A Travellerspoint blog

Hungary

Gloomy Sunday

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I woke early in the morning feeling well, my stomach had settled down, but I felt very drained and fatigued. As I get older I notice that I'm getting better at interpreting the signs that my body is trying to communicate to me. So I decided to have a slow, easy day today.

It was nearly ten when I ambled down the street to the bus interchange next to the railway station. Everything was shrouded in dense fog, a fog so thick that even sounds were muffled. Not a single bird was singing, there was barely a car on the street, only the peals of distant church bells full of impending doom broke the silence. It truly was a Gloomy Sunday. I whistled "Gloomy Sunday" just to break the oppressive silence, and even started singing it ("Szomorú vasárnap szaz fehér virággal ...")

I didn't have to wait long for a bus to Hévíz about seven kilometres northwest of Keszthely. After ten minutes on empty roads I got off. Hévíz is a town whose sole reason of existence is the town's namesake, an enormous hot spring, a veritable lake several hundred metres across, the largest thermal bath in the world. (Lake Rotorua in New Zealand is larger but Hévíz claims Rotorua can't be used for bathing. I invite Kiwis to comment if I need to be corrected. I look forward to a Kwi vs Magyar flame war!)

The town of Hévíz is a collection of surprusingly large high-rise hotels, spa and massage treatment centres, expensive antique and bric-a-brac stores, ice cream parlours and other places whose primary purpose is to suck the money out of the wallets of visitors. I tried to find breakfast but except for ice cream parlours and a couple of bakeries nothing was open. So I just had a couple of pastries and a tiny cup of scalding hot, bitter Hungarian coffee for breakfast. Coffee in Hungary normally consists of just a shot of boiling espresso. If you order "kávé tejjel" (coffee with milk), you just get a shot of espresso with a teaspoon of milk added. For what Australians would consider a white coffee, you need to specify "latté", but that doesn't appear on every coffee shop's menu.

I waited twenty-five minutes in the queue to get into Hévíz. I couldn't believe how difficult most people found purchasing admission. In their defence, there was a wide range of admission products for sale: two-hour, four-hour, daily, multi-day passes, with sauna, without sauna, and all sorts of beauty and massage treatment supplements. I ended up buying a four-hour pass with sauna for five thousand forints.

I changed into my swimmers and thongs, walked out along a long, enclosed pier to a pavillion in the centre of the lake, and went down into the water under the pavillion. The water directly underneath the pavillion is the warmest in the entire lake. After a short while I went back into the pavillion and swam outside in the fresh air where the water was less crowded. The water was still warm, had a mild sulphuric smell that wasn't unpleasant, and left my skin and hair feeling silky. The bottom of the lake was surprisingly slimy - there's a species of seaweed that thrives on sulphur that grows thickly on the bed of the lake.

I went for a nice big swim around the lake, it was good to engage in a form of exercise that wasn't walking everywhere or carrying fifteen kilograms on my back. The weather was mostly sunny, partly cloudy, low twenties. Perfect.

The only criticism I have of Hévíz is that it wasn't very social. I remember going to hot springs at Wulai in Taiwan and the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, and how at those thermal baths there was something in the water that gave every single visitor an instant feeling of contentment and belonging. It was like one big party of brotherhood, sisterhood and innocent love. Everyone at Wulai and the Blue Lagoon were best friends with each other, and had been since the dawn of time, and will be until the end of days. There was none of that convivial bomhomie at Hévíz. I am not sure if it was because of the chemical composition of the water, or because they were Hungarian. Probably the latter. Not even the warm, soothing waters of Hévíz could melt that Hungarian ice.

As I was swiming to the far side of the lake, my hand hit a small hard object in the grey-green murky water. I felt around and discovered what I hit - a shell, maybe an inch and a half long, shaped like an ice cream cone, with the most delicate swirling pink and cream colours. Molluscs can survive in these hot sulphuric waters! I was amazed. Nearby was a middle-aged couple talking in German. I introduced myself in German and they introduced themselves back. I showed the woman the shell and she was amazed too, so I gave the couple the shell. I sort of regret not keeping it, but I doubt Australian quarantine would let me keep an animal product like that.

After swimming around the lake I walked across another enclosed pier to the sauna setion. There are four different saunas - an "infrasauna" (only 45C), an ordinary sauna (83C), an extremely hot sauna where nudity was mandatory and everyone had to sit on wrappers provided for the purpose (95C), and a steam room lined with tiles instead of wood. There was a cold water plunge pool which you were supposed to go into after using the sauna. I did this and instantly jumped out, the thermal shock was too great to withstand.

