Marathon Matt (Budapest runner)

And, speaking of lifestyle changes…

If you’d met Budapest expatriate Matthew Higginson 10 years ago, you might not recognize him now.

Back then, Matthew was a fixture at the now defunct  Szixtuszi kápolna, a little Bohemian pub in Budapest’s Jewish quarter. And he was even a smoker.

Fast forward seven years. Goodbye smoke, goodbye drink.

Hello Marathon Matt!

Today, he’s the runner of marathons and sticks to a strict exercise regimen 6 days a week, including running numerous laps around Budapest’s Margaret Island.

Of running the marathons, he says: “It’s just something that gets into you – you can’t stop it. Since then, I’ve done one a year, two last year and will run the London Marathon this year.”

Because the London Marathon is so heavily oversubscribed, he explains that the only way one can guarantee a place is by running it for charity. Doing a good thing, both for the underprivileged and for himself, Matt has aligned himself with an Irish charity called “Concern Worldwide” which combats global poverty.

“They asked you to raise a minimum of GBP 2,000. There are seven or eight of us on the Concern Team, so hopefully we’ll raise 16-18,000 pounds for them, and this year it’s going to projects in Niger, mainly for eradicating hunger.”

According to Matthew, it’s been difficult getting friends and acquaintances to sponsor him for the marathon.

Brushing any doubt aside, he says: “I can assure you it’s going straight to the charity and it’s not going into my pocket. One of the reasons I picked Concern was they make a point of saying that over 90% of your donation will actually go to help somebody.

“It’s easy,” he says, “just click through on the link and you can make a donation via bank card.”

Help alleviate poverty in Africa and give Matthew a boost in his marathon. Just CLICK HERE to sponsor him at the London Marathon.

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Change, of course (Business Coaching)

Coming up in this episode of Budacast, Hungary’s online radio show, “Change, of course.”

Drew speaks to some wonderfully friendly Aussies, Ludmila and Michael Doneman of Edgeware, “an education and support system for ethical entrepreneurs and managers.” They’re here in Budapest this spring to offer some special coaching seminars to entrepreneurs here in Hungary at the friendly co working space knowns as KAPTÁR.

The point of Ludmila’s presentation, which is entitled “Mapping Your Practice to Your Life” and takes place on 12 March from 5-7pm, is mainly to help women who have reached or surpassed the age of 40 to map out their life’s experiences thus far to lead them to realizing their own business.

“From both women in Australia and from local women I’ve met, they reach a point in their life where they are not wanted anymore in the workplace, or where they don’t want to be involved in a particular workplace they’ve spent their life with – they want to do something perhaps more meaningful, something more sustainable on their own terms and some of them are not quite sure where to start.”

She continues, “So my presentation is based on those beliefs and on the experiences I’ve been through personally, particularly in Australia, where I’ve had a chance to work with people of different cultural backgrounds, people who are of an aboriginal, indigenous background or senior women, people who have particular special needs. We all have qualities and strengths in what we are doing, which are very applicable at the moment of starting a new idea, a new business, which would create new meaning for your next 20 years, because we are a generation who is going to live much longer than our mothers or grandmothers did.”

Michael, meanwhile, says his 2-day course, taking place on 13-14 March, is entitled “One Page Business Plan.”

He explains: “We have a process of helping people start businesses, grow businesses or change businesses based on what we call a one-page business plan. So, contrary to the usual process of business planning, which generates a 50-page document that more or less captures the state of the business at the time and then goes into a filing cabinet and never gets looked at again, the one-page plan is designed to be blown up and put on the wall of your workplace and consulted every day.

“So the course, over two days, teaches people how to use 12-14 simple business tools, because for us business is not rocket science and people need to learn that there are certain key, fundamental principals that you need to understand and put in place. Using those tools, you populate this one-page format, which is kind of a dashboard for your business, and as circumstances change, and these days they change all the time and rapidly, you can use the tools to tweak that plan and update it. So it’s very practical, pragmatic business education,” says Michael Doneman.

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Hungarian Comfort Food (csirkepörkölt)

Learn how to make “Hungarian goulash” – sort of… In this episode of Budacast, Uncle Drew watches in wonder as his wife whips up some Hungarian wonder stew, what many visitors to Hungary think of as “goulash.”

But it’s actually called “pörkölt,” which we’re sure nobody could pronounce, so that’s why any kind of Hungarian stew with red paprika in it became known as goulash. “Gúlyas is a soup!” Hungarians often tell you. So let’s just call this Hungarian chicken stew and be over and done with it.

On a dreary day in Budapest, what’s a better way to spend it than to make some Hungarian comfort food in the form of a traditional stew: “pörkölt.”

Ssshhh! Don’t tell anybody. The big secret to such stews is that they start with an onion base. Use more than you’d think and they simmer down into a delicious sauce. “The more onions, the thicker the sauce will be,” says Andrea.

