Monday, 3 August 2015

Hungarian Adventures: Budapest and Beyond!

After our Slovakian mountain adventures the weather was hotting up and Nick and I were both desperate to hop into any cool body of water we could find. As we were headed for landlocked Hungary we settled on a lake and made our way to Lake Balaton. As well as craving the cool waters the lake could provide us with we were in desperate need of a washing machine and a Jojo friendly shower block. My standards aren't that high but I draw the line at ice cold water, other people's hair and my clothes ending up soaked because the only place to put them is on the floor! 

A large amount of Lake Balaton's shoreline is very built up and tourist-tastic but, y'know I sometimes don't mind that if it comes with a few creature comforts like the aforementioned clean showers and maybe some wifi so that I can keep up with writing the blog. Lake Balaton is where the majority of Hungarians head when they're craving some beach-like fun so that in itself made Lake Balaton more interesting to me. We eventually chose a Balaton Tourist campsite with a bit of a holiday camp vibe; there was a small supermarket, a bar and an awful lot of children running around but compared to the sites at the more northerly end of the lake it seemed mellow especially if you had early morning swims in mind like me.

We spent three blissful days floating in the calm waters of the lake (we even splurged 1250HUF (about €4) on a pool float so that we could take our lounging to the next level), hiding from the sun with a book in the shade of the van and whipping up easy lunches with breads, spreads and the last of my beloved Treeline cheese from Austin.

It was a fantastic holiday within our travels, no map reading, no sightseeing, none of the usual challenges of travel just pure unadulterated relaxing!

Our next stop was, of course, Budapest. One of my favourite cities and one that I hadn't had the pleasure of visiting since 2009 when I travelled there by train from Vienna with a group of lady friends. Whilst we were there we discovered a restaurant whose delicious dishes I'd never been able to forget, I dreamt of their fantastically cheesy pizzas and their cherry chocolate cake for years and years and raved about the restaurant's cosy atmosphere and fantastic food any time Budapest came up in conversation. So, with this in mind, I was so, so pleased to discover that not only was Napfenyes Etterem still open but that they'd expanded and now had a second more central location. Fantastic. Their second location has a full pastry case as well as their main dining service and, and this was very welcome on a 38C day, air conditioning, something that's almost unheard of in European vegan spots!

We were ushered though to the dining area which was much smarter than I remembered the dining room at their first location being and it definitely reflected the upscale vibe they're shooting for. The menu had a wide range of options ranging from veganised Hungarian specialities through to pizza as well as a whole raw section - I feel like every single person I know would be happy eating here. Nick and I both decided to order the Stuffed Seitan Kiev Breaded in Walnuts because seitan stuffed with cheese is both of our ideas of an ideal meal.

This was definitely a solid choice, the seitan was super tender and oozed melted cheese and I was pleased to be eating my favourite green vegetable despite it being slightly on the over cooked side for my tastes. The white rice accompaniment didn't distract from the flavours of the seitan and the only thing I would have changed about this dish was the creamy dressing which was a little cloying after a while. I think my recommendation for Napfenyes Etterem would be to scope out the daily specials which include a soup, salad, main and dessert and see if any of those strike your fancy as that was what everyone around us seemed to be ordering and their plates of seitan, potatoes and cabbage looked delicious. Oh and if you aren't planning to head to their sister restaurant I would seriously consider ordering one of their amazing pizzas - more on them later!

Dessert wise I don't think you can really go wrong, their desserts are as delicious as they are beautiful and when faced with their huge dessert case, which features a mix of traditional hungarian desserts and cakes that wouldn't be outa place in a French patisserie, we both had trouble choosing. 

In the end I went with a slice of their Raspberry Marzipan Cake whilst Nick chose the Snickers-like Cake. Both were great but the frosting in the Snickers-like cake was outstanding, light and fluffy and not too sweet as to make your teeth hurt. It was the slice I picked on our second visit!

On the way out we were distracted from our foray into the humid outdoors by this tower of Pogačsa. At the time we had no idea what they were but they looked similar to my favourite British cheese scones so that was good enough for us.

