A Travellerspoint blog

October 2019

The King of Hungary

sunny
View Urban Reverie Late 2019 on urbanreverie's travel map.

There was a movie I once saw when I was about thirteen, I forget its name and I have not seen it since. The premise of this movie is that aliens have invaded Earth but because the aliens have adopted a human form, nobody can tell. These aliens are indistinguishable from humans except for a strange, stilted manner. But there is this one man who is given a pair of sunglasses which enables him to clearly see who is an alien - the sunglasses reveal their true form as grotesque reptiles - and who isn't.

I feel like I have been given this pair of sunglasses and that I see that everybody around me is an alien. Hungarians would have to be the strangest, oddest, most alien people I have ever known. They are not grotesque reptiles, anything but, but they are decidedly eccentric.

I find it hard to put my finger on just how exactly Hungarians are so strange. They are certainly a very harsh, distant people with a coarseness of manner that verges on brutality. It is rare to see a Hungarian smile or laugh or cry or indeed have any facial expression other than an indifferent frown. When they walk down the street in the opposite direction to me, there is never that mutual I'll-move-over-a-bit-and-you-move-over-a-bit-too compromise that is general in Australia or indeed most countries. Hungarians will just keep walking dead straight at a breathless pace as if I am invisible, either bumping into me spilling my coffee everywhere or forcing me to jump onto the street. Conversations, whether in Hungarian or English, are very awkward and formal, perhaps even robotic. When Hungarians are polite (which isn't often) it feels like they're just following a textbook or computer script. When Hungarians are helpful (which isn't often) it is only because they feel they have to be and they let it be known in no uncertain terms that they would rather not help you.

Hungarians are, in general, an attractive people; I see far more people who I consider good looking in just one hour in Budapest than I do in a whole day in Sydney. There is no defining physical characteristic that Hungarians share, save for an indescribable yet vaguely unsettling intensity in their eyes and faces. Some Hungarians are as dark as Turks, but just as many are as fair as Swedes. Green eyes are somewhat common, but so are blue, brown and hazel eyes. Complexions are often preternaturally smooth; it's not uncommon to see a fifty-year-old woman in Budapest with the skin of a twenty-year-old.

Also unnaturally smooth are autumn leaves, which I learned today and which you will learn to if you keep reading this entry.

The day started very early. Long-time followers of my travel blogs would know that one of my weird hobbies when I travel is climbing the highest points of the countries I visit, as long as those peaks are within my fitness level and reasonably handy to transport of some description. The highest point of the Republic of Hungary, Kékestető, is 1,014 metres above sea level - three metres below the Blue Mountains town of Katoomba to the west of Sydney.

I had researched my trip to Kékestető the MÁV (Hungarian State Railways) website. It advised me to catch a train from Budapest Keleti station at 07:15, then get off at Pécel in Budapest's outer eastern suburbs at 07:45, where I was to change to a trackwork bus to Hatvan at 07:52. The main line between Budapest and Hungary's northeastern cities such as Miskolc and Eger has been closed for months between Pécel and Hatvan due to the total reconstruction of that section of track. At Hatvan I was to change to another train at 08:54, and I would then change at Vámosgyörk for a short branch line shuttle to Gyöngyös at the base of Kékestető at 09:08, arriving at Gyöngyös at 09:23 to catch a bus up to the summit and enjoy a full day's bushwalking among the fiery autumn colours.

I got up nice and early, caught the trolley bus from my street to the extraordinarily beautiful Keleti station at 06:45, had plenty of time to buy my ticket and grab some pastries and a coffee for breakfast at a station café. I settled into my seat, ate my breakfast, had my ticket stamped by the conductor, everything was sweet.

After half an hour of gliding through the eastern suburbs, all passengers were dumped onto a narrow ground-level temporary platform at Pécel. It was about a three hundred metre walk to the trackwork bus stop. I had a seven-minute connection time and my progress was impeded by heavy rail construction vehicles constantly entering and exiting the rail corridor, doing U-turns and stopping for no reason.

It was hard to find my stop. There were two stops, one for the all-stops trackwork buses that only went as far as Aszód and the other for express buses to Hatvan that I needed, but the guidance signs only pointed to the all-stations stop so I walked right past my stop. I finally found my stop. It was 07:50. There was no bus in sight. I looked at the timetable on the bus stop pole. It had already departed at 07:45. The MÁV website was full of crap.

I hope that Hungarians don't understand English swear words because I think I shouted quite a few. It was a wait of another hour for the 08:45 bus. There was absolutely nothing on the station street, just a few houses andstreams of commuters and schoolchildren heading for the buses and the trains. There was a bus shelter nearby, one of the older style ones with stupid metal plates on both ends that prevent you from seeing approaching buses, and decided to sit down in there until 08:45 became nearer.

At about 08:20 I heard an engine sound of a bus grinding past. I leapt out of my seat to see that an express bus was leaving. I think I shouted even more swear words.

At 08:45 another express bus finally appeared. A whole lot of passengers boarded. Then the bus got stuck in traffic. The bus followed the clpsed railway line quite closely and we were constantly stuck in long queues behind slow-moving rail consruction equipment. Then we hit rush hour in Gödöllő which was choked with school traffic.

After an excruciating wait we finally hit the M3 motorway where we had a clear run to Hatvan. I boarded the 09:54 train from which I disembarked at Vámosgyörk at 10:06. I walked over to the timetable sticky-taped to the station window. The next train to Gyöngyös was at 11:08.

F#@$.

Vámosgyörk is a tiny village. Its sole feature of note is that its station is the junction where the short branch to the much larger town of Gyöngyös meets the main line to Miskolc. It is a dusty, god-forsaken village of crooked power poles and dusty streets and barking dogs and cracked plaster and bored unemployed people sitting in the streets gossiping while rocking babies in their prams back and forth.

The only businesses open were the Magyar Posta post office and a pub. I have run out of mobile data on my Magyar Telekom SIM card. Mobile phone recharges are ridiculously easy to buy in Australia - every newsagent, every petrol station, every suoermarket, every convenience store and every post office will sell mobile recharges in the form of a little printed docket with a code on it; you call your telco's recharge number, punch in the code, and voilà! Your phone now has extra minutes and gigabytes!

Would to God that it were so easy in Hungary. I decided to try my luck at the post office opposite the station. I have written before that post offices are the most reliable window into the soul of a country. Hungary must be an extremely melancholy country because I have never seen such a depressing post office before. The interior was all baby poo green and scratched plywood panelling and pure despairing agony. I could feel my will to live being drained very quickly while waiting in the Vámosgyörk post office. I noticed while I was waiting in the queue that they sold lotto tickets. That makes perfect sense. If I lived here I would be tempted to buy one so I could win big and move to another country where I didn't have to endure waiting in such an abysmal post office ever again.

I finally reached the head of the queue and I explained in my very best Hungarian that I needed more data on my Telekom SIM card. The post office lady sighed, said they didn't sell mobile recharges, then another employee corrected her, then they had a short argument, and then the woman sighed again as if to say "I don't want to help you but I guess I have to", and she brought out an enormous operstional manual in a lever-arch folder which she paged through furiously trying to find how to sell mobile data.

