Hungary, particularly Budapest, is now my favorite place to visit and vacation in Europe, indeed anywhere. The city is just fun, and has tons of great food, music, museums, and wine–not to mention bathhouses that must be experienced to be believed. However, I didn’t want to go there.
What can I say? I was pretty uneducated in my youth. After all, I went to school in South Carolina, where New York is considered an international destination. I’d never heard much about Hungary or Budapest…I just had a vague impression of grimy, poor, Eastern-Europeanness which tried to overthrow the Russians in 1956, but lost, never to be heard from again. So I didn’t even particularly want to go to Budapest…I was still enamored over reports of the beauty of Prague. Fortunately, a friend who had been in Russia with me and accompanied me in Kraków decided that she would rather see Budapest first. What the heck, I had the Eastrail pass, which was good in Poland, the Czech and Slovak republics, Austria, and Hungary, so I would go for a day or so and get more use out of it–it’s still a great bargain, by the way, especially first class.
So we took the overnight train from Krakow, and though we arrived at the grimy and crime-ridden Keleti station, we were soon whisked away to a magic land by the hostel operators, who are organized and market themselves aggressively in Budapest. If you like hosteling, this is a decent, though increasingly expensive option. I would recommend, however, that you go to the Ibusz office and ask for a private room. These can be quite cheap, clean, quiet, and secure in addition to getting some contact with real Hungarians.
Anyway, as our van headed toward the Danube, I suddenly remembered the GE commercial: it was big in the early Nineties, just after GE’s deal with Tungsram, the Hungarian electric company. They showed the bridges and buildings of Budapest being (natch) lit up at night. What reminded me of corporate commercialism was the bridge in question, and the buildings and monuments beyond. Whatever you’ve heard, Budapest is actually quite beautiful. Its beauty is more 19th Century than medieval, but it is the home of some grand architecture.
Settling in at the hostel in Buda (Budapest is formed of a few cities joined together, the most significant of which are Buda, the hilly southern and older side, and Pest, the commercial northern side that begins the Hungarian Plain) near Moskva Ter (Moscow Square, named before the communist period), we set out to explore with our newfound friend, an American Soviet specialist now doing biotech. Well, the end of the Cold War didn’t just create unemployment in the East. Anyway, we went up the hill to the cathedral, marveling at the Hilton hotel built around and onto a medieval church, and the Fisherman’s Walk, a relatively recent Disney-esque fairyland construction of walks, walls, and ramparts, done in white limestone. Though Budapest is pleasantly drier and warmer (the low 80’s at the time) than Poland, we decided to head inside the imperial palace, where the National Gallery and a few other museums are located today. The National Gallery, unlike its cross-town cousin, the Hungarian Museum of Art, is dedicated to Hungarian painters, and contains mainly works from the 19th and early 20th centuries. There are some interesting pieces, particularly among the later 20th century works, but in general I find nationalist art to be a bit boring.
Having killed most of the afternoon, we returned to the hostel to wash clothes and take care of other backpacking necessities. We ran into some people who made a fateful (for me) recommendation: a little restaurant, just up the street, a little hard to find, but worth it. So we went. It has become one of my favorite places to eat on Earth. The Sorozo a Szent Jozefant (?) (whose name I only wrote down on my last trip) is not a particularly notable place, except that it is relatively cheap, is open 24 hours a day, and serves a heavenly dish: Vorosboros Szarvasporkolt (Venison Goulash is their translation, despite the fact that a porkolt is not goulash, technically). Oh yeah, and it has menus in Hungarian, German, and English. Hungarian, a Finno-Ugric tongue not even sharing the Indo-European roots of every other European language except Finnish and Estonian, its only linguistic relatives, is so difficult and unrecognizable that, unless you plan to spend a year with the language, translations are necessary. This is no problem if you speak German, because virtually everyone in Hungary speaks German. Another joke is illustrative: A youth meets an ancient Hungarian peasant. “Did you hear?” he asks excitedly, “Austria and Hungary are in the World Cup!” “That so?” asks the old man, “Who’re we playin’?”