The sauna section also had a shallow pool full of small, rounded stones which you walked on to massage your feet, and two separate jacuzzis. Every jacuzzi I have ever been in has been a happy, social place, but not here.

By Australian standards I am very introverted. I live by myself, and while I enjoy the company of my friends reasonably often I am often just as happy doing tasks by myself - going on long bike rides or bushwalks, for instance. I will go to a pub for a couple of beers and friendly conversation with a mate but sometimes I will go to a pub by myself just to chill out for a bit. In Australia, a country of forcibly cheerful hyper-social extroverts, this makes me a weirdo loner. It is only since I came to Hungary that I realise how much I depend on social contact and maybe I'm not such an introvert after all.

In the sauna section there was also a salt room. Salt rooms are all the rage nowadays, there's even one in the Mid North Coast town where my mother lives. I thought they were a load of bull, just quackery to get money from gullible people. I entered the salt room at Hévíz skeptically. The dim room consisted of plastic outdoor chairs in a room where the walls were built of rock salt bricks. I sat down and thought to myself "this is a load of rot! This is just a boring room full of idiot oldies who think this crap really will cure their arthritis or blood pressure!" But after five minutes sitting in that silent room, something happened. This feeling of perfect well-being, relaxation and contentment overtook every atom of my body. All the niggling little pains that come from travelling independently - the joint pains, the calluses and blisters, the muscle aches that come from walking incredible distances every day and lugging a backpack from city to city on public transport - disappeared. My skin, wet from swimming in the lake, dried very quickly and became very smooth and taut. My lungs became less asthmatic and breathing became pure and effortless.

Hévíz recommends that you spend no more than thirty minutes in the salt room so I reluctantly left and went back outside. There was a mud pool outside the pavillion where you could smear mud from the bottom of the lake all over yourself. I can't say this gave me a sense of well-being. I showered the mud off, went swimming around the lake again, and had to leave because I ws about to reach my four-hour limit.

I caught the bus back to Keszthely. There were two more attractions I wanted to visit in Keszthely - the Festetics Palace and the Hungarian Model Railway Museum which was in the same complex as Festetics Palace. My trusty Lonely Planet said both closed at six. It was shortly after four when I got back to Kesthely.

First, I was starving. There was a small bar at the palace which sold toasted sandwiches and other snacks. I bought a grilled cheese and salami toastie, paid my bill then went into the palace, only to find that the ticket office was shut. In the off season, the palace closes at five and the ticket office closes at four.

Damn. It was half past four. I ran across the road to the model railway museum hoping that hadn't shut early too. I bolted up the driveway to the front door open to see a security guard come out and tell me that it was closed.

Double damn. At least the Festetics Palace grounds were still open. The palace is a magnificent baroque residence built in the eighteenth century by a local noble family, the Festetics clan, who were notable patrons of science and agriculture. They founded an agricultural college in Keszthely that is still Hungary's main institute of higher learning for agricultural science. There are perfectly symmetrical gardens, a sinuous pond with a footbridge over it, groves of trees with autumn leaves, a coach house that is five times as large as most people's own houses, amd a great view over the town of Keszthely. It was pleasant enough just to walk through the grounds in the twilight.

I went off to find dinner. Keszthely was closed. I walked down the main street and into the town square and the only businesses open at half past five on a Sunday afternoon were two cafés serving coffee and cakes. I needed something more substantial. There was a Coop supermarket but it was shut. This was worse than Sundays in Australia when I was a kid before they liberalised trading hours restrictions in the 1990s.

Eventually I found a nice little restaurant on a side street in a residential neighbourhood, the Park Restaurant, a family-owned affair that served traditional Hungarian fare. Creamy garlic soup was the entrée folowed by a main course of pörkölt with nokedli washed down with a tantalising local red wine the name of which I forget. In Hungary, goulash is actually a soup. The thick stew that Australians call "goulash" is closer to what Hungarians call "pörkölt", though pörkölt doesn't necessarily have the vegetables like potatoes and carrots that goulash has. It was a great meal, the size of the portions was enormous and even though I was starving I had trouble finishing it. Dessert was strictly out of the question! It was certainly a fitting last meal - well, last proper meal - for my visit to Hungary.

