Kosher Budapest

On our recent mid-week stay in Budapest we enjoyed the sites offered by the Jewish community as well as the kosher eateries available nearby.  Our first stop after arrival was at the bakery/tea shop called Froelich at 16 Dob Ut. offered fresh baked goods including apple and cherry strudel.  One might sit there and enjoy the pastry with a cup of coffee but we were in a rush to make our guided tour, so we packed up some treats and were on our way to the Great Synagogue.

Great Synagogue on Dohanyi Street

Great Synagogue on Dohanyi Street

 The architect of this building, a Christian, was clearly influenced by the churches in the area, and the synagogue is more reminiscent of a church than a shul.  In its heyday there were 15000 families, and while it has been totally renovated and is in pristine shape, today there are no more than 200 families who count themselves as member of this synagogue.  One of the interesting features of the synagogue is an organ that is played by a non- Jew, granddaughter of the original organ player of this synagogue.

Making our way up the block from the synagogue we found three kosher eateries, Carmel, Hanna, and Carimama, a kosher pizzeria/dairy place.  All three eateries are located on Kazinczy Ut within about fifty meters of each other.  While they all advertise that they are open until 10 PM, in December, when we visited the only one that was open late was Carmel. As a result we ate there twice, and are unable to report on Hanna.

Carmel Restaurant

Carmel Restaurant

Carmel is an upscale glatt kosher restaurant with two main rooms, very nicely appointed with excellent service.  The large menu is illustrated with pictures of some of their choice dishes, which makes it a bit easier to choose.  The restaurant prides itself on Hungarian dishes including goulash soup, Hungarian noodles, fried blintzes and much much more.  We ate there on two occasions, and both times the food was excellent and beautifully served.  The vegetable soup was filled with the flavor of winter root vegetables including parsnips and carrots, while the Hungarian goulash soup was brimming with meat, potatoes and paprika.  Main courses of schnitzel and beef stew were hearty and filling, as were the vegetarian options of eggs and noodles, a typical Hungarian dish, and the potato blintz with mushroom sauce.  We polished off the meal with a local specialty called Gandal pancake, a pancake filled with nut cream and covered with chocolate sauce.  Delicious.  All this came at a price.  The restaurant was definitely not inexpensive.  Our meal, each night cost around 15,000 forints (approximately 300 shekel, or $75.) without tip.

The pizzeria, Carimama,  is a more reasonable option, and also provides a wide range of dishes beyond pizza.  This includes salads, soups, pastas, and some traditional Hungarian dishes as well. We enjoyed a pizza for two (2500 forints – 50 shekel) and purchased a Hungarian cake (750 forint- 15 shekel) to take home and enjoy with tea.  At the pizza shop one can also buy kosher bread and baked goods.

Farther along the street there is a small kosher grocery with items imported mostly from Israel and the UK.  We looked high and low for something to buy that might be Hungarian, and all we could find was sweet tokay wine (pass on that) and paprika, which we bought.

Budapest, when all is said and done, is easy on the kosher traveler.  If one enjoys the fruits and vegetables at the breakfast bar, and takes advantage of the kosher eateries, you can feel that you have taken advantage of Hungarian cuisine at its best.

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Spa Number Two – Szechenyi Spa

The Szechenyi Spa (pronounced Set Sheyni)was our destination on day two of our sojourn in Budapest, city of spas.  After a lovely walk down Andrassy Ut, the so-called “Champs Elysee” of Budapest, and a quick peak at the ornate Opera House, we climbed down a few steps to a the orange line of the metro, a throwback to the 19th century, when this was the first metro built in all of Europe.  The stations are tiled in white and burgundy tiles, with wooden cabinet fittings; the look is entirely retro, but the metro is extremely functional, and brought us quickly to Hero’s Square and from there a short walk to this largest of all spas.

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The spa complex is an enormous yellow and white set of buildings built in 1909 in the modern Renaissance style, it is perhaps the largest spa in Europe.  The building circles a huge, heated swimming pool and a thermal pool of equally large proportions.  The swimming pool is heated to 28 C and the thermal pool clocks in at 38 C.  The waters themselves are quite comfortable; the only problem is getting in and out of them into the frigid 0 C weather. Unfortunately, I had to do that one extra time because I was not wearing a bathing cap, apparently a sanitary requirement in the outdoor swimming pool (not the thermal pool, don’t ask me why).  After swimming several laps, and enjoying the outdoor thermal pool, where you can observe men playing chess while immersed in the water as if this was a very normal, everyday sort of event, we made a mad dash to the indoor pools of which there are no less than 19!  Each one is a slightly different size and has the temperature of the pool noted above it.  The waters range from 28 C-40 C allowing one to choose or go between the various pools.  All signs are in Hungarian, and in my attempts to understand what they meant I searched in vain for a Hungarian speaker.  Apparently, Mondays are tourist days, and while there were very few people speaking any language that I could recognize, there were no Hungarian speakers to help out. The pools were all filled, but there was room enough for all.

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After traveling among the various pools for two hours we indulged ourselves in a relaxation massage, which was quite similar to a massage in any spa we have visited, including massage table, soft music, candles, and pleasant cream.  The only unusual feature of my massage was that my masseuse, who spoke no English, answered her cellphone several times, and the knocks on the door at least twice.  Rather than getting annoyed, I figured this was my introduction to Hungarian spa culture, and let it pass.