Eventually she gave up. She sighed again and said in German that she was calling Magyar Telekom. She didn't speak a word of English, my German is far better than my Hungarian, so we did business in German. In a country where it is not an official language, and a language that is not the mother tongue of either of us.

After a long wait the Telekom agent put her through to another agent who could speak English, and the post office lady gave the phone to me. The Telekom agent told me that to top up my mobile phone credit, I would need to download the Magyar Telekom app to my phone and purcase data throigh the app. She said she would send me a link to download the app via SMS. I thanked her, the conversation ended, I gave the phone back to the postal worker and left the post office, and I received the SMS. I clicked on the download link, except it didn't work - because I have no data!

Bugger it. I still had half an hour until my train to Gyöngyös. So I went to the pub. The pub was far busier than any pub has the right to be at half past ten in the morning on a weekday. I was tempted to buy a beer myself after the morning from hell, but I practiced uncharacteristic self-control and bought a Coke instesd. I couldn't wait to leave. Every single eye in that joint was burning laser beams into my skull.

Finally it was time to take the short train ride to Gyöngyös across the flat grainy plains, Kékestető and the Mátra mountain range looming ever nearer. After fifteen minutes I jumped off the train - Hungarian railway platforms are so low tnat this is often the best choice - at Gyöngyös. What wqs supoosed to be a simple two-hour trip turned into a four-hoir fiasco. Take a bow, MÁV. It really does take a very unique brand of incompetence to make a one hundred kilometre journey over four hours long just because you don't know how to provide correct information on your website.

Gyöngyös really is a marvellous, prosperous little town of antique shops and tree-lined streets and expensive toy stores and bric-a-brac places and lots of luxury cars on the streets. Gyöngyös is Hungary's Bowral, the kind of place where I imagine successful cardiologists and law professors retire to after reaching the very pinnacle of their professions in Budapest at the end of a long and fulfilling career.

I bought a topographic hiking map of the Mátra ranges at a camping goods shop and splashed out on an expensive lasagna at a fancy restaurant on the oh-so-genteel main square. I deserved it after what I had been through that morning. Also, the restaurant had wifi. I finally was able to download the Magyar Telekom app to my phone. I opened the app, fudged my way through impenetrable Hungarian, a language that is more difficult than hacking through a bamboo forest with a blunt machete, and finally managed to get to a page where I could buy another five hundred megabytes of data for three thousand forints. I entered in my credit card details and then - donk-donk! International cards are not accepted! Please try again!

The genteel town square of Gyöngyös wasn't quite so genteel after I let fly with a few more choice swear words.

I decided to forget about buying more data and just use wifi whenever I can find it. Honestly, it should not be that difficult to buy mobile data. Doesn't Magyar Telekom want my business? Didn't communism fall in 1989?

I went into the nearby tourist information centre for more information about Kékestető, which buses to catch, activities to do on the summit, etc. I was the only customer and the employee was so kind-hearted and softly-spoken and empathetic and soothing that my heart melted. When you meet someone in Hungary who is mild and coueteous and agreeable it becomes a most treasured memory, like a beaming ruby sparkling on top of a compost heap. The tourist information lady gave me all the information I needed, made sympathetic cluck-clucks after I told her about the fiasco with the trains, pointed out things about Kékestető my prior research hadn't revealed, and I had to restrain myself from asking for her hand in marriage right then and there.

I walked a couple of blocks to the bus station and waited a short while for a bus up to the summit, it didn't take long to get up there. It was only a few minutes walk from the summit bus stop to the hughest point of Hungary, a small boulder on a plinth painted in the red, white and green of the Hungarian flag and the words "KÉKESTETŐ 1014m". I stood next to the plinth and proclaimed "Én Magyarország királya vagyok!" -- I am the king of Hungary!

Next to the plinth was a makeshift memorial of small remembrance sttones, sculptures, photographs, candles and keepsakes. This is a memorial to various dead motorcyclists - and only motorcyclists. Why only motorcyclists and why here on Kékestető, I do not know.

Near to the summit is a television transmission tower. A small fee admits you into the lift up to the two observation decks, one enclosed and the other in the open air. The Mátra mountains are a small range running east to west with expansive plains to the north and south. Though the air was very hazy, there was still a great view. The mountain itself was covered in autumn trees, a riot of colour.

It was time to start walking. My original plan was to get to the summit by mid-morning and spend the whole day bushwalking, making my way down the mountain back to Gyöngyös, but the troubles with the trains meant I had to truncate that walk. I decided on a much shorter nine kilometre walk only part of the way down the mountain.

It was beautiful. I am an Australian. Our trees are all evergreen. Autumn forests are only something I have ever seen in movies and in children's books. How great it was to walk through scenes of red, brown, yellow, green. How awesome it was to feel the soft leaves crunch under my feet, to pick up a whole hesp of leaves and throw them into the soft cool breeze, to kick the leaves as I skipped along.

It's all innocent fun - on flat ground. I had no idea just how dangerous it is to walk on thick autumn leaves going downhill. And considering that I started at the highest point of Hungary - it was all downhill.

Some parts of the trail I chose were so dangerous that the safest way I could descend was to sit on the ground and slide down the hill, my sensitive male bits hitting every single hidden rock on the way. In other places I found the best way was to make myself fall from tree to tree like a ball in a pinball machine, each tree breaking my fall. At other times I crouched down so I could keep a firm hold on a pallen log as I skilled down the lesfy slope.

I slowed down to an average speed of 1.5 kilometres an hour. There was no way I was going to finish nine kilometres by sunset. So I deciddd to truncate my walk halfway at a little place called Mátraháza at the 4.7 kilometre mark.

I started to gain confidence with walking on leaves - or I thought I did. There was one downhill stretch that I thought I would be able to negotiate while staying upright. Unfortunately I was wrong. I slipped and the bone in my left buttock landed straight onto a very jagged rock hidden under the leaves. I am writing this four days later and it still hurts when I get up out of a chair.

I was sorely temlted to call 112 and get the ambulance service to rescue me with a helicopter. But I oersevered. Im weird like that. When I want to do something, I get it done. I was going to make it back to Mátraháza and Budapest and unbearable pain in my left buttocks be damned.

I took it slowly. Soon the terrain became much flatter and I could walk normally again. I soon rejoined Highway 24 and from there it was a short walk to Mátraháza following the very helpful colour-coded markers painted on the trees every twenty metres. (Why can't Australian national parks have this? Bushwalking in Europe is so much easier.)

Mátraháza is little more than a forest guesthouse and a bus stop on the highway. There was a small crowd of visitors and bushwalkers waiting for the next direct bus back to Budapest. I asked a few people if they had any painkillers, I explained what happened, but I was ignored by most people or I just got a very brusque "no" as they turned away and then ignored me. One old man though heard me and he offered two painkillers and told me to take one now and the other the next morning. Yet more Hungarian kindness! It doesn't happen too often. He was still very blunt and very distant, but his kindness in offering me the tablets was worth more than gold to me.