Gloomy Sunday in Keszthely

Gloomy Sunday in Keszthely

Gloomy Sunday in Keszthely

Gloomy Sunday in Keszthely

Town of Hévíz

Town of Hévíz

Hévíz thermal lake

Hévíz thermal lake

Hévíz thermal lake

Hévíz thermal lake

Festetics Palace

Festetics Palace

Festetics Palace gardens

Festetics Palace gardens

Keszthely’s main square

Keszthely’s main square

Pörkölt with nokedli

Pörkölt with nokedli

Posted by urbanreverie 15:20 Archived in Hungary Comments (0)

Balaton blues

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I had a few hours to kill before my intended train from Budapest to my next destination, Keszthely on Lake Balaton in western Hungary. I grabbed another breakfast from the Penny Market supermarket across the road. Hungarian groceries are so cheap; two pieces of fruit, two pastries and a small chunk of cheese comes to less than three Australian dollars. The owner of the guesthouse let me keep my luggage in the apartment while I visited my last Budapest tourist attraction, the House of Terror, two blocks away.

The House of Terror is an ornate Baroque Revival building on a corner of Andrassy Avenue, one of the world's greatest boulevards, a broad, late nineteenth-century thoroughfare lined with trees and chic apartments which leads from the city centre to City Park in the northeastern suburbs. The House of Terror didn't look too terrifying, except for this huge metal bracket placed over the eaves with the words "TERROR", the Arrow Cross symbol and the communist star stencilled out of the metal. The sun shone through the stencils in the metal casting the words "TERROR" and the totalitarian symbols across the building.

The House of Terror was used as a location of torture and repression by two dictatorships: it was the headquarters of the Arrow Cross party which formed a German Nazi puppet government in Hungary for the last few months of the Second World War, and it was also the headquarters of the ÁVH, the dreaded secret police of the post-war communist regime for many years.

You aren't allowed to take photos inside the House of Terror, so please let me summarise: Stalin was a right bastard. That's all you really need to know.

There was a bit more to it than that. You enter the building, become slightly distraught by the creepy, sinister Alfred Hitchcock-style suspense music playing in every room, pay the admission fee, start from the top floor and work your way down to the basement. The top floors are devoted to the history of oppression in Hungary, starting with the Arrow Cross regime then swiftly segueing to brutal Soviet occupation and communist hegemony. I regret not paying a bit extra for an English audio guide because every information display was only in Hungarian. information. Some rooms had A4 printed sheets with English explanations, but not all of them. There were videos of interviews with Hungarians who were victims of oppression - grown men, proud men, reduced to convulsive sobbing as they recalled how the ÁVH tortured them decades ago, how they were cut off from their families who thought they were dead, how they were beaten into submission and had the most unmentionable indignities happen to them.

The creepiest bit of the House of Terror is the basement which used to hold the punishment cells and the secret execution rooms. There was a cell used for extra punishment, a cell big enough only to stand in where people were kept for weeks at a time unable to sleep or go to the toilet properly.

I know that the House of Terror has a propaganda bent, that it is the project of a right-wing Hungarian government that wants to discredit communism and the left in general. But screw communism. Screw dictatorships no matter what they call themselves. Screw terror.

There has to be a better way than both communism and capitalism. Capitalism as it currently stands is literally cooking the planet to death because burning fossil fuels is terribly profitable for energy and mining companies. Capitalism results in unjustifiable inequality that surely must twinge the conscience of every human being of goodwill and empathy. Capitalism reduces human beings from proud citizens of a community into mere atomised consumers in an economy, their mortal souls reduced to their PayPal balances. Capitalism is riding roughshod over worker's rights all across the world, has turned democratic institutions into mere playthings for wealthy, well-connected corporate donors. Capitalism can't continue as it is. We can't keep living like this.

So here's an idea. How about we combine the very best elements of socialism with the very best elements of capitalism? Let us have a strong, adequate welfare state that protects everyone from poverty and the causes of poverty - old age, illness, disability, sheer rotten bad luck. Let us have widespread public ownership or public control of (at the very least) infrastructure, banking and energy to prevent greedy capitalist oligopolies ripping us all off blind. Let us have free or easily affordable education, health care and public transport, and let us build enough housing so that the entire population has access to a place that meets their needs. Let us have progressive taxation that prevents unjust and excessive accumulation of wealth, and redistribute that wealth via the welfare state to ensure nobody gets left behind or has to live on the street. Let us have strong unions that protect workplace rights and guarantee everyone a decent wage that is enough for a life of dignity.

But let us borrow from the very best of capitalism. Let companies, whether publicly owned or privately owned, set the prices of most of their goods and services according to market demand in order to minimise shortages and wasted surpluses. Let people earn more money if they want to work longer hours, take on extra responsibilities, choose a difficult or dangerous profession. If people want to aspire to more than what the welfare state provides - a nice two-storey house by the beach, say, or an expensive German car, or trips every year to Europe (cough, cough) - let them aspire to that, as long as they don't accumulate so much wealth that inequality returns to unconscionable levels. Let people start their own businesses if they have an innovative idea they think people will want. Let us have democracy with parties competing against each other with the best policies to win our votes.

