I thought Hungary was supposed to be cheap. The cost of living is relatively low. Labour is not hugely well paid. The tourist areas definitely are not cheap. The funicular - a one minute journey is 11 euros. Cakes Five euros. Toilet one euro. Entry to many of the numerous museums up to €28 (converting from the local forints, though costs are often displayed in euros and even USD.) And Hungary has the highest rate of VAT in the world - 27%.
Hungary's most famous food is the meaty goulash soup - served thinner than it is in British versions, which tend to turn into stews. Other mid/eastern European favourites appear, duck, sour cherries (combined is good), dumplings, pickled cabbage, schnitzels, salamis and strudels. Until we got into Indian food, Hungarian cooking was the spiciest in Europe - this is where they grow paprika. Lots of cake and Palatschinke (like crepe suzettes with lots of walnuts doused in chocolate. And, as in the Czech Republic, plenty of chimney cakes. The chimney shapes are made of sugared dough, not cake, and filled with anything from fruit to ice cream.
The wines of Hungary are also very well known. Possibly the most famous is the red Bulls' Blood. This is what the Hungarians told the Ottoman Turks they were imbibing - with predicable consequences. Sweet, Tokay white wine was promoted by a surprised French king, Louis XIV. More recently, it's won the wine of the century award. I also mustn't forget palinka - fruit brandy.
And don't clink your beer glasses. This is what the Hapsburgs did every time they executed a Hungarian General. So, it doesn't go down well.
Hungary is a small country, so it is possible to see in day trips from Budapest, if you don't want to move your base. The Great Hungarian Plain, to the south, and especially, the puszta area, to see the endemic domestic animals and the local cowboys (Csikós). Lake Balaton, the largest freshwater lake in Central Europe and a tourist destination for the Hungarians. And the cities and towns along the Danube bend: Esztergom, the home of the church, in Hungary, Visegrád, for its (partially ruined) castles and pretty Szentendre, the home of Hungary's artists.
Budapest is far more magnificent than I remember. There's been a lot of renovation. It is a great city and could consume several days on its own. Gorgeous architecture (the House of Nations - Hungarian Parliament is stunning and a challenge to maintain). Budapest lays claim to several 'most beautifuls', plenty of museums, edgy and cheap nightlife (Ruin Bars) and more thermal springs than anywhere else in the world.. Read about my trips here.
I was last in Budapest just after The Wall came down. (I wrote this on Facebook and someone demanded to know where the wall in Budapest was. In case anyone is in any doubt I'm referring to the Berlin Wall.) The photos are brown scanned prints - I think four survived and have been propping this post up, so it's definitely time to revisit. This is a small country and there are plenty of tours out of Budapest. So, you can see a lot from one base. I've booked my excursions - I'm going to be a proper tourist here.
On days like this, I decide I’m never going to travel again. I'm on Wizz Air out of Gatwick to Budapest. I've been given dire warnings about how unreliable they are, but today, so far, the problem is not their fault. The whole of air traffic control has gone down. They're processing flight plans manually and about three planes an hour are leaving. There are 43 waiting at the gates. We're number 10.
Wizz keep sending alerts telling me the flight is delayed, whilst I'm sitting on board the plane. Naturally, they boarded us all even though they knew there were issues. The first message helpfully tells me to call the airport before I leave. Ha. As if anyone would answer the phone anyway. My flight is supposed to leave at 13.00. The second message arrives at 3pm and tells me the flight has been delayed until 2pm. The next message, at 4 pm, tells me it’s been delayed until three. You get the picture.
Meanwhile, the national news helpfully talks about 12 hour delays and massive cancellations all week. The captain tells us that the crews' duty time is up at 16.20. It’s now half past four. We still don't know what's happening, though we've been given a bottle of water and a mini tub of Pringles.
And fine, we all have to disembark. No instructions. Nothing.
Once through passport control, I go to the check-in desk to ask for information. The flight has been rescheduled for 6 a.m. next day they tell me. Go home. Wait for information. What about a hotel? There are so many people delayed they won't be able to provide accommodation. Make your own arrangements and claim.
I take the train back to Brighton. When I arrive, I get an email from Wizz Air, saying the flight has been rescheduled to 4 pm. It's 5.30pm. Then another email saying it’s been rescheduled, to 6 a.m. tomorrow (confirming what check in told me a while ago). And then a message asking if I would like a hotel. I'm too shattered to deal with that. (With hindsight it might have been better to accept and go back to the airport). But I'm heading home. Except there's no taxis.
