and editors. There is even a legend that Ferenc Molnar, a well-known Hungarian novelist, threw the keys of the New York Cafe into the Danube so that it would be open all day and night.

However, once you get past the overwhelming grandness of the New York Cafe, the feeling of stepping back in time quickly fades like a clever illusion.

The place was full to the brim with tourists and hotel guests. There were cameras going off at almost every table, despite the fact that there was a large sign at the entrance stating that photography was prohibited.

After being seated and having time to digest my surroundings, I realized that there was something a bit off about the cafe. While it was beautiful and the coffee and desserts, while over-priced, were tasty…it didn’t quite feel like a cafe.

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It seemed like everyone was gawking at the interior or getting up and taking photos in front of it. No one seemed to really be focused on being there for breakfast. It was like being at the Sistine Chapel, only there was the option of coffee.

Then it hit me.The New York Cafe was a bit like a nostalgic spectacle of old grandeur that tourists have come to see. My partner summed it up pretty well when he remarked that “The soul of this place died a long time ago.”

While I had been excited to see the New York Cafe especially after learning about it’s rich history, it was a huge disappointment to see that it’s become more of a tourist attraction than a cafe — an image that it seems to play to.

Thankfully, The New York Cafe was not the only restored coffee house that we stopped at.

The Book Cafe

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After the New York Cafe, I was determined to find another vintage coffee house in the area. A quick internet search led us to The Book Cafe, which according to the map was less than a five minute walk from the flat we were staying in. Intrigued, we were lead to the Andrassi Ut (one of the main shopping streets in Budapest that ran parallel to our road). There still wasn’t any sign of a coffee house.  After looking around the street for a minute,  we walked into a book shop that could have been the Hungarian equivalent of a Barnes and Noble. Once inside the book store, we noticed an escalator heading up to another level. We took it to the top floor and  lo and behold — the Book Cafe.

The fresco ceiling is the first thing I noticed. Numerous figures such as weavers, beer makers, carpenters decorate the top part of the room. Several chandeliers hang down the length of the space. An ornate espresso machine and dessert case sat on the far left of the room. A grand piano stood at the center and tables filled the rest of the area. Ornate glass windows on the far side of the room faced the street our flat was on.

The Book Cafe (Lotz Hall) was built in the late 19th century when the building served as a shopping center. Karoly Lotz, painted the frescoes on the ceiling and even included a self portrait as one of the tradesmen. Lotz is famed for also painting murals in Budapest’s nearby Opera House and the Hungarian Parliament Building.

The Book Cafe had a smaller but similar coffee menu to that of the New York Cafe. The coffee was good but the croissants were the best I have ever tasted! They were fresh baked and brought to the cafe from a local bakery.

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The cafe is about the size of a ball room yet it gives off a more intimate atmosphere. While it was busy, it wasn’t crowded or overwhelming. The cafe appeared to be frequented by both locals and tourists. While there were a few pictures taken of the interior, the guests at the cafe seemed content to have a cup of coffee and chat with their friends or read a book. Unlike the New York Cafe, the place still had the nostalgia and spirit of a former time while also having brought itself into the 21st century as a high end venue.

Overall, the Book Cafe was a fantastic find. We went back several more times including in the evening for cocktails, cake and live piano music.

Photo Credit: New York Cafe image was taken by Yelkrokoyade and obtained through Wikimedia Commons

Parisi Udvar: A Forgotten Piece of Budapest

During my time in Budapest, I wandered into one of the most astounding buildings I have ever seen. The Parisi Udvar or “Parisian Court” is both haunting and breathtaking. As the brain child of German architect, Henrik Schmahl — it was built during the turn of the 20th century as a multi-use shopping center.  The Art Deco building was finished in 1913 — complete with ornately carved panels, stained glass dome and even a hidden elevator. The outside of the Parisi Udvar was used for the Budapest scenes in the film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  I’m disappointed that I can’t find out too much more on the structure — especially why it is in disrepair. Supposedly it didn’t suffer any major damage during both world wars, but it didn’t manage as well under the communist regime. I found one source that claims under the Soviet Union, the shopping center was renovated into apartments for a little while and then back into shops in the 1980s. Apparently during both renovations, no thought was given to preservation. Whatever the history of the Parisi Udvar — the building is completely empty today and, aside from a single security guard, is an open building where anyone can walk in and take a look around.

Traveler’s Takeaways: Budapest

Sadly, my time  posting from the road was short-lived. I managed to catch the flu while I was in Budapest, so by the time I would sit down to try and write — I found myself pretty low on energy. I am currently back home in the U.S. fighting jet lag.  But, I am happy to finally be able to pen some of my biggest takeaways from the great city of Budapest.