Anyway, the restaurant gave us a huge, cheap, and great meal–at that time, you could get an enormous plate of Hungarian goulash with potatoes, rice and garnish, a Coke, and a glass of the house wine (drink wine, not beer, in Hungary, you’ll be glad you did) for USD 3 (now, unfortunately, closer to USD 6-8). I have now eaten there seven or eight times–at least once each time I’m in Budapest. If you go, and you should, don’t miss it. Take the Metro to Moskva Ter, get off, see the Lego-castle-like building in front of you as you exit the building, and go to the opposite side of the square, towards the river. Walk around behind the row of buildings, turn left, and follow the street up more or less parallel to the square to the beer sign–there is now a good sign on the front of the building, but it’s a little inconspicuous. Follow the little stairs down to a rather plain cellar, usually quite warm, with a kitchen and some tables beyond, and a few dead animals looking back at you. Don’t have a cow, just wait for a table (you probably will have to) and enjoy. One hint: the special dishes are better than the plain goulash, even if they look similar. Just try something and be prepared to eat a lot. You know, I should charge for such advertisements…
The next day, after levering our overfed selves out of bed, we made it to the Gellert hotel for what was supposed to be a bit of massage, steam baths, thermal baths, and swimming. I have a micro-curse with Hungarian bathhouses. This time, despite people swearing to me before and since that the Gellert baths are for both sexes all the time, only the swimming pools were open for men that day. I went in and tried to swim, but got kicked out for not having a bathing cap–this could have been mentioned or rented at some point. So I ended up wandering around and waiting for the other two to quit being pampered and entertain me. At long last they did, and we went up Gellert hill, saw the grotto (to commemorate the Hungarians taking exception to religious imperialism, that is, err, throwing a bishop off the hill), and saw the “peace” monument that the Soviets built to thank themselves for conquering, I mean, uh, “liberating” Hungary after the Second World War. The view from there is incredible, and for the second day I gazed over at the hyper-gothic parliament building, pictured above.
Returning in the evening to once more seek food, we ran across a bunch of people, including Paul Wood, an English lad with whom I’ve since kept in touch…well, I try to, anyway. They wanted a good place to sample Hungarian fare so, guess where we went…again. Like I said, I can’t get enough of this place, and I’ve yet to have anybody hate it when I’ve taken them, either.
The next day we explored the Pest side of the river. We missed the guided tours, which are the only way to see the Parliament building (in fact, that’s one of those things still on my to-do list for Budapest), but we walked around it. We also headed over to Deak ter and Vorosmarty ter, and visited the great American Express travel office, with its great free maps. We wandered a bit on Vaca utca, the pedestrian upscale shopping district, and then headed out the yellow metro line towards the Opera. We only got to see it in the evening and from outside, but it was impressive enough (what’s on the inside is even more impressive, but that came later). We then met Paul and some others who’d managed to get tickets to the opera (well, opera just isn’t my preferred art form) and proceeded to a local, non-wine watering hole. This was quite expensive, even then. However, I did get to introduce Paul to the pleasures of a Crown and Coke. Despite my reactionary, cold-blooded American political views (which have since moderated to libertarian, freedom-loving, cold-blooded American political views) and his radical socialist British views, we bridged the gap by adding Canadian (and therefore part-British, part-American) whiskey to the quintessential American imperialist refreshing beverage, the holy of holies, Coke.
So I ain’t James Joyce. Sue me. Unless you work for Coke, in which case hire me to evangelize the Most Perfect Beverage to the Eastern European huddled masses, yearning for refreshment, and I promise I won’t mention imperialism. Besides, James Joyce couldn’t even see a famine going on around him.
Wanting to see Prague, and having spent several more days than I’d planned in Budapest, I decided to see nearby Vienna before heading on to Prague on my railpass, and left. You know, I should’ve just ditched the whole itinerary and stayed in Budapest. Oh, well.