More taxi fun and games, trying to track down someone willing to do a next morning 3.15 am pick up. Eventually, to bed at nine, ready to get up very early. It's difficult to sleep, when there’s so much that's unsettled though. I check my phone at 1 a.m. Wizz Air have rescheduled to 9 a.m. With trepidation, I phone the taxi company, and to my relie,f they're able to reschedule my pick up. More time to sleep. Except I can't.
Back at Gatwick, at 7 a.m. Mine is the only flight still showing on the board from yesterday. Presumably, the others all went or were cancelled. My boarding pass won't let me through, into security. The scanner knows it's seen it before. But the ladies on duty sort me out. Gate info at 8.15 the board says. Though presumably it's the same gate as yesterday. There's been no crew to move it. So I'm waiting with bated breath, to see if we actually go. Though I've had a reverse invoice from Wizz which is a little perturbing. Why are they refunding me the flight if it's still going ?
The airport is full of grumpy delayed passengers. Even the water fountain doesn't work. And yes, it is the same gate. But in their wisdom, they are reseating everyone on the plane. Rescanning boarding passes and passports. Despite having charged everyone to choose where to sit and for leg room seats. There's only one, very stressed guy, on the gate entry system. Everyone, including me, is angry that we haven't got the seats we paid for. I don’t understand the logic. Same plane. Same passengers. So things move exceeding slow. It's now 8.35. There's no way we are taking off at nine.
9 55. The plane is still only half full. A Hungarian guy, seated in front of me, is offering advice about Budapest.
'Don't get a taxi. They will rip you off. Check out the restaurants online. They will rip you off as soon as they hear your accent. So will the shopkeepers. Watch out for pickpockets on the buses'.
Do I really want to go after all? Too late to get off now. The plane pushes off at 10.30. It's a third empty. Confusion reigns. My boarding pass, the new one, says 13.00 departure. Apparently, some people have been told to go away and check in again at 10, for this flight. Needless to say, there isn't another plane today.
And, I'm finally in Budapest. My minder does at least help me buy an airport bus ticket, so I'm not tempted to get a taxi. Budapest, Hungary’s capital, straddles the River Danube, which flows south, at this point. (The Danube, one of the most fascinating of rivers, is 2,880 kilometres long and traverses 10 countries.) The nineteenth-century (newly restored) Chain Bridge connects the hilly old town of Buda with completely flat, modern Pest.
Budapest dates back to the Celts, who lived on what is now Gelert Hill, to the west of the Danube. Today, it holds the Citadella and has great views over Pest. The Romans came next. Ruins by the river, under bridges (spa baths) and up on top, testify to the fortress and town of Aquincum, from about AD 100. Then, they moved Aquincum out to the plains, as capital of what was called Pannonia Inferior. Surely, enough to give you an inferiority complex. Especially, as in later times, under the Habsburgs, the city, Buda (intermittently the capital over the years), was very much ignored, in favour of Vienna and Bratislava.
Budapest's fortunes improved after uprisings against the Austrians and renegotiated treaties, alongside an incentivised tax scheme. (Yes, even in those days).Today's city, Budapest was formed, in 1873, with the merger of three cities: Buda, Óbuda (old Buda - so old, old town) and Pest. Until World War I, Budapest was able to rival and even outshine Vienna. Most of its grandest architecture dates from this Belle Epoque.
And indeed, Budapest is far more magnificent than I remember. The main sights in the extensive Buda Castle grounds (a World Heritage Site, since 1987) are accessed by the Castle Hill Funicular, from the riverbank. Though there are steps if you're feeling fit and/or don't want to pay. And extensive is the word. But maybe half of the buildings are parcelled up. Major renovations are underway and cranes proliferate.
I'm happy to see that the main palace, on the southern tip, is mostly intact. No one seems sure whether to call it a castle or a palace, and there have been several incarnations over the years. However, this area has been home to the Hungarian kings, since 1265. The first home probably was a castle. The structure on show today is in theory, an immense Baroque palace, dating from the mid eighteenth century. But, like most of Budapest, it emerged from World War II in ruins and has been 'rebuilt in a simplified Stalinist Baroque style'. So, this grandeur is simple? It's now home to the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest Historical Museum, statues, fountains and coffee shops.
