The Vienna Food Walk was started by Brigitte and Roland two years ago to show visitors to their city some of their favorite local eateries, away from the typical tourist establishments. We met the two tour guides at the exit of the Herrengasse subway station. They normally take up to eight people on the tour but tonight we had a smaller group of four. Two fellows from Tel Aviv (a doctor and travel agent) joined us on the tour which started at 5:30PM. Being foodies, we wanted to see how the locals eat.
The food tour took us on a walk around the center of Vienna visiting eateries along the way picked out by the guides. Brigitte and Roland also pointed out interesting sights along the way which might normally be missed. For example, they showed us the wall on St. Stephen’s Church where there was a circular indentation on the wall which was for measuring the size of the bread that vendors needed to adhere to when selling their baked goods in the middle ages. Bakers that tried to cheat were dipped in the Danube River inside cages for punishment … at least that is the legend. At the time, the square at St. Stephen’s was an open market where vendors could sell many types of goods. Another factoid that I did not know: the Catholic Church owns the buildings around the square at St. Stephen’s and leases it to store merchants for 99 years, eventually the buildings revert back to the church.
Our first stop on the tour was at the Vulcanothek (Herrengasse 14), a small specialty eatery where one can buy their in-house aged prosciutto ham. We went to a small side room to have the prosciutto as a appetizer served with cold cuts, a plate with parmesan cheese crumbles, a small dish with chutney, and crusty bread. Austrian white Riesling wine complemented the course. There were about 20 quarter pigs' hind legs aging in the cooler. Pork is the least expensive cut of meat in Austria … even cheaper than poultry. One could buy the entire hind quarter for about $300 Euros.
The second stop on the tour was at the Beisl zum Scherer (Judeanplatz 7) for a first course of a typical Austrian dish – cabbage soup with dried bacon bits. It was served with bread and dry white wine. The atmosphere at this eatery was local and the soup was tasty. This place is very un-touristy and it was named after a pre-world war one satirical newspaper that was published here.
For the main course, we meandered to the Brezl Gwolb (Lederrerhof 9) where we walked down a winding staircase to be seated in a small enclosure where the original oven used to be located for baking the pretzels. Before becoming a restaurant, the building was a pretzel bakery -- one of the first in Vienna. The place is ancient––with truly rustic furnishings and vaulted ceilings. Ornate wooden pillars of dark wood hold up the ceilings and the furniture is handsomely-fashioned from the same dark wood. The floors are made of rolling red tiles and aren't level anywhere. The décor is old-timey Austrian with crypt-like nooks and lit candles added to the atmosphere. We started with Brezl’s in-house pretzels (chewy and fluffy) and dark beer -- only served locally. The main course consisted of beef simmered in a delicious brown sauce, vegetables and a dumpling. The second plate was boiled beef slices served with special mashed potatoes mixed with onions and bits of bacon. Sour cream with chives and apple/horseradish condiments complemented the dish. We were getting pleasantly full but there were two more stops coming on the food tour.
Next, Brigitte and Roland took us to a street food joint called the Hoher Markt Wurstelstand (Hoher Markt Square) centrally located which is open 24x7 and serves sausages, snacks, and alcoholic beverages. Hoher Markt is the oldest square in Vienna. At its center stands a sculpted fountain but the biggest attraction is the Ankeruhr, a large gilded clock designed in 1914.
Wurstelstand is a favorite of Austrians, especially after the bars close at 4:00AM. In case you are wondering, the drinking age in Austria is 16, but no one is typically carded unless they look much younger. Anthony Bourdain of 'No Reservations’ stopped here. We had two types of sausages with mustard and brown bread, with a fizzy beer drink. The cheese sausage called Kraesekreine is great and you will see people from all walks of life eat there … always standing since here are no sit down tables.
