28 June 2013

Where buildings make us smile

I often stumble spelling the word "exuberant," and that's a hurdle I really need to get over, because here in Prague, it's a word that comes frequently to mind.


The glorious architecture, the ridiculously scenic views that have us gawking at every street corner like the tourists we emphatically are, the hordes of visitors crowding the squares and twisting, cobbled streets... There's a palpable, excited energy here that can only be described with that word: exuberant.


Today on a lark we visited the Franz Kafka museum, which was every bit as dark, morose, and pointless as you'd expect (which is to say it was rather well curated).  But it's difficult to square the existential trauma young Franz experienced while walking to school with the giddy delight we get from strolling down those same streets. Prague makes us happy.


This place is more densely endowed with interesting buildings than any city we've ever seen.  It's just crazy, with Disney-esque ramparts and towers poking up willy-nilly throughout the Staré Mêsto (Old Town) and Malá Strana (Lesser Town) just across the river.  The city is older, less orderly than Hausmann's Paris, but there's the same sense of proportion and grandeur: it just comes in a wacky jumble of gorgeous styles developed over several centuries.


We've even seen a few gloomy Communist-era buildings - surrounded by such eclectic architectural beauty, those has-been bastions of socialist realism have their own woeful charm. Prague is nothing if not a repudiation of the socialist model: capitalism has brought floods of tourists and lonely to this city, and the vibe is a prosperous one.



24 June 2013

The Tokaj Paradox

We took the train from Budapest to Tokaj, where vintner Angelika Arvay picked us up and drove us to her family's home and vineyards in nearby Ratka.

Tokaj (pronounced toe-koy) is known for its sweet wines, which were a favorite among European monarchs for centuries. Tokaji Aszu is made through a painstaking, multi-step process. Some grapes are picked in August or September to make a dry base wine. Others are left on the vines to ripen further and-- if all goes well-- to be infected with botrytis cinerea, a fungus that shrivels the grapes and concentrates their flavors. This "noble rot" is responsible for most of the finest dessert wines in the world, including France's Sauternes and Germany's surprisingly pronounceable and breathtakingly expensive Trockenbeerenauslese.

Quality declined during the communist era, but as Hungary transitioned to Democracy in the early 90s, local vintners and international investors restored the vineyards and centuries-old winemaking techniques to once again produce world-class wines. We've enjoyed these wines several times over the years, so when we realized we'd be two hours away by train, we jumped at the chance to visit Tokaji.

We must have tasted (and spit) fifteen wines at Angelika's table. We started with dry table wines--all white--made with Tokaj's major grapes: Furmint, Harslevelu, and Muscat. We'd never tasted varietal Furmint or Harslevelu wines before, and we were really pleased with their unusual aromatics. Harslevelu reminded us of fresh basil; Furmint is bright and citrusy with a spicy anise core. We progressed to the late harvest wines, and eventually to Tokaji Aszu. Aszu is aged for at least three years; the '09 we tasted had not been labeled yet, but that only heightened its appeal: we picked one up just like this-- inscribed by Angelika in gold sharpie.

After we'd tasted the full line-up, Angelika gave us each a puor of Tokaji Aszu Eszencia. This is the free run juice that is released from the shriveled grapes under their own weight in a basket. It's pure nectar-- never mixed with any other wine-- and so thick and sweet that only the surface ferments. Some critics object to calling it wine because it rarely exceeds 4% alcohol. Sometimes it's closer to 2%. It looks like good maple syrup, but it smells like honey and orange blossoms. The Eszencia is so concentrated and intense that the finish lingers for several minutes. When a bug landed in Steve's glass, he drank the last few drops (and the eszencia-soaked bug) anyway. 

Angelika also taught us a bit about local geography and her vineyards in particular.The vineyard called God's Hill turns up all sorts of fossils in the soil. Like this fish...

Angelika also told us about her work with Junibor, the Association of Young Winemakers. After we finished tasting, Janos Arvay, Angelika's father, took us all out in his SUV to climb the hillside and get a better look at his family's vines..