It turns out that Pogačsa is a traditional Hungarian bread akin to an American biscuit or British scone. They were fluffy, cheese filled and completely delicious. They made the perfect breakfast the next morning.

The destination we had in mind before getting distracted by the tower of pogačsa was one of Budapest's top tourist destinations, the world famous Szechenyi Baths.

Szechenyi has 18 pools and indoors it was even more maze like than I remember it being six years ago. The geothermal pools were a wonderful place to relax whilst the outdoor pools are a great place to soak up some rays whilst engaging in the fantastic people watching opportunities. There's also a circular whirlpool thing that acts as some kinda wild water based circle pit where people are getting slammed into both each other and the curved walls all in the name of a good time. Highly enjoyable if, like me, you're into that kinda thing either on land or in water!

It was hot, hot, hot  in the city when we visited so Szechenyi's ice cold plunge pools were a welcome treat after a sweaty morning exploring the city and I would highly recommend a visit.

One of my very favourite parts of being a vegan traveller is that the drive to acquire vegan food often takes you to parts of the city that other travellers wouldn't venture to. Rather than eating lunch at that tourist friendly spot by one of the city's main tourist attractions you'll end up hopping onto a tram or taking a walk to a non-touristy part of town; a part where you'll see the people who live there going about their day to day lives, running errands, walking their dogs or sitting next to you enjoying a vegan meal.

Napfenyes Etterem's original location, now named Napfenyes Etterem es Pizzeria, is one of these spots and it's well worth the visit even if you've already eaten at their more central location. This location has a smaller menu and focusses on their spectacular pizzas.

Nick and I split a pizza because our lunch had been pretty epic and we wanted to leave room for dessert. I went with the Hawaiian because I looove pineapple on pizza and Nick chose the Coal Burner which featured faux sausage, seitan and smoked tofu alongside red onions and oregano.

All of Napfenyes Etterem's pizzas come with a few types of vegan cheese, I suspect that they use Wilmsberger, Cheezly and some kind of delicious homemade sour cream to create one of the best pizzas I've eaten anywhere in the world. As we'd saved space for dessert we polished off a slice of this chestnutty chocolate slice which had a shortbread base despite not being remotely hungry. It was delicious and fuelled that evening's ruin bar hopping.

The next day was our last and aside from a Napfenyes Etterem re-visit for more pizza and snickers-like cake we decided to stop off at conveniently located vegan buffet style spot Vega City on our way to the Gellert Spa and Bath, one of my fave' spots in the city.

Vega City is located right across from the Hungarian National Museum District making it a great place to swing by and grab breakfast, lunch or an early dinner after soaking in some culture. On arrival we weren't super sure how to go about ordering and as it wasn't quite lunchtime we sat and chilled out with a couple of drinks whilst we watched what other people were doing! This move had the added bonus of getting to see what the most ordered items were as the place filled up for lunch. The spaghetti plate was by far the most often ordered item that day and as it was a huge plate of food Nick and I decided to share.

I loved how generous they were not only with their portions but also with the generous sprinkling of vegan cheese. This was super filling and we both left satisfied with our choice. Vega City is also the place to get your hands on some free wifi whilst enjoying vegan eats in the city making it perfect for digital nomads, bloggers and anyone needing their social media fix. They make an excellent apple & mint lemonade too so make sure to look out for that when you visit.

Budapest is without a shadow of a doubt one of my favourite cities in the world, whether you want to stroll along the banks of the Danube, drink the night away at a quirky bar, stuff yourself with amazing  vegan food or just soak up the history and culture of a city peppered with numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sights you'll have an amazing time and I'd be willing to bet that you'll fall in love with it too.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Slovakia - The Road Trip Continues

After our slight miss when choosing a mountain town to explore in Poland (top tip, don't go to Zakopane!) I was super happy when Nick and I reached our Slovakian campsite at the base of the high tatras. It was pretty! And secluded! And there weren't stalls lining the streets selling all manner of tacky things: no pope paintings, no mass produced stuffed toys, nobody trying to sell me a five minute go on a bouncy castle. 

