Back in Budapest — the rest of Day 5

After some little absence, as the bright day trembles everywhere with wind, outside, I turned our afternoon and evening of the fifth day in Budapest (Tuesday, October 25, 2011) into many more words than I had anticipated. I connect repeatedly to a map because I keep talking about details a map might make clear. Anyway, we spent the morning and midday at the Museum of Fine Arts and Heroesʼ Square, and then got on Metro line 2…

Ignoring the dumb “A” icon GoogleMaps™ inserted (and the also pointless green arrow), this map of central Budapest shows most of the sites mentioned today.

We got off at Oktagon, Janet in particular having gotten intrigued with Andrássy út, me vaguely still considering a visit to the Terror Museum (never to be realized), both of us interested in seeking out one of the guidebook-recommended coffeehouses — the New York Café. The old turn-of-the-last-century neo- (or perhaps pseudo-) Baroque splendor advertised for this place sounded worth the price of admission (not seriously admission, but the café does insist visitors actually order; and we were  feeling like an afternoon pause and refreshment might be in order). Unfortunately, at Oktagon, my resurfacing problem arrived, with me* totally screwed around as to which way was north or south or east or west. I suppose a study of a map, closely, might have revealed where the Metro outlet was located on this complex intersection — actually the roundabout/crossing of Andrássy út and Erzsébet körút/Teréz körút); but the map-containing guidebooks remained in my vest pocket(s) as we looked around and, me spotting an arriving tram, rushed across/around some streets to climb aboard on the tram-access island in the middle of a boulevard.

I had figured out that the New York Café lay along the Grand Boulevard toward the south (i.e. along the portion labeled Erzsébet körút**, the Teréz körút stretch swinging off northward toward the Danube and the Margit híd — about eight blocks before which the name becomes Szent István körút), and my gut felt (incorrectly, as reality fairly quickly made clear) that this tram was heading south. It was taking us northward, as I realized finally when the river appeared, so we hopped off just before the bridge to wait, briefly it turned out, to catch a southbound vehicle (No. 4 or 6 — donʼt remember which: it was going the right way).

So we journeyed back through Oktagon (this was one strange time that retracing a route didnʼt seem shorter than the unknowing first experience) and on around onto the actual Erzsébet körút where, in my nervous excitement I got us off one stop too soon (although I see clearly now on my DK map and in Rick Stevesʼs guide that the correct exit is two stops past Okatagon; but as I have said, I was, um, nervous and excited). So we walked a couple of blocks to the Wesselényi út intersection, where the cornerside café was splendidly evident (if only for the number of tourists hovering around at the door outside).

interior of the New York Café

We entered behind other gawkers in groups of two to eight, all but a pair of whom turned back at the maitreʼd for the cheaper haven of the streets. The couple ahead got seated and then it was our turn. We got a table not far from the door, not far from a very busy waitersʼ station, along a railing, with a nice view of things (unfortunately I only have one poor picture [to the right] to reveal the multi-storeyed, gilt-and-plaster spectacle wrapped around a — to us — distant courtyard). And we ordered… a little midafternoon sweetness (a feature of the place) and of course some coffee. I got a special combo of mini-desserts, and every one of them was delectable (lots of chocolate involved). And we ogled the décor. The place was truly spectacular, very Baroque in influence — lots of white plaster, painted dome ceilings and gilt; my one photograph doesnʼt capture even a hint of the spectacle.***

From there, once we paid our hefty tab, we climbed aboard another tram to continue around to eventually connect and reach the Great Market Hall (once again in our visit), where we wandered around in much more detail this time, exploring the second floor, where the tourist mementos are found (none of which fit our budget) and back around the first floor food stalls, searching to buy paprika for our neighbors (what else for a souvenir?) and Janetʼs brother-in-law and even a bag for me to use (so far still unopened). We also descended (via escalator, I believe) to the basement for the supermarket there, which we wandered, sometimes in incomprehension, checking prices and even acquiring some foodstuffs and wine (it was here we found that our hotelʼs price for a bottle of St. István, red or white, was actually pretty high, regardless how cheap it had seemed to us). I even figured out the costs and got us checked out without major incident or (typical-for-me) screw-up.

Great Market Hall, Pest

It was getting late in the afternoon, or early in the evening, by then. We walked Váci utca back home and debated in our room what to do that evening for food, searching through the guidebooks, considering a return to any of the three places we had enjoyed so far, settling at last on another Rick Steves recommendation, Café Gerlózsy (which, in checking the spelling, I just noticed is listed among the coffeehouse sights by that author, right with the New York).