I didn't know there were frequent direct buses from Kékestető all the way to Budapest. If I had known it wouldn't have made too much difference. I like trains too much. But it was a relief that I didn't have to put myself through the trains and trackwork buses again.

After about one hour forty, I got back to Budapest, and on the street I'm staying on, I found a fancy restaurant, Magdalena Merlo. Even though I was very sore and wearing filthy hiking clothes I wasn't turned away. I had one of the greatest meals I have ever eaten - paprikás (a chicken thigh cooked in creamy paprika sauce) with ewe's cheese dumplings, Gundel palacsinta (crepe-like pancakes stuffed with chopped walnuts and raisins and drenched in flambéed red wine chocolate sauce), and for a drink, a very large glass of Egri Bikavér (also known in English as Bull's Blood from Eger). I rarely drink wine, I don't like it, but Bikavér - it is truly the nectar of the gods! The meal was expensive, about 6,800 forints, but after all I had been through that day, I had been such a good boy and I deserved it!

Topping it off was a three-piece orchestra (violin, cello and xylophone) playing sentimental Hungarian favourites. They took requests. A West Ham supporter from England at the next table asked for "I'll Be Blowing Bubbles" which the band didn't know. I requested "Szomorú Vasárnap" -- Gloomy Sunday. This song was famous in the 1930s and 1940s. It was banned by the BBC for supposedly setting off a string of suicides because the song was so melancholy. This tear-jerking song about lovers being reunited in death, for some reason, has lomg greatly appealed to me. There are plenty of different adsptations on YouTube, feel free to check them out, but none were as good as at Magdalena Merlo. I was moved to tears and at the end the entire restaurant applauded and shouted "bravo!"

What a fantastic way for one of the most challenging days in all of my travels to end. Things can only look up from here.

Keleti station

Keleti station

Keleti station

Keleti station

Trains at Pécel (my train from Keleti on the left)

Trains at Pécel (my train from Keleti on the left)

Train from Hatvan to Vámosgyörk

Train from Hatvan to Vámosgyörk

Train from Vámosgyörk to Gyöngyös

Train from Vámosgyörk to Gyöngyös

Main street of Gyöngyös

Main street of Gyöngyös

Village of Vámosgyörk

Village of Vámosgyörk

The King of Hungary

The King of Hungary

Kékestető TV tower

Kékestető TV tower

View from Kékestető TV tower

View from Kékestető TV tower

Autumn leaves on Kékestető

Autumn leaves on Kékestető

Paprikás & ewe’s cheese dumplings

Paprikás & ewe’s cheese dumplings

Posted by urbanreverie 16:32 Archived in Hungary Tagged mountains budapest hiking buses railways mobile bushwalking kékestető Comments (0)

Freedom, high-day, freedom!

sunny

Keszthely, Hungary

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Contrary to what some people may think (yes, Tom B., I am looking straight at you!), writing this travel blog is not my principal activity when I am overseas. Blogging is strictly a spare-time endeavour. Seeing the sights I want to see, experiencing the experiences I want to experience, riding the trains I want to ride, socialising with people I meet on my way, all take precedence over writing this dumb blog.

My aim is to write one blog entry a day, preferably as soon as possible while my memories and emotions are still freshly impressed on my brain. Typically I write a blog entry before going to bed, or immediately after getting up in the morning. That being said, keeping to this schedule is sometimes easier or harder to do, depending on the destination. For instance, in Sri Lanka, a country with little notable nightlife except in the beach resorts, it was extremely easy to do. Same for when I was on my road trip around Iceland. It is easy to write thousands of words when you are in some little fishing village where the supermarkets and even the restaurants shut at six in the evening. There is literally nothing else to do.

Budapest, however, is neither Sri Lanka or Iceland. What an amazing, lively, interesting city. I was there for five nights and I only scratched the surface of Budapest. There was still so much that I did not see and not for want of trying.

Though I am now four nights behind on my blogging schedule, I still do intend to write one entry per day of travel. My memories and observations and impressions will not be as fresh; I will need to go through my Facebook timeline and my iPhone's camera roll to remind myself of what I actually did a mere four days ago. It has all been a bit of a whirlwind and the days of the past week have blurred into one another in my brain.

So, please join me in my DeLorean as we go back into the deep, deep past ... four days ago. Wednesday, 23 October 2019.

It is an important date in these parts. October 23 is National Day, also known as Szabadság Napja: "Day of Freedom". This national holiday commemorates the unsuccessful 1956 Hungarian Revolution when millions of people demanded what people on our side of the Iron Curtain took for granted: free elections, independent trade unions, free media and in general terms, a government that doesn't treat its citizens like total crap.

It's impossible to overstate how proud Hungarians are of 1956. As they have every right to be. It was an inspiring example of people power, of solidarity, of dignity, of humankind's love of freedom. It did not work out. The hopes and dreams of the Hungarian people and their supporters all over the world were cruelly crushed under the tracks of the Soviet tanks despite spirited resistance. The greatest resistance was from university students and factory workers on the working-class suburban island of Csepel, despite the propaganda from Moscow claiming it was some sort of bourgeois reactionary counter-revolution.

The centre of celebrations was on Kossuth Lajos Square outside Parliament. I caught a trolleybus there in the early afternoon after a morning spent chilling out, recovering from all the walking I did the day before, catching up on my blog and doing laundry. Urban Reverie's Rule Of Travelling No. 1: if there is an opportunity to do laundry, take it! My guesthouse has a washing machine available for guests and damned if I'm going to let that chance slip by.

A Soviet massacre of protestors occurred in Kossuth Lajos Square. There were five vintage 1950s trams parked on the 2 line on the square; inside these trams were historical displays about those who died here. There was a lengthy queue of people waiting to enter Parliament; National Day is the only day when people can enter Parliament for free to view St Stephen's Crown, still the legal symbol of Hungary's sovereignty and state power despite being a republic. Good-natured families waved flags with the centre of the flat cut out in the circle - the symbol of the 1956 revolutionaries was such a flag with the hated communist emblem excised therefrom. Parliament was also flying these cut-out flags. The kiddies got to ride on the back of vintage 1950s trucks of the sort commandeered by the revolutionaries to ferry volunteers to various barricades.

It was all very restrained and cordial, there was none of the boorish, bombastic, drunken xenophobic nationalism that characterises Australia Day. Is there a national holiday in the world as appalling as Australia Day on January 26?

I booked a tour of Parliament for four o'clock in the afternoon and had a couple of hours to spare. Most tourists go on a cruise on the Danube. They pay very large sums of money to do so. But I'm a tightarse. So please allow me to share Urban Reverie's Tightarse Method of cruising on the Danube in Budapest.

