Exploring Budapest and southern Hungary

June 8. The day after my first surgery of the trip, I slept fairly well, given that I was in a hostel with a drunk girl in my room who tripped over her luggage at 4:30 am and complained mercilessly the next day about somebody snoring in the room. After coming home drunk a second night she slept through her alarm which was set on snooze and went off continuously for about 20 minutes.  It had been a really hot day so I’d left the window open all night only to be woken by drunk Hungarians shouting and hollering at the local pub.  I had a noon appointment with the dentist and spent hours trying to find a good optometrist for progressive glasses. I spent 2 hours going to three different places scattered over a two miles with lots of walking, map reading, and trams required.  Not easy.

While standing on the escalator to hell (about a thousand feet below ground level to the subway), I was wondering why so many Soviet satellites had similar arrangements.  I asked a young Hungarian who helped me find Normafa Park who told me it was in case of nuclear war. Apparently, the doors can be sealed. I shivered at the thought of people having to live underground.  Finally, I found a place that gave me a prescription, but didn’t want to order glasses because the prescription didn’t seem right. I questioned them but they stood by it, so I headed to Kodak Lens in Corvin Plaza. I liked the optometrist (it helped that she spoke English) and decided that even though it was more expensive than the other place, I would go with them. We compared the one she did to the one at the other person had done and it was very different. Doesn’t make sense to get glasses if the prescription is wrong!

While leaving Corvin square I spied a beautiful castle-like building with a Zsolnay tiled roof and decided to investigate. It turned out to be the Museum of Fine Arts.  The building had been built expressly to house the treasures of various Hungarian collectors collection in the mid 1800s.  I am slowest of slow in museums, taking hours when others take minutes. Even so, I decided that an hour and a half to see the permanent collection was sufficient. There were porcelains and ceramics, small snuffboxes, wood work including cabinets and chests, jewelry, cameos, and other treasures. I took tons of photos and enjoyed the aesthetic beauty of the work.  The collection was heavy on art deco.

I took the M5 tram back to the Buda side of the river, as I still had daylight and thought it was a good day for a walk in Normafa Park.  A kind Hungarian young man directed me to the right place, and I arrived in the crisp park air at 645 pm.  I spent 2 hours walking on the trails, admiring the asphalt bush-lined running path that had been installed since I was here last fall.  I climbed the Elizabeth tour but got quite sweaty and had to put on all my jackets at the top to keep from getting sicker.  While waiting for the bus down, I met a Bostonian who had a Hungarian girlfriend years ago and had come to Budapest with her. He’d fallen in love with the city and had learned a fair amount of the language. He continues to come back for several months every year. He was a bit stand offish so I didn’t talk to him on the ride back, though I made an attempt.

I got out at Kossuth plaza and took a long walk back to the hostel. Julian, a kind young German, opened the door for me.  He had just spent 20 months living and traveling in New Zealand, Australia, and Asia. His favorite Asian countries were Laos and Philippines. I resolved to talk with him the next morning.

June 9 I fell asleep about 6am after my drunk friend’s alarm finally was silenced and slept till 10am. Upon awaking I immediately asked Julian about his travels, afraid I’d miss him as I was leaving.  He and his friend Augustin wanted to walk around the city with me so they accompanied me to the car and then we explored. Or rather I took them on a tour. We went to the covered market near the green bridge, then across to look at the Gellert Spa (they were both on a tight budget so the 20 USD daily fee was too steep). I showed them the Monarchy restaurant and walked along the path I’d taken the night before, then with the help of GPS found a path up to the citadel. Augustin is a photo buff so he appreciated the views of the city and the statue of lady liberty that reminded me of the one in Tblisi. Social realism very reminiscent of a kind of soviet style Art Deco.

We descended back across the Erzabet (Elizabeth) bridge and had a quick meal near the hostel. Then I bade them farewell but not before thanking them profusely for such a lovely walk and time together. As I said, I hadn’t expected to meet people that I’d feel a connection with at the hostel, making a joke about being too old which they both poo pooed. Then I got in the car and headed to Pecs where Tamas and Janka were expecting me. The drive down was pretty relaxing, as getting out of Budapest was a relief. I stopped in Paks on the way down, Tamas’ home town, and walked around the church and old part of town. He had grown up in a house near the church on the hill overlooking the Danube. His father was a cameraman and engineer at the nuclear power plant. He grew up in a photography family, with his grandparents also doing photography and traveling around the area taking portraits. He spent early years with his father in the dark room. Reminded me of Anne, whom I had just visited in Kaufering.

