Sunday 20th September 2015, Budapest
It rained heavily during the night and this morning the weather felt far more comfortable. Today has been the second day of the Hungarian National Heritage celebration and there was still the chance to see the National Gallop at Heroes’ Square. I feared the entire city would be there but we set off anyway, crowding into the little földalatti metro line with others obviously going to cheer on the horses.
As we emerged up the escalator into the sunshine on the edge of Heroes’ Square we were greeted by a definite and very welcome breeze. The band was playing and we quickly realised it was going to be okay. We crowded at the edge of the track that had been constructed right around the perimeter of the square, waiting to scuttle across when the tractor had raked tons of imported sand smooth for the next race and a couple of lads with very full dustpans had followed it round picking up horse manure dropped during the previous gallop.
An overhead projector kept us all aware of when the next race would start. Meanwhile we had the entire huge square to promenade about in, watching families who’d arrived for a grand day out, commentators trying to fill in the time between events with cheery Hungarian backchat and guards looking impressive in their smart riding uniforms – a last, a real live Hussar! There was also a drone that put in an appearance just overhead and then gradually gained height. I hope it was nothing more sinister than filming for the national news.
Towns throughout the country can send their prize racehorse along with its jockey to race for their town at this special event. The horses all looked extremely frisky and the jockeys had their time cut out holding them back. No doubt the horses were made nervous with all the noise and excitement and the riders looked just as terrified. Most seemed quite unable to control their mounts and several broke loose before the race, carrying their riders around the track before they could be stopped. The horsemanship of the event was somewhat lacking though the costumes and horseflesh looked good. Basically the one thing the horses knew they were good at was racing and they were only too eager to get on with it. Believe us, once the races got properly under way they went like the wind!
The first race was won by a girl jockey. It took another couple of laps before she could actually stop her mount! We’ve never been horse racing in England, are all races so anarchic? One rider fell off and the horse continued to do several laps on its own. Eventually six brave men stood spread across the track in an attempt to grab the reins as it galloped past. Even then it reared and pulled before being led away, skittering sideways as it struggled to break free. The rescue vehicle then got bogged down in the sand as it went to the rescue of the fallen rider still lying somewhere on the circuit - hopefully not too seriously injured.
The favourite for the next race was called My Boy running for a town with an unpronounceable name that we’ve forgotten. The start was delayed as a girl rider was whisked from the starting line by her frantic horse. They did two laps of the circuit before anyone could stop them. Eventually the other riders ran with them until the horse calmed down and they finally got everyone back to the start line. The frantic commentary in rapid Hungarian left us breathless. It was an absolute tour-de-force. How can anyone get their tongue round the unpronounceable Hungarian language at such a gallop? It was even faster than the horseracing! My Boy won easily. There was shouting and hoots of glee. As the rider made his lap of honour, standing in his stirrups and waving like a real hussar the horse bucked violently and sent him A over T! Somehow he hung on, for which he definitely has our respect, but it was an undignified end to his moment of glory.
The racing continued but we’d seen all we needed. Crossing the racetrack between races we just hoped there would be no breakaway colts stampeding round as we stepped through the sand. Passing later we noticed the French obsession with Le Trotting has reached Hungary and the afternoon was dedicated to these same, highly strung racehorses careering round pulling fragile racing carriages in their wake. Convinced there’d be tears before teatime we kept well away from the square for the rest of the afternoon.
From Heroes’ Square an avenue of stalls had opened up along Andrassy ut selling lunch, drinks, sweets and craft product to the punters. Here we bought a plate of chicken with rice and mixed vegetables and another of spiced pork with roasted peppers to share between us. They are sold by weight, your plate being weighed at the till. We joined others at long benches under the shade of the trees behind the stalls. Others had salmon or baked freshwater fish from Lake Balaton or the Danube together with fried potatoes and onions.
No longer having hunger pains but regretting the quantity of salt in Hungarian food we browsed the stalls and watched the alternative horse racing circuit for the tiny tots. They were just so cute and looked very serious as they tried to pass each other on the bends.
At last we found what we were seeking and joined the queue waiting for their kurtos kalacz to cook. These we’ve described before. The last time was on a Hungarian stall in Verona back in the spring. They are variously translated into English as either trumpet cakes or chimney cakes. Long strips of pastry are rolled around a wooded tube and baked over a wood fire until cooked. It is then rolled in sugar and knocked off the wooden roller. It was incredibly warm for the team of young people cooking them and the queue was getting longer by the minute. Clutching ours, wrapped in a paper bag and burning our fingers, we sought a bench beneath the trees to enjoy our favourite Hungarian treat.