The area around the castle/palace is known as Várnegyed (Castle Quarter). Here, to the north, I'm wandering (once I'm through the fenced off building site) past a medley of medieval, Baroque, and neoclassical palaces, churches, public buildings, and monuments. Winding cobbled streets with immaculate pastel coloured houses, shops and restaurants. Now it seems, I'm back in Vienna. Alongside, tantalising glimpses of glowing tiles, from under canvas. Especially notable, the so called Buda Tower, though it's actually the only remaining part of the Church of Mary Magdalene. Most of the ministries are still under wraps, but the imposing National Archives (another slightly elusive patterned roof) is unclothed. Next to that, there's the Vienna Gate, one of the medieval entrances. You could spend days up here, if you went in all the publicly accessible buildings.
And, thankfully, also visible, towards the centre, is the the iconic thirteenth century St Matthias Church, with its diamond patterned, multihued towers and roof, in Trinity Square. It has been heavily restored, in a style described as 'florid' on the world wide web.
In my opinion, the crenelations and turrets of the Disneylandesque Fisherman's Bastion are worthy of more criticism. But they serve up spectacular views, down across the Danube, to Pest.
My recollection of Pest is of intimidating grey buildings, with dubious looking restaurants, every one of of them serving goulash soup. I'm not sure why I didn't notice the French style boulevards and huge basilicas. The buildings have been beautifully restored and it's now all very grand.
There are shopping galleries, a dedicated Fashion Street, numerous squares with statues and fountains (and a Ferris wheel in one), tree lined parks. Further out, huge stadia and brickwork chimneys. There are still a smattering of cranes.
And there are still plenty of sombrely brutalist soviet era apartments, both in the middle of town and further out. What used to be called the Jewish Quarter (now District VII) is more as I remember Budapest. It's still grey, but now it has edge and is vibrant, hip. Tourist or Party Central. There's the Dohany Street Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe, orange and gold, with its twin towers and cemetery. More cafes and bars and street food, than you can throw a stick at.
And the Ruin Bars. As the name suggests, they emerged in derelict buildings - the ultimate in upcycling and a place to buy a cheap drink. The oldest, largest and most famous is Szimpla Kert. This one is a veritable labyrinth. You just wander in and out of all the fabulously themed and garishly lit nooks and crannies and choose the bar you like the look of. Plenty of cocktails.
Whilst I'm looking for Szimpla Kert, I chat to two Americans, who tell me that the New York Café is the place to go. That's on the edge of the Jewish Quarter, so it's up next. It turns out that the New York Café boasts that it's the most beautiful café in the world. As always, it depends on your taste. It's certainly magnificent. Opulent. Restored Italian renaissance, every inch gilded or covered with frescoes.
Sadly, the toilets aren't as entrancing. There are only two and one is out of order. Service is hard to come by, as is the change when you've finally got the bill and paid. The food - cakes and Hungarian stalwarts is fairly pricey and just about acceptable in quality. But it's historical and apparently, where Budapest meets for coffee (and always has done.) Somehow, I've managed to escape having to queue. (You can pay 5 Euros to skip the line.) But perhaps early evening isn't coffee time.
The New York Café is not the only most beautiful thing in the world that Budapest boasts. Apart from this, and the Parliament building (see below), there's the most beautiful McDonald's at Nyugati Station, in a building designed by Eiffel, and the most beautiful book store. Budapest is rife with these and their gorgeously adorned reading rooms. There's a cluster of modern bookshops, on the edge of the Jewish Quarter, (Budapest is still keen to indulge in and promote culture), as I head down towards Váci Utca. This is the famous pedestrianised shopping street, which wanders parallel to the river. It's home to all the usual chain stores and cafes and more.
As if that wasn't enough, Budapest has the highest number of thermal springs in the world. Seventy million litres of naturally heated water rise to the earth’s surface daily.
The Hungarian Parliament Building, The Országház or “House of Nations”, with its 365 neo Gothic spires and huge burgundy dome, is stunning. This is the world’s third largest parliamentary building, the tallest building in the capital city, and the largest building in Hungary. It was designed by Hungarian architect Imre Steindl, for a competition, and opened in 1902. Sadly, the architect first went blind and then died, before it was finished. Wikipedia thinks it took about 100,000 people, 40 million bricks, half a million precious stones and 40 kilogrammes of gold to complete.
Inside, are ' lavish and sumptuous interiors, imposing staircases (over 21 kilometres of them), massive frescos, recounting the history of the country, and 88 statues of prominent Hungarian rulers'. You can do tours. The most precious exhibit is the Holy Crown of Hungary, (St Stephen's Crown),as seen in the coat of arms of Hungary. It's been has been displayed in the central hall since 2000. It was smuggled out by the Americans, during World War II, and taken to Fort Knox for 'safekeeping' from the Germans and Soviets.