It was so nice to finally get to their place. They had moved a month before to a friend’s home in the mountains overlooking the city. It actually had land and a vegetable garden and fir trees! I was amazed at the view and loved the sun room where they ate. A real solarium. We walked downtown and had a burger at Streat Cafe, a modern innovative burger restaurant that served food on a piece of cardboard. Clean and modern design. There were more and more places like that in Pecs. Certainly since last September during my last visit.   We walked back up the hill and crawled off to sleep downstairs. It was a storage area and basement but very comfortable. I didn’t want to disturb their schedules, as they are early risers.

June 10. I awoke at 9:30 and Tamas and I headed to Orfu (a lovely lake and village about 7 miles from Pecs) and Abaliget, where there was a small cave and lakes for fishing and swimming. Three of Janka’s sisters live in this village. We took Feczka, their new puppy, who is a particular Hungarian breed of shepherd and very smart. She swam in the lake fetching sticks, while I walked along the lake’s edge, marveling at the natural beauty of the area. The area is mountainous and forested, unusual for Hungary. After the Trianon treaty at the end of WWI, Hungary lost almost all of its mountainous areas to Romania and Slovakia.

Tamas had two local festivals to film that day, and Janka was going to film one as he couldn’t be in two places at once. I followed them by car so I had the freedom to roam. We arrived at Ofalu first, a small Swabian town that had recently joined the community of villages which received money from the nuclear power plant for storing waste nearby. Apparently they weren’t well liked by the others because they had opposed the waste site. It was gray and began to rain. Janka set up the camera, and I walked around the small village. I noted the narrow tall doors on the left front side of each house and the wood work on the pillars supporting the side porch. All aesthetically lovely. I walked up to the cemetery and the Calvary overlooking the village. This also seemed to follow a pattern. Most German towns had their cemetery in an important position, usually on a hill overlooking the town.

I was worried about missing out on festivities at Feked, so I headed there. The GPS suggested a dirt road at the end of the village, but I turned around and headed back to the main road. Feked was having a salame cook off. People stirred huge copper cauldrons over the fire. There were more than 100 different meats entered and I grabbed a few samples for Janka. Unfortunately I inadvertently threw them out. I said hello to Tamas who was filming. There was a group of singers and dancers performing German songs.  Then much later Hungarian singing. I dashed around while trying to keep an eye on the festivities, looking at the goings on. There were a lot of simple games for kids, like wooden toys and a basket merry go round. Very wholesome.  Feked was even more traditional than Ofalu, with every house following the same pattern.

At the end of the day I walked into an open garden displaying traditional crafts and tools from the past . The couple who owned the house spoke a little English. I asked if I could see the inside of the house and the man gave me a tour. He was very kind. He showed me their prized grand piano and a portrait of his grandmother, the sleigh beds of his 5 sons, a desk he built with one son.  His wife showed me how she spins wool.  She is interested in ethnography and they are both interested in preserving the village history.  Tamas knows him and says he helps in the local church. I walked back and ate a sausage on bread, called Swabian street food, which I regretted later. Then I walked around the town examining architectural details and finally went up to the calvary and cemetery.

Afraid I’d miss all the festivities, I headed back to Ofalu where I found Janka and Tamas.  They were planning to interview the mayor so after looking around, I decided to explore a bit before heading back to Pecs.  I drove back to the main road and then up to Obyana. What a lovely place! It was one of the glass-making villages in the 1400s along with a few others in the region. Apparently they offered a great trout dinner at the Etterem, which I regretted not partaking in. It was too dark to see, so I headed back to Pecs and tried to find the play that was part of the Poszta exhibit at the Zsolnay Center. I listened in at the door as they weren’t letting people in late, then headed back to my friends and went to bed.

June 11. I had no obligations on Sunday, so I slept in and then took the time to write in my blog for a bit. Tamas came home from parasailing around noon and we looked at a map of Hungary and the Balkans for suggestions on where to visit. I took my leave around 1:30 and headed down to Pecs (we were high up on a hill overlooking the city) before exploring nearby villages. There was a folk music festival going on near the cathedral, and I listened and enjoyed a Punch looking giant puppet before wandering through all the old town.  I found some new places, including a garden cafe in the city wall.  I also admired a street that had been torn up the fall before.  They’d done a nice job fixing it.

I headed up into the mountains to a tiny village called Puspokszlentlaszlo. It seems to now mostly be rentals, but all quaint traditional-style Swabian German homes. At the end of the road is a lovely arboretum and old church. I took in the tree covered hills and deep lush valley, then admired the trees in the arboretum trees, and did some hiking in the hills.  Then I drove down the dirt road to Komlo, an old mining town, where I almost had an accident. I was driving along the Main Street and assumed that the yellow blinking lights meant slow (not stop). I slowed down and turned my head to see a statue of a miner, only to turn back and see a car right in front of me. I screeched on the brakes and luckily the other driver drove out so that we just missed each other. Probably the closest I’ve been to an accident on my trip.

