Saturday 12th September 2015, Budapest
After our brief foray into Hungary back in the spring when we spent a few unexpected days around Sopron and Györ on our way to Vienna we have been hankering to spend a little more time in the capital. It is maybe nine years since we were here last although our memories of the city go right back to before we were married, nearly fifty years ago when we arrived by hydrofoil from Vienna to be met on the quayside by Ian’s friend Hubert. That was the first time I had met him, though Ian and he had been friends since their student days when they met whilst Ian was on a study visit to Weimar and Hubert was working in a bookshop there back in the DDR days. Since then we have made numerous visits, in the name of friendship, to both East Germany and Hungary. The changes during that half century in both those countries are enormous, and generally for the better, though there are voices that regret the disappearance of traditional things from back then – the fresh bread rolls and hand-made wooden toys for example. Generally, and realistically, there are few who would wish to return to those days when your nose would be stung in the damp autumn days by the tang of smoke from the brown coal used for heating. Nor are there many who would wish to return to the days of carrying that coal up ten flights of stairs to heat the boiler for a hot bath as we did in Hubert’s Leipzig flat in the “old days”.
Once we returned to Exeter after our recent travels in France, Italy, Austria and Germany we began to think about returning to Budapest once more. Our Hungarian friend Peter who lives in Exeter but has a flat in Budapest for use during his frequent visits back to his homeland, agreed immediately when we tentatively suggested that as he was currently not using the flat we might perhaps “borrow” it for a while and act as short-term caretakers.
And so here we are. We have left Modestine behind for this trip. We don’t need accommodation with the flat at our disposal and in the city we have easy access to public transport whilst parking for Modestine would be a major problem here.
We arrived from Bristol in the early hours two days back clutching a key and a photograph of the exterior of the flat for identification. Peter had warned us that the lock could be stiff and we might need to jiggle the key about a bit. We spent some time therefore trying to break into the wrong flat! Happily the residents were sound sleepers and we eventually discovered the correct entrance round the corner! Once inside we fumbled in the darkness to find the cupboard with the gas and electric meters, still trying to keep as silent as we could for fear of disturbing our neighbours and being unable to explain what we were doing. Hungarian isn’t easy to make up as you go along and although we may manage well enough asking for a coffee or wifi access, explaining why we are banging around in somebody’s flat at 1 a.m. is certainly beyond us. (We have since discovered that almost everybody in Budapest speaks English fluently which is another of the changes from our DDR days when German or Russian were the only languages one might get by with!)
We eventually fell into bed exhausted around 2 a.m. to enjoy the sleep of the blessed until nearly 10 a.m! Our neighbours were completely silent going off to work and so far we’ve seen none of them. Perhaps we are the only ones in the block?
So yesterday we set off to find the shops for bread, milk, fruit, wine and yogurt. We also discovered the Institut Français a few streets away and popped in for coffee and croissants. Determined to use his Hungarian Ian placed our order and we got pretty well what we wanted. The coffee was first rate but I’m convinced the croissants were purchased along the road from Spar where we later did our shopping. The Institute has a bookshop entirely dedicated to providing French translations of Hungarian authors. We’ve heard no French being spoken since we arrived and are rather surprised that such a rich collection of Hungarian literature is so readily available in French translation here.
In Spar we purchased the essentials on our list – not forgetting the wine. We were delighted to find our favourite, Egri-Bikavér or Bull’s Blood, a deep red wine produced from grapes ripened on the hillside around Eger about 150 kilometres to the north-east of Budapest.
Peter’s flat is lovely, decorated with his and Kati’s tasteful prints, ceramics and textiles. There are several of Kati’s pots which bring back warm and happy memories. The surrounding area is pleasant with cobbled streets and a steep hill leading up to the citadel and the Fishermen’s bastion. It is in the heart of the tourist centre of the city opposite the Hungarian Parliament building on the banks of the Danube.
After a snack lunch in the flat we walked down to the banks of the Danube and strolled along and across the Széchenyi Bridge, also known as the Chain Bridge, linking the older Buda side of the city to the more recent Pest side. The weather was overcast and perfect for walking.
We walked beside the river eventually turning off towards Ferenciek Tér where Ian dragged me in to admire the university library.