And because this system which I invented while walking back to my guesthouse from the House of Terror combines the best features of socialism with the democratic values that have made Western civilisation so awesome, I reckon we should call it "social democracy". Wow! I am such a genius!

I went back to the guesthouse and said goodbye to Gergely. Gergely is a builder a couple of years older than me who grew up in this apartment. He lived in Canada for fifteen years as an adult and another five years in the United Kingdom. His father died last year and he inherited the apartment. He spent a year converting the large three-bedroom family apartment into a five-room guesthouse with a small private studio apartment for himself with his own hands, and now lets out the five rooms to paying guests and makes his living full-time from that. Good on him for having a go and I wished him every success with his endeavours.

As I was leaving, I met my first Australian of this trip, a delightfully dotty English teacher from the Sunshine Coast named Geraldine, who had arrived in Budapest the day before. Geraldine is now based in Indonesia where she teaches English privately, but she spends several months a year travelling the world. She takes her own pillow everywhere with her because she doesn't trust European pillows, and is a loveable eccentric. Remember what I have written on previous trips how travellers can either be good-eccentric or bad-eccentric? Geraldine is definitely the former. It is such a shame that I needed to go and catch my train to Keszthely because I would have loved to talk to her more abour our travels and swap even more tips.

I took the tram along Erszébet körút to Széll Kálmán tér and then another tram one stop to Déli (Southern) Station, one of Budapest's three main railway terminals and the main station for destinations in western Hungary. Unlike the other two stations (Keleti and Nyugati), Déli is an architectural disaster, a crumbling communist edifice of stained concrete and dim corridors and barren, windswept platforms.

I bought my ticket to Keszthely and as Déli has a dedicated international booking office I also decided to book my next ticket for two days' time to my next country. I boarded my train, five old carriages with a 431 class electric locomotive at each end. The train was going to Nagykanizsa but the two rear cars were going to Keszthely, they were to be detached at the junction station at Balatonszentgyörgy.

I boarded the two rear cars. There were fifteen minutes before departure but they were packed. Both carriages smelled like the train had just carried a full load of passengers to the 52nd Annual International Incontinence Convention. Both carriages were also full of young children. I accept that for the human race to survive, some people will need to procreate and generate new children. That does not mean that I am under any obligation to enjoy travelling with them. Judging by this train, right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's plan to increase the population by bribing mothers to have children rather than accept immigrants into Hungary seems to be working.

The train left Budapest on time at 13:35, slowly at first then after Kelenföld at quite a speed, topping out at 120 kilometres an hour on the flat, boring plains around Székesfehérvár. The train journey was not becoming any more enjoyable. The stench of urine was only getting worse and the kids were only getting louder. One four-year-old girl was watching a children's programme on her iPad at full volume without headphones. I know that Hungary isn't as rich as Australia, but surely if you can afford an iPad you can afford the headphones to go with it?

Even without the stink and the annoying brats, it would have been an unpleasant journey. There was a large cigarette burn in my seat cushion. Every seat also had a weird bulge under the cushion that pushed right into my tailbone. Readers with good memories may recall that only two days before, I had slipped on autumn leaves at Kékestető and my tailbone landed straight onto a jagged rock hidden in the leaves. It wasn't a hot day but it was very sunny, the windows only opened a small way far above the passengers' heads way up near the luggage racks, so there was no ventilation at all and the carriage became as hot and stuffy as a greenhouse. Making things even worse is that every window seat had a small garbage bin affixed to the wall exactly at thigh height. I needed to sit at a window seat so i could take photos and videos of the passing scenery. I will now have the outline of a Hungarian garbage bin imprinted onto my thigh for the rest of my life.

I had to go to the toilet. I opened the toilet door and I found the problem - the toilet was blocked, the bowl was full to overflowing and every time the train banked around a curve, the bowl would spill, the contents seeping out under the door into the carriage vestibule. Ewwww.