Shaken, I headed to Magyarhertelend, a nice village featuring a lot of wood carving and traditional designs. I walked up the hill to the church and spied a corn crib filled with corn and draft horses in the yard. This was still very much a working farm area. I passed fields of wheat and what looked like barley on the way. There was a fountain of what looked like large boulders of copper ore. The sun was setting as I drove to the water mill I’d seen the day before at Orfu. I loved the place and decided I’d come back some day. Anyone who has restored an old mill has my full respect and admiration. I must have been a miller in another life because I’m fascinated by both wind and water mills. Someone said I should go to Holland. I will!

As the light faded I headed to the lake and walked along the shore, taking photos of the fishing docks in the setting sun. What an idyllic place to live! It’s covered with snow in the winter, but I’m sure some people are here year round. I passed a few gaggles of teens and got the sense that this was a very popular resort retreat. Very pretty. Contented, I headed back to Pecs and found Janka and Tamas on Kiraly Street. We talked and hung out for a while, then walked back up to the house. I prepared my things for the next day including my sandal which had disastrously snapped the day before. We would head to a cobbler the next morning before they went off to a crafts fair and I returned to Budapest.

June 12. I awoke not having slept well. I had been worrying about the surgery the next day and about getting everything done before leaving for Budapest. I quickly packed and we drove down to the cobblers only to find they were closed. Then their car wouldn’t start and a gypsy started begging me for food. Tamas firmly told her to leave me alone and she reluctantly did. Finally the car started and we headed to Minute Man service in front of TESCO, the huge supermarket here. He said he could fix it in 1.5 hours, which would make me late for Budapest. I asked for an earlier time and he said he’d do it in an hour. I thanked Tamas and Janka and bid them farewell, and walked around the area. First I went to Decathlon to buy a backup pair of sandals, not cheap at 45 USD for a pair of flip flops. But foot comfort is a must, particularly with the Morton’s neuromas on my right foot and the pain I get from wearing the running shoes. Then I drove up the hill and explored small houses clinging to the hillside and the area around the church before heading back. The shoes were ready and I gratefully paid him 1.75 USD for the fix and headed to Budapest.

It was a harrowing journey on Route 6 because there were numerous slow cars on a 2 lane road. I passed where I could and finally hit the main highway. Plenty of time. I had to consider finding a parking place which was very difficult in the area near the dentist. I found a handicapped one. I had thought ahead and brought my placard, and had already used it in France and Germany. I walked in pretty tired from the 3 hour voyage only to find out that the dentist was sick. He had cancelled my previous visit as well due to a trip to Yerevan. I was very upset. The receptionists didn’t seem to be bothered or offer to schedule me an additional time. That was wrong in my opinion. I met an American, David, in the lobby who was doing research in early Christianity at CEU University. Turns out Elaine Pagels is his advisor. We had dessert at Central Kavehaz, a lovely literati cafe with more than 100 years of history.  In the early and mid 1900s it was frequented by actors, writers, politicians, artists, and other celebrated figures.  We talked about his year in Budapest (he’s been here since October) and life as an academic.  I mentioned that I had done tech writing as a former career, and it sparked his curiosity.  Being an academic is frought with difficulty, as I have learned from several friends and my cousin Alex who is struggling to get her just desserts at Hong Kong University.

We bid farewell and I decided to finally check out the Great Synagogue, the largest in Europe (or the world until recently in NYC). I’d been trying to find it all last summer but always seemed to just miss it.  This time I used my GPS and succeeded  in finding it.  And I lucked out! As it is now high season, it was open till 8pm and a tour was just starting. I paid 15 USD (a pretty penny by Budapest standards) and took my seat. The tour guide was candid and turned out to be an actor in improvisation who has been writing and performing sketches for high school students on hate speech and other sociopolitical issues. He found out as a 15 year old that he was Jewish. His grandmother told him that her husband had burned all the birth certificates indicating religious affiliation after WWII to prevent further discrimination. He talked about the history of the Jews in Budapest, though not as much as I’d hoped, including the story of the Jews being marched to the river from this location and being forced to undress and then randomly being shot into the river. He met a woman who survived two such marches and comes to the synagogue weekly.