A nearby cafe provided a shady terrace and for Ian a cappuccino and for me some iced water, for which I was desperate after so much salt in my lunch and sugar on my kurtos kalacz. We then returned to explore the park behind Heroes’ Square which we’d felt too weary to do on our earlier visit last week.
The chapel is attractive but the best place was the castle which now houses the National Museum of Agriculture. Entry cost us around £1 each. We were really more interested in the interior of the castle than the museum and found it charming, built like almost everything else here in 1896. Originally constructed as a temporary building at the time of Hungary’s millennium, it proved so popular that it was rebuilt in its present form. It is certainly an attractive building with brightly painted ridge vaulting to the rooms and very pretty stained glass at the windows.
The exhibits themselves are displayed in rather an old fashioned way but crowded with information – far too much to absorb. Fortunately there was an abridged account of most displays in English. Thus we learned such interesting facts as that Hungary became the fourth largest exporter of wheat after Russia, the US and France. Considering how small the country is they must have pretty well had a monoculture to produce that sort of quantity. Originally too, Hungarian wheat was of a poor quality but following research and crop experimentation the quality improved exponentially and it was acknowledged to be the best in the world.
The museum had detailed galleries on bee keeping and rural crafts – thatching, basket making, weaving and silk production. There was a detailed gallery about fish and the fishing industry in this land-locked country, including the building of fishing boats and hollowed out canoes. There were also sections covering cattle rearing, the horse in Hungarian agriculture, hunting and shooting. We have never seen so many animal skulls and antlers, covering entire walls of the castle. Huge brown bears used to live on the Carpathian plain and were hunted for their fur. Massive wild boar, bison, wolves, foxes, hares and deer were all hunted in the countryside here. We saw a particularly hideous fireside chair constructed from deer antlers, while stuffed black crows seem to have been the must-have ornament for country folks’ over-mantles.
At 5pm we were politely ushered outside and the key turned in the castle lock behind us. Following the sound of singing we found ourselves in a beer tent with lots of clapping and dancing as a young man entertained the drinkers.
Across the park we entered the foyer of the Szechenyi baths to check again whether it is possible to have a swim without the thermal massage bits. It is but is disproportionately pricey, so I’ll probably pass on that, particularly as Ian has no interest at all in trying them out. The baths are certainly magnificent with the delightful atmosphere and elegance of a bygone age.
Weary from a very pleasant day on our feet we made our way to the földalatti and back to the city centre where we caught the bus across the river and up the hill to the flat. Yet another full and delightful day.
Monday 21st September 2015, Budapest
This morning I fell over in the middle of the city and sat on the pavement howling and cursing. With my one eye I sometimes misjudge steps or unevenness in the pavement. Raising my eyes from my feet for a second I’d tripped on some broken tarmac. People can be so kind and immediately I had an international crowd around me asking if I was okay and did I need help? Two older Hungarian ladies and some young Americans hauled me back on to my feet – really I’d have preferred to stay sitting on the pavement until the shock had passed but they all meant well. Fortunately there were no bones broken, or indeed any cuts or bleeding. I was lucky. I do though feel stiff and have a bad bruise on my elbow and my shoulder and hip are both painful. I am always scared of falling as that is almost certainly what precipitated my shingles three years ago. Poor Ian has to cope fairly frequently with me falling over.
We were on our way to the University Library to do some blogging. Once there we sat in the huge cool foyer with a coffee until I felt better, then we worked until lunch time. The same local restaurant round the corner we used a few days ago served us with fish in a creamy sauce and mixed vegetables cooked in olive oil.
Mid-afternoon we met up with a school friend of Kati. She still works as a doctor in the hospital here despite being in her seventies. We spent a couple of hours chatting affectionately of our different memories of our mutual friend. They had been close friends since they were schoolgirls here in the city, long before Kati left Hungary to join Peter in England, and long before we came to know them. I am quite sure she missed Kati greatly.
Later, walking home from the city centre we sought out a controversial monument put up without consultation by the government last year. Demands from the public to remove it have been ignored. The monument claims to honour the memory of those who suffered under German occupation in 1944. In fact the Hungarian government at that time was itself responsible for the suppression of the Hungarian Jewish people and other minority groups. In effect they were doing the Nazis work for them and even exceeding their expectations, sending many thousands to their deaths. Protesters against the present government’s decision to erect the monument in opposition to public protest claim it is a whitewash to disassociate itself with any involvement in the atrocities that took place here around 1944. Protesters have therefore taken the matter into their own hands and have constructed a barbed wire fence in front of the monument. Families of the victims arrive daily with mementos of their relatives to leave hanging from the barbed wire. There are photos, toys, garments, shoes, flowers, candles and many pebbles bearing the names of those who suffered. At least today Hungarians live in a society where such open protest against the government does not bring instant reprisals. The Hungarian government’s attempt to rewrite history and distance itself from any involvement in the atrocities perpetrated here has rather backfired. Protesters vow to continue their vigil at the monument until it is removed and there is an admission that the government at that time aided and abetted the Germans in sending so many Hungarian minority groups to their deaths. They claim that the monument actually represents the present government’s arrogance and determination to rewrite Hungary’s history.