Not too long after Székésfehérvár the train reached Siófok, the first town along the southern shore of Lake Balaton. The train then followed the southern shore of Lake Balaton for its entire length. Lake Balaton is one of the largest lakes in Europe, the Eastern Bloc's Mediterranean. Cut off from the flesh pots of the Meditteranean coastal resorts by a wide band of NATO members and non-aligned countries, the unfortunate citizens of the Warsaw Pact were forced to spend their summer holidays at Lake Balaton instead. Indeed, Lake Balaton played a pivotal part in the fall of the Berlin Wall. When Hungary relaxed its border controls with Austria in the late summer of 1989, tens of thousands of East Germans just happened to be holidaying at Lake Balaton at the time. They all instantly got into their Trabants and drove to the Austrian border at Sopron; the long lines of Trabis emitting blue smoke from their exhaust pipes while waiting to cross the border is one of the defining images of the 1989 revolutions.

Lake Balaton is impressive. It is very long but not very wide. The southern shore is relatively flat but the northern side is an extinct volcanic province. There are oodles of impressive mountains on the north shore, the most impreseive of which is Badacsony, a flat-topped cone that wouldn't look out of place in Iceland.

I comtinued along the southern shore of Lake Balaton. The southern shore was an uninterrupted string of holiday towns, marinas, camping grounds and expensive summer homes owned by rich Hungarians. The train divided at Balatonszentgyörgy and I disembarked at Keszthely, literally breathing a huge sigh of relief - the first breath in three hours that didn't make me want to vomit. I walked about a kilometre to the Tarr Apartments where I checked in, sticking to Hungarian the whole time. The hosts congratulated me on how well I spoke Hungarian. This is the first time this has happened.

I have studied, either seriously or desultorily, many languages and without a doubt Hungarian is the most difficult language I have encountered. Even Chinese and Korean are easier. Hungarian is not an Indo-European language; it is a Finno-Ugric language with obscure origins somewhere in Siberia. Its grammar is complex and difficult; I find that my thoughts have to perform Nadia Comaneci-like contortions to be able to fit into the bizarre structures of Hungarian grammar.

Take something as simple as "I have something". There is no verb for "have" in Hungarian. Instead of saying "the boy has the ball", you have to say something that translates word for word to "to the boy his ball there is". Then there are all the cases. Instead of saying "in my houses", you have to add case suffixes to the end of the word and connect them all together like Lego blocks so you end up with something like "house-s-my-in".

Then there is the word order. In English word order is fairly fixed and constant except for adverbs which can move around a bit. It is always "the boy kicks the ball", never "kicks the ball the boy" or "the boy the ball kicks". In contrast, Hungarian word order is flexible, but there are still rules, and those rules are arbitrary and opaque. Every day for four months before leaving Australia I studied Hungarian via Duolingo on my mobile phome while travelling on the bus to and from work. I would do a lesson. It would ask me to translate a sentence. I would use a particular word order. I would receive a correct mark. A few questions later I would get a similar question. I would use the same word order. I would be marked incorrect. I would repeat that question, use a different word order, and get the green tick. The next question, the same style of sentence. I would use the same word order as the one that got me the green tick on the previous question, only to get the dreaded red cross.

"For crying out loud! I am using the same bloody word order as the previous question! What the hell am I doing wrong! What are the bloody rules I'm supposed to follow! Tell me, Duolingo!" I would shout out loud, to the disturbance of all the other passengers on the bus. Then I would do what any sane person would do. I would switch to the Italian course which is a piece of cake. It's such a relief.

Hungarian is so difficult and so few tourists bother to learn it before coming to Hungary that I sort of expected to be showered with rose petals by grateful Hungarians who were so amazed that I had taken the effort of learning their diabolical mother tongue. But no. Until I came to Keszthely and checked into my apartment, nothing. I would struggle through sentences, obvioisly flailing around to remember the right case or possessive ending, and I would get no assistance or encouragement. "But I am using an obscure noun case that exists in no other language! I am using complex verb conjugations that a PhD in linguistics would struggle to comprehend! Please give me credit for that!" But Hungarians aren't the kind of people to give credit even when credit is more than due. That is, until I checked into my apartment in Keszthely.

I was given the keys to my apartment and I settled in. The sun soon set and I decided to go for a stroll. Keszthely (pronounced like kest-hay) is a town of about nineteen thousand people located at the far northwestern corner of Lake Balaton. It is a holiday town, and being the autumn shoulder season, Keszthely had that despondent, closed-up feel you find in waterfront resort towns all over the world in the off season. I have family who live on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales and the towns they live in feel exactly the same in late autumn as Keszthely did. There were the same ice cream parlours and seafood restaurants closed for the season, the same sports bars that were nearly empty, the same bored unemployed teenagers loitering on the waterfront gossiping and horsing around, the same feeling that the life of the place has been sealed in a vacuum bag with mothballs until next summer begins.

