French Days, Hungarian Nights
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
November 29, 2014
Today, I left Viking River Cruises’ Viking Forseti in the port of Bordeaux, France as my Chateaux, Rivers & Wine voyage through France came to a close – at the early hour of three in the morning.
Not that this is Viking’s fault – blame the airline schedules out of Bordeaux-Merignac Airport that tend to favour early-morning departures. Fortunately, I was prepared for this: we’d been briefed several days in advance, so I had plenty of warning that I – along with 30 other staterooms – would have to have my luggage out at 3:00 a.m., and be onboard the waiting coach by 4:00 a.m.
If you think that sounds absolutely terrible, consider this: Viking provided a continental breakfast for all of us in the Restaurant at three in the morning. And they do this every single Saturday. Feel for the crew, not for me.
In all, my voyage had six different departure times for guests this morning, including those lucky ones headed to Paris for a three-day post-cruise stay in the magical “City of Love.” They would travel there not by air, but by high-speed TGV train. Viking offers this as an optional add-on, and if you’ve never been to Paris but have come this far, I’d highly recommend it.
Once I’d settled up my onboard account (cash, credit card, no Monopoly Money), I boarded the coach and was whisked to Bordeaux’s airport for my KLM flight to Amsterdam.
If you’re headed through Bordeaux-Merignac on KLM, check-in is surprisingly confusing. You must use the Air France kiosks (both airlines are essentially joined at the hip). When you scan your passport, the machine immediately asks if you’d like to go to Paris Charles de Gaulle or Paris Orly Airport. I would – but that’s not the point. You must hit the back button, and manually enter the airport code for Amsterdam (AMS) before it will print your boarding pass. C’est la vie.
More amazing is that, despite the boarding time of 5:35 a.m. printed on my boarding pass for a 6:05 a.m. departure, gate agents didn’t show up until about 5:55 a.m. Boarding was then a total free-for-all rush to be the first on the small Embraer E190. Even more incredibly, we actually pushed back on-time. Maybe the ‘running of the bulls’ method of embarkation actually works!
Unlike my fellow guests, I wasn’t travelling back to North America. I was connecting in Amsterdam to KLM Flight 1975 to Budapest, Hungary for another week of being a Viking; this time onboard Viking Baldur’s weeklong Danube Waltz Christmas Markets itinerary that runs between Budapest and Passau, or reverse.
Mindful of air travel at this time of year, I figured it would be a good idea to give myself a day in between cruises (and maybe squeak in a nap, to boot), so I arranged for an overnight stay at the gorgeous Kempinski Hotel Corvinus on Budapest’s centrally-located Erzsébet tér 7-8 (Elizabeth Street). I picked the Kempinski for several reasons. One, it’s location: it literally backs onto Budapest’s largest Christmas Market, and is within walking distance of Viking Baldur’s docking location next to the famous Chain Bridge.
Secondly, it’s a European hotel chain with (at this time) no locations in North America. I like that. There’s nothing wrong with staying at a Hilton or a Marriott, but I’d always wanted to try the Kempinski brand out.
Originally opened in 1992, the hotel underwent a massive refit last year that has left it sparkling – but also decidedly Hungarian. Throughout the hotel, tribute is paid to important Hungarian citizens, themes, materials and textures. The effect is so subtle that you’re unlikely to notice (at first glance) that you’re stepping over piano keys inlaid into the floor of the lobby, or that the cocktail you’re enjoying in the Blue Fox Bar, cleverly named after a popular Hungarian cartoon character.
It also has the first Nobu Japanese restaurant in Central Europe, named for founder Nobu Matsuhisa. Elements like that help attract not only tourists, but locals to the hotel as well.
My room was one of the 118 Deluxe Rooms that measure between 35-40m2, or roughly 430 square feet. Inside was practically everything you could need for a long-term stay, and certainly more than I would need for my single evening. Rooms include slippers and robes, and bonus points have to go to the bathroom, which is clad in marble and features separate shower, bathtub and toilet areas.
The room was exactly what I’d expect from a luxury brand: something elegant, understated and soothing. Nothing out of place, no details missed. And – soft pillows and mattress!
As inviting as the rooms are, the real winner tonight, however, has to be a joint-tie between the on-site Blue Fox Bar and ES Bisztro.