Although Budapest is a lively modern city appearing relaxed and contented, dig down a little and the troubles of its turbulent past are only just below the surface. Somehow, throughout its history Hungary has found itself on the losing side. It suffered under the Turks until they were finally routed by Austria which then took control of Hungary. It later lost out to Napoleon following its defeat at the battle of Györ. The 1848 revolution was unsuccessful. In WW1 it found itself on Germany’s side and lost two thirds of its territory, and during WW2 it was again obliged to side with Germany after Hitler annexed Austria. They also hoped it would provide a chance to get back Transylvania. Following the defeat of Germany Hungary found itself in the Eastern Bloc governed by the Communists, despite the uprising of 1956. Some of the city’s buildings still bear the pockmarks of these upheavals.
We decided, as we’d not had much exercise today, we’d walk home, past the Gresham Palace, across the Chain Bridge and up the steep hill to the flat. Maybe we are getting a bit fitter as it wasn’t as exhausting as earlier in the week. But then it is definitely cooler.
Tuesday 22nd September 2015, Budapest
This morning we took the metro out to the edge of the city where we picked up the suburban train. It trundled and rattled its way through an area of uninspiring sun-baked flats before continuing on into the pretty countryside. It stopped at every little village station where passengers had to scramble down the steep steps to the platform and then wait for the train to move on before they could cross the track to the welcome shade of the tree-lined village streets. Eventually we reached the little town of Gödöllö. Nearby is a pretty baroque palace set in lovely gardens. This was built originally during the reign of Maria Théresa but later became the summer residence of the Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Queen Elizabeth (Sisy). It is the largest baroque castle in Hungary and it took us best part of the afternoon to make our way through its numerous rooms, all stunningly decorated in the baroque style with brocade covered chairs and drapes, Turkish carpets, Gobelin tapestries, crystal chandeliers and trompe l’oeil wall paintings. The theatre/concert room, with its white walls and gold embellishments reminded us of the concert we attended on an earlier visit to Hungary at the Baroque Esterházy Palace near Lake Fertö. Both rooms overlooked the stunning gardens with their smooth green lawns. Unfortunately we were not permitted to take photos.
The palace is now something of a shrine to Hungary’s Queen Elizabeth who has become almost the nation’s national saint. She embraced the Hungarian people even bringing her daughter up as a Hungarian rather than an Austrian princess. She learnt the language and surrounded herself at court with Hungarian ladies in waiting. She spent much time at Gödöllö, preferring it to the more formal residence in Budapest. Her Hungarian subjects greatly appreciated the important role she played between Austria and Hungary during the Reconciliation. She seemed to very much care for her Hungarian subjects although this did cause certain frictions back in Austria. Thanks in part to her efforts, and her support for the political statesman Ferenc Déak overseeing the Reconcilliation process, the two powers were eventually peacefully reunited, bringing some major advantages to Hungary with the Emperor Franz Josef being crowned King of Hungary and Emperor of Austria.
Queen Elizabeth was killed in 1896 by a political anarchist who stabbed her in the chest. Following her death the court rarely returned to Gödöllö and gradually it fell into disrepair. It was used variously to house Soviet soldiers, later as the family home of the Hungarian regent Miklós Horthy and in the 1960s as an old people’s home. It was eventually rescued from its dilapidated state and is still being repaired to its original splendour.
Our guide book says Gödöllö is a baroque town. This did not seem to be the case when we explored it later. It is very pleasant but modern. The only baroque buildings we could find were the castle itself and the church standing in the pleasant open gardens at the centre of the little town. There was also a very nice coffee shop where Ian, who has fallen back into his old habits, selected a beautifully decorated wedge of dark glistening chocolate cake to accompany his coffee. After that we made our way back to the station and took the train back to the city, rattling and lurching over the rails. Even that couldn’t prevent us from dozing off. It has been warm and sunny but with a freshness that makes it delightful. Even so, we’ve been on our feet for most of the day and in addition we really are suffering information overload.
Near our flat is the Budapest concert hall and the national centre for traditional folk dancing. The box office was open as we walked by so we’ve bought tickets for a dance spectacular there next week. It’s designed as a stage spectacular rather than the sort of spontaneous dances we’ve seen in villages such as Györmöre but it should be colourful and well choreographed.