I strolled around the waterfront. There was a nice pier, a large park which acted as a buffer between the town and the waterfront, a large bathing enclosure. There was a row of open-air restaurants and pubs in the park near the shoreline, most were closed but a few were still open. I went to a restaurant in which the only other patrons were a group of older men watching a soccer match on a large screen television, amd ordered pork neck and bean stew with nokedli (like gnocchi but made with dough instead of potatoes). It was very nice. Hungarian food is amazing and considering how many Hungarians moved to Australia after the 1956 revolution, it's surprising that I know of only two Hungarian restaurants in Sydney. Hungarian cuisine deserves to be better known, and not just for goulash.

I ambled out onto the pier. The lights of the towns along the southern shore twinkled on the horizon. I looked up and saw the stars. It struck me that this was my third time in Europe but that I had never bothered to look at the stars. It was disorienting, I could not recognise a single constellation. My familiar celestial companions - the Southern Cross, the Pointers, the Keel - were nowhere to be seen. Of course this is because I am in a different hemisphere. I looked along where I thought the celestial equator would be but still couldn't recognise any constellation because they were all upside down. I looked north. I tried to recognise some of the constellations I've only read about in books - the Big Dipper, the Bear, the Pole Star - but couldn't pick them out. I wonder if my British ancestors were just as confused when they migrated to Australia and couldn't recognise a single star.

I then continued east along the lake, there is a wide and well-lit promenade all along the shore. There were plenty of amateur fishermen with their rods, lines and reels. I noticed that many of them had placed their rods on these stands, the fishermen would sit well away from their rods and do other things like play with their phones or cook meat on a barbecue, and attached to the rods were sensors that would alert them to a bite. It seems like a lazy way to fish.

After about fifteen minutes, I started to feel violently ill. The pork neck and bean stew did not agree with me. I walked back to my apartment as quickly as I could, hoping to high heaven that I could hold on. I got back to my room in time and then spent the rest of the evening in bed recuperating. I was hoping to catch up on my travel blogging in a nice quiet lakeside town but there was no chance of that tonight. Best to stay in bed and hope that it was just a temporary bug that was now out of my system.

House of Terror

House of Terror

A literal Iron Curtain outside the House of Terror

A literal Iron Curtain outside the House of Terror

Déli Station

Déli Station

Stinky train from Budapest to Keszthely

Stinky train from Budapest to Keszthely

Badacsony mountain on Lake Balaton

Badacsony mountain on Lake Balaton

Pork neck stew and nokedli

Pork neck stew and nokedli

Keszthely sign on the Lake Balaton waterfront

Keszthely sign on the Lake Balaton waterfront

Swans on Lake Balaton

Swans on Lake Balaton

Posted by urbanreverie 13:53 Archived in Hungary Comments (0)

Reclining Buda

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I don't know why, but I have long had a fascination with communism since childhood. I did much of my growing up in the shadow of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall fell when I was eleven, and a very large proportion of TV, radio and print news coverage in Australia was devoted to communist countries and the relations between the West and those countries. I guess spending much of my childhood watching news repprts about the Reagan-Gorbachev summit on National Nine News or reading about Nicolae Ceaucescu's crimes against humanity in the Daily Mirror led me to wonder with childish curioisity about what life really was like on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

So it shouldn't be a surprise that my first visit on a gloriously sunny Friday in Budapest was to Memento Park. This large park on the southwestern industrial outskirts of Budapest is home to the biggest collection of communist kitsch in the world. A ride on the M4 metro line to Kelenföld then a bus brought me to this eccentric collection of sculptures, friezes, murals and statues.

Like in all communist countries, town centres across Hungary were filled with statues of communist leaders and sculptures of striving labourers with bulging muscles and determined faces giving one hundred and ten percent of their energy to building the brave new socialist world to come. These were all produced in the Socialist Realism style, all chunky concrete and blocky brass. When communism fell in 1989, the authorities were left with the dilemma of what to do with these now politically incorrect adornments. Some bright spark hit upon the idea of dumping them on some waste ground on Budapest's outskirts squeezed between arterial roads clogged with trucks and high-voltage transmission lines. And thus was Memento Park born.

The usual suspects were well-represented - Lenin with arm raised, Marx and Engels with flowing beards, Red Army soldiers with bayonets fixed, countless aforementioned labourers, Bela Kun who led a short-lived communist regime in Hungary in 1919 - but the most striking item in the collection was an enormous pair of brass boots. These once belonged to Comrade Stalin, or rather, to a statue thereof. A statue of Stalin of truly titanic proportions graced one of Budapest's central squares until revolutionaries in the 1956 uprising managed to saw through the statue at the ankles and pull Stalin down, leaving only his footwear. Stalin's boots take pride of place on a huge podium at Memento Park.