The final stop on the tour was Café Korb (Brandstätte 9). It is a busy coffeehouse under the ownership of former actress Suzanne Widl who wanted a place for people to meet and stay awhile to kibitz. Roland warned us that if the coffee drinks do not come on a tray with water in Austria, then the coffee will probably not be good. The cappuccino coffee drinks were served on a silvery tray with water. Apple strudel with whipped cream (one of the specialties of the house) and scrambled thin crepe pancakes called Kaiserschmarren were served for dessert.
The legend behind the crepe dish is that a pancake, made by the court cook and indented for Kaiser Franz Joseph (1830-1916) did not turn out exactly the way it should have. To remedy this mishap, the cook added raisins and cherries and scrambled the pancake, served it with heaps of powdered sugar and made the emperor believe that it was a whole new culinary creation - which, of course, was total nonsense or 'Schmarren' as Austrians put it. Thereafter, the dish was called 'Kaiserschmarren' everywhere in the empire since it turned out that the Kaiser really liked the accidental dish.
Being foodies, we enjoyed the Vienna Food Walk since it is based more on local traditions and basic but good cuisine rather than eateries on the tourist trail. The three hour walk serves as a great introduction to the Austrian kitchen from appetizer to dessert with the added bonus of Brigitte and Roland's cultural insights about the area.
We headed to Vienna on the Railjet in the morning for a mini-visit to the city that was mostly spare the ravages of WWII. Last night, we booked a room for two nights at the Hotel Mercure near the WestBahn train station -- our base of exploration of Vienna in the next two days. The train ride was quiet and relaxing -- the fastest speed on this segment was about 90 miles per hour. The Hungarian countryside zoomed by and we arrived in Vienna's West side train station at 12:15 PM.
After walking a block to Hotel Mercure, we checked in and spent a few hours catching up on sleep. Later, Debbe found a wine tasting bar on TripAdvisor, the Vinothek W-einkehr, which she wanted to visit. It was located in the city center about 4.5 miles from the hotel. We bought day pass tickets on the Vienna subway system after exchanging dollars for Euros at the Post Office ATM in the WestBahn station. After five stops on the #3 line, we ended up at the Stephanplatz where the famous and ancient St. Stephen Church is located.
After a short walk in the busy center town area, we arrived at the wine bar, a small joint with a dozen seats inside and outside. The proprietor Roland, who spoke excellent English, was very friendly and suggested that we have a tasting of six red and four white wines made from Austrian grapes. He is very knowledgeable about Austrian wines. Roland presented each wine with friendly service and knowledge of the history and wine regions. We were provided with a mini leaflet giving more detailed information about the grape used in making the wine. We also ordered a charcuterie/cheese plate to share ... a great complement to the wines we were tasting. All the wines were good to excellent and were pleased to sample a good selection. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find many Austrian wines outside the country since the wineries produce limited quantities.
The room at the Mercure Hotel was small but clean and smartly furnished. The breakfasts provided were beyond our expectations with a variety of eggs, cold cuts, cheeses, breads, pastries, fruits and great coffee.
Our last full day in Budapest means we have to see a few places we saw on Rick Steve tour of Budapest. We did not explore the hilly Buda side yet so that was our destination for the main part of the day. It was capped off by a visit to the famous New York Café.
We hiked up the steep hill and arrived in the square with the historical St. Matthias Church. Before we toured the church, which is a major tourist attraction in Budapest, we stopped at the Ruszwurm confectionery to sample some more Hungarian bakery goods: a makos retes (poppy seed strudel), a linzer cookie, and a pogacsa (a savory scone)..
St. Matthias Church was a sight to behold. The historic Matthias Church (Mátyás-templom) is over 700 years old. The church was the scene of several coronations, including that of Charles IV in 1916, the last Habsburg king. It was also the venue for the great Hungarian Kling Mathias' two weddings, hence its name.
The history of the church serves as a symbol of the city’s rich past. The eastern gate of the church was built in the 13th century, when Buda was founded following the Mongolian invasion. The central part of the church was built around 1400, and from as early as the 14th century, monarchs were crowned here as kings. In the 15th century, King Matthias’ royal wedding was also held here. During the Turkish conquest, soon after Buda was captured, the church became the city’s main mosque. The walls were whitewashed and covered with carpets. After the Turkish occupation, Buda lay in ruins. In the 17th century, an attempt was made to restore the church in Baroque style.