Constructions consumed many millions and upkeep consumes even more. Due to its extensive surface and detailed handiwork, the building is almost always under renovation. The façade is made of soft limestone, which is in frequent need of cleaning, possible only with extensive scaffolding. It's gradually being replaced, with harder, more durable limestone.
Up river, from the House of Nations, yet more monuments and public buildings. The Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial movingly commemorates the Jews, who were massacred by fascist Hungarian militia, during the Second World War. They were ordered to take off their shoes (which were valuable and could be resold), and were shot at the edge of the river, so that their bodies fell into the water and were carried away Beyond that Margaret Island dividing the Danube.
The banks of the river are lined with modern expensive hotels. The Intercontinental, the ugly Sofitel (quite rightly being demolished). My hotel nestles in the next street back. The cleverly named D8 (say it Date) is trendily modern, with iron frames and denim pockets on the bedhead. Yellow pegs, to hang up guides and the hairdryer bag. There's a nice little bar, where the friendly man knows how to make a decent cocktail. Sadly, however, the mattress offers no support whatsoever and the polyester in the pillows has disintegrated. I'm exhausted, from all my walking, but it's impossible to sleep well.
I'm sort of replicating a trip I made last time I was here. That time, I did the Danube Bend (it's a huge loop), by boat, the whole way to Esztergom and back. Today, I'm going by coach and coming back on the boat.
There's plenty of traffic leaving Budapest. The motorways (the M roads, like at home) are in reasonably good condition and free flowing. The E roads are patchy and deteriorating at the edges. (Also like home then.) There are hoardings advertising every European/Western brand here: Tesco, Auchan, Aldi, Lidl, KFC, McDonald's.
We start by driving into Slovakia, the town of Sturovo, for a view of Esztergom Cathedral, from across a dull and brooding Danube. (Strauss would be very upset). Lengthy cruise ships sit on the water beneath. There's even a Happy Train, taking tourists over the bridge. They don’t seem to be complying.
The city of Esztergom, today, is known for being home to a very large Suzuki factory. My guide says the name means 'eastern border', but that doesn't make any sense at all. It's in the north. And this explanation doesn't feature on Wikipedia, which seems uncertain as to etymology. Historically, it was the capital of Hungary, between the tenth and thirteenth centuries. It's where the first king, Saint Stephen, was born.
The basilica is the seat of the Catholic Church of Hungary, and the largest church and tallest building in the country. This neo-classical building was preceded by several other churches, the earliest of which was the first cathedral in Hungary. This version was begun in 1856 and opened in 1886. Liszt composed a mass specially. It is stately, rather than beautiful, possessing three impressive domes, with an altarpiece reputed to be the largest painting in the world, on a single piece of canvas.
Once back at the huge basilica, it's clear the restoration gang have arrived before me. Much of it is undercover. The nave is busy with workers and resounds with the thump of metal tools. The statues and altar reliquary and tombs are shrouded in plastic. I haven't got much to add to the photos I don’t have from my last visit. My memories of that relate much more to the treasury. Case after case of orbs, gowns and crowns.
We're lunching at a 'panoramic view' restaurant at Visegrád. The view in question is of the ruined old castle on top of the hill. At least it would be, but we've been seated in the middle of the restaurant, and there isn't a hope of any panorama. When I scramble out on to the terrace, I can make out the remains of the Early Renaissance summer palace and medieval citadel of King Matthias Corvinus.
Then, there's a heated debate with the guide. I have this old photo (see below) that I'm sure I took here. She insists I didn't. Google confirms I'm right. This is what the lower castle, the Salomon Tower, looked like, after the wall came down.
Szentendre is the ultimate tourist village. Cobbles, quaint churches, shops, cafes and galleries with bobbing umbrellas and giant lampshades. Where there are tourists, there must be museums. At one end of the village, there's a marzipan shop and museum, with models made out of the sweet stuff. At the other end, there's a retro museum, whichthat takes me nicely back to my childhood and beyond. Relics of life behind the Iron Curtain. Toys, electric appliances, a whole kitchen, bikes and cars. Including Trabants, like the ones I saw on my first visit. And a pink sports car. Time to do my Lady Penelope impression. Barbie would love it.
The boat trip back to Budapest takes one hour and that's plenty. There's very little to see until we reach the city, and it's exceedingly chilly, on the water.