BKK, Budapest's public transport authority, operates ferry services up and down the Danube. They are not as frequent as in Sydney or Brisbane, typically they run about only once an hour and finish in the early evening. You won't get a running commentary or dinner and drinks, but the view is just as good. And the fare on weekends and public holidays is only 750 forints. On weekdays, the ferries are no extra cost if you have a BKK travel card like a 24-hour ticket or a weekly ticket. So if you hold off until a weekday, that's even more tightarse-ish!

So for less than the price of a 600 milliltre bottle of Coca-Cola in Australia, I got one of the most fantastic views you can get of a city from a river ferry anywhere in the world. On the left bank was the cathedral-like Parliament, the concert hall, the Budapest Corvinus University. On the right bank was the enormous brooding bulk of Buda Castle, the hopeful and optimistic Liberty statue on the very tip of Gellért Hill, the antique funicular railway shuttling visitors up and down the steep slope to and from the castle. And connecting both banks was a series of bridges, not just mere roadways but intricate works of art in their own right, sculpture as transportation.

I rode on the ferry from Parliament down to a wharf at the west end of the Liberty Bridge and then walked across the same to the east bank. The Liberty Bridge is my favourite, a patina-like green steel cantilever bridge with flourishes and coats-of-arms and all sorts of embellishments.

I caught the 2 tram back up to Parliament, I needed to be back by four o'clock and there wasn't a ferry that would get me back on time. The 2 tram is easily one of the most beautiful tram routes in the world. It runs along the right bank of the Danube the entire length of the inner city.

I joined my tour group of the Parliament shortly before four and after a security check, we were led into the Parliament building. Despite looking like a Gothic cathedral, it was only built in 1904. It might not be antique but that does not take away from its majesty. The Parliament is even more mind-blowing inside than outside. Stained glass windows, gilded vaulted arches, Sistine Chapel-like frescoes on the ceilings, the richest, softest, fluffiest carpet I have walked on. In the middle of the great hall in the centre of the building right under the massive dome is a glass case containing the thousand-year-old St Stephen's Crown. It was even more moving than the crown of which I am a subject and a servant, St Edward's Crown, in the Tower of London. St Stephen's Crown is a burnished gold hemisphere with tassels reverently laid out upon the cushion on which the crown sits, embedded with chunky yet radiant jewels. To protect the crown the lighting is dimmed but the jewels still managed to gleam. On top of a crown is a square cross with round knobs at the end of each arm: the cross is slanted. Legend has it that in the seventeenth century a courtier had trouble closing the lid of the crown's case and he slammed the lid shut, causing the cross to bend. Nobody has bothered to fix it. Indeed, the bent cross is now a national symbol of Hungary and features on the country's coat-of-arms.

The tour guide then led us into the chamber of the National Assembly, Hungary's unicameral parliament. This was also a work of art. Above the speaker's podium are the coat-of-arms of all the imperial possessions of Hungary as of 1904. The tour guide described these countries as Hungary's "partner states". I am certain that the peoples of Croatia, Slavonia, Vojvodina, Transylvania and Slovakia were absolutely thrilled to have been "partner states". Why, as soon as the Central Powers lost the war in 1918, they were all quite reluctant to leave.

Another nice touch - all along the corridors are these long gold trays on the walls at about chest height, with grooves running across the trays. Each groove is numbered. Smoking was and is prohibited in the debating chamber, so Members of Parliament smoked in the corridors. When the bells rang to call MPs into the chamber for a vote, the MPs would leave their cigars in the numbered grooves. The numbers allowed the MPs to remember where they put their cigars. Absolutely genius.

The tour guide said that Hungary's Parliament was the third largest parliament building in the world after Argentina and Romania's parliaments. I questioned that. Parliament House in Canberra was basically built by removing a hill, buulding the parliament, and then putting the hill back on top of it. Canberra's Parliament certainly cannot compete with Budapest's when it comes to awe-inspiring majesty but no way is it smaller.

After the tour finished at five o'clock I decided to go and explore a bit more of Budapest's transpprt system. The M4 metro line in the city's south is the newest line, built in 2014, and the only one that is driverless. Some of the stations are artistically impressive, including one with a hypnotic spiralling mosaic tile pattern along the platform tubes.

From the M4's terminus at Kelenföld I caught a regional train north to Déli (Southern) station, one of Budapest's three main railway termini and the only one that is not an architectural masterpiece. Déli is horrible 1970s communist dreariness, all stained concrete and collapsing ceilings that are covered in tarpaulins and a seedy air of neglect. There were plenty of interesting people around. And by "interesting" I mean drunks, vagrants, the severely mentally ill and other people whose company is not the most pleasant. I high-tailed it out of there and returned to Pest.

Goulash for dinner - goulash in Hungary is actually soup; the stew that Australians call "goulash" is called "pörkölt" here - and a stroll around the Jewish community of Erszébetváros, including a poignant and thought-provoking stop at the ghetto memorial, in the neighbourhood from which so many Hungarian Jews were sent to their deaths in the Nazi extermination camps north of Hungary, brought to an end another stimulating day. Budapest never fails to provide things that engage and interest me.

1956 commemoration outside Parliament

1956 commemoration outside Parliament

Heritage trams at Kossuth Lajos tér

Heritage trams at Kossuth Lajos tér

1956 revolutionary flags flown from Parliament building

1956 revolutionary flags flown from Parliament building

Danube ferry

Danube ferry

Hungarian Parliament

Hungarian Parliament

Buda Castle

Buda Castle

Liberty Monument of Gellért Hill

Liberty Monument of Gellért Hill

Liberty Bridge

Liberty Bridge

National Assembly chamber

National Assembly chamber

Corridor in Parliament

Corridor in Parliament

Cigar trays in Parliament

Cigar trays in Parliament

Hypnotic tiles on M4 metro line

Hypnotic tiles on M4 metro line

Déli Station

Déli Station

Budapest Ghetto Memorial with a map of the ghetto

Budapest Ghetto Memorial with a map of the ghetto

Posted by urbanreverie 14:45 Archived in Hungary Tagged food budapest cruise parliament ferry railways ghetto Comments (0)

Lord Of The Trains

sunny

It surely must be possible to overdose on trains. But no matter how hard I try, I can't do it.

I became a train enthusiast when I was very young, perhaps a toddler, I don't ever remember being not obsessed with them. Until I was five years old I lived near a railway line in the Sydney suburb of Chester Hill, I could see and hear the Red Rattlers clattering past from my street. We were only ever a one-car family so my mother and I used public transport quite extensively for shopping in the city or visiting family or just a nice day out to Taronga Park Zoo or a picnic by the water at Bundeena.

When I was twelve I began high school and the easiest way to go to and from school was my train. I was a big boy now, I got to ride the trains all by myself! Red Rattlers, S sets, C sets, Tangaras.

Even though I am now middle-aged, trains never cease to fill me with wide-eyed childlike wonder. Even if I am just riding two stations on the City Circle, my heart leaps as the train pulls into the platform. "Look everyone, I'm on a train! Aren't I just so cool!"

So it stands to reason that when I travel, I spend far too much time exploring public transport systems and riding as many different types of trams and trains that I can. Yes, I do have other interests. I will get around to exploring those eventually!