Outside the entrance there is a small museum about the communist history of Hungary as well as a small cinema showing a constant loop of 1950s training films for new employees of ÁVH, the secret police. The films instructed recruits on the proper way to conduct a raid. In the films the ÁVH officers were polite and solicitous towards their suspects, which I am sure was not really the case. Perhaps the most unsettling film was the one where they taught rookies about how to obtain the apartment keys of suspects. The suspect would be given a fake notice to attend a fake medical screening. The suspect would attend the fake clinic, would take their clothes off, and the ÁVH officer would then rifle the pockets to find the keys, impress them into wax moulds, and then put the keys back in the pocket. The moulds would then be used to cut copies of the key so ÁVH could enter the apartment at will whenever the suspect was out of house.

I caught the bus back to Kelenföld station and then a tram to Clark Ádám Square at the western end of the Széchenyi Chain Bridge. The square lies at the bottom of a nineteenth century funicular railway that hauls passengers up to Buda Castle. The short ride with great views over the Danube and Pest on the eastern bank brought me to the castle grounds. It's not really a castle, but a whole town surrounded by ramparts on the ridge of a kilometre-long hill. It makes Prague Castle look tiny.

The most prominent building in the castle is at the southern end, the magnificent domed Royal Palace, formerly the modest little cottage of the Habsburg family but now home to the Hungarian National Museum. Along the edges of the ridge are ramparts, most of which are open to the public, along with watchtowers and bastions. The most famous is the Fisherman's Bastion which looks mediaeval but was only built in the nineteenth century, along with the Matthias Church next to it, which looks impressively ancient and Gothic but most of which was comprehensively rebuilt in the late nineteenth century.

The northern half of the castle is still a functional neighbourhood with houses and shops and restaurants and government departments and buses. It is in this neighbourhood that I visited the Labyrinth, a network of caves under Buda Castle that was transformed by mediaeval stonemasons into cellars and store rooms for the Hungarian royal household.

Labyrinth is now just a common tourist trap. You climb down the steep stairs, pay your admission fee, and then find yourself walking down stone-lined tunnels with waxworks depicting opera scenes, marble busts of Hungarian kings, a prison cell with heads on pikes representing Dracula's victims, sinister music and spraying mist jets. It's all very kitsch, it makes Memento Park look like the Louvre.

I continued walking around the ramparts, admiring the sunset over Buda. Despite being in the heart of the city, Buda Castle's great height above the Danube and its plains give the impression that this neighbourhood is a separate place, in Budapest but not of it. The peak-hour traffic jams on the bridges and boulevards were just pulsating twinkling lights; distant, barely audible ribbons of white and red.

It was my last night in Budapest. I checked out St Stephen's Basilica in Pest, the most important church in Hungary, rode the last two sections of the Budapest Metro I had not yet clinched, and headed to Erzsébetváros, the historic home of Budapest's Jewish community and now also the hipster nightlife district. The Jewish community of Erzsébetváros suffered greatly in the Holocaust after the Arrow Cross party formed a Nazi puppet government in the dying stages of World War Two. The community is now thankfully thriving. It is thriving so much that I saw an Orthodox Jewish man in his black hat and bushy beard and curly sideburns getting around Erzsébetváros on a skateboard. It was Shabbat evening so perhaps skateboards are the fastest kosher way of getting around.

Budapest is famous for its ruin bars. Budapest has a large number of abandoned, boarded-up buildings. Enterprising, free-spirited young souls have decided to liberate these premises from abandonment without the leave of their official owners and have set up pubs, dance floors and live music venues in these rotting edifices. These illicit venues have thrived and are now an integral part of Budapest's culture.

I went to the biggest and most famous ruin bar, Szimpla Kert (Simple Garden), in the heart of Erzsébetváros's nightlife precinct. I waited forever in a line, got a full-body pat-down by security, had my bag searched and was forced to dispose of my bottle of water, then went into a graffiti covered courtyard with ten thousand other people. Most of them appeared to be lager louts from the United Kingdom - loud, jeering, obnoxious boors guzzling generic European pale lagers as if the world's beer supply were to be cut off permanently tomorrow. You would think that beer was unavailable in Billericay and Basildon and Burnley judging by these uncouth Brits. Do you want to know why Australia has such a terrible problem with binge drinking and alcohol-fuelled violence and disorderly behaviour in our towns and cities on Friday and Saturday nights? It's because we inherited that culture from the British and the vast majority of Australians are of British ancestry.