This felt like a true escape from the real world which is, I imagine, what everyone's looking for when they think about heading into the mountains and getting "off grid" for a few days.

The other great thing about our chosen campsite, Rijo Camping, was that it was only a 15 minute walk from Stará Lesna, a small train station where you can catch the electric train to places like Štrbské Pleso, Stary Smocovec, Vyšné Hágy, Nová Polianka, Tatranská Polianka and Tatranská Lomnica to explore the Slovakian towns and mountains. 

Like good hikers we consulted the free Vyoské Tatry summer hiking map displayed at entrance to the campsite and took pictures of the areas we wanted to check out (sorry, I can't spend €7 on a map I'll use two or three times!) and headed off on what was marked as an easy hike. About 7 or 8 minutes into the hike I came to the realisation that Lonely Planet weren't kidding when they said to wear proper hiking boots. This was the moment that I realised that hiking isn't really just a big walk! There are steep inclines and when it rains, which of course it did as soon as we started out, those inclines will get slippery and your running shoes and strawberry print umbrella really aren't gonna cut it as outdoor wear! Still, like the idiots we are, we pushed on. We had decided to hike and hike was what we were going to do. After 50 minutes (the amount of time the map said the whole hike would take) we realised that we were roughly halfway. We also realised that the more it rained the more slippery it was and that maybe, jut maybe, my optimism and confidence in our abilities might be both adorable and incredibly stupid so, we turned back! 

We got to see this totes adorable slug on the way down though, it's teal! How cute is that?! After many laughs about our attempt at hiking we decided that scoping out the vegan snack sitch' might be more our speed so we popped to the closest shop to scoop up whatever vegan treats we could find. We hit the jackpot (or so we thought!) at the only supermarket in Stary Smokovec where we grabbed this fine selection of vegan eats.

I'll start with the positives. The bake rolls have become a firm favourite of ours, both the garlic and sea salt flavours are vegan, although we were sad to discover a pizza flavour that of course contained milk products. Sadly the chocolate soya dessert and the garlic sausage were not, shall we say, to our tastes. The sausage was almost flavourless but was a colour I associate with my pastel hued hair or a whipped buttercream icing and definitely not with savoury food and Nick described the dessert as grainy. Neither of us think that pudding should be grainy. Still, if you're vegan you won't starve in the mountains and that's definitely a positive.

The next day, after much map consulting and photographing we decided to take a funicular from Stary Smovovec up to Hrebienok and hike around up there for the afternoon. It was a bit of a gloomy day but I was quite happy with that, as you'll see later I'm not cut out for hiking in the heat!

The hikes really weren't super challenging even for noob's like us, there were definitely some spots where you really had to concentrate as you climbed from rock to rock and, of course, a lot of it was uphill (these are mountains after all!) but it wasn't especially difficult. As always I was in charge of snacks and I packed a Clif bar and a tub of mixed nuts. 

I make our nut mixes myself with whatever nuts we can afford at the local grocery store and I usually go for roasted and unsalted as I prefer them that way. The base mix is almonds, cashews and pistachios and if we're feeling fancy we'll pick up some macadamias or hazelnuts to throw into the mix. The scenery up in Hrebienok was stunning and just what I'd hoped for from the High Tatras. I loved seeing the fir trees, lakes and waterfalls and getting right out there into nature. 

I don't really consider myself to be an outdoorsy person because I'm a city girl at heart but I do love being outside and I feel like walking around like this is one of my favourite forms of exercise. Maybe there's an outdoorsy person inside of me just waiting to get out?!

After our hike we still had enough energy left to take the train to Štrbské Pleso to wander around a lake we'd seen marked on the map.

It's super beautiful and peaceful there, it has a real picture postcard look and I'd bet that it looks even more ridiculous in winter! There was no logical route around the lake so we walked halfway around in one direction and then went back the way we came before heading to the biggest supermarket in the area to grab bread, fruit and veggies for dinner.