Following the Austro-Hungarian Compromise in 1867, Matthias Church was the scene of a big coronation ceremony when Franz Joseph and his wife Elizabeth were crowned, and thus the Austro-Hungarian Empire was established. Towards the end of the 19th century, a major reconstruction took place, and the building was restored using many original parts and regained much of its former splendor. The roof is covered with the famous Zsolnay ceramic tiles, making the building even more beautiful. Today, Matthias Church remains one of the city’s most prominent buildings. During his stay in Hungary in 1991, Pope John Paul II visited the church.
We heard about the famous and historical New York Café from Anthony Bourdain's 'Parts Unknown' Budapest episode.
At the turn of the 20th century the New York Café (New York Kávéház) was the most beautiful and the most beloved coffee house in Budapest. This café was originally built by the New York Life Insurance Company as its local head office in 1894. Later it became a popular place among writers and editors, in fact, the most influential newspapers were edited here, upstairs in the gallery. After World War II, the once famous café fell into disrepair and it served as a sporting goods shop. Although the café reopened in 1954, under the name of Hungária,
it wasn't until 2006 that the New York Café was restored to its original splendor. The café, along with a restaurant and a cigar bar are now part of the luxurious Boscolo Hotel. The menu recalls the multicultural cuisine of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Classic dishes like Beef Goulash, Fishermen Soup, Chicken Leg Paprikash-style, Wiener Schnitzel and Grilled Foie Gras are served along with famous desserts such as Dobos, Sacher and Eszterházy cake. Today, Debbe had a sampler of Hungarian cakes and I partook of their cheesecake. To keep the calorie count at bay we did a lot of walking in lieu of taking the bus.
We decided to walk to the Citadel on the Buda side and later go to the Keleti train station to get tickets for Vienna. Originally, the plan was take the hydrofoil on the Danube river to Vienna and train back to Budapest but in the end we chose the train, the so called Railjet which makes to Vienna in 2.5 hours.
The Budapest Keleti train station is the largest among the three stations in Budapest and and is located about two miles from Budapest's city center. The building was constructed in eclectic style between 1881 and 1884 and, at that time, was considered one of the most modern railway stations of Europe.
After figuring out the protocol of how to buy the tickets at the international ticket counter, we walked around the station to get familiarized with the train system at the station. Basically, you have to show up about 30 minutes before the scheduled departure and find the track number from the electronic board, then go to the track and board the designated car. You take your luggage with you on the train.
Railjet is one of the most modern and luxurious trains in Europe. It operates mainly in Austria, with international connections to Germany, Switzerland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The trains travel at 175 miles an hour and offer maximum comfort, such as ergonomic seats, free WiFi, dining, and a cinema corner to keep children entertained along the way.
We took the Big Bus to Gellert Hill which is situated about 600 feet above the city proper on Dolomite rock. The scenery is great with some of the best spots to take panoramic pictures of the city. Gellert Hill received its name after bishop Gellért who came to Hungary from Italy around 1000 AD. King St. Stephen invited him to help convert the Hungarians into Christianity. Some resisting pagans rolled him down the hill in a barrel into the Danube in 1046. A large statue commemorates the bishop on the northeastern slope of the hill, facing Erzsébet híd (Elizabeth Bridge).
The Citadel which is strategically located on the hill had significant military importance during WWII. Budapest was not properly armed or provisioned to be a front-line city during World War II, and most Hungarians – even the few leaders who actively supported the Third Reich – never expected to face Russian soldiers in their own backyards. However, as the Red Army had rapidly advanced across eastern Hungary by early December of 1944, and Hitler declared Budapest's Citadel as a fortress that should be defended to the death of the last man standing, the Hungarians were suddenly trapped between a fanatically desperate “ally” that forbade any evacuation and the Soviet Union’s overwhelming military might. The encirclement of Budapest was complete by December 26, yet the house-to-house battle continued until mid-February, by which point some 160,000 people were dead on both sides – including approximately 38,000 civilians.