Uncle Drew and Andrea bought an incredibly succulent free-range chicken for this particular lunch. They have a special connection to a Hungarian from the countryside who brings her spectacular fresh and smoked meats from the village of Dabas. This organic bird cost them around 2,000 forints (around 10 bucks), which is double what one would pay in the shop, but, considering the flavor and lack of hormones, is well worth it.

Andrea typically cuts off the extra chicken parts and makes a delicious chicken broth for another meal.

After sauteing the onions (and, in this case, peppers – optional), brown the chicken parts in your skillet. We typically use a Teflon-coated wok.

Don’t forget to add the paprika. In this case we used sweet (“csemege”) paprika, but some might use the spicier csípős paprika. Note: Transylvanian Hungarians like Drew’s wife typically use less paprika to color their dishes than is used in Hungary.

Garlic is also a key ingredient. Andrea and Drew try their best to buy local garlic, because the imported stuff looks like it’s on steroids.

After sauteing the onions and veggies, then browning the chicken, add about two cups of water and let simmer for 45 minutes or so. Andrea typically pokes the meat a little bit to see if it’s done. It’s best if it easily falls off the bone.

While such Hungarian stews are typically served with spaetzle (nokedli or galuska), we love to eat them in a shallow bowl over puliszka (the Hungarian word for polenta).

Since Andrea is Hungarian from Transylvania, this may not be the way Hungarians in Hungary cook this, but at any rate it is delicious. Jó étvágyat!

Stay tuned!

Uncle Drew & Andrea

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The Rain on the Great Plain Can Make One Insane…

If it were possible to obtain a graduate degree in Budapest Winter Blues, Uncle Drew feels like he’s earned a PhD. He’s been through almost 20 winters in Hungary.

As for the difference between a winter in Hungary and one in Chicago, he says: “You know in Chicago the sun is always shining, even if it’s 20 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. In Hungary it might not be that cold, but it will be grey and dark and damp and really depressing.”

All joking aside, it can be tough getting through the dreary autumn and winter seasons in Central Europe. With that in mind, Drew offers his Top 10 tips for getting through these off seasons in Hungary:

  1. Get up earlier to get the maximum amount of daylight savings time. “Get up earlier and get as much natural light as you can,” recommends Drew. “Get away from your desk, get away from your computer, get outside.”
  2. Get some exercise. Drew says he’s been a fairly consistent runner this year. “It’s a good way to warm up the bones, work up a sweat. Run for half an hour.” He adds that other types of exercise are also good, like kettlebell workouts at home, or you can join a Hungarian gym (called a “konditerem”). “Get it movin’ and get your endorphins flowing in autumn and winter,” says Drew.
  3. Staying social is also important to get through these dreary times: join clubs, take lessons, dance classes, writing clubs, groups like Toastmasters. “I did tai chi for a couple of years, which was a great way to get rid of some of the cold winter funk, get with some people and learn something new.
  4. Going to Budapest’s thermal baths is one of the best local remedies, according to Drew, who says it’s an awesome way to warm your bones. “My favorite over the years has been the Lukacs baths,” he says. “You can also change your overall perspective [at the baths], if you’re feeling a little down. You just become completely relaxed and can change your reality through the hot water, steam, cold water, etc. Change your state of being at the termálfürdők,” recommends Drew.
  5. Be sure to plan a trip for the winter to go to a warmer place outside of Central & Eastern Europe. “Just make sure that you go someplace else – hopefully where there’s some sun.” Mallorca or Turkey are two destinations that Drew says could be nice places to go during the winter.
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1956: The Polish Connection

Coming up in this edition of Budacast, a longtime resident of Budapest shows us the “Places of Drama” connected to Hungary’s revolution of 1956, one of which has a specific link to Poland.

Ojczulek Bem

In this archival show (from 2006), Uncle Drew talks to author Bob Dent, who offers some tidbits from his book 1956: Locations of Drama in which the author not only gives an objective account of what happened during the Hungarian rebellion, but also maps out how events unfolded in different parts of Budapest in October and November of that fateful year.

“It’s a guide to the places in Budapest where something significant happened during the 1956 uprising, which of course happened 50 years ago this year (2006),” Bob Dent explains. “But as well as being a guidebook, it’s also a guide to history. It’s a history book written as a guidebook, so it’s a history book written by location. It tells the story of the 1956 events as they unfolded in different locations. And where we’re standing now is one of the most important locations.”

He’s referring to Bem József tér, a green square not far from the Danube, which hosts the figure of Jozef Bem, a Polish general who fought alongside the Hungarians during their 1848-49 war of independence against Hapsburg rule.

Bob Dent tells Drew about the square’s significance in 1956.

“We do know there was a massive demonstration here on the afternoon of October 23, 1956,” he explains. “The demonstrators had come from two directions: from the south here along the upper embankment along the side of the river; that group of demonstrators had come from the Budapest Technical University, where there’d been a series of meetings over the previous 24 hours. It’s difficult to estimate, but thousands of people marched in a straight line in silence up to the Bem statue.