After the tasting and tour, Angelika drove us to our inn in the village of Tokaj. At about $40 a night, our room at the quirky Vasko Panzio Borpince was surprisingly spacious and clean. We hatched a plan: we'd relax for an hour, head to the village post office at 5PM, and then walk up the hill to our 6PM tasting appointment at Erzsebet Pince.

Two days before, we'd discovered that it's easy to buy postcards in Hungary, but it's hard to buy postage stamps. We asked at news stands, souvenir shops, and in our hotel lobby, and nobody sells stamps. Finally, in the gift shop at the Great Synagogue, an expatriate cashier from somewhere else told us with a roll of the eyes that in Hungary, you can only buy postage stamps at the post office, and only if it's open. We got to the Tokaj post office an hour before closing time... and it was closed. We crossed the street to a tourist information kiosk to ask when the post office might be open again.

"8:00 tomorrow," the clerk told us. Then he frowned. "Or maybe 9 or 10."

We filed our postcards away for future mailing, and set out into the picture-perfect little village. We walked past wine shops and cafes, and every few minutes, as if on cue, carefree locals would ride past (helmetless and spandex-free) on old-fashioned bikes with baskets full of flowers or groceries. It was hard to reconcile the idyllic with the not-so-idyllic: small groups of loud, shirtless, mostly bald drunks wandering around with open, liter-sized bottles of beer.

We walked up the hill to Erzsebet Pince, a beautiful, modern home atop a three hundred year old wine cellar. Our tasting and tour was conducted entirely in the cellar, and after several days of 90+ degree heat, we were thrilled to be in the cool, damp environment. We were joined by another couple who didn't speak English, but the winemaker did a remarkable job of keeping the conversation going with quick translations and heavy pours. When we toured the cellar, we were struck by the thick (and surprisingly pretty) layer of mold on the walls and on the ceiling. It's a symbiotic relationship; the mold feeds off the alcohol that evaporates from the wine, and in turn, it keeps the humidity level in the cellar precisely right.

We bought a couple of bottles of Tokaji, loaded them into Steve's backpack, and headed back down the hill for dinner.

The bicyclists had vanished and the shirtless drunks had multiplied. They were everywhere, and they were louder than before. There were a few who weren't screeching, but only because they'd already passed out. The cafes that looked quaint at 5PM looked post-apocalyptic at 9PM. We decided to save our appetites for breakfast, confident that they'd all be unconscious by the time our alarm went off.

We made our way through the drunks in the hotel courtyard, and just as we got back to our room, the skies opened and it absolutely poured. Hail pelted the roof, and we felt a little smug about how miserable the drunks would be out in the courtyard, without so much as small puffs of hair to slow the hail before it hit their skulls.

They weren't miserable, though. They simply turned up the music to compensate. We truly hated them for a moment, but then they put on Metallica's Black Album, and it was good. So good.

Somehow, eventually, we fell asleep. When we woke up in the morning, Tokaj was peaceful and pretty. We headed down through the abandoned courtyard and into the breakfast room, where the innkeeper presented us with a basket of rolls, a slab of salami, and these:

We cut them into slivers, sprinkled them with salt, and ate them with gusto. Then, feeling wildly optimistic, we walked up the street to the post office. To our surprise, it was open early! It took three postal employees about ten minutes to estimate the correct postage for international postcards. If by some chance you receive a Hungarian postcard from us, treasure it forever: it's a miracle it reached you.

When we tried to arrange a taxi to the Tokaj train station for the long trip to Prague, our innkeeper (who didn't speak a word of English, but with whom Steve was able to communicate in German) loaded us into his car and drove us himself. We took one last look look at Tokaj through the tiny Skoda's windows, and saw no evidence of the head-banging gremlins that emerge after dark. When we boarded the train to Prague (via Budapest) we still didn't know what to make of Tokaj.

Epilogue: from our hotel room in Prague a few days later, Steve resolved the Tokaji paradox with a Google search. We'd arrived in Tokaj at the start of Hegyalja Fesztival, a five day music festival that features performers with names like Hippikiller, Insane, and Junkies.

Now it all makes sense.

