The obvious thing to do in Central Europe after stepping off the tourist trail
With 82 percent voter turnout, a former Editor-in-Chief of Expat was spot on in pointing out that whatever you think of the results, the 2016 polls was a truly impressive display of democracy at work.
And while the populace’s engagement in who would lead the affairs of the next six years of their lives reached record highs, the paradigm shift from traditional political advertising (and mudslinging) to a more digital, social media buzz creation also birthed an unwelcome number of keyboard political analysts and social justice warriors, which turned Mark Zuckerberg’s meal ticket into a highly divisive, overly opinionated medium over the last month.
Gone were the photos of cute pets and annoying selfies. Facebook became a virtual warzone where difference in opinions led to digital bridges being burned. It was light years away from being the de-stressing place where people mindlessly scrolled down their feeds and gave random ap provals of whatever they saw.
After a few minutes on social media, almost everyone felt like they needed a drink – at least I know I did – which had my thoughts meandering to a couple of months back when I went on a trip to discover Central Europe.
Cheers all around
Going on a European sojourn to the V4 (Visegrád Four) countries of Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland was an absolute visual treat. The structures were majestic; the history was fascinating; the vistas, stunning.
But while getting acquainted with the V4 tourist trail was an amazing experience in itself, to a writer that has rarely met a drink he didn’t like, the surprisingly inexpensive nature of drinking out in all four countries led to making mental plans for a return trip an inevitability.
The universe didn’t take long to send signals of what was in store. While looking for morning coffee in Hotel Moments in Budapest (highly recommended should you find yourself in that part of the world), the trek to the coffee machine was halted by an offer of champagne to lubricate my breakfast. I would eventually find out that it’s not an uncommon practice in some parts of Europe to have a bit of breakfast bubbly, but to a brown man from the Philippines, sipping on excellent champagne at 7:30 a.m. was a notch higher than a pleasant surprise.
Being a novice in the ways of Budapest, the grand structures that pervaded the city center along and around Andrassy Avenue led to the impression that one might need to shell out a bit more to enjoy a pint. I have rarely been more pleased to be wrong.
Stepping into the wonderful world of Szimpla Kert – one of the most famous ruin pubs in Budapest’s Jewish quarter – the bohemian vibe immediately beckons you to get yourself a drink. And for some 300 Hungarian Forint (or somewhere between PhP50 to PhP60), you get a pint of nice wheat beer. To put that into local perspective, that’s significantly less than what you would pay in Makati or BGC where a pint of Hoegaarden would set you back somewhere around PhP300. Couple that with the soothing ambiance and the superb music that wafts, and you have a spot that’s a can’t miss should you find yourself in Budapest.
Eger, the second largest city in Northern Hungary is primarily known for three things: its thermal baths, cuisine and wine. And when we passed by the city, we were fortunate enough to have a full-on experience of the latter two at Gál Tibor Fusion – a stylishly hip 1,400-square meter complex made up of a 500-year-old Tuff wine cellar, a wine bar and shop, lounge, and wine tasting room that can accommodate 120 people.
“The building itself is a masterpiece, which intertwines traditional and modern styles, connecting the past with the present. The Fusion merges quality entertainment with a high level gastronomical and wine experience. Any visit to Eger is incomplete without stopping by Gál Tibor Fusion.”
That’s from Gál Tibor Fusion’s website. And it is absolutely spot on.
Presently, the Gál Tibor winery produces three brands (Egri Csillag, Pinot Noir and Egri Bikavér [Bull’s Blood of Eger]) and six wines—all of which are downright divine. Having sampled all six during the wine tasting dinner, I was hopeful to take home at least a bottle or two. I wound up taking four for just…check this, around PhP1,200 (or about US$7 a bottle). Incredible. It’s just hard to fathom finding a better deal than that anywhere in the world, and a better setting yet to enjoy such.
The trend of getting to enjoy quality drinks at incredibly affordable prices followed us like the Danube to the Slovakian capital of Bratislava. And after a day of traversing the city’s tourist trail; I ended up soaking in the gorgeous vista of Bratislava at the city’s iconic UFO Bar and Restaurant.
Located on the pillars of the Bratislava New Bridge (Nový Most) (just a few minutes walk from the Old Town, the Hviezdoslav’s Square, the Slovak National Theater, St. Martin’s Cathedral and most of the capital city’s tourist spots) it is THE best spot to wine and dine if you’re also on the lookout for fantastic views.
From one of the highest points in the city (some 85 meters high), I would find myself doing an absolute 180 by ending the night at Subclub – an underground music club situated in one of the many emergency military storage bunkers and tunnels stretching under the Bratislava Castle.
Electronic music is Subclub’s calling card, and on that particular night, it was the frenzied beats of the genre known laconically as drum’n’bass. Personally, electronic music isn’t the sonic assault of choice, but as the city’s young energy communed at Subclub on that random weekday, the overall vibe made the musical backdrop matter not. Plus, a pint was just around PhP60. I wouldn’t be one to complain about a deal like that.
Another pleasant surprise was environed in the South Bohemian Region of the Czech Republic – the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is Old Cesky Krumlov. With some 300 protected buildings, the second largest castle complex in the Czech Republic and the backdrop of hilly greens stitched to the small town by a river bend, it’s akin to walking around an elaborate period film set. The castle and watchtowers hovering above narrow cobblestone streets peppered with romantic nooks between patrician houses, cozy inns, coffee shops and ancient taverns give the 13th century cosmopolitan town a distinct charm that’s quite an experience.
As night came, I stumbled upon Zapa Bar, which while embodying the endearing overall look of Cesky Krumlov, didn’t exactly give off the impression that it would be my last stop for the night.
It was. The gorgeous bar filled with all the liquors and spirits you could crave in a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its affable owner/barkeeper led to the decision to sample everything I desired. Canadian whiskey, craft beers, rum, tequila, vodka—I Czech’d them all out. My tab at the end of the night? About PhP1,000. It was a feat highly improbable to accomplish in Manila, and for that, Cesky Krumlov will always have a special place in my heart.
With a mélange of architecture, culture, history and topography, there are a plethora of reasons to discover Central Europe. But if the commingling of all those elements fail to tickle your fancy, you’ll always have the harbor of affordable drinks all around.
For more information on traveling to the Czech Republic and the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, please contact Menchie B. Gregorio, Managing Director at Travel Excellence Corp. at (02) 892-6006 and (02) 892-6012, or visit their office at Room 421, Peninsula Court Bldg., 8735 Paseo de Roxas cor. Makati Ave., Makati.
By TIMOTHY JAY IBAY