Saturday 26th September 2015, Budapest
I fell asleep last night to the sound of rain pouring into the open courtyard below the flat. Ian, oblivious to both time and tiredness was still busy on his computer when I went to bed. When I woke this morning, around 10.30am there he was, just as I’d last seen him. I presume he must have slept at some stage during the night.
It was still raining and looked set to continue so we headed for the Museum of Ethnography on Kossuth Lajos Tér which it shares with the Hungarian Parliament. The museum is a wonderfully impressive building with a sweep of imposing steps leading up to the columned and portico’d entrance. We think it was formerly used as law courts.
When we arrived we joined a long queue for a ticket only to be told we were so ancient we didn’t need to pay and to show our ID at the entrance to the museum. When we did so the attendant, who spoke no English, made it clear we should get a ticket even if we were entitled to free entry. Ian scrabbled about in the recesses of his brain where he’d crammed in all the Hungarian words he’s even picked up, to try to explain that we’d done that and been told we didn’t need a ticket. The museum attendant was so amused by Ian’s attempts at the language that he laughed and patted his arm, ushering us through. We felt quite elated to have been understood and believed.
It’s certainly a fantastic building for displaying the social history of Hungary with everything from peasant traditions and the feudal system, folk art and the traditions of birth, marriage and death. Farming implements and agricultural traditions, the home and domestic architecture, weaving, carpentry, tool production, regional costume and customs, basic education and the social etiquette of courtship and weddings are all explained in this fascination museum. Several generations of peasant families would live together in one large room with a ceramic stove in the corner for heating and cooking. Within the one room people would eat, sleep, cook, bring up children and work at weaving, spinning and sewing as well as the menfolk working their lathes and using tools for making everything from cupboards, chairs and beds, to scythes and sickles for harvesting.
Local markets were a regular event in village life where vegetables and produce grown on smallholding or in gardens were sold. (Even during our present stay here we have seen elderly people who have travelled into the city from the surrounding towns and villages to set up little tables in the underground stations selling their flowers, figs, beans, pumpkins and small posies of scarlet autumn berries tied together with green ivy leaves.)
In the museum there were pictures of the village markets where wooden rakes, huge forks and other tools made from wood were sold for use during harvesting. Also sold at such markets would be woven clothes, dyed indigo fabrics, head scarves, embroidered shawls and traditionally embroidered sheepskin cloaks and jackets. The museum also has sections on the production of pottery for everyday domestic use – jugs, cups and plates decorated with tradition Hungarian designs. When we visited Hungary back in the 1960s we took home several examples of traditionally woven cloths and even a decorated plate and jug. These are impossible to find nowadays in Hungary, though we have seen similar in country villages in Transylvania where many domestic Hungarian traditions still continue.
We even discovered in the museum today some traditionally carved wooden funeral monuments such as we watched being carved in one of the Transylvanian villages.
So fascinated were we that apart from stopping for a coffee and sandwich in the museum cafe, we have been absorbed for most of the day. Despite the queue at the ticket office downstairs there were few visitors to the permanent exhibitions upstairs.
Most visitors seemed intent on the very moving temporary photographic exhibition on the ground floor. This was mainly a display of press photographs showing, amongst many others, abandoned and desperate people on hopelessly overcrowded boats being rescued as they tried to reach Europe - their relief was palpable; and the recent wreckage of the Ukrainian passenger plane believed to have been shot down by Russia with the body of a passenger lying where he fell in a cornfield, still strapped into his seat at a distance from the rest of the plane wreckage. There were also horrific pictures of the damage caused to civilians in Syria by the bombing there. The fact that all the pictures related to recent news events but from which the television news reports have sheltered us from the full reality of the carnage made the pictures particularly shocking. In the cafeteria we met a lady who had just ordered a large palinka to help her recover from this photographic exhibition. She was Hungarian but spoke English. In tears she told Ian that it was an exhibition everyone should see - needed to see. How, she asked, could we all be so cruel to our fellow beings?
When we eventually left the museum it was still raining! It was too late in the day and we were too weary to take a tour of the Parliament building.