We had to make a stop for an hour or so at the Szimpla Kert ruin pub. Budapest's first romkocsma (ruin pub), Szimpla Kert is firmly on the drinking-tourists' trail (you can even buy a T-shirt) but remains a landmark place for a drink. It's a huge building with nooks filled with bric-a-brac, graffiti, art and all manner of unexpected items. Sit in an old East German car, watch open-air cinema, down shots or join in an acoustic jam session. Most of the clientele are foreigners. The night we visited, there was a Hungarian band playing folkloric songs.
The Gellert Hotel and Thermal Baths on the Buda side of the city sits at the base of Gellert Hill just off the Freedom Bridge. It is about $20 for the day to use the spa facilities which include an indoor pool, an outdoor pool with a wave machine, two thermal baths at different temperatures, a steam room and several saunas inside and outside by the pool. One can either go standard with a locker in the general changing room or opt for a small changing cabin which is locked. Both the lockers and cabins are opened and closed with an RFID bracelet which are issued at the entrance. Towels require an extra rental fee. The indoor pool requires one to wear a bathing cap which can be purchased inexpensively at the counter. Debbe an I spend several hours at the baths relaxing. It was busy but not too crowded considering it is the most well known of the half dozen thermal baths in the city.
Budapest has a long history known as the city of thermal spas which are reputed for their curative and calming effects. The original hot springs caves were discovered in the 13th century by the Knights of St. John and were used extensively by the Turks during their occupation of Hungary. For a history of this famous spa click here.
Budapest has many bakeries and pastry cafes and we wanted to try somewhere fancy. For our first foray into the Hungarian sweet scene, we chose a 150 year old establishment called the Gerbeaud on Vorosmarty Square. One of Budapest’s most famous and ornately decorated coffeehouses, Café Gerbeaud has been satisfying the city’s sweets cravings since 1858. The traditional cake selection comes with slices of the café’s three most iconic cakes, including the Gerbeaud, layered with ground walnuts and apricot jam. It is a high-class confectioner and the prices reflect it. I chose a dessert palachinta (traditional thin crepes) with a walnut cream filling, a dollop of chocolate sauce on one end, vanilla ice cream and apricot ragout. Debbe feasted on almas retes (classical apple strudel) with cinnamon ice cream, vanilla sauce and whipped cream. Gerbeaud is one of the 10 best grand cafes in Budapest.
It was very hot today and we ended up walking about the Jewish quarter looking at the sights. Debbe likes to explore the side streets without the hustle-bustle of the car traffic on major roadways and the wailing off sirens from the medical emergency vans.
We happened upon a typical Hungarian butcher shop style eatery called the Belvaros Disznotoros which looked interesting since there were many Hungarians eating at this joint. I call it a joint because, it is a small place where one can only eat standing up at small round tables. The name of the place literally translated means something like "Downtown Pig Killing Eatery." It a throwback to the pig slaughter ritual done in Hungarian villages during the winter. It is a day long process during which lots of Palinka is drunk. The pig butchering yields about five pints of blood, liver, all the meat cuts, the feet and head which is all used to make kolbasz (sausage with meat trimmings), verse hurka (blood sausage), majos hurka (liver sausage) and other Hungarian style dishes during the traditional pig feast.
We picked out a selection of dishes which included pork sausage, liver sausage and blood sausage complemented by fried potatoes, red cabbage, Greek salad and cucumber salad. The blood sausage and liver sausage were very moist and tasty with the right mixture of spices ... very rich with each bite bursting with flavor. This was definitely a 5/5 rating, a place we would return to many times if we stayed longer.
