Put Budapest on Your Liszt
Hungary’s capital city, the city of Liszt and Theodore Herzl, is a great place to visit. There’s not a lot of money around, but it’s surprisingly well served by public transport and, give or take a former communist scowl or two from people still employed (in most cases astonishingly) in the oversized state enterprise sector. And it’s peopled largely by citizens who like to smile.
They have good reason to, even if the week we spent there was hideously hot, as inland south-eastern Europe can be in summer. The coffee houses are full of locals, the restaurants – apart from in the tourist rip-off strip – likewise, and there is a surprising amount of visible history around even if the Russians, Americans and British competed heavily with the retreating Germans during the bloody endgame of World War II to obliterate the former co-capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Portions of the city were rebuilt in period style. Others were given over to communist-era blocks of flats that offend the eye as well as the conscience. But the city centre and the Danube littoral have a pleasant ambience that is very far from the sterility of Vienna, say, or other western European cities. Budapest isn’t a western European city in either geographic placement or mindset. And that’s what makes it such a lovely place to take a break.
There’s even an Indonesian Trade Promotion Office for anyone with business on their mind.
Hussars and Horse’s Doovers
It was St Stephen’s Day while we were in Budapest, named for the king (Istvan) who formally embraced Christianity in the eleventh century and whose day, August 20, was the Saint’s day until the 17th century. On August 20 Hungary celebrates its national pride with some military overtones – flypasts and the like, and a display of military hardware past and present at Heroes Square where the six Magyar chieftains who brought their people from central Asia to the Hungarian plains in the ninth century look on with the impassive nature of the statues they are. Above them sits the mythical Turun, the huge bird that legend says guided the Magyar people – Huns – to their new home.
The best bit, from the Diary’s perspective, was when on our morning walk that day, sitting at an Andrassy Street coffee house having a mid-perambulation restorative caffeine shot, a marching band (of comely young ladies twirling sticks and doing little jigs), a band playing Germanic marching music, some veterans in similarly highly Germanic uniforms, and a half troop of Hussars trotted past on their way to Heroes square.
Despite the historic connotations of the event, it was accompanied by every modern convenience. An ambulance idled along behind the mounted hussars, lest one should fall and injure himself (or herself – there were two lady hussars present).
And bringing up the rear were two wash-and-wipe appliances of the city sanitation department, tasked with removing any unfortunate equine deposits.
We drank our coffee quickly and followed them up the avenue. The tail-end sweepers were kept very busy.
Budapest has the full range of accommodation options that you’d expect of any major city, but we chose to stay at a lovely up-market (and up five flights of stairs) B&B called the Kapital Inn. It was just off Andrassy Street in the central city area. Paris has a close match for Andrassy. It’s called the Champs Elysees.
The Kapital was capital for many reasons – including the breakfast omelettes provided by Albert, its excellent host – and was conveniently close to a metro station. The Diary prefers to amble, since this provides much rich street-scene material and access to the frequent coffee houses, but the metro was useful on many occasions when Budapest’s unusual August heat became a tad de trop.
Albert’s establishment is truly a home away from home for visitors. It rates six Hector stars.
Eat, Drink and...
Well, practically anything, really. Budapest is a city where sybarites of any class and every disposition never need to suffer deprivation syndrome. The Diary doesn’t do low-life, except in the Jeffrey Bernard sense, but that’s available for those who do. We do food though, and there’s plenty of that. Nothing much beats a cinnamon ice cream and an espresso as a late-night walk home treat, either.
We went one day to the Faust Borpince cellars under the Hilton Hotel on Castle Hill on the Buda side of the Danube, for a decorous wine tasting and some little Hungarian savoury scones. It was a perfect substitute for lunch.
The cellar is a proper wine cave underground in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed remains of the Dominican monastery that once was on the site. Around 80 Hungarian wines are available for tasting along with some 30 Palinkas (distilled spirits).
We left the spirits alone because we had to walk home to the Pest side afterwards.
We treated ourselves to a long lunch in Vienna one day. It’s a two-hour-fifty-minute train trip each way – though without any border crossing formalities since both Austria and Hungary are Schengen states – which makes it a very long lunch indeed.
But it was definitely worth it. We found a lovely little Beisl in Stiftgasse in the Museum district which offered both a great menu and wine list and a cool, leafy arbour in which to spend a few hours eating and drinking. And it was only a two-stop trip on the Metro back to Wesbahnhof for the Railjet train back to Budapest afterwards.
If you’re in Vienna, drop in at Amerlingbeisl. The food was so good we quite forgot to have a strudel.
Take a Bath
It’s a must-do in Budapest, where a tradition of communal bathing on the Turkish model long ago emerged as one of the better gifts of the Ottoman experience. It’s not for everyone – and especially for people whose home is Bali and for whom discreet massage and spa treatment is an established personal tradition – but it is immensely popular with Hungarians and most tourists.
We visited the Széchenyi baths in the Városliget park at the end of Andrassy, just past Heroes Square. There are others you may visit, but Széchenyi is best for couples since mixed bathing is always available there. At other places there’s a roster most days.
It was crowded (it was a hot day) but the thermal pool we chose, the 39C cauldron, had plenty of spare water space for newcomers. The recommended 20 minutes maximum was all we wanted, however.
Transports of Delight
Visitors from Indonesia would be amazed at the range of public transport available in Budapest, and at the smooth and on-schedule way it runs. There’s a Metro system – Budapest pioneered this in continental Europe – that is being expanded, an extensive light rail (tram) network, and trolley-buses and buses as well as a suburban railway network. Around 60 percent of people use public transport in Budapest.
What also caught our eye, as well as our fancy, was the way traffic stops at pedestrian crossings (try that in Bali!) and gives way at intersections. It stops at red lights and doesn’t go again until the lights are green. And drivers manage to stay in lane. And all this even on narrow side streets. Next time a legislative committee is looking at transport regulations, it could usefully schedule a trip to Budapest to see how it can be done.
Our remaining lost luggage – one of two suitcases that fell victim to the incompetent vagaries of Paris CDG airport or some other travel demon – finally found a way to be reunited with us on our last day in Scotland by which time, with Budapest the next stop, the warm clothing it contained was rather redundant.
Well, we say it found us. Actually we found it, since we had to drive to Edinburgh airport to get it. This was irritating because we had provided full address and telephone details for delivery. It was also irritating to find that the case had been opened, though in the absence of an official sticker to this effect we think not by customs. Some items were missing and others were broken because whoever opened it didn’t bother to re-connect the internal straps.
Two lessons from this: Do not give lost luggage at Budapest airport the access code to get into your case; and, if at all possible, even on a longer trip, travel with carry-on baggage only.
We like travelling but it’s always good to get home, and it was especially the case this trip because on September 1 Ganesha Gallery at Four Seasons Jimbaran opened a new exhibition of works by Balinese painter Wayan Kun Adnyana, entitled Body Theatre.
The Bangli-born painter explores the immense capacity for cross-fertilisation of cultures provided by Bali’s unique role as a crucible in which ancient Hindu religious and social precepts blend with imported Western values.
He’s been on the art scene since 1966 and has published numerous articles and books and organised several major exhibitions. His work displays a deep knowledge of human anatomy.
The exhibition is on until October 3.
Hector's Diary appears in the Bali Advertiser's fortnightly print edition and on the newspaper's website www.baliadvertiser.biz