Instead we took a ride on one of Budapest’s old trams, still in active service. We boarded a quaint yellow number 2 tram that seemed to hark back to the days of long dark dresses and gentlemen in morning suits and black hats. This tram runs the length of the city along the Pest side of the river. First we rode up to the terminus in one direction and then back to the terminus at the other end. We managed to find window seats and as we rested we could enjoy an ever changing view of the Buda side of the river, beginning near Batthanyi Tér with the now familiar spires of the church of St. Mary, while high above is the Fishermen’s Bastion. On past the Chain Bridge with the ferry boats and pleasure boat rides out on the river. Beside the bank were the cruise boats – Viking River Cruises amongst others. Passing below the Castle, the National Library and the National Gallery of Fine Arts on the far bank we reached Elizabeth Bridge. Near here is the Gellért Hotel with its famous hot baths while on Gellért Hegy stands the statue of Liberty holding, high above her head, what Hungarians used to disrespectfully refer to as the nation’s stick of celery. (Apparently harking back to the days when such a luxury was unobtainable.) After passing the next bridge, Szabadsághid or Freedom Bridge, the architecture gradually becomes less awesome and significantly more modern as we pass the offices of investment bankers and commercial companies. Beyond that the graffiti gradually begins to reappear and we reach the area of domestic flats. Here the tram route ended and we all alighted, in our case just long enough for it to empty before we climbed back on for the return trip. The terminus was not an inspiring place in the rain – a wasteland of tram tracks and blocks of flats while the terminus seems to be home to Budapest’s tattooed crusties shouting loudly to each other and smoking.
We alighted at the Chain Bridge. By this time night had fallen and lights were reflected in the river as we crossed the bridge in the rain. Still the cruise boats plied their way up and down river as diners enjoyed supper cruises. For us though it was enough to climb up the steep hill to the flat and collapse with a glass of wine before preparing a simple supper of pasta. Despite our late start it has been another full and enjoyable day.
Sunday 27th September 2015, Budapest
We actually needed jackets today! It was grey and damp but the rain had stopped. Seriously, we like the weather like this. My eye feels less sore and I can see more easily. Ian prefers it too as walking can be so much faster. We have received lots of messages from friends saying we cannot have it both ways. We don’t want the sunshine when we are trying to explore a city. Life is so much better when it is cooler even if it means rain, though cold dry weather is perfect.
We’ve been unable to find postcards down in the city so this morning we climbed the steep steps up to the citadel, crowded as always with tourists who invade the city like locusts, before moving on. Yes, I know we are amongst them. How do the local people stay so patient with us all?
In the citadel we found our postcards and while up there thought we’d have coffee and rétes at Ruszwurm, a coffee shop in the Viennese tradition which we’d visited back in the Socialist days of the late 1960s. It still exists and it is still rather small and very Viennese with heavy baroque sofas upholstered in velvet. It has trays of delicious cakes and rétes to choose from at remarkably low prices considering its location. However, we are not the only ones to appreciate its worth and today it was crammed with visitors of every nationality - except possibly Hungarian. We gave up and found another place with a pleasant terrace and seats to spare just a short distance from the central magnet of the Bastion. Ian, who is dreaming of one day achieving a grade E in GCSE Hungarian, ordered our coffees, even specifying that mine should be decaffeinated, then asked for a couple of apple and cinnamon rétes. Three times he repeated the word only to be met by the waiter’s puzzled stare. Suddenly his face cleared. “You mean strudel!” The Austrian word seems to be replacing the Hungarian one! Now you understand about all the funny diacritical accents I keep trying to remember to use when writing Hungarian words. They affect the pronunciation and the poor man simply did not understand what Ian was trying to pronounce. Did you realise that rétes is pronounced strudel? Ian is finding his command of Hungarian is both dire and critical!
As rétes was not to be found even in the heart of the tourist area, we drank our coffee and made our way down to Clark Adams Tér. Adam Clark was the English engineer responsible for designing that ionic symbol of Budapest, the Chain Bridge. Here we bought langós, Hungary’s answer to pizza. We’ve never tried them before. They are deep fried then topped with ham, cheese and cream. As with anything nice they are not a healthy choice but they are very filling.
Too full to walk we took the bus back up the hill and made our way to the castle where we spent the rest of the afternoon. The rain returned but as we were exploring both the National Museum of Fine Arts and the exhibition of facsimiles of the books of the Mátyás Corvinus Library on display in the University Library we were oblivious to the weather.
The art collection is good though many works looked dark and in need of cleaning. It mainly consisted of works by Hungarian painters with a small collection of major international artists from Spain, Italy and the Netherlands. Hungarian art is divided into pre and post 1945. There were many portraits of important figures from mainly 18th century Hungarian history and a gallery of religious and church paintings. Perhaps surprisingly the post 1945 section didn’t appear to include much from the Socialist Realism period. I will leave Ian to describe separately the books and bindings in the Mátyás Corvinus library.