Additionally, we did a short river cruise which took us to Margit Island, from where we walked home. The walk home took us past the Hungarian equivalent of the White House, the Parliament building, the largest building in Hungary. It houses the assembly in one Europe's oldest legislative buildings. Due to its extensive surface and its detailed handiwork, the building is almost always under renovation.
We decided to get a 4-day ticket to use the Big Bus where you can hop-on and hop-off along many locales. It is a more convenient way to explore the city than trying to figure out the subway/tram/bus system. The Big Bus also has narration in 23 languages of each area or historical building it passes along the way.
We spent most of the day touring around the city on the Big Bus and spending several hours at the Great Market Hall which is the equivalent of Pike Peak's market in Seattle but much bigger. It is housed in a building built in 1897 and comprises three floors of market type of goods. Most of the stalls on the ground floor offer produce, meats, pastries, candies, spices, and spirits such as paprika of all variations, Tokaj wine, palinka (Hungarian brandy), goose liver, and other Hungarian specialties. The second floor has mainly eateries and souvenirs. The langos sand, which Rick Steves considers to be the best at the market, is located on this floor, serving the deep-fried snack food langos (somewhat similar to American Indian fried bread). The basement contains butcher shops, fish market, and pickles. Not only do they have traditional cucumber pickles, but they also offer pickled cauliflower, cabbage, beets, tomatoes, and garlic.
Instead of eating at the stalls which is kind of like street food style, we opted to eat at the busy Fakanal Etterem (Wooden Spoon Restaurant). We had gulyas leves (traditional Hungarian soup), cabbage/beet salad, and bread with a beer. Debbe really liked the flavorful gulyas soup and the dark dense rye bread.
When we got up on our first morning, we started the day with drip coffee (Starbucks espresso from Costco), Debbe's granola with Kefir yogurt and a banana.
The first place we visited was Margit Sziget (Margaret Island), about a 30-minute walk from the apartment. It is a 1.6 mile long island in the middle of the Danube River in the heart of Budapest. Today it is a popular recreational area with landscaped parks, a musical fountain, rose garden, Japanese garden, several Olympic sized pools, an animal rescue center/zoo, a rubber-backed running track that circles the perimeter of the oval island, and several hotels. We did the 3.5 mile hike around the island
The island has a history steeped in religion. The Knights of St. John settled there in the 12th century. Among the present historical ruins of the islands are the 13th century ruins of a Franciscan church, and a Dominican Church and a convent. The island was dominated by nunneries, churches and cloisters until the 16th century. During the Ottoman wars (Turks invaded Hungary), the monks and nuns fled and the buildings were destroyed. It was declared a public garden in 1908. The Island was named after Saint Margaret (1242–1270) in the 14th century. Margaret was the daughter of Béla IV of Hungary, and she lived in the Dominican convent on the island.
After a 10-hour flight from Vancouver to Munich and a one hour flight from Munich to Budapest, we took the Airport Shuttle Minibus to our studio apartment in Altkotmany Street 4. The bus ride from the airport took about 30 minutes and arrived around 5PM ... very jet lagged. Budapest is 9 hours ahead of Bellingham time. We were quite tired and just had enough energy to go to the Aldi grocery story which was a few blocks from the apartment.
The shuttle bus dropped us off in front of the address but then we had to somehow make contact with the Kata (Kate), the woman who rented us the studio for a week on AirBnB. By the way, prices in Budapest are reasonable. The shuttle bus was about $8/person and the studio was $49/night. It was located near the parliament building with good access in the downtown area. We waited in front of the apartment building for about 15 minutes hoping that someone would show up as I emailed Kata our arrival time. We did not have a phone so I eventually talked to some Hungarians on the street who called Kata for us. Reka, Kata's friend, was already there at the apartment on the 5th floor waiting for us so we finally made contact and she showed us the place with some suggestions of what to see and do.
This was Debbe's first visit to Hungary and my second after visiting Budapest ii 1974 while I was working in Toulouse, France. At the earlier time, Hungary was under Communist rule and it was not a happy time for the Hungarians.