The 70-seat Blue Fox Bar is not your average hotel bar. It also doesn’t feature your average cocktail menu, either. Instead, some of the most interesting and innovative drink creations I’ve ever seen are present on the menu, alongside traditional favorites, of course. I tried two drinks out: the Cucumber Mint Martini (Goral, Apple, Sugar, Cucumber, Fresh Mint, Lime Juice), which was light and refreshing; and the powerhouse drink known as the Hot Spot. This came in a mason jar and was made of Bombay Sapphire, Tabasco Vermouth Rosso, Garden Fruits, homemade Ginger Beer, Bitters, and soda. It was hot, and it hit the spot! Easily one of the most interesting drinks I’ve ever had – and it prepared me well for my evening meal.
Featuring cool booths and tables married with funky décor and hand-written signs on blackboard surfaces, ES Bisztro is the Kempinski Budapest’s on-site bistro that serves up contemporary Hungarian-Viennese dishes. That’s a big must-have for me; it makes no sense to stay in a hotel to eat if the food isn’t locally inspired.
At ES (which is Hungarian for ‘and’), they’ve got traditional Hungarian goulash soup on the menu. Which I almost had. You can also get Viennese beef soup, salads, burgers, and grilled goose liver with mushroom risotto. I, however, went for the one dish that our waiter presented to me: a gigantic slab of steak surrounded by its own lard.
The lard, of course, melts away during the cooking process, and the steak comes garnished simply with flakes of sea salt. Add a side of truffle mashed potatoes and some spinach just to make me feel less guilty about the rest of it, and you have a meal that literally and figuratively melts in your mouth. I’m not a big steak person, but I’ve never eaten anything like this before. It was stunning – and will be hard to avoid repeating on my next trip to Budapest!
ES also has a really cool Family Table concept that allows for multiple dishes to be brought out to a single table, with no limit on quantity, for 8,400 Hungarian Forint.
I also took the time to have a coffee in the cozy, almost chalet-like lounge known as The Living Room. Here, you can choose from an assortment of teas and coffees, along with the only Oubu Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee in the country. Hailing from the Blue Mountains in Jamaica, the coffee can only be sold by licensed brand owners – making it rare in many parts of the world, particularly here in Central Europe. It’s 2,480 Hungarian Forint a cup – about US$10 – and it’s worth every penny. Even the presentation alone (hand-poured into a French Press tableside) makes you aware that this isn’t merely coffee; it’s an experience in much the same vein as a fine wine or scotch.
Tomorrow, I leave the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus Budapest and walk about three blocks south, where Viking River Cruises’ Viking Baldur is waiting for me. We’ll be docked in Budapest for two more nights, which is comforting to know. After all, I can always come back for another drink at the Blue Fox or maybe one more cup of coffee at The Living Room.
When I travel, I like hotels that speak to me. I like the ones that embrace their local cultural traditions, and cuisines. I like the ones that embrace the past while at the same time looking to the modern future, of which Hungary has no shortage of.
Most importantly, I love what happens when the hotel becomes the destination – not the other way around. Very few properties can do that successfully; Kempinski does it –and makes it look easy.
I don’t know when I’ll be back in Budapest next – but I do know where I’ll stay.
Our full journey:
Viking Baldur - Danube Waltz Christmas Markets
|November 29, 2014||Budapest, Hungary||Flight from Bordeaux, France to Budapest, Hungary. Overnight in Budapest at the Kempinski Budapest|
|November 30||Budapest, Hungary||Embark Viking Baldur; free time to visit the Christmas Market. Traditional Hungarian dinner onboard.|
|December 1, 2014||Budapest, Hungary||City tour of Buda and Pest, including Castle District - a UNESCO World Heritage Site.|
|December 2||Bratislava, Slovakia||City tour through Slovakia's capital|
|December 3||Vienna, Austria||Ringstrasse tour or free time; optional excursion to the Christmas Market at Schonbrunn Palace; optional evening concert.|
|December 4||Durnstein & Melk, Austria||Free time or optional walking tour in Durnstein; tour of Melk Abbey.|
|December 5||Linz, Austria / Salzburg, Austria||Full day excursion to Salzburg, Austria; free time. Return to ship late at night.|
|December 6||Passau, Germany||Walking tour & free time|
|December 7, 2014||Passau, Germany||Disembark Viking Baldur; transfer to Munich, Germany for onward journey home.|