Then back along Váci utca, the main pedestrian shopping street of the city. Eventually though the rain began and we sought shelter in the huge market hall near the Szabadság Bridge. This was wonderful with hundreds of stalls piled high with clean fresh vegetable – broccoli and courgettes, root vegetables, aubergines, tomatoes and of course paprikas! Where would Hungary be without its paprikas? Many stalls were selling strings of dried paprikas, sometimes plaited together with garlic. Also on sale were tins, pots, jars and packets of paprika powder ranging in piquancy from mild and sweet to intensely hot. Authentic Hungarian cuisine invariably has paprika as an essential ingredient.
There were also stalls selling fresh fruit and berries, others selling dried figs, candid fruit, nuts and sweet biscuits. Upstairs in the Market Hall were dozens of bars and small eating places serving beer, palinka and wine, thick pancakes, gyros and bableves or bean stew.
With the rain still falling heavily when we left we found a bar with wifi and over a beer struggled to access our email with my new toy – a Hudl tablet. We are slowly getting there but I still lugged my computer along on this trip to write the blog. I definitely need a keyboard and a mouse to produce it. We are both suffering technology overload having updated much of our computer equipment in an attempt to stay afloat in a world of what seems to us increasingly fragmented snippets of information and accessible by so many different technological methods.
Some years ago we became friendly with a couple of American travellers, who, like us, had become addicted to exploring the world while they still had sufficient health, wealth and energy to do so. We discovered much in common and a few years ago managed to meet up for the first time when we were camping in Eger. They had retired and recently moved from America to settle in Budapest as a more convenient location for exploring Europe than was San Francisco. They are off in a couple of days time to explore Malta and Sicily, but hearing we were coming to Budapest they invited us to their flat for supper. So around 6pm we made our way to their street, on the Pest side of the river, and found their flat. They made us so welcome it seemed that we’d known them for years though this was in fact only our second meeting. Their approach to travel is different from ours. Whereas we usually pack our world up in Modestine and set off with only a vague idea of where we intend going and not even a satnav to help us along the way, Larry and Sandra plan their trip down to the last detail, reading up meticulously beforehand so once they arrive they can see everything, attend concerts, visit galleries and museums and miss nothing. They use public transport and they travel the World, not just Europe, as we tend to do. We spent a delightful evening with them and enjoyed an excellent supper with a middle-eastern theme. With wine, conversation, palinka and good food the evening passed all too quickly. Sandra, bless her, has suggested we squash in another meeting before they leave on Wednesday so we will be meeting them again for a restaurant supper on Monday night. It’s quite amazing the interesting people we have come to meet on our travels and through our blogs!
So engrossed were we that when we realised it was time to leave we’d missed the last tram home and had to walk. The rain had stopped and it was delightful walking along beside the Danube in the darkness with the lights of the bridges, the citadel and the Parliament reflecting in the water. We crossed the Chain Bridge, ablaze with lights, and climbed the hill up towards the citadel and our temporary Hungarian home. No sooner were we back than we fell asleep exhausted from our first day around the city.
Sunday 13th September 2015, Budapest
I’ve not yet written about yesterday, so tonight I have two days to catch up on, and both have been very interesting and enjoyable. So, to catch up on yesterday ....
In the morning we walked up the steep hill to the Fishermen’s Bastion and the Matyas Templom from where there are impressive views down onto the Danube as it winds through the city with the Hungarian Parliament building dominating the far side of the river.
The Bastion was built as a magnificent gesture during the late 1890s to commemorate the start of the new millennium – for Hungary (896 –1896). It is the epicentre of any tourist pilgrimage to the city and it was crawling with visitors from around the world. It’s a steep climb up there and we emerged into the sunlight from a winding, enclosed staircase to be immediately confronted by the razzmatazz of tourism with guides wielding umbrellas or holding water bottles aloft, followed by a long crocodile of Japanese or American tourists doing Europe by tea time. The younger generation of visitors from around the world were busy doing “selfies” and they were doing it BIG TIME! At least we no longer get accosted with requests to take their photos for them now they all travel Europe with selfie sticks. They can then photo themselves posing in front of anything from the Fishermen’s Bastion or the Hungarian Parliament to a collection of Syrian refugee tents at Keleti Railway Station. There are countless girls, all very pretty and all very aware of it, flicking their hair and photographing themselves in front of buildings, statues and even gravestones! We assume their boyfriends have finally got sick of photographing them. Stop ranting Jill, you’re only jealous of their charms!