“And another demonstration had gathered in front of the statue of Sándor Petőfi, who was the young radical poet leader of the Hungarians during the March rebellion of 1848 against Hapsburg rule. They had assembled there. Initially, they were students from different university faculties on the Pest side – the east side of the Danube in the capital – and they had weaved their way around the city and across Margaret bridge to where we’re standing now; Margaret bridge is very close to where we’re standing now.”

He recalls that those marchers, on their way, picked up all sorts of other workers to join the demonstration, which by then comprised thousands of people – perhaps as many as 100,000.

Dent remarks: “It’s not a very big square in some sense, so 100,000 people – it was really packed. Photographs show that people were hanging out of windows looking at what was going on. Behind us, there’s still a big building which was there in 1956, which at that time was a military barracks. So soldiers were in there observing what was going on.”

Bob adds that the happenings in Budapest had been provoked by events unfolding in Poland that autumn: a new communist leader, considered a reformist, had come to power. It looked like Soviet forces could very well intervene there, but nothing happened. The events in Poland, however, had made big news in Hungary.

He says of Bem square, “The idea of coming here was partly to demonstrate solidarity with the people in Poland, who were demanding changes, but also to ride on the back of that or extend that to Hungary as well. Similar kinds of demands were thrown up by the students and others for change in Hungary as well. But it was because the Polish general is towering above us here that people initially came here.”

Incidentally, if you’re looking for tips on what to see in Budapest, Bob Dent is your man. The British author has lived in Hungary for over two decades and is the author of numerous guidebooks on the country.

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Budapest – Central Europe’s Best

Working in the travel guide business conjures up visions of an exotic lifestyle: hopping on planes and trains, crossing borders to hear exotic tongues, savour strange flavors, and encounter what may be even stranger ways of thinking. But if you’re the editor of a big time travel guide, you may find that the exotic trips only take place in your head, as you sit planted behind your desk.

Budapest

That’s where Adrian Philips, editor of the Bradt Travel Guides series found himself.

In this archival edition of Budacast, Hungary’s online radio show and podcast, Drew talks to Adrian, one of the authors of the Bradt Travel Guide to Budapest and to Hungary, and he tells us why he believes Budapest is the best city in Central Europe.

Adrian says that after a couple of years as contributing editor at Bradt, he wanted to see the publishing business from the other side. So, he took four months away from his desk to travel all around Budapest and Hungary, researching every nook and cranny.

Adrian’s first visit to Hungary in the early 1990s was colored by a personal connection.

He recalls: “Well, I was actually at that time going out with a girlfriend when I was 21, whose grandparents were Hungarian, and they had fled Hungary after World War II, leaving their house and all their property there. And so she’d grown up knowing this grandfather who, as long as she had been alive, had been living in England and still actually didn’t speak very much English despite all that time.

“We decided to go on a central European tour for three weeks. We went to Prague and Vienna, and Budapest was one of the cities we went to on that tour. When we went over there and actually tracked down the old family house that they basically fled from after World War II and I kind of fell in love with Budapest during that trip there. I mean it was only a short stay, it was only four-five days, but it stood out for me ahead of both Vienna and Prague. Prague vas slightly too quaint for me, slightly too enclosed really and compact. Vienna was a bit sort of too tonic, too straight lined. Whereas Budapest just had romance, the river going through, and was a bigger, more cosmopolitan city, a more lively city really, a beautiful city, but one where you really felt things were really happening in the here and now as well. Broadly speaking that was, well it was, my only experience of Hungary before I went there to write the guide book.”

“So the Hungarian capital cast its spell on you,” Drew queries.

“It did indeed, absolutely, yeah,” says Adrian. “And it really did stand out of those three cities we’ve visited on that trip, as I said, just had a youth and a vibrancy to go with the history that I just didn’t feel I got from either Vienna or Prague when we visited on the same trip. So yes, it certainly stood out.”

“Did you start writing articles about Hungary, or did you dig in and start with the guides?” Drew asks.

“No, I started straight off with the guide books”, Adrian says, “as I said we came over and spent the first two weeks of a four months trip in Budapest. We had some good help from the tourist board, who gave us a guide for the first week. Actually we became very good friends with the guide, we ended up going to his wedding a few weeks later during the trip. So he was a great help during the first week, but we literally pitched up over there, knowing no Hungarian, I mean I still know very little Hungarian, aside from the words I sort of had to get to know. But no, I had no real knowledge of the country beyond as I said that short trip I’d taken there nearly ten years beforehand. And you know, we turned up there with rucksacks, couple of letters in Hungarian from the tourist board that we could flash at restaurants and hotels. And had to dive straight in. And it was an extremely daunting thing for the first few weeks I must say. We obviously did some preparatory reading and did some basic reading of the history of the country and so. But broadly speaking we had to start from scratch there, in a city that we didn’t know at all.”

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Do you think I’m Szekszárd? (Budapest wine bars)

So, do you?

(Pardon the pun, but virtually every time we’ve said the word Szekszárd in front of people who don’t speak Hungarian, they think we’re talking about something sexy… or something.)