After being a failure as a tourist in Poland, I tried my luck again in Budapest. The heat wave pummeling Europe was still leaving everyone woozy from the beating. The first day was terribly hot, and I decided to go to a place I’d heard about near the mountains, Eger. I did go around Budapest a little, and spent the night in the cheapest hostel I could find, the “Ghost” hostel. It was…interesting. It was stuck way out in a ritzy section of town, where guys with Uzis would guard the gates to various residences and glare at the scum Eurotrash who walked by on their way to the metro. It did seem like the dregs of humanity were backpacking, though it seemed that most of them weren’t that poor but had spent a lot of time and money trying to appear that way. Messages imploring people to return stolen goods bedecked the halls of the really ratty old house that constituted the hostel. The next day I decided I would have to bolt to Eger. I wanted to secure a place to sleep before I left, so I went to the wonderful American Express office in Budapest, who called up to Eger and arranged a room in a Panzio (pension).
Gun-shy from my experience in Poland, I must have driven the conductor batty verifying twelve times that I was in fact headed for Eger. I got there without incident, and was even able to get a map and navigate to the pension. The only other human beings I saw at the pension were the nice old lady who ran the place and her husband, whom I saw mainly coming and going. She didn’t speak any English, but this didn’t stop her. By repeating things in German, Italian, Hungarian, and consulting my phrasebook and dictionary, we managed to get most important things taken care of. Despite the heat, I walked into town and found a nice shady place to people watch and read. Eger doesn’t have a huge old town, but what is there is nice and the atmosphere is relaxed.
Much of the rest of my visit consisted of trudging to a place and visiting it until I could stand it no longer and retired to a cafe for anything cold and wet. I would then rest up and see the next place. They have a very interesting astronomical museum, including some very nice telescopes from the end of the 18th century. The view from the old observatory looks out over the vineyards, the baroque square, up to the white rambling expanses of the fortress ruins, and (on clear days) to the low-lying mountains to the north. At the other end of the creek-bedecked old town are the ruins of the old fortress, where history and legend variously tell us, Dobo Isztvan (Steven Dobo) and his band of merry Egerites held off the Turks despite a devastating siege and sent them packing. The legend comes in for various accounts of the Hungarians drinking literal blood of bulls, or some sort of drugged alcohol combination, or simply deep-colored wine and then screaming at the Turks and battling, some claim, with blood dripping from their mouths and scaring the bejeezus out of the Turks who wisely waited a year before coming back and finishing their job. Certainly the local wine, Egri Bikaver, more commonly known as “Bull’s Blood,” is a deep red table wine, and complements Hungarian cuisine elegantly. It’s quite hearty but not bitter, and the good vintages compete with the best wines of France.
The fact that the Turks did return lends Eger another major curiosity, the northernmost minaret in Europe. I ascended with increasing trepidation as the difference in nutrition between Twentieth Century and Sixteenth Century Man became evident, because the stairs were very short, the passage narrow, and the headroom nonexistent. 500 years of use had left these stairs with very little edge, and I kept having claustrophobic visions of being trapped between large panicked women. Fortunately, all of us had been on diets and made it to the top. It was an interesting view, and the age of the minaret made itself felt the way that some large palaces don’t.
The heat refused to let up, so I decided to brave public transport to a town twenty or thirty kilometers away called Szilvasvarad. Despite my Polish experience, I made it with no problems. There is a “children’s railway” up to the low-lying mountains, which include caves that have revealed ancient campfires from over 10,000 years ago. The woods were pleasant, but the heat made the exertion worse. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get up high enough to lower the temperature. Before the bus returned, I made it over to the Lippicai stables to see a Lippizaner horse, famed for their shows in Europe and elsewhere [Apologies for the spelling].
Finally, at long last, with great crashes of thunder, the heat wave of that fun but incredibly hot summer broke. The morning I left, I actually shivered. The kind pension lady made me a sandwich, and her husband drove me to the station. Once on the train, a voluble older gent insisted on conversing with me. Those who know me know that conversation is not something I normally avoid, but he only spoke Hungarian and German. This did not even slow him down. He simply kept repeating German at me until some cognate would pop up and I would understand, or he would get my Hungarian-English dictionary out and point to a word. I learned that he had been a forester for many years up by Szilvasvarad, and I think he had a daughter. Beyond that…