Buda is the older part of the city and even since our last visit it has emerged like a butterfly from its drab, Soviet chrysalis. Nowadays its pretty buildings line the cobbled streets, with vistas of the wooded Buda Hills stretching to the hazy horizon. We explored the little streets, noting the various national archive buildings, the ruined church of St. Mary Magdalene with interesting open air display panels showing photos of the damage done to Buda during the war and how those same areas appear today, so beautifully restored. In Britain we’d probably just bulldoze the area and put up something completely different, destroying the atmosphere of the place in the process.
In Buda there is the modern, 1976, Hilton Hotel, built into the ruins of a 13th century monastery. This was under the Communist regime and was the first modern building to be built in Budapest. It was in complete contrast to the drab city existing at that time.
Ian was delighted to discover that it was in one of the old houses of Buda that the first book in Hungarian was printed. Known as the Hungarian Chronicle it was printed by Andras Hess in 1473.
The hill upon which Buda stands has more holes and tunnels than a ripe gruyère cheese. This is something we will explore before we leave.
We returned “home” for lunch. Near the flat we discovered a very pleasant bar selling a range of locally brewed craft beers and snacks. In Hungary it can be nearly as cheap to eat out as it is to cook at home and we were easily tempted. It saved us the bother and was an agreeable experience.
Around 2pm we walked down to the metro and presented our passports as evidence that we were pensioners – as if the wrinkles were not evidence enough! We were waved through. Peter had told us that all senior EU citizens were entitled to use the Hungarian transport system without charge but we felt really guilty doing so. Hungary has had a lot of stick recently and its government is seriously right wing but it adheres to the EU directive that people across the Union should be treated in the same way as its own citizens. Thus anyone from a member state of the EU who is over 65 has free public transport throughout the country on trains, trams and buses! Digest that one Mr. Cameron!
We made our way to Keleti Station. It was here that the Syrian migrants were all arriving last week in their attempt to get to Austria and Germany. The current wave has mostly moved on but Hungarians were holding what was claimed to be a massive concert at the station in solidarity with the migrants and we wanted to see what was happening. It was really hot and the station, the forecourt and the approaches were covered by hundreds of tents and huge piles of clothing donated by the residents of Budapest. A few Syrians were dancing with Hungarian girls, teaching them their traditional dances. A band was preparing to play. We made our way down to the lower level of the station concourse and walked amongst the tents, almost all empty, awaiting the next wave of arrivals. Roll mats were airing in the hot afternoon sunshine and some of the few remaining, or recently arrived, Syrians were washing their hair at a water tap. Everywhere appeared clean except that there was a strange smell. We put it down to ammonia used to clean the concourse.
It was so very hot around the station with absolutely no shade. We had no desire to linger so made our way back to the metro and thus to Géllert-hegy. At the foot of the hill, overlooking the Danube, stands the exclusive Géllert Hotel and beside it the Géllert Baths. These are formed by hot, natural springs and there are several such sources along the Buda side of the river. There are also countless more scattered throughout the country. Around the hotel and in the shady grassland at the foot of Géllert Hill were wedding parties parading around and posing for their wedding pictures. It was all a happy, colourful scene on a hot Saturday afternoon. For us British whimps though the heat was rather excessive. Slowly we began our ascent. The climb is steep and long and although Ian is still remarkably fit I run out puff and feel hot and sticky while my knees creek on the steep, uneven steps that I can only see with my one eye and am therefore terrified of falling. Generally, you will understand that I am rapidly becoming a wreck and am not safe out alone! However, I will moderate this by saying I managed to climb right to the top and made it down again so maybe I’m not completely over the hill (though I was in every sense of the phrase by the time we’d descended the far side!)
Finally back at river level we walked along the Buda side until we reached the Chain Bridge and the road tunnel cut through the rock of Castle Hill. Having nothing to eat in the flat we stopped at a restaurant serving “authentic Hungarian cuisine.” Ian opted for wild boar stew while I chose pork steak with mushrooms. Neither were as exciting as we’ve experienced in provincial Hungary, and the prices, while not excessive, were much as we’d have expected back in Exeter.
As we ate, outside on the pavement by lamplight, we watched a steady, unending flow of traffic making its way along beside the Danube. Then, to our utter delight, a wedding passed with the bride and groom travelling in a stretched Trabant, that iconic DDR car made from recycled cardboard!!! East Germans flocked over the border into Hungary back in 1989 in their smoky little Trabies which they promptly abandoned. They have become something of a status symbol in Hungary and it seems they are the wedding car of choice for the smart set of Budapest! How do they stretch them we wonder! Do see our blog of our visit to the former Trabant works in Jena where they were once so coveted by the inhabitants of the DDR.