After the massage we returned to our single sex changing rooms, and used our plastic watches to unlock our lockers, once again bundle up, and prepare to face the chilly Budapest evening.  A quick stop for a hot chocolate warmed our insides before making our way to a Bach filled organ concert in St. Stephen’s magnificent cathedral.

Tourist Info:

Szechenyi Spa can be reached by the orange metro line taken to the last stop.  Entrance to the spa which includes a locker is 3400 forint.  Towels can be rented, and one can upgrade to a private changing cabin as well.  Please note that one can rent a locker in the building with indoor baths (we didn’t know that), and if you prefer not to expose yourself to the cold outdoors this may be preferable.

Additonal spas you might want to try:

Gellert spa

Lukacs spa

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Spa Hopping in Budapest – Round 1

Budapest_General-view-of-Royal-Palace

Arriving in the capitol of Hungary on a December morning, the grey, overcast skies and cold air greet you, and remind you that you are no longer in the mid-east but deep in the heart of Europe.  Any thoughts of sunshine, green lawns or trees, or flowers fade away.  The days are short, and darkness sets in at mid-afternoon.   It is no wonder then that thermal baths have taken front and center stage in Budapest’s long history.

 Apparently, the Romans who first built the city of Budapest, decided on this spot because of the thermal waters that are found all over the region.  Remnants of the Roman baths are hard to come by, but the city itself boasts 24 thermal spas that are open to the public.

Spa animals that we are, we set ourselves a goal of visiting one spa per day.  But which one to go to?  Ah, so many choices. How big? How historic? How many baths?  Rick Steve’s Budapest was a big help. We decided to take advantage of the coed policy on Sunday (all other days are single sex) at the Rudas Spa on the Buda side of the city. As you may know, the city of Buda pest is actually two cities: Buda and Pest with the Danube river running north/south through the city.  Our hotel is in Pest, as are most hotels, so we need to cross over the Danube on the Chain Bridge in the drizzle that accompanied us since arrival.  Having bought earlier in the day a 72 hour public transportation pass (3800 forints, allowing you to get on and off all modes of public transport – bus, train, tram) we decided to cut our walk short and hop a bus that seemed to be going in the right direction.  It was, but when we realized that we had arrived at our stop, we couldn’t figure out how to egress the bus, and overshot our stop by quite a bit.  After boarding a tram in the reverse direction, we eventually arrived at our destination, only to be met by a severe looking hostess who tried to convince us to purchase a combination ticket for the swimming pool and the baths so that we could enter immediately.  We were only interested at that point in the day (5 PM) in the baths, which entailed a 30 minute wait for a free changing “cabin”.  After paying (3200 forint each) we received plastic watches that allow entry into the spa, and into one’s personal cabin.  While waiting, we chatted with the folks on line and had a Hungarian draft beer (550 forint for a half litre – about $2!).

Finally we were allowed entry into the changing area,  whereupon, we realized that the two of us were assigned to one very small changing cabin more like a telephone booth.  Very small.  With the two of us in there neither of us could easily move without elbowing or kneeing the other.  We debated taking turns waiting outside, but decided to do it the Hungarian way, and so we did.  After mastering the art of changing in the cabin, we made our way to the spa, but not before checking to make sure that we had in fact understood that two people changed at once in these teeny, tiny cabins.  They did.

Rudas Spa

Rudas Spa

We made our way to the room containing the thermal spa on flip flops we had luckily remembered to bring and with our “borrowed” hotel towels that we had full intention to return.  (Renting a towel is an added expense).  The room that greeted us was Moorish in design, originally built in the 15th century,  with subdued lighting and a mist rising from the octagonal central pool in the middle of the room that was surrounded by four smaller pools in each corner of the room.  The central pool was 38 degrees Celsius, while the smaller ones ranged from a cool 28 C to a scalding 42C.  We gingerly made our way from pool to pool, eventually finding our comfort level matched in the 38 degree pool in the middle under a domed roof.  Looking around there were people of all ages, mostly couples, mostly speaking Hungarian, with perhaps a slight advantage for the under thirty crowd.  There was only one child in the entire complex.  After spending about 30 minutes moving from pool to pool we were ready for the plunge into the 10C freezing cold pool.  At least some of us were.  I was only able to make it in up to my knees, but there were several people fully immersed for several minutes.  Back to the warm pool for another set, until we were ready to rest in the quiet room on lounge beds.  Resting after thermal baths is both imperative, and perhaps the most enjoyable part of thermal bathing.  There is something about the chemicals in the water that afford one a natural “high” if you take the time to notice it.  Lying on the lounge bed, a lassitude takes over, and I float somewhere between imagination and sleep, savoring this feeling of deep and total relaxation.

After a quick, public shower, we return to our changing cabin, this time adopting our style of changing one at a time, bundling up to face the cold Budapest evening, where the misty drizzle of the afternoon has now turned into a bonafide rainfall.  Nothing that a hearty vegetable soup, and plate of Hungarian goulash won’t chase away.

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