He also talked about the size of the ghetto, how it was only enforced from October 1944 to April 1945, how 600,000 Jews were killed in Hungary during that time, 10 percent of all the Jews killed during WWII, how only 200 Nazis came to oversee the ghettos the rest being Hungarians, and how 70,000 Jews were crammed into a 4 by 6 block area which included the Great Synagogue. Many of the Jews who died in Budapest died from exposure in the winter of 1944 or from starvation. I eavesdropped later on a French tour and discovered that she was giving much more historical background about Jews in Budapest and Hungary in previous centuries, which I’d wished he’d done.   I told our guide about my dad’s family and how they had saved at least one Jew by changing her papers and bringing her to Kempten with them. And about the ghetto in Krakow and how they had Jewish friends in the ghetto and would throw bread out the windows of the tram that went through the ghetto but didn’t stop. He told me about Central European malaise, as he called it, and the disbelief and shock in the wake of the end of communism. Most people had had jobs and a place to live, and all were guaranteed and affordable. Now that was not the case and people were struggling and suffering. Democracy had not offered what they had hoped.

Next door, Herzel, the founder of modern Zionism, had grown up and attended this very synagogue.  His home was destroyed in the late 1800s to make way for a road.  There was a collection of religious and secular Jewish treasures in the museum next door and I spent the remaining time looking at the pieces and reading their descriptions. Many had come from outside of Budapest, including Vienna, Kosice, Bratislava, and small Hungarian villages where almost all Jews had been killed. I photographed the descriptions to read later.  Then I walked in the former ghetto looking for traces of its former life and found another synagogue. There were also kosher eateries, including a hummus bar, and one place that looked especially good but was closed. Many “ruin” bars are located here, in former stately homes that are now dilapidated.

As it was another hot day,  I decided to walk to the river and cool off.  Julian had asked me to get in touch when I was back, so I texted him.  He would come by bike and arrived about 30 minutes later (I’d walked back and forth across the bridge 3 times while waiting), and we made our way on the Buda side, talking about plans and what he’d seen since the weekend. Agustin was now in Vienna, and Julian was planning to head to northern Hungary the next day and then to Lake Balaton. I showed him photos of Pecs and he decided to visit there as well. We hung out till late and hugged, then I returned to the hostel. Even though it was midnight, the lights blazed in the room and everyone was up. I asked if we could turn them out in 10 minutes and people felt that they had to stay up for longer, but finally around 1am they turned off. I talked with a nice young man from the Netherlands, Niel, who is doing a bike trip to Bucharest and went to Morocco the year prior. He was headed to Balaton the next day.

June 13. I woke too early given the late hour of sleep and packed and put my things in the car, deciding to see the parliament and cathedral as well as Andrassy Steet before heading to Luis’s home in Kismaros near the Danube and Vacs. I saw a lot that morning and first made my way to the cathedral, which was grand. It had been built in the mid 1800s and had suffered a collapse which caused another set of builders to work on the place.  In the end, it had had several architects and architectural elements, with a fancy dome which rivaled that of the duomo in Florence. The chapel of the holy right hand held the relic of the right hand of St Stephen, the first king of Hungary whose right hand had apparently been miraculously conserved. I took some photos when the light was shining on the inside, and took many photos of the church itself, whose decorations were unbelievable. Especially after France, where most church interiors were remarkably dilapidated.

Then I headed to the Parliament, noting the statue of Ronald Reagan and the man on the bridge en route. I spent about an hour in the museum there (English tours weren’t till later in the day), learning more about the history of the government of Hungary from the kings to present day. From there I walked to the opera house.  I love Andrassy Street and walked up the grand boulevard a ways. I’d hoped to see the buildings but most were obscured by the Chinese elms that lined the street. I walked through Liszt Park and back along the British ruin bar area of town. Then I got in the car and headed to Kismany, stopping in Hero’s Square and the park to walk around the lovely castle and take the pretty surrounding.

I arrived at Luis’s home around 2:30.  He had kindly invited me to stay at his place last fall when I met him at a wine fair in Esztergom (the same place I met Tamaz and Janka). He needed groceries and we took a long slow drive down the mountain and along the Danube to Vac about 35 minutes away. I bought a lot of groceries as well and we had a lot of nice chats in Spanish. He is originally from La Paz, Bolivia, and has lived in Hungary for 10 years. For the first 3 months he spent 3 to 5 hours per day studying the language online and has a good mastery of it. I was tremendously impressed given the difficulty of the language. It goes to show that when there’s a will there’s a way.  We ended up making a barbeque (parilla in Argentinian, where he had lived for years) and I made a big salad and cut up some watermelon.  Then I went for a hike and discovered some beautiful woods. We talked till late in the night.  I was so excited to see fireflies (luciernagas in Spanish).  It was good to practice Spanish as I’d forgotten a lot after speaking French for a month.  My brain seems to only have place for one language at a time, and vacates the other.  The scene brought to mind Pan’s Labrinth, one of my all time favorite films.  There was something magical about his land, and the presence of the bright tiny creatures confirmed this.


One response to “Exploring Budapest and southern Hungary

  1. thanks, lisa, i gave it a look, your trip doesn’t sound easy. but you have some good stories. xoxo r >


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