In this episode of Budacast, Hungary’s online radio/video show, we explore the depths of the Budapest wine bar scene, starting off with Doblo Wine Bar, galavanting over to Kadarka Wine Bar and finishing with a funky bar called Most. Join Uncle Drew and his feisty gang of night-lifers as they crawl the dark passages of Budapest’s Jewish quarter.

The Budacast team assembled a very special cast at the Doblo Wine Bar in Budapest: John Berry, an artist friend of Drew’s family, who is known for his bar antics and is excited to eat the fried skin of a Hungarian goose; our Indian friend Prabhu; Virginia Proud from Australia (acting as our wine expert on this night in Budapest); and of course the Queen of Expatriate Services in Budapest, Andrea Szalczer-Leifheit.

Virginia says she likes going to Doblo because it has a nice selection of wines, decent prices and it’s not pretentious.

“I think there’s a bit of a flurry of wine bars that are starting up in Budapest, but some of them are trying quite hard,” she explains, “And I think this place has got a nice atmosphere; at the moment it’s quiet, at 6:30 or so on a Friday night, so we can relax, have a chat. It’ll get busier later and they serve food.

“I think you need to have a decent menu when you’re drinking wine, and this serves all of my needs,” adds Virginia.

Drew says the only wine bar he and Andrea have been in is the famous Klassz restaurant on Andrassy ut in Budapest.

He gives viewers a panoramic video tour of the Doblo Wine Bar, showing the nice exposed brick, paintings and chandeliers, before they clink glasses and try their bottle of wine from Szekszárd, which Virginia comments is one of her favorite wines.

“It’s from Szekszárd,” remarks Andrea, getting an odd reaction from John, who thinks she’s said something provocative.

And then all clink glasses. It sounds dramatic and undoubtedly makes the wine go down even more smoothly. These quaffers of this fine grape juice make their comments about the wine’s richness, body, etc.

The next stop on their wine tour is the Kadarka Bár, which is named after a typical Hungarian grape that offers a spicy little red wine that can be delicious. But when we get to the wine bar, which is absolutely packed, it’s pretty obvious that we’re not going to be able to get a table inside anytime soon. The Kadarka hosts a young, hip crowd. (To be honest, Uncle Drew felt a bit out of place there.)

Our gang made a bit of a wrong turn by deciding to stop at the famed Balettcipő, a pleasant little bistro which we used to really like but it looks like they’ve really dumbed down to cater to tourists. There were horrible illuminated photographs of food a la McDonald’s on the outside of the building to show passing imbeciles what they can eat there. Furthermore, we ordered an appetizer spread plate which, when it came to the table, was missing the most appealing sounding element: something with smoked meat. The waiter dismissed our complaint, saying that the menus just hadn’t been changed yet. To add insult to injury, the spreads were served with tasteless, doughy bread. The wine was still good, but the wine is still good at many places in Budapest.

Our final destination was a funky restaurant/nightclub called Most! Kortárs Bisztró. We had to search for a seat here and ended up in an upstairs space where the waiter acted a bit weird when we asked him if we could sit there. There was a good looking blond couple at the large table who gladly moved down a few chairs to make some space for us; it turned out their were Polish and were in Budapest for some sort of multinational training session. The members of our gang had a pálinka each, some small talk with the Poles and we stumbled down the stairs and back home.

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Summer Socializing (in Budapest)

In this edition of Budacast, an online radio show about how to live the high life in Hungary… “Summer Socializing.”

Drew and Andrea give a rundown of where they went and who they met in their great summer adventure in Hungary. Plus they offer their tips – and speak to others – about great ways to meet people in Budapest.

Internations BP: lovely ladies in abundance

Andrea and Drew bump into their wonderful expatriate friend from Australia, Virginia Proud. She describes the scene of this evening’s social soirée.

“We’re in the lovely second district of Budapest in a garden restaurant or café, bordering a beautiful park. And we’re at the middle of an Internations’ function, which is a global organization that helps expats come together,” she explains.

Drew says that’s one heck of a coincidence that they’re at such a gathering, because that’s exactly what he’d like to talk about. He continues his rundown of summer fun.

“In May, one social thing that you can do is at a famous expatriate hangout in Budapest. It’s a Mexican restaurant called Iguana on May 5th, their Cinco de Mayo party. I ran into expatriates that I hadn’t seen in years,” he recalls.

“Admittedly, I’m not the biggest expat of the expats,” he explains. “I have been kind of shy about getting together at expatriate things. I think when I first came to Hungary I was trying to speak as much Hungarian as possible. But we really ran into some nice people and I think it’s probably a great way to meet new people as well. That’s, of course, next year. It’s one gathering that you might consider if you’re socializing in Budapest.”

And, says Drew, there have been several meetups in Budapest from a regional Central & Eastern Europe group on LinkedIn.

He explains that it was set up by a couple of really friendly expatriate living in Budapest, a Dutchman named Marco and a Frenchman named Ivan.