On our final day in the mountains we decided that we wanted to get as high up as possible which meant braving the cable cars. I'm going to be honest with you here, I'm not a natural adventurer. It may seem like I must be because, y'know, I'm a traveller, aren't we all adventurous? But nope. Not always. Not in every single scenario - travel involves pushing myself out of my comfort zone regularly. I have a very real awareness of my own mortality which, combined with a very vivid imagination, sometimes conspire to make things like cable cars, roller coasters and boats panic attack inducing experiences. Basically though I try super hard not to let these anxieties stop me doing anything I want to do. I'm not always successful but I try and this time it payed off and I hopped onto the cable car between Tatranská Lomnica and Štart and, after a brief pause to get my mind to shush and stop telling me I was about to plunge down a mountain to my death, I switched to the second cable car, hopped off at Skalnaté pleso, and was up at 5659 feet within minutes.

It wasn't easy by any stretch of the imagination but wow, I was so glad I did it when I got to the top, breathed in my first lungful of crisp mountain air and gazed out at the view. Gorgeous. As you can see in this pic there's actually a third tiny cable car that goes up even higher. We decided not to take that one because it was already chilly at the altitude we were at and the cars were both tiny and incredibly cramped. It was fun to watch them disappearing up into the clouds though.

We were sad to be leaving the mountains the next morning but we were ready to cruise south and we had a leisurely day of driving with a few sightseeing stops in mind. Levoča was our first planned stop because who could cruse by aUNESCO World Heritage sight without stopping to explore?

Lecoča has a beautiful old town and we walked along the well preserved city walls, zig zagged through the streets, scoped out the medieval church and ate a picnic on a bench in the town square.

I think this photo Nick took accurately sums up what's so great about our little romahome, we were able to swing through the streets of Levoča and pop it into a regular parking spot no worries. I'd like to see most of the camper vans I've seen on this trip try to do that!

Our next road trip destination was the ruined, and partially rebuilt, Spiš Castle. The hill up to Spiš Castle from the back car park, yes, it turned out that there is in fact a closer car park, is a lot bigger, steeper and longer than it looks from the bottom. I was thinking that it would be a nice stroll but nope it was, forgive the hyperbole, horrific. I am not cut out for climbing giant hills in the midday heat, I like to think that I am but the reality does not match up with what my inner monologue is telling me I can accomplish. At one point I lay down in a bush and told Nick to just leave me there to die. I can get quite dramatic when I'm too hot.

We made it though and after lying in a heap by the entrance for 20 minutes getting our breath back and discussing how ridiculous I am we enjoyed exploring and checking out the views. If you're driving from Levoča I would highly recommend continuing round the bend in the road to the official car park if you don't want to arrive sweaty and exhausted!

After our sojourn in the moutons and our day of exploring we needed to stock up the van with vegan yums for our journey into Hungary so I had a quick look at the Happy Cow app to see if any of the cities we'd be driving past had health food stores. I hit the jackpot in Košice which has a BioPark store that Happy Cow helpfully informed me was located within the Aupark mall. The mall also has a Billa so we stopped there first to see if we could grab any cheap staples. I picked up two kinds of tofu as well as cherries which were so cheap that I'm still regretting not filling up bags and bags full, grapes, a green juice, bread, soya milk, cereal and pasta. My zine came in super handy when picking a suitable cereal as I was able to avoid all of the ones with milk, honey and dubious D vitamins.

After stocking up on the basics at Billa we delved into BioPark and found that it was stuffed full of vegan eats.

We grabbed some Wheaty salami and sausages which were on the expensive side compared to everything else but in my mind they were totally worth the splurge, I've been a big fan of Wheaty products for as long as I can remember and their spacebars are one of my go-to travel snacks. We also picked up some super firm smoked tofu, some basil and tomato spread that sadly wasn't the greatest, spelt burgers that we're yet to try and a bar of Vivani dark chocolate with orange. I love vegan friendly health food stores and this was a definite winner - these purchases kept us going during our time in Hungary and I was super glad to have found them.