Today, it's out onto the Puszta, a grassland area, mainly around the River Tisza, on the Great Hungarian Plain. It is very, very flat and sandy. I suppose it's the smaller equivalent of the Argentinian pampas, as it's famous for ranching. Though animal husbandry has been in decline for many years - there's been bad soil erosion due to overgrazing. Instead, the sunny plains are increasingly used to grow vines and the fruit and vegetables which both support the population and are exported. It's also home to the paprika red pepper. The fields are surrounded with acacia trees, planted as their lengthy and convoluted root systems hold the sandy soil in place. They also make good honey.
On today's coach the guide is called, appropriately, Attila. and for some reason, nearly all the passengers are Italian.
First stop, is the town of Kecskemét . Its name means "goat district" and it's famous for its Art Nouveau ( Hungarian Art Nouveau is known as Cifrapalota). Kecskemét was virtually destroyed by Habsburg hordes in the eighteenth century. They set the town alight. but it survived and continued to make its fortune by keeping livestock and trading with animals. Wine and apricot brandy came next, especially after the vine-pest destroyed most of the vineyards in the hilly regions.
Wealth brought redevelopment and the Art Nouveau buildings, surrounding Kecskemét's main square. Today, the town is another car industry hub and thriving. It's home to Mercedes-Benz and Daimler as well as several other manufacturing plants. Unemployment is very low -3%.
I'm off to tour the buildings, of course. They're undoubtedly pretty. Art Nouveau is one of my favourite architectural styles. There are plenty of scarlet shields, depicting upright goats, paying homage to the town's name. Shops with decorated façades and facias, all down the main street, in keeping with the theme. Churches, palaces, schools and colleges. A domed and imposing, but repurposed, synagogue. (The Jews in Kecskemét were rounded up and treated with exceptional brutality, even for the Hungarian SS. Seventy of them committed suicide, by taking poison. Those remaining were sent to Auschwitz and only a small proportion returned.) Today, this is the technology centre.
The pièce de résistance is the Town Hall, another amazing and massively complicated turn of the century 'triumph', with another tiled roof. You can hear its main bells from 10 kilometres away, I'm told. But they only ring once a year. The lesser bells ring the hour, and at noon, there are string of bells, above the entrance, which supposedly play melodies, such as those composed by local man, Zoltán Kodály. (His school is here.)
In practice, the various clocks on the surrounding churches all take it in turn to ring in 12 o'clock. depending on how slow the time piece is running. and at about ten past twelve music emanates from the town hall. I'm not sure where it's coming from, but those bells are not moving. There's a central monument here, with a fountain. The local children have discovered it's a very good slide.
Then we're off to a local ranch or csárda. Another lunch of 'typical' poorly cooked goulash soup and fried meat with chips. The flan for dessert isn't bad though. It's sprinkled with (a tiny amount) of brandy and lit. Attila says it's Hungarian crepe suzette, but it's more like crème caramel.
Then, a touristy horse cart ride out 'into the plain'. There's nothing to see, and we basically just circumnavigate the farm buildings. At least I get to sit up front and flourish the driver's whip. He's very gentle with it, just tickling the beasts' backs. There's a variety of equines here, in the stables and on parade. Most of the ranches are also stud farms. We are introduced to a Lipizzaner stallion who, we're told, has had 32 girlfriends, this year. The local horses are the shining chestnutty nonius breed.
There's also a farm zoo, with more domestic breeds. including the huge horned Hungarian Grey cattle, Mangalitsa woolly pigs, donkeys, mules and Racka sheep with curious unicorn like horns (except they have two of them.)
The finale is a very very touristy horse show. It derives from the traditions of the csikós, royal blue costumed herdsmen, who round up a herd of 'wild horses', drive the cattle and horses in various carts, do dressage, persuade their steeds to lie down and perform other contortions and ride bareback. The star performer works with five horses at once, straddling the two at the rear. Throughout they whirl whips just above the animals' heads, creating a constant cracking sound. I'm glad I'm not one of the poor horses.
The audience are invited to whip an empty bottle off a post and win some wine. A few succeed. I think the farm can afford it. It's capacity is huge; there are tables in every corner. And souvenir stalls. A whip is 50 euros. It must be a gold mine.
And now, very sadly, this visit to Hungary has come to an end. It's been cruelly reduced. I can't see Lake Balaton, as planned. Maybe next time. I've had a lovely time. And, to my knowledge, no-one has even attempted to rip me off.
Read more about Hungary here.
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