So my day began with a supermarket breakfast - an apple, two pastries and a small carton of kefir for only three hundred forints - and a trolley bus ride to Kossuth Lajos tér. The street I am staying on has electrically powered trolley buses trundling past every couple of minutes. I love trolley buses, I have ridden on one before in Bratislava. They are so smooth and accelerate and brake so quickly and they are so quiet! Too quiet. I almost saw someone get killed because they stepped onto the road and couldn't hear the approaching bus.

I got off at Kossuth Lajos tér on which Hungary's magnificent Parliament is located and then went back to Deák Ferenc tér on the M2 metro. I needed to go to the BKK transport agency's information centre because I lost the public transport map I got at the airport. Off to the side of the information centre I noticed glass doors lewding to the underground railway museum. It's a small museum that can be seen within ten minutes, just three old carriages from the toy-like M1 line (including two original cars from the line's 1896 opening), as well as historical displays about the design and construction of the metro system. The weirdest thing about the museum is that it charged two separate fees - one for admission (350 Ft.) and one for permission to take photos and videos (500 Ft.)

From Deák Ferenc tér I took the M2 line west under the Danube to Széll Kálmán tér, an amazing transport interchange. Széll Kálmán tér is a triangular plaza with tram stops on each side of the triangle; there is always a tram coming or going on at least one side and often on all three sides. In the middle of the triangle is a concrete building containing the metro entrance.

I changed to a tram which I rode a couple of stops to Városmajor, and walked across to the Budapest Cog Wheel Railway. Cog wheel railways (or rack railways) are fairly common around the world, even Australia has two. They are mostly used for specialised applications in remote mountainous areas like skiing or forestry or mining. However, the Budapest Cog Wheel Railway is unusual in that it is part of the city's public transport stsem; normal fares apply and trains run every twenty minutes, frequency being limited by the lengthy single-track sections.

I boarded the cute little two-car train. The Cog Wheel Railway has three rails, two ordinary rails for the wheels and a toothed track in the middle for a cog wheel to run on. The toothed track and cog gives the train the ability to climb steep gradients without slipping. After a short wait, the train - or tram route 60 as it is officially known - ground up the hill. It was a noisy, rough ride, like being in one of those old manual coffee grinders.

The train went up into the cool, forested hills of Buda, throuh posh suburbs with nice houses behind high walls, then terminated halfway at Erdei iskola. Half the line is closed for reconstruction so passengers had to get off the train and walk about half a kilometre up one of the steepest streets I have ever seen to the bus stop for replacement buses to continue their journey.

After taking two buses I reached the weirdest railway of them all. Did you think the Doha Metro was weird? Did you think the Budapest Cog Wheel Railway was weird? Oh boy, strap yourselves in folks, because I am about to present to you the Children's Railway of Budapest.

I don't mean a railway for the amusement of children, they are common worldwide in city parks, amusement parks, shopping centres and the like. I mean a railway staffed and operated by children aged ten to fourteen.

I must admit I was a little nervous. I sort of imagined the Children's Railway to be a little bit Lord Of The Flies. And when I went to buy my ticket, the girl was as clumsy and hesitant with my change as you would expect a twelve-year-old to be. That didn't exactly fill me with confidence.

I needn't have worried. At each station there is an adult supervisor and the driver is also an adult. Children's railways were a communist thing, they were quite common in the Eastern bloc. They were mostly built in the mid-twentieth century (Budapest's opened in 1948) to train young people in all aspects of railway operation and also to teach them valuable life skills about teamwork, working safely, following established procedures and the like.

The little two-car diesel-hauled train on 760 millimetre gauge track arrived, the locomotive changed ends, a child checked my ticket, another child waved a round paddle with a green disc on it and then waved a yellow flag and did this military salute as the train went past. There were two cars - an open-sided one and one with walls and windows. It was a glorious autumn day so everyone sat in the open car.

The train doesn't go very fast, it takes an hour to go eleven kilometres, which is perfectly fine. It's a very twisty railway in mountainous forest country. In Australia trees are all evergreen so we don't have brilliant autumn colours in our bush. The Australian bush looks the same all year round. I have only ever visited Europe in spring before, and European forests in autumn colours are just too marvellous for words. One tree will be gold, another red, another brown, another tenaciously holding onto its summer green until it inevitably has to switch to a winter wardrobe.

There were little stations along the way with children raising and lowering paddles and waving flags and doing that strange military salute with hands raised up to foreheads. I am not sure if this salute is some sort of safeworking signal or if it is a sign of respect to the passengers going past. People got on and off at some of these intermediate stations; many stations are located at trailheads for bushwalking tracks through the Buda Hills.

The train went through a long tunnel and then we arrived at the lower terminus of the Children's Railway at Hűvösvölgy, a busy tram terminus in a suburban valley. My word, how jealous I am of those children. Why couldn't we have something like that growing up in Western Sydney in the 1990s? Not fair!

I took the tram back to Széll Kálmán tér and the M2 train to Kossuth Lajos tér. I wanted to go on a tour of Parliament but no such joy, all tours were sold out and I was told to book online in advance. The square outside Parliament is a great enough sight with a collection of rather impressive statues of notable Hungarian historic figures, then I made a change of plans.

I crosesd the Danube again on the M2 to Batthyány tér and changed to an HÉV train. The HÉV is a system of suburban commuter lines that connect outsr suburbs to the metro or tram system. I entered the HÉV station and found the real Eastern Europe! The dark green HÉV train was boxy, chunky, noisy and had all the ride quality of a paint mixer.

Thankfully it was only a short ride to my next tourist attraction, Aquincum. Aquincum was a Roman settlement built on the right bank of the Danube in what is now Budapest's northern suburbs. It was an important town, serving as the capital of the Roman province of Pannonia for a while, and reached its apex in the third century. However, Aquincum was on the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire and vulnerable to attacks by waves of Celts, Huns and other barbarians. Aquincum was destroyed in the fourth century and laid buried for centuries.

Aquincum has now been painstakingly unearthed and is a remarkably well-preserved grid of the remains of stone walls. None of the buildings remain whole; merely the lowest three feet of the walls as well as the floors and street pavers.

I spent an hour wandering around Aquincum. I tried to feel awed by the history of the place, to feel reverent and inspired, but I couldn't. Perhaps I am a philistine. But to me, the ruins looked like a jumble of rock walls. There was a court house, a forum, a temple, a public bath house, a meat market - but they all looked much the same.

Not helping things is that Aquincum is right next to a busy six-lane highway and the HÉV railway, and on the other side of the highway and railway were a row of butt-ugly communist apartment blocks and an enormous smokestack. It's a bit hard to imagine the clop-clop-clop of marching centurions two thousand years ago in such a noisy modern environment.

There was another railway station nearby on another line, part of the national railway network, and so I caught a very sleek and new Stadler FLIRT train from there to Nyugati ("Western") station, one of Budapest's three main railway terminals. Nyugati has an impressive roof with an enormous glass panel fronting onto the street.