We dressed (I had wisely this trip finally brought along only one suitcoat — works to keep one warm outdoors and dressy if necessary — and just two choices of shirt and sweater, a single pair of nonjeans pants****) and headed out into the night, crossing once more by Erzsébet tér and around some very dark streets/almost-alleys to the restaurant, where we saw smokers/grills going high-aflame outside in the courtyard, where a good number of diners sat at tables in the chill nocturnal air. Entering, we got accosted peremptorily by an aloof (maybe even rude) maitreʼd, taken to a seat right off the entryway in the overheated interior and proceeded to have a horrible time. 

 Café Gerlózsy turned out to be a mistake — overpriced, haughty and gentrified. We were treated poorly (the only such experience this trip; even the New York staff was nice to us, obvious scum-tourists that we were), and the food wasnʼt worth the cost. At all. Janet loathed her salty smoked mackerel (the daily special), although I was more tolerant of my lamb shank in a vegetable mash. Admittedly, that shank had to be from the tiniest lamb in recorded slaughtering history (about the same size as the duck legs we had enjoyed the second evening, before the concert), but it was okay. I kept offering to exchange meals, but My Beloved refused, getting increasingly displeased by every event (including the excessive heat, the staff bumping by our table… smoke, noise… everything). Basically we paid up as quickly as possible and stalked rapidly back to the hotel, burning off offended energy in our quickstepping pace, not really appreciating any sights we revisited en route. 

Oh well, canʼt be right every time.

sights along Váci utca

Váci utca

* (Janet never knows what way is what, particularly when weʼre away from home regions, like on vacation or a trip somewhere. Recently,  for instance, we were in Schaumburg, and until our last day, she always turned the wrong direction getting off the elevator. The same thing can happen to me, as the story above indicates, but I try hard to keep track of directions for both our sakes, particularly in strange locales.)

** The southward-swinging route changes names just as confusingly when the boulevard crosses particular major thoroughfares — becoming first Jozsef körút and then Ferenc körút just before the route crosses the river via the Petöfi híd, amusingly just past the Boráros tér tram stop, which we had reached, nervous and a little discombobulated, on our first tram day, taking the No. 2 along the river southward. The whole Grand Boulevard follows the old walls of the medieval city of Pest, by the way.

*** Coffeehouse culture was a huge aspect of civic life in Budapest a hundred years or so ago, as in Prague (where Kafka among so many others spent considerable time in these sociaable, civilized environments) or Vienna, any of the cultural centers of the Austo-Hungarian Empire.

**** Also my first trip with no sneakers/trainers. My rubbery-plastic pseudo-dress shoes worked great (kept my feet dry on these two rainy days), felt comfy and passed muster among all the Euro-footed, fancy-leather-shod stylistas (and I am talking about men).

We still have several days to go. And weʼll get to it all… one of these days.

©2012 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

More Budapest, Day 5 — Museum and Heroes Square

Museum of Fine Arts, showing a tiny bit of the breadth of plaza, which I keep talking about, that is Heroes Square

Continuing from yesterday, I ramble on about our rambles around the Museum of Fine Arts some more (and I edited the previous post to include some links that hadnʼt been there before) and our return into rain to look at Vőrös tere

In the end we spent almost four hours at the museum. I completely lost track of time (yes, I wore my watch, but I seldom think to look at that sucker), progressing forward in art history time from the lengthy medieval stuff I wrote about vaguely already through some Renaissance artists (Italian, German, British, Spanish [I remember an El Greco] — things started to get sorted by nationality, so the time sequence got a bit confused for me except by styles and subjects), Baroque, Nineteenth Century, and very little modern.

The Dutch galleries, listed by all guides as a highlight, was exactly that — more focused on big canvases of landscapes and still lives than the tiny interiors familiar from Vermeer or characterful faces of Rembrandt.

The Museum of Fine Arts has some very fine works, but what really drew My Belovedʼs attention was, obviously, the Impressionists — and there were quite  few interesting canvases to study  toward the end of our second- and third-floor wanderings. I even got to play my game of finding out how far away the painting leaped into real-life clarity and focus (amazingly far away, even in different rooms for several). I also enjoyed the earlier French artists — Delacroix, Corot and Courbet (all of whom found spacious discussion previously here on the blog). On this visit, although a few of the guards (mostly stout, middle-aged and older women) watched me getting my intrusive nose perhaps too close to some canvases, I didnʼt come near to actually touching anything.

the