I then spent half an hour waiting at one of the many bars dotted around the perimeter of the courtyard to be served a one thousand forint glass of beer - two to three times the price of everywhere else. And to add insult to injury, the beer was served in a plastic cup.

I then went into a side room where there was an open mic session that may as well have been karaoke, so abysmal was the quality of the performers. I then went out into the courtyard to finish my beer only to be bumped into by a hundred ruddy-faced drunken gits from the dreary satellite towns of the Home Counties.

So I finished my beer as quickly as I could, said "f@#$ this for a joke" to myself and walked a kilometre or two back to where I was staying. Just down the street from my room is the little corner pub I've been to a few times during my stay, Roots, owned by the aspiring musician who is a massive fan of Australian indie rock. It sure as hell beats Szimpla Kert. I fell into conversation with a Hungarian, György, who had lived in the United Kingdom for many years and spoke good English and, like many expatriate Hungarians, had learned to open up and not be so mistrustful of strangers. He was still Hungarian - very no-nonsense, very abrupt, very little visible emotional affect - but just to crack the ice a bit and talk with a stranger is something that is uncommon among the people here.

György is a builder and was back in Hungary visiting friends and family. We had a wide-ranging conversation about politics, culture, finance, history. This is what I love about Europe the most - just how easy it is to have an intelligent conversation here. Australians are not dumb. You don't build one of the world's most successful economies and stable democracies by being a bunch of morons. Australians may not be dumb but they are anti-intellectual. There's a shallowness to Australian culture that can be unsatisfying. There is not much chance that I could meet a construction worker in a typical pub in Sydney and have a conversation that went much further beyond sport, chicks, fast cars and casual racism. Australian brains tend not to plunge too deeply into subjects beyond the merely pragmatic.

György and I talked about communism in Hungary. He was about my age and so had plenty of childhood memories of the last decade of communism. "We weren't as bad off as other countries. There was plenty of food in the markets. Most families had a small car - a Trabant or a Polski, we were given a free flat because my father worked at a truck factory. You could have an OK life here. But if you wanted anything more than that very basic life - you couldn't have it unless you were a member of the corrupt elite."

György mentioned that at the very end of communism, nobody did any work. "The whole economy stopped. Nobody did anything. Why bother? If you were doing an exam at a university, and everybody got sixty percent regardless of how well they did, would you bother studying?" As someone who was addicted to getting high distinctions (the highest possible grade at Australian universities) when I did my degree in surveying and spatial information, I could relate to this wholeheartedly.

"So capitalism isn't working. Communism didn't work. What's the answer, do you reckon?" I asked.

"Search me. If I knew the answer I'd be a politician. Capitalism is terrible and has many problems and needs to be fixed, but communism was never the answer."

The conversation turned to cars - I am fascinated by Trabants and I drove a Trabi in Berlin in 2017. I talked about my first car, a 1983 Holden Camira, the biggest shitbox ever to have been produced out of the many shitboxes produced by Australia's now-dead car industry. I did a Google Images search for a 1983 Holden Camira and showed György and his friends some photos of what my first car looked like.

"If you had driven a car like that in Hungary in the 1980s, you would have been surrounded by a thousand girls wanting to marry you!" György said and I laughed, trying to imagine a Holden Camira ever being a chick magnet and failing miserably.

It was time to call an end to my last night in Budapest. I farewelled György and farewelled Roots and shook the hands of the owner and wished him all the best.

Memento Park

Memento Park

Stalin’s Boots at Memento Park

Stalin’s Boots at Memento Park

Vladimir Lenin at Memento Park

Vladimir Lenin at Memento Park

Fisherman’s Bastion at Buda Castle

Fisherman’s Bastion at Buda Castle

Sikló funicular railway to Buda Castle

Sikló funicular railway to Buda Castle

Matthias Church in Buda Castle

Matthias Church in Buda Castle

Royal Palace / Hungarian National Museum in Buda Castle

Royal Palace / Hungarian National Museum in Buda Castle

View over Danube and the Parliament from Buda Castle

View over Danube and the Parliament from Buda Castle

St Stephen’s Basilica

St Stephen’s Basilica

Great Synagogue of Budapest

Great Synagogue of Budapest

Szimpla Kert ruin pub

Szimpla Kert ruin pub

Posted by urbanreverie 11:17 Archived in Hungary Tagged statues budapest sculpture castle jewish nightlife communism socialism Comments (0)

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)

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