Big city

First off, Budapest is big! At 203 square miles — it is nearly five times the size of Paris! This is helped by the fact that Budapest was originally three different cities. Buda and Pest were the larger of the two and while they remain unified in name, they are still split by the Danube river, which runs between the two. Thankfully, Budapest has an efficient public transport system that includes a metro, overground trams and buses.

Budapest’s Golden Age

Budapest has some incredible, yet deceptive buildings. The Hungarian Parliament Building for example, is probably the most intriguing structure in Budapest. It looks a bit medieval in its style and is the tallest building in the whole country. It’s also only a hundred years old. Many of Budapest’s most visited sites such as the Grand Market Building, Fisherman’s Bastion and the Opera House were all built in the late 1800s or early 1900s. This was when Budapest was at it’s peak culturally and academically. Most of the buildings however were built in a gothic or renaissance style so they look much older than they truly are.

Speaking Hungarian in Hungary

In a former post, I advised that if you’re in a foreign country — the first words you speak should be the local language. I am amazed to report that this is actually NOT advised in Hungary. There were several instances where I greeted someone with “Szia” (hello in Hungarian) and they assumed I was Hungarian. Then when they proceeded to converse with me in Hungarian — I had to awkwardly state that I couldn’t speak the language. I would then receive a confused look — almost as if to ask why I didn’t start in English.

Overall, the Hungarians I met in Budapest spoke perfect English and seemed perfectly un-offended if you began a conversation sans Hungarian. Additionally, every Hungarian I met was polite and extremely helpful. I don’t think I have ever been in such a tourist friendly city.

Lack of local color

The biggest thing that disappointed me about Hungary was that they don’t actually have a thriving local underbelly. You won’t find too many bars or shops where only the locals go.

Most places in Budapest seem to be a mix of both locals and tourists. This would usually be ideal for me because it means you’re not as likely to get funneled into over-priced places where the only people you meet are other tourists and the restaurant you’re in is some exaggerated caricature of local cuisine and atmosphere.

However, it was a down-side when I wanted to find some good souvenirs or keep sakes. The only areas there seemed to go for “Hungarian souvenirs” were the tacky shops that carry t-shirts that say “I Love Budapest” and carry Russian Babushka dolls (which have nothing to do with Hungary). So, if I wanted a nice scarf or a cool piece of jewelry made by a local artist — I was out of luck. Unfortunately, Budapest (like most former Eastern-block areas) are still in catch-up mode and it might be conjectured that there hasn’t been the time or luxury to cultivate the type of local color that you find in other major European cities.

The trip to Budapest was incredible and the five days spent there were easily filled up. I’ve already made a list of things to do for a future return trip. In the mean time — I look forward to writing more on this excursion to the Hungarian capital.

The Shoes on the Danube

I’m excited to actually be posting from the “road.” My time in Budapest is drawing to a near (tomorrow is my last full day here) and I am only now finding time to write.

My first day here was a full one. I trekked through most of the city centre, visited the Grand Market Building, climbed the basilica of St. Stephens Cathedral and strolled down the river bank of the Danube. My partner, who has visited Budapest before, was anxious to revisit an old monument he had seen on his last trip. It was the end of the day and I was fighting both jet lag and sore leg muscles. At this point, all I wanted was to sit down and have a good cup of coffee. But, once we reached the humble monument on the edge of the Danube…all that was quickly forgotten.

Shoes. Women’s heels. Men’s brogues. Sports shoes. Children’s shoes. Some with it’s counterpart, others strewn by themselves. There they were all along the bank. All cast iron and aged.

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I had known what to expect when walking to the monument, but seeing it was still a shock of reality. During WWII the Arrow Cross Party, a Hungarian political party founded on the same ideals as Nazism, killed 10,000 – 15,000 Hungarians (mostly Jews) and deported 80,000 to Auschwitz. Jews of all ages and professions were lined up on the river, forced to strip naked and then shot in the back of the head. Their bodies would fall into the river and be carried away. The shoes serve as their memoriam.

The site was erected in 2005 and sits directly below the Hungarian Parliament building. Today, the shoes are filled with flowers, candles and pebbles as a sign of homage to those who died on the bank of the Danube between 1944-1945.

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Budapest is a city with a long memory. The effects of WWII and the Cold War are still plainly seen today in the buildings, the culture and the people.

More to come.

 

Postcard Pick: The Countdown to Budapest

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I received this from the great Andy last week and it has got me counting the days until I leave for my Hungary/Lithuania trip! Only about six weeks to go! Budapest has been on the top of my list of places to visit since I marked Prague off. So receiving the postcard from Andy has made me all the more excited.  After five days in Hungary, I am then off to Lithuania to see my in-laws. This will be my first trip to Lithuania and I’m excited to go to the Baltics. Additionally, I am going ahead with my plan to bring one bag (a carry on bag) for the whole trip. Let’s see how I manage! If anyone has any recommendations on what to do or see in either Hungary or LIthuania, please comment!