“Ivan and I talked about having an informal beer with people and he spoke to Marco and they made it into this incredible group within CEE, the “CEE Group for Business Professionals.” It’s on linked in and consists of several thousand people. The cool thing is, not only do they have occasional get-togethers in Budapest – but there’s no cover charge. They pick a place and the sky’s the limit – you can get together with whomever you want. Very informal, no cover charge.”

Andrea and Drew have made a lot of good acquaintances and business contacts at the CEE Group gatherings.

Suddenly, they run into Zsofia, a professor here in Budapest who is attending the Internations event. She’s there with her friend Michal from Israel. The ladies are a bit confused about what Drew is doing with his headphones on at the party.

“We’re almost live,” Drew quips.

Michal says she’s been living in Budapest for two and a half years and that she’s on a mission. “I’m working for a Jewish sports organization. I’m working for the Jewish communities in Europe.

“It’s nice, very interesting, different from my homeland,” she says of living in Hungary.

Drew asks: “Is it easy to get to know people here? What’s that been like?”

“For me it was very easy,” says Michal, who points to Zsofi. “And she’s my link to most stuff, working place and colleagues.”

“Zsofi, you’re an ethnic Hungarian from Romania. What was it like for you? Was it difficult for you to meet people in Hungary? How would you describe it?” Drew rambles.

She starts, “The honest answer? It’s not difficult to meet people, but for some reason I always meet foreigners and always end up in international crowds. I’ve lived here for 12 years, and it’s probably my fault, but I didn’t really manage to make too many Hungarian friends, even though I speak the language – it’s my first language.

“It is different. I’ve lived in many countries, but still in Hungary it’s a bit different and the culture is very unique in terms of socializing.”

She adds she believes that Internations is an excellent place to meet people for those who are only in a new place for 2-3 years.

“They have no time to develop deep relationships, so for them it’s an ideal place and it’s a community. It became a community.”

Moving on, Andrea speaks fondly about a wonderful expatriate couple that she and Drew met at the last Internations gathering. “Judy and Jerry are just wonderful,” she recalls. “Judy is from Hungary, but lives in the US with Jerry, who she married like 10 years ago. They are a lovely couple – very nice and entertaining people. They live in Florida in the winter time and they come to Hungary from may to August. We met them, we clicked and have had some wonderful grill parties at their place and our place, and we went together to this 4th of July event organized by Democrats Abroad.”

“Not just Democrats were invited,” says Drew. “Republicans were invited and it was also a very international group as well.”

“It was Canada day on the same day,” says Andi. “It was held at Kertem, which is a very nice garden club at Varosliget – it was wonderful, a great time.”

According to Drew, it’s worth taking advantage of the weather in Budapest in September. “The weather can be hit and miss, but usually we have nice temperatures in September, so you can still enjoy the outdoor venues of Budapest in September – like Kertem.”

They offer their tips for how to meet people.

“If it’s not some sort of ‘booze and schmooze’ get-together,” Drew explains, asking his wife how she met people.

“I met friends of friends actually,” she says. “They were expats and it’s always the expat crowd who know where to go and where the best places to meet people are, so I just joined them. It was that easy.”

Drew suggests joining groups for meeting people in Budapest.

“And get involved in activities,” he adds. “I’ve been in a thing called Budapest Toastmasters, which is a group which gets together every week to help people give public speeches. Here in Budapest, I was active in the group for about a year and a half, met a lot of international people, they associated themselves with CEU Business School, which meant that there were lots of students from Central Asia and the Caucasus in attendance – which made the group even more interesting.

“One thing that I would like to do in the near future is to join the Irish Hungarian Business Circle, as I think I may have mentioned I finally got my Irish passport, so I’m like a big European dawg now and will visit my Irish brethren with my American accent.”

Andrea says she’s lucky to be able to constantly meet international people since she provides expatriate services to them in Hungary.

“I meet a lot of expats and know a lot of organizations like the North American Women’s Association or the Australian organization.”

“Get involved in activities,” stresses Drew, just before attacking some Spanish women with microphone in hand.

Of her time in Budapest, Judit from Barcelona explains: “I’ve been here for a couple of years. I’m writing my thesis. Why not?

“So, what’s this all about?” she asks of the radio recording.

Smarmy Uncle Drew answers.

“We try to emphasize living the high life in Hungary and our show today is about socializing in Budapest. My wife and I had a very social summer. We got involved in things like this, went to several other things as well so we’re trying to give people tips on what they should do.”

“I must confess,” says Judit, “that it was really difficult to meet people in Budapest – not like other places. But there’s always an option. I started joining a very random group at Margaret Island, Sunday morning (4pm Catalunya time) playing Frisbee, and that’s where everything started. So you can take it seriously, or you can just chill out and talk to people.”

She says that everyone’s welcome. “So if you like ultimate Frisbee you can come and play, any age, any background, travelers, anyone.”

Regarding how long she’ll be in Budapest, Judit says she has no idea. “Wherever the wind blows.”