A quick dinner at a wok bar, a short tram trip to Oktogon and another ride on a toy train on the M1 brought me to Széchenyi baths in City Park. 5,200 forints gets you entry and locker hire after 7pm. I changed into my swimmers and thongs, put my clothes in the locker, had a shower to rinse off my body before going into the baths, and then plunged into the steaming 38 °C pool.

There are three pools in the impressive Baroque revival Széchenyi baths complex - the 38 °C thermal pool, a slightly cooler (34 °C, I think) adventure pool with a jacuzzi, a whirlpool, massage jets and underwater coloured disco lights, and an ordinary swimming pool with lanes where you can do laps which I couldn't use because there's a rule that you need to wear a swimming cap (has anybody ever heard of such a ridiculous rule?) The waters are very soothing but I was disappointed that the place wasn't as social as hot springs I have been to in Taiwan and Iceland where all the guests become one big happy family and everyone is overcome with a feeling of childlike innocence and contentment. Still, I spent two hours in the baths and really didn't want to leave, the water was just so warm and relaxing, but the ten o'clock closing time was rapidly approaching.

I grabbed a langos from a nearby kiosk. Langos is a Hungarian specialty consisting of a large pizza-like disc of deep fried dough covered in various toppings; mine had cheese and garlic sauce. It was very yummy though decidedly would never receive the Heart Foundation tick.

On the edge of City Park is Heroes Square, a beautifully illuminated semi-circular colonnade with a statuary of famous Hungarian kings surrounding a tall column topped with Archangel Gabriel holding St Stephen's Crown, still the national symbol of Hungary despite being a republic for the best part of a century. Surounding the base of the column are statues of seven men on horseback, the Seven Chieftains of the Hungarian tribes who settled in the Carpathian basin in 896 AD led by Arpad, the founder of the Hungarian nation. In front of the column is a simple cenopath covered in wreaths; this sarcophagus is the national war memorial.

A short ride on the M1 back down Andrassy Avenue took me back to my room - or rather, the hipster pub across the street from my room. It is early days but my impression so far is that Hungarians aren't the warmest and friendliest people I have encountered. That sort of changes after a few drinks though. I had a good conversation with the bar owner, about his love of Australian music and Triple J radio, about the pub he founded with a tattoo parlour inside - certainly an interesting combination! I wonder how many people have become intoxicated in there and woke up the next morning wondering why they have the Hilltop Hoods tattooed on their thigh?

Budapest Underground Railway Museum

Budapest Underground Railway Museum

Budapest Cogwheel Railway

Budapest Cogwheel Railway

Budapest Cogwheel Railway

Budapest Cogwheel Railway

Platform dispatcher on Children’s Railway

Platform dispatcher on Children’s Railway

Budapest Children’s Railway

Budapest Children’s Railway

Budapest Children’s Railway

Budapest Children’s Railway

HÉV train at Batthyány tér

HÉV train at Batthyány tér

Roman ruins at Aquincum

Roman ruins at Aquincum

Széchenyi Baths

Széchenyi Baths

Heroes Square

Heroes Square

Posted by urbanreverie 12:44 Archived in Hungary Tagged children budapest ruins squares roman baths railways Comments (0)

Pest inspection

21 °C

I got out of bed at 5am after about four hours sleep. I am always amazed at how easily I wake up and how energentic I am in the mornings when I travel but back home mornings are just pure misery.

I woke up so early because I had an 8:20am flight to catch. I packed all my things within half an hour, made an awful cup of instant coffee in my room - I'll do anything for a caffeine hit - and went down to the lobby to check out and catch the free hotel airport shuttle van at six o'clock.

The van arrived on time, I and other guests boarded, but the van just sat there, the South Asian driver arguing loudly with another employee. The driver than disappeared into the hotel for a long period and finally re-emerged after ten minutes, then we were on our way.

The van joined the main road, turned right, turned right again, turned right yet again and then we were back at the same hotel. The driver disappeared inside again without any explanation and ten minutes later came back, there were some straggling guests who missed the six o'clock departure. We were all getting very antsy. I had an 8:20 flight, others had an 8:10 flight, and we were openly wondering whether the driver would ever leave.

Finally we set off again at 6:25 and the driver put the pedal to the metal on the motorway to the airport while tailgating, moving three lanes over at once without indicating, and looking at his mobile phone. The van arrived at Hamad International Airport at 6:35.

Immigration and security aren't as time-consuming when leaving Qatar; and check-in is all self-service so there were no queues. I needn't have worried, I reached my gate for Qatar Airways Flight QR199 at seven on the dot with twenty minutes to spare before boarding commenced. Kingsford Smith Airport could learn something from the Qataris. My gate was one of those stupid gates where you have to board a bus that takes passengers out to the plane waiting in the middle of the apron hundreds of metres away from the terminal.

I climbed up the stairs onto the Airbus A330 and we departed on time. The plane was lightly loaded; only three of the eight seats in my row were occupied, and only four in the row in front of me. To avoid forbidden Saudi airspace the plane went northeast over the Persian Gulf and Iran. Enormous bald brown mountains kilometres high soared into the sky directly from the waters of the Gulf coastline, with row upon row of mountains behind it. Occasionally there was a hydroelectric dam in the steep canyons between the treeless Martian mountains, and the higher elevations were capped with snow. I had no idea that Iran looked so magnificent.

The A330 continued over the azure waters of Lake Van in Turkey, then over the Black Sea (it's not bkack at all but just as blue as any ocean! False advertising!), the checkerboard steppes of Bulgaria, the bald mountains of Transylvania, and began its descent to Ferihegy airport just east of Budapest. The plane did a big U-turn over Budapest with great views of the Danube, Buda Castle, Parliament and Heroes Square.

QR199 landed on time at 12:55 and immigration for me was swift. It was surprising because in front of me were two other passengers. One was an African lady and the immigration officer was putting her through the third degree. After about ten minutes she finally got her stamp. The next passenger was a Chinese man and he got the Perry Mason treatment too. After a small eternity he got his stamp. Then I prrsented my passport. The officer quickly looked at the photo to verify it was me, scanned the passport, flicked through the pages far too quickly to actually read the stamps, and then stamped me and waved me through. It took about twenty seconds. I know that immigration officers go harder on visitors from countries whose citizens are more likely to overstay or work illegally or lodge baseless asylum claims, but it was still shocking.

There was a very long wait for my backpack, the baggae claim carousels broke down for about twenty minutes resulting in hundreds of people jn a cramped, airless hall waiting with no sign that the carousels would start working again. Finally the belt started moving, I grabbed my backpack, withdrew some Hungarian forints, bought a five day transport pass for 4,550 ft. (note: 1 Australian dollar equals 203 Hungarian forints. To convert to Australian dollars, put a decimal point to the left of the second last digit and halve the result), and caught the 200E bus to Nagyvárad tér, the temporary terminus of the M3 metro line while a section of the line is being rebuilt.

