Although we do love Budapest, saying goodbye to the city every once in a while is a must for our minds, bodies, and souls. To get away from it all for a weekend, we packed our bags and headed for Zebegény, a historic hillside town alongside the beautiful Danube Bend – a perfect place for hiking, doing sports, enjoying panoramic views, devouring gastronomic delights, or even discovering local nightlife.
“See beginnt” – meaning “the sea begins”. Legend has it that this is what was uttered by the Germans arriving in Zebegény when they first saw how the Danube seemingly ends at the foot of the mountains. Fortunately, as life is but a dream, this is but an illusion. The sea does not begin at Zebegény, as the Danube only takes a sharp turn, bending around the mountains, making the area one of the best hiking destinations in Hungary – and also catapulting real-estate prices to Hollywood Hills heights. The best thing is that Zebegény is only an hour away from Budapest by train, located on the left bank of the Danube, in the eastern part of Pest County.
Édeske – more than sweets
At around 8am, our train chugged into Nagymaros-Visegrád station, where we were greeted by our host, Adrienn Hodlik, who wasted no time and instantly took us to the local farmers’ market, a loveable little labyrinth of stands packed with syrups, all sorts of cheese, baked goods, vegetables, fruits, and (of course) heaps of meat. This is no place for GMOs or food additives, all you’ll find here is fresh, ripe produce straight from local farms; this is only natural, since we’re talking about the granddaddy of Hungarian farmers’ markets established by Gábor Bertényi, the founding father of the Szimpla-empire. The market is open on Saturdays from 7am to noon.
Seeing this cavalcade of mouthwatering goodies made us extremely hungry and led us to our next stop, a nearby spot called Édeske. On paper this is a confectionery, but in reality Édeske is a top-notch grill eatery boasting a ruin pub-style terrace so smooth that it would be a standout even in downtown Budapest. Knowing what was ahead of us, we charged our batteries with a substantial breakfast then headed for the forest.
On the Blue Trail
The plan was to begin our trip at the starting point of the Nagymaros segment of the National Blue Trail, traverse the forest, climb all the way up to the Julianus Lookout, then descend back Zebegény on the yellow trail and join the fun at the Gőzgombóc (aka dampfnudel) Festival. Proving that foolishness always precedes wisdom – and thinking that this was literally going to be a walk in the park – we made two enormous mistakes. First of all, we had too much to eat for breakfast. Secondly, our supplies were, to say the least, insufficient, especially regarding fluids. But one man’s misery is another man’s fortune, and now you’ll know what NOT to do when hiking in Zebegény.
It seemed so perfect for a while: blue skies, chirping birds, and purring stray cats were the main ingredients of the first chapter of our adventure. Things began to change when we left civilization behind and went deep into the woods. Although the terrain was nearly not as rough as in, say, the Himalayas, and it was rather easy to navigate thanks to the markings painted on the trees, we managed to get lost multiple times.
Completing this route should not take more than an hour and a half – we did in almost four. The terrain gets really tough near the end of the route’s middle segment, where you need to find firm footing while descending down the mountainside, which isn’t always easy to do. But all is well because it ended well, and the breathtaking vista of the Danube Bend that we enjoyed atop the Julianus Lookout compensated for all our trials and tribulations.
The base camp: Natura Hill
When we got back to Zebegény, a magical word kept echoing in our minds: fröccs. As they say, ask and you shall receive, and our ice-cold dreams came true in a pleasant pub called Kulacs, where we once again hooked up with our host, Adrienn, who drove us to our accommodations, a guesthouse called Natura Hill. Opened in November 2014, family-owned Natura Hill is the newest hotel in town, providing a quality alternative to the area’s dime-a-dozen guesthouses. Natura Hill has a serene location, boasts Instagram-worthy vistas, gourmet-level meals and top-notch hospitality. Moreover, in case you do not own a vehicle and arrive by train, the staff will pick you up at the station with a GAZ69.
And then came the highlight of the day, a simple-yet-unforgettable lunch. For starters, we had a refreshingly cool and creamy cucumber soup, then had the option to choose from a pair of main courses: a beef-cheek or vegetarian burrito. At Natura Hill’s restaurant, local and seasonal ingredients are preferred, thus the ever-changing selection depends on what’s available at the market and at nearby farms. Knowing all the delicious produce of local farmers, and also the flora and fauna of the Danube, the Börzsöny and the Ipoly Valley, gastronomic variety is guaranteed year-round.
If you’re the foodie type, you should start packing your bags right now, because until the end of August, Natura Hill’s kitchen is under the control of Olimpia Restaurant’s masterful team, who’ll take your breath away with delicious works of edible art such as duck legs with caramelized onions and marinated squash, foie gras pate with caramelized peach and peanuts, bean soup with ginger and Thai basil, or coconut rice pudding with figs.
Rustic sustainability, family atmosphere
The hotel was built solely from natural materials, while heating and cooling are powered by a system of geothermal heat pumps. Even the most minute details serve sustainability, including the taps, which are designed in a way so that you’ll use as little water as possible, while sewage goes through a biological cleaning treatment before being reused for agricultural purposes.
Each room is different and boasts unique solutions of interior design. Our room – called “Kadarka” – had a pair of single beds, a separate bathroom and a sofa bed; with the latter making this room a perfect choice for families. Due to the guesthouse’s other highlights and curiosities – which include a lavender farm, a bathtub with a postcard-worthy view, a sauna, a chicken coop, board games, and a huge selection of books – boredom will avoid you at Natura Hill. From the moment we arrived, we didn’t feel like as if we were guests; it was really like being among friends. Speaking of friends and a family atmosphere, unlike in the majority of other guesthouses, your furry friends are also welcome at Natura Hill.
If you opt for Natura Hill’s gourmet package, you’ll get exclusive access to Dőry Castle’s impressive pool, where you can sunbathe and splash around all day sipping Sauska rosé, or if you’re bursting with energy, you can play tennis on the castle garden’s court. Since we were feeling more lazy than sporty, we went with the latter option, and while lying in the sun, we were joined by an expert in the field of lounging around – namely Brúnó the golden retriever.
Mókus (Chipmunk). That’s the name of the town’s most revered pub, which is just as much of a must-see sight as the István Szőnyi Memorial Museum. Even if your alcohol tolerance is the lovechild of Keith Richards and Anthony Kiedis, but you will not be able to spend more than 3,000 forints in Mókus. The outstanding price-to-quality ratio attracts Budapest city slickers like catnip attracts hippie kitties: we bumped into several dwellers of the Magyar metropolis who’d only come to Zebegény for a night to hang out at Mókus.
Kayaking and Kerékbár
When in Zebegény, you should not miss out on a kayak tour. The best place to get involved in some paddling is Kerékbár, a place suited for cyclists, hikers, and other adventurers. If you’re in the mood, you can grab a bite or you can pitch a tent, and Kerékbár is also the spot where the best canoe tours set off from. The boss at Kerékbár – and everywhere else, really – is Péter Wetzl, who climbs 8,000-meter-high mountains in the winter, but moves to Zebegény for the summer, helping people out with everything and anything regarding kayaking or canoeing in the area.
Unfortunately, we were short on time, which meant we could only take a brief tour. We began paddling at Szob, and we didn’t stop for two whole hours until we got back to Zebegény. It’s a great experience, and the technique is really not that hard to learn, so we’ll most definitely come back for more – especially because Zebegény is without a doubt worth more than a single weekend.
Next up is Szentendre – stay tuned for more Weekend Trippin’!