Drew remembers, “One way that I became more integrated into Hungarian society was to join activities. Do activities with a Hungarian instructor – get yourself into some sort of activity where they only speak Hungarian.

“I learned how to do Tai chi for two and a half years with a Hungarian instructor. I could speak Hungarian pretty well, so that wasn’t a problem. If you’d like to meet locals, I’ve met some of the nicest, sweetest people in a tai chi group.”

Virgina returns, offering her words of wisdom for living in foreign lands.

“My biggest rule for moving to a foreign country, and Budapest is no exception, is that you have to say yes all the time, because even though these might not be people that you would, automatically at home in your own environment, have thought it would be great to hang out with, or an activity you might have assumed you would have automatically be interested in, it’s a really valuable opportunity to just experience something different. So my rule is always ‘just say yes.’ And what’s the worst that can happen? Take a risk and experience something new and you never know what great things are going to happen to you.”

One final tip, our loyal Budacast listener András Tóth recommends this website for discovering other socializing opportunities in Budapest.

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Croatia: Love/Hate Relationship

Deep into August, when virtually no one is working and almost nothing is happening, almost everywhere in Europe everybody’s on holiday, and lots of us are doing the sea, sand and sun thing.

For many in Central & Eastern Europe, one of the top destinations is Croatia.

That’s why this video from “Wolters World” has jogged some memories and experiences in Croatia.

The prolific YouTube show’s host Mark talks about the best and worst aspects in getting to Croatia. As for the bad, he says it’s tough to get to the country in the off-season. According to him, once you’re there getting around is also a pain, that every journey takes around 11 hours, because buses must take the journey down the coast. He recommends renting a car.

He notes that in July and August Croatia is absolutely packed with tourists. And it does get hot, especially on a bike. In 1995, a buddy and I took our bicycles up the coast from Split to Rijeka, and the weather was sweltering.

Another irritation for Mark: The currency in the country is the kuna, not the euro.

I actually miss having to deal with a wide variety of currencies. Kind of like having a beer at Burger King a la Pulp Fiction.

As for the things we should love, he says Croatia’s got it all: “Coast, history, ruins, great food – all kinds of stuff.”

Mark’s top five things he loves in Croatia: 1) the natural beauty (coast, lakes, waterfalls); 2) cute towns like Rovinj, Pula, or Dubrovnik on the seaside in Croatia; 3) food – seafood and excellent meat dishes, at a great price; 4) that it’s affordable (but not cheap) in terms of food and accommodation; 5) that the country has a great tourism infrastructure/locals speak numerous languages “Cities have cultural events going on, people are friendly and helpful,” he says.

For me, Croatia is beautiful, from the wide array of blues in the sea to the quaint marble towns along the coast, but I still have mixed feelings about the country.

Years ago (1995) a large group of us were harassed by a group of nationalists we encountered in the disco of the resort area where we were staying. It was a weird and scary incident – many of us, including myself, were kicked and/or punched – but somehow the tension is understandable in retrospect, given that the wounds from the war in Yugoslavia were fairly fresh.

Years later, I did have a great time on the island of Krk, where people were much friendlier to say the least. But given that standards of accommodation can still offer a whiff of a communism, I’m not always convinced that Croatia is such a cheap place for what you get, or that one gets the best value for money.

One other weird phenomenon that we experienced while biking, is that, in general, resort owners are not interested in renting out a room or an apartment to travelers who only want to stay for one night as they are accustomed to Czechs or Hungarians showing up and renting the place out for a whole week or two. One-night stays are just not worth the hassle, I guess.

I realize I’m nitpicking and am sure that Croatia is moving forward and shrugging off some of its old world tourism destination tendencies. A smidgen of that eccentricity can even be fun. I’m sure I will go there again in the future.

If you happen to be traveling to Croatia, be sure to eat a slab of the wonderful Balkan “burek” pastry for me.

Do vidjenje!

Uncle Drew

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Cabs and Cabernet (in Hungary)

Take a hike, grab a cab, or tipple some cabernet.

In this archive edition of Budacast, “Cabs and Cabernet,” Bradt Travel Guide author Adrian Philips talks about how to get around in Budapest, recommends where to breath some fresh air in the Hungarian capital, and suggests where/how to sample the flavors of Hungarian wine.

Budapest (1997)

Co-author of the publisher’s guides to Budapest and Hungary, he shares that and more of his expertise on all things Budapest and Hungary.

First, he talks about the wonderful greenery surrounding Budapest.

“It’s quite unusual in a city to have so many green spaces, you’ve got the parks, the Margaret Island and the City Park and so on. But to have the Buda hills literally right hard fast up against the city center is unusual I think and gives a real breathing space for people especially in the summer months when it gets very hot in the center.”

Adrian mentions several stops of the two railways heading up there, the cogwheel railway (“Fogaskerekű”), and the children’s railway (“Gyermekvasút”).

“Both of them take you to the Buda landscape protection area, which is an area of about 10 000 hectares,” he says.

“There are various stops along the way that make great points to get off and explore the trails around there. You’ve got János-hegy or János Hill where there are a load of walking trails; it’s the highest point in Budapest, so the views are amazing from there. But it’s also got a chair lift (Libegő) that you can take back down and again, it makes a very nice vantage point for views over the city. There’s the Széchenyi Lookout which is just at the very end stop of the cogwheel railway. Again, that’s a great place to get some good views of the city.”

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He also mentions the Budakeszi Wildlife Park, on the route of the Children’s Railway, which is also part of the protection area, with great picnic spots and lots of nature trails as well.

“One thing that I always notice whenever I go out that way is that it seems to be quite a contrast compared to Budapest,” suggests Drew; Adrian agrees.

“There’s a massive contrast, you really feel as if you could be out in the countryside – actually you are out in the countryside. I mean, as I said, it’s a landscape protection area, much of the hills there. You’re getting right out away from the sort of congestion, buildings and the roads and everything else.”

This green space in the Buda hills is quite popular among inhabitants of the city, so especially during the summer months some of the nature trails can get fairly crowded. But even then, you can find times of the day like early morning, late afternoon, when you won’t bump into people all the time.

Changing the subject, Drew says: “ You did mention the cogwheel railway and other modes of transportation. In general, how would you describe getting around in Budapest if you get around by car?”

“It really is a walking city in very many ways,” explains Adrian. “Once you get to the main pockets, the main sites of interest, they are often very easily accessed by foot. But if you do need to get from one side of the city to the other, or to go a few stops, but you’re not between sites, the metro’s excellent. There are three metro lines. It’s actually the first underground transport network in continental Europe. So, there are three lines, they are all very reliable, they are punctual, they get crowded in rush hour, but generally speaking, an absolute breeze.

“And especially the yellow line, which travels beneath Andrássy út up to City Park, which is the oldest one, it was built in 1896 to celebrate the country’s Millenium. It’s a lovely line to travel, the underground stations are often decorated with these patterned tiles and it just has a nice, sort of old world feel to it.”

Adrian gushes about all the forms of public transport in Budapest, but there is a lot to be enthused about.

“And the other ways of getting around, you’ve got trams, trolley buses and buses themselves.”

He continues: “Some of the tram lines run along the river (#2 in Pest and #19 in Buda), some actually make an excellent way of seeing the riverscape as well. If you don’t want to walk between bridges, then you can get the tram along by the river and that’s a lovely way of seeing the city as well.”

There is one aspect of about getting around in Budapest, according to Adrian, that visitors should be aware of: traveling by taxi. He warns that one should make sure they’re traveling with a reputable taxi firm if they don’t want to risk being stung by those out to gouge tourists with exorbitant fares.

“Yeah, we used to joke in the early 90s,” remarks Drew. “You know, just kind of wondering how many rivers there were in Budapest.”

Budapest “Yeah, exactly, that’s absolutely right,” laughs Adrian.

“A friend of mine came back from Budapest a couple of weeks ago and they had taken a taxi for not a lot more than a kilometer and had been charged something ridiculous, like 8000 forints, and if you are a tourist that’s there on a short break, you really don’t know what to expect and it’s almost after you’ve paid and they’ve driven off, you come to think, ‘wait a second, how much was that in pounds or dollars?’ of whatever your own currency is and it’s only then you realize just how much they have taken you for a ride as it were.  So, I would say people should always look out to take a reputable taxi firm. Make sure that they have got the name on the side of the car, make sure the meter’s set to zero, and if possible, really do ring and get a quote before – order a cab by phone and make sure you get a quote from the person on the phone.”

(Drew recommends trying Főtaxi or Taxi 2000.)

After agreeing that compared to some western capital cities, the public transportation in Budapest is quite inexpensive, Adrian calls tourists’ attention to one thing about it that they will possibly find unfamiliar.

“You buy tickets before boarding and you have to validate them on the buses, on the trams and also if you go through into metro stations, there are sort of punching machines. And it’s important that you do that, there are inspectors that wait, that board trams and trolley buses, and also wait at the exits of metro stations and they will fine people who haven’t validated their ticket, even if they have a ticket in their hand, if it hasn’t been validated when they entered the station or boarded the bus, then you can be fined.  That is a real problem if you’re not aware of this, and particularly with inspectors not being able to speak English, not being able to communicate what the tourist had done wrong, I mean after all these people are making an innocent mistake I think.”

Now actually tourists or those who are only spending a few days in Hungary can buy one day or even three-day tickets. They work the same way as monthly passes, you have to buy them once and they are valid for the time indicated on them, you will just have to show it to inspectors when they ask for tickets.

Adrian also mentions another very good initiative of Budapest transportation.

“If you’re a pensioner over 65 (EU citizens), you can travel for free on public transport in Budapest up to the city limits. And it isn’t widely known and actually people that are over pension age, should carry their passports with them as proof of their age.”

“Just in general, what would you tell someone, if they were a little daunted about getting around, should they worry, is it easy to get around?” asks Drew.