I tooķ the crowded M3 train to the major interchange of Deák Ferenc tér. The M3 was built in the 1970s and every station on that line was just pure communist dreariness. I changed to an M1 train and was pleasantly surprised. The M1 is the oldest underground railway on Mainland Europe, opening in 1896. Trains are tiny yellow three-car things, basiczlly glorified trams, and run every two minutes on a line under Adrassy Avenue where the stations are only about three blocks apart. As my train pulled into my station I burst out laughing! Awww, look at this cutesy-wutesy widdle baby twainy-wainy pwaying with the big boys!

The stations were marvellous specimens of Art Nouveau architecture too, all brown and cream tiles and inlaid station names and brass balustrades and large semi-circles. I alighted at one of them, Vörösmarty utca, strapped my backpack on, and walked two blocks to my guesthouse in the upmarket, almost Parisian suburb of Terézváros.

It was advertised as a guesthouse on Booking.com but is actually an apartment, a five-bedroom flat with the owner living in one room and renting out the other four. I checked in at twenty past three and chilled out for a while. I hadn't had much sleep and even though five-and-a-half hours isn't that long a flight, it still takes the wind out of me, especially when you factor in getting to and from the airport at both ends.

It was about six o'clock when I went out hunting for dinner, I just grabbed a felafel plate from a kebab joint in the neighbourhood, and then I caught the M1 to Széchenyi Baths, the most famous mineral spa in a country renowned for hot springs. After a long and tiring journey a restorative soak in mineral-rich waters were just what I needed. The baths are located in a large Baroque Revival palace in City Park. I had brought my swimmers and a towel, but had left my thongs (what Australians call flip-flops) in my backpack in my room. Thongs were compulsory and I could have bought some for 3,000 forints but I decided to save my money and come back on another day.

So I caught the M1 to its city centre terminus at Vörösmarty tér and went for a long evenung walk along the Danube. Wow wow wow wow wow wow wow. This will test my ability to put my wonder into words, but here goes: imagine a wide river crossed by several bridges that aren't just utilitarian methods of transportation but serious works of art in themselves. All along the river are major landmarks - an enormous neo-Gothic Parliament with domes and vaults and buttresses, a massive castle on top of a very hugh rock, a concert hall, statues and monuments, all lit up in a pleasing gold colour. Imagine all of this reflected in the shimmering black river. Add bright yellow trams going up and down the promenade on each bank every couple of minutes. What an amazing walk.

I crossed the river on the relatively modern Elizabeth Bridge, went down as far south as the patina-green Liberty Bridge and walked back up the right bank past the interesting Széchenyi Chain Bridge as far as the Margaet Bridge, one of the more unusual bridges I have seen because it's a three-way bridge with an intersection and tram stop in the middle of it that connects Margaret Island to both banks of the Danube.

I caught the tram back to Terézváros and stopped in at a hipster pub across the street from my room. I enjoyed two decent Hungarian beers, very well-deserved after such a lengthy walk, and I was surprised that the pub was playing Australian indie rock songs from the early 2000s like "Black Betty" by Spiderbait and "Are You Gonna Be My Girl?" by the Jets. What, did I step into a teleport by accident and get transported throigh the space-time continuum back to King Street, Newtown circa 2004?

Iranian mountains

Iranian mountains

Lake Van in Turkey

Lake Van in Turkey

Budapest from the air

Budapest from the air

Cute little train on the M1 line

Cute little train on the M1 line

Vörösmarty utca station on the M1 line

Vörösmarty utca station on the M1 line

Buda Castle

Buda Castle

Elizabeth Bridge

Elizabeth Bridge

Liberty Bridge

Liberty Bridge

Széchenyi Chain Bridge

Széchenyi Chain Bridge

Queen Elizabeth statue

Queen Elizabeth statue

Hungarian Parliament

Hungarian Parliament

Margaret Bridge

Margaret Bridge

Soproni beer

Soproni beer

Posted by urbanreverie 08:32 Archived in Hungary Tagged bridges budapest beer danube metro baths qatar airways Comments (1)

Disco dhow

sunny 34 °C
View Urban Reverie Late 2019 on urbanreverie's travel map.

I am in the habit of climbing the highest point of many of the countries I visit if the peak is reasonably accessible and within my fitness level. Qatar's highest point is quite low. Qurayn Abu al-Bawl is a low sandy limestone outcrop about a hundred and twenty metres above sea level. It's quite accessible if you hire a car and driver, it is just off the main highway to Saudi Arabia with an access road all the way to the top. However, there is a military observation post. Other peak-baggers have reported that the post was unmanned and they encountered no obstacle; others report that they were turned away by stern policemen. That was before the long-running diplomatic crisis that has seen most neighbouring countries led by Saudi Arabia break off all relations with Qatar since 2017. Qurayn Abu al-Bawl is quite close to the Saudi border. And it would be just my luck to be speneing years rotting away in a Qatari jail without consular access for trespassing on military property.

So I decided that discretion is the better part of valour and spent the day in my hotel room instead.

I woke up at ten after thirteen hours of soul-renewing, blissful, refreshing sleep. I woke up feeling sufficiently alert and energised but didn't feel the urge to go outside. I just wanted to chill - literally chill in my room's agreeably freezing air conditioning. I have travelled enough now to know that when your body and mind tell you to rest, it's a good idea to do so. I often push myself way too hard when travelling, I often place myself under too much pressure to see as many things as possible, but I have learned over the years that even if I'm on holiday, I still need to look after myself and take things at an appropriate pace.

So I spent a few hours updating my blog and my online photo albums and chatting to friends on social media, and I didn't leave the Concorde Hotel until the early afternoon. My destination was the Villaggio Mall in Doha's western suburbs. I consulted Google Maps before leaving my hotel. I caught the metro one stop to Mshiereb station, and then exited the station to Salwa Road where there was a bus stop.

Getting to the bus stop was not easy. I found the right station exit but the way to the bus stop was blocked off by yet another construction site. So I went on a lengthy detour around back lanes until I reached the bus stop on Salwa Road. Or not.

I opened the offline map in Google Maps. I was definitely in the right place. But there was no bus stop. After about ten minutes a taxi finally stopped and we took off to the west along a very busy arterial that turned into a motorway.

Qatari driving is bad. It's not as shocking as in Sri Lanka, I cannot conceive that any place could have worse driving than Sri Lanka, but it is still very bad. The taxi driver kept alternating between revving the guts out of the engine and slamming on the brakes. A car in front would brake but the taxi driver would continue accelerating.

"Are you f×÷#ing blind! Do they not teach you how to drive? The car in front has its brake lights on! See those bright red things on either side of the back of the car? That means you brake too! Are you a f+×#ing congenital moron? For f+×#'s sake!" I wanted to shout at the driver but I didn't. Thinking back, I should have. How else are these imbeciles going to learn how to drive properly if they don't get a rightfully deserved ear-bashing from people who come from countries where people don't drive like psychopathic homicidal maniacs?