22 June 2013

First Night

We were remarkably unfazed by the 20+ hour journey from Portland to Budapest. On previous trips, the overnight flight and mid-morning arrival in Europe has meant the prospect of a long, sleepy afternoon and an evening of trying to stay awake until a decent local bedtime. Thanks to a strategically-timed Ambien that we split somewhere over northern Canada, it actually felt like morning instead of midnight to us when we arrived in Europe.

Our hotel in Budapest is centrally-located, clean, comfortable, and completely utilitarian. It has very few frills, but it has one luxury that we didn't realize we'd need when we prepaid in April: air conditioning. We arrived in Hungary in the middle of a heat wave. Central Europe has been baking in 90-100 degree temperatures for a week, and it was 93 degrees when we landed in Budapest. After three flights and a long, hot shuttle ride into the city, all we wanted on earth were cool showers and clean clothes. By the time we felt human again, we were ready for an early (7PM) dinner at Cafe Bouchon.

Our walk was scenic but extremely hot, and we were both pretty overheated in casual dinner clothes by the time we reached the restaurant, located on a narrow side street off one of Budapest's broad boulevards. We stepped into the blissful air conditioned coolness of the cozy dining room and were cheerfully welcomed in excellent English by the waitstaff.

The host ushered us to a table and immediately brought chilled local sparkling water and homemade bread and tomato jam. Deep, utterly bright essence of a fresh sun-ripened tomato. Delicious.

We started with a fresh chilled strawberry soup and a house special salad of greens, Camembert, apples, and Tokaj grapes in a honey vinaigrette. The soup was intense and refreshing, with brilliant fresh strawberry flavor.  The salad was a pleasing combination of favors and textures, very appealing on a hot summer evening. In spite of the weather, we chose a couple of hearty, meat-and-potatoes entrees: a beef tenderloin in pepper cream sauce, and veal medallions with Hungarian ratatouille.   

We ordered two glasses of a pinot noir produced in the Eger region - most familiar to Americans as the home of the harsh Egri Bikaver "Bull's Blood" red wine. Our Pinot was considerably more refined, but with a gamy, earthy quality that made it hard to identify as Pinot. In any case, it was a good accompaniment to our meals.

For dessert we shared two generous pours of Hungary's signature fine wine: Tokaj Aszu. The wine is made from botrytis-infected grapes, as in Sauternes, and is similarly rich, unctuous, and sweetly complex. The quality and intensity of these wines are measured in "puttonyos" - an extension of the wicker baskets traditionally used to haul the grapes.  More puttonyos = more botrytis fruit, yielding a more viscous, rich wine. The owner told us that traditionally all Aszu wines were "6 puttonyos" wines, but more recently they have been produced with smaller proportions of 3 or 5 puttonyos, in addition to the traditional mix.  In addition, some producers make a sort of field blend of botrytis and non-botrytis fruit in whatever proportion nature provides - this is known as Szamorodni, and we tried a small pour of it in addition to a 5 puttonyos wine from 2004 and a 6 puttonyos wine from 2003.

The service at Cafe Bouchon was excellent: helpful, friendly, relaxed. Several of the servers came by and all spoke English well, but we spoke most with the owner, who chatted with us about the food and gave us quite a bit of background on the Tokaji Aszu wines.

It had cooled down to the high eighties outside by the time we were done. We walked back toward the hotel along Andrássy út, Budapest's answer to the Champs-ElyséesAndrássy út is lined with restaurants, bars, glitzy international boutiques, and the beautifully anachronistic Hungarian State Opera House. Really, though, the opera house is only anachronistic at ground-level. When you look up along Andrássy út, the generic luxury storefronts give way to spectacularly ornate Renaissance revival facades.

We looked up the whole way back to our air-conditioned room.

20 June 2013

It's a big plane, and we're in the rumble seats.

Greetings from row 4

Celebrate good times

Greetings from the airport lounge. We're headed to Budapest, Tokaji, Prague, and Vienna to celebrate Melissa's graduation (finally!) from Portland State University. We'll arrive in Budapest just in time for pestilence, plague, a flood on the Danube, and a sweltering heat wave. 

No worries. We packed breathable fabrics and Purell.