“The public transport system is really very easy to use,” Adrian says.

“Once you just buy your tickets from either your hotel or from a news agent or in a train station, validate it when you board, the trains come regularly and they’re very efficient and it really is a very simple way of getting around.  And I would encourage people to use them so much as they can, I mean at first it can feel slightly daunting but once you’ve done it once or twice it really it feels as second nature as it would in your own city.”

Getting way from the cabs and closer to the cabernets, Drew asks: “What’s your impression of Hungarian wines and what would you tell someone about Hungarian wines?”

Adrian says it’s understandable that some people have a poor impression of Hungarian wines, despite the many Hungarians who are proud of their wines.

He recalls: “During the Communist period, there was a massive decline in the quality of the wine, the vineyards were neglected and assimilated into state cooperatives, which were producing for the Soviet market in huge quantities; it was basically pretty much vinegar that they were selling. The main export was Bull’s Blood and it did taste pretty ropey. Since then, there’s been a lot of private investment from foreign vintners and the quality is considerably better. Overall, the quality is not up their with Chilean wines or Spanish wines, but certain wines are very good,” he contends.

“Certain wines are very good. There are 22 wine regions, I mean broadly speaking you find that the white wines are produced in the north and the red in the south, but there is overlap there,” Adrian explains.

“There’s a wine house where you can sample a lot of the country’s wines in the Buda Castle, it’s the House of Hungarian Wines and it has wines from all regions of the country. And you pay a fee – I can’t remember, but it’s a couple of thousand forints or something like that. And you get a couple of hours in there, they’ll open 90 different bottles at any one time and you can just go around the cellar and taste this wine. And you really will actually just in that couple of hours see that the quality of different wines can vary. But I would say the overall the standard is rising by the year and some wines you know, the Tokaji in particular, is globally recognized as an excellent dessert wine. And I think that the Hungarians are rightly very proud of some of their wines.”

“What about taking a short trip into the countryside? Is there any particular wine region you might recommend?”

“I would start with probably the two main names that are known beyond the border, one of my favorite places to go was Eger,” says Adrian.

“It’s a beautiful city, I mean one of my favorite cities anyway. But about a 20-minute walk west of the city, there’s a valley they call Valley of the Beautiful Woman (“Szépasszonyvölgy”) and it’s just a valley whose sides are just full of wine cellars that are dug in to the rock, and these are mould-clad cellars that have been there for centuries. And they remain at a cool temperature set in to the valley sites. And these cellars will, I mean they open at different times individually, but you’ll find it if you go at 10 in the morning there’ll be some that are open, if you go at 8 or 9 or something there’ll be some still open.  And you can just go there and just take a tour and drop in on whichever of these little cellars you fancy, they’ll just be the individual vineyard owner there who will sort of pour out some wine for you from these big plastic bottles, and a glass of wine is something ridiculous – I mean it’s as little as 50 Fts for a glass which is you know, I don’t know 15p, something like that. And so it’s really a great way of having a taste and get a good feel for the wines there.”

He adds that it’s quite atmospheric and there are restaurants nearby.

(Be sure to check out Uncle Drew and Andrea’s exploits in Eger.)

Adrian mentions one of Eger’s most popular products, which is the Bull’s Blood. It was the main export product of the Hungarian wine market during the socialist era, when that market was mostly neglected, but this product remains globally popular ever since. Then we go to another famous wine region of Hungary.

“The other region I would talk about would be Tokaj,” Adrian says.

Tokaji is probably the best of Hungary’s wines, it’s certainly the one that’s made the biggest impact beyond Hungary’s borders. And it’s a sort of rich, amber-hued, sweet wine, that’s now primarily a dessert wine.“

“If I think about the first time I ever toured a winery, it was in California, and it had kind of a lot of marketing savvy, maybe it was run by a sort of a larger company. How would you characterize some of the smaller vintners in Hungary, what’s it like going in a cellar for example?” Drew asks.

“It’s very different, yeah, there’s certainly no big marketing speak, I mean some of them, a lot of them don’t speak English actually, so they don’t give you a big spiel; you need to read around if you want to learn the history. Some of them do, some of them, the bigger ones now do have English speakers who can help you out.  But it varies. Some of them, as I said, are these mould-clad cellars with pretty much one man and his dog in there and producing a very small amount of wine per year sitting their in a tacky jumper on a wine barrel, and you just go in and ask for a glass and sit in the cellar or sit outside.  Others are much bigger and they’ll show you around the sort of wine production area and some vineyards’ bottling is done on site and so you can go to the bottling plants. And so there is a real range of types of cellars you can visit. Many now of the slightly larger ones have a restaurant attached, so you can go and have a tasting in their cellar and then have a meal afterwards. And again that’s a very nice way of spending an evening.”

Tours of wineries can vary greatly, according to Adrian, who thinks Hungary is now really working on building up its wine market. “Maybe it cannot compete with the biggest names yet, but definitely has the potential,” he opines.

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