After about twenty minutes of a repetitive monotonous suburban scenario of strip malls, hotels and apartment complexes with every building coloured exactly the same bleached blonde sand colour as the Qatari desert, I arrived at the Villaggio Mall with the blood drained from my face. Villaggio is the most bizarre shopping centre I have seen. The entire centre is built to resemble a neighbourhood in Venice with a network of canals along the corridors and gondola rides on the canals. There is only one level of shopping on the ground floor but above the shopping level are fake Venetian apartments with lights behind the frosted windows and fake flower boxes hanging from the balconies. On the ceiling are paintings of blue skies with wispy clouds to give the illusion of being outdoors. It was contrived and it was cheesy and I absolutely loved it.

I had lunch at Applebee's, an American casual dining chain we don't have in Australia yet - it reminded me a lot of TGI Friday's which we do have Down Under. I would have liked something more authentically Qatari but it seems that generic American food is all that is available here.

I left the mall and crossed the road to Aspire Park. I read a blurb about this park in the Doha destination information on the in-flight enertainment system on the plane from Sydney. It was a nice park, a very large expanse of preternaturally emerald-green grass crisscrossed by walking tracks and bridle paths, whose centrepiece was an attractive lake with fountains and an ersatz mediaeval stone arch bridge. It was now approaching sunset - the sun sets very early in Qatar, before five o'clock - and Aspire Park was full of families enjoying a nice little stroll. By far the most pleasant time of day in Doha is the hour either side of sunset. The daytime heat and humidity has died down a bit and there is often a pleasant breeze. Later in the evening the air becomes very still and humid; midnight is far sweatier than 5pm. I enjoyed ambling around Aspire Park, they did a good job of turning what was once parched desert into a world-class recreational park, even though it was faker than Fairlie Arrow's kidnapping. Much like most things in Qatar, come to think of it.

On the other side of the Villaggio Mall is the Khalifa International Stadium, one of the 2022 World Cup venues, and The Torch, a striking high-rise hotel built in the shape of, well, a torch. Long-time readers of my blog might know that I have a thing for towers. I walled up to The Torch and asked the doorman if there was an observation deck. There wasn't, but there was a mocktail bar on the twenty-first floor that was open to the general public. So I went up to the mocktail bar, paid a lot of money for a strawberry and mint mocktail, and enjoyed the view over Doha's flat, sprawling suburbs as twilight gave way to night.

I headed back to the old town centre. Buses left from Al Waab Road opposite Villaggio Mall every ten minutes. I boarded a bus and then got stuck in gridlock. It took over an hour just to travel a few kilometres to the main bus station next to Souq Waqif. Doha traffic is insane. Qatar is an extremely car-dependent society, even more so than Australia. What happens is that in the early evening, Qataris like nothing better than to get into their Lexus four wheel drives with their families and sit in the same traffic jams as all other Qataris on their way to hang out in shopping malls for two hours. So the roads leading up to shopping malls - and there are a lot of malls - are choked for kilometres and kilometres. It seems like a bizarre way to pass an evening with your family, sitting in gridlock, but if that is how Qataris want to spend their spare time, who am I to judge?

I am glad I didn't choose to catch a taxi back to the city because the cab would have been stuck in exactly the same traffic as the bus and I would have paid a fortune. After an eternity I finally alighted near Souq Waqif. I made my way to the Corniche along the waterfront and paid eighty riyals to go on a half-hoir cruise on a motorised dhow. These interesting open-decked timber vessels are the traditional seacraft of the Persian Gulf. In the past they were powered by sails, and some sailing dhows still exist, but the vast majority now are motorised like the Sarona, on which I was an honoured guest.

There were three other tourists and two crew. The Sarona was lit up like a Christmas tree and on the deck were pulsating disco lights and loud Bollywood music. If you ever see a YouTube video of a fat balding bearded middle-aged white guy in a NASA t-shirt dancing awkwardly to blaring Indian pop music, it wasn't me! Honest! It's just someone who looks a bit like me! Seriously!

The Sarona cruised north from the Corniche next to the Museum of Islamic Art up to the new city centre at West Bay. This afforded excellent views of the colourful sksyscrapers along the waterfront with great photo opportunities. The skyline is impressive enough by day but at night it is simply wonderful.

The Sarona moored at the Corniche and I made my way to Souq Waqif. The Souq is the traditional marketplace of Doha, a labyrinth of narrow corridors lined with merchants selling everything you could ask for. One section sold pets, another jewellery, another textiles. Some alleys were open air while others were covered. All throughout Souq Waqif there was the pleasant aroma of spices and perfumes. Finally, I had found something that was authentically Qatari. What made the souq even more Qatari is that the covered sections had satisfyingly frigid air conditioning.

There was even a row of battered old eateries serving authentic Qatari food at open-air tables with luxuriously cushioned seats. I took a chair at one of them and ordered this platter of three represntative Qatari dishes: machboos (a type of chicken biryani but with different spices to the Indian version), makarony (macaroni pasta with chunks of lamb), and margoga (soaked bread mixed with meats and vegetables).

It was awful. The chicken in the machboos was so dry that it was impossible to eat. The makarony was just edible, but two mouthfuls of the margoga made me want to vomit. If this restaurant is a true representation of Qatari cuisine, it is probably a good thing that generic American-style international food has taken over Qatar.

As I returned on the bus to my hotel I thought about Qatar. I wonder how older Qataris see the changes that have taken place in their country. Within the lifetime of a senior citizen Qatar has turned from an impoverished protectorate of pearlers, mariners and subsistence fishermen with only a few hundred thousand people into a significant middle power, the world's richest country per capita with an enormous multicultural expatriate population of two million people from every corner of the earth, an immigrant community that far out numbers the native population. Qatar might not be a liberal democracy, labour standards for expatriates leave much to be desired, but the country is stable, peaceful, clean, reasonably well-governed and prosperous. Qatar has a major global TV news channel that is the closest thing the Middle East has to a free press, significant sporting events such as the Formula 1 grand prix, the international athletics championships and the 2022 soccer World Cup, a major airline that has one of the world's largest number of destinations and is consistently ranked one of the best international carriers, a top-notch airport and a welfare state most countries could only dream about. All this within a couple of generations thanks to the blessings of oil and gas resources and the prudent, judicious management of that wealth.

Thanks for having me for a couple of nights, Qatar. It's an interesting place and well worth a quick look to break up the painfully long and tiring journey between Australia and Europe.

Villaggio Mall

Villaggio Mall

Aspire Park

Aspire Park

Aspire Park

Aspire Park

The Torch from Aspire Park

The Torch from Aspire Park

Mosque at the Corniche

Mosque at the Corniche

Sarona, the disco dhow

Sarona, the disco dhow

West Bay at night

West Bay at night

Souq Waqif

Souq Waqif

Souq Waqif

Souq Waqif

Horrible Qatari food at Souq Waqif

Horrible Qatari food at Souq Waqif

Posted by urbanreverie 07:04 Archived in Qatar Tagged qatar souq dhow doha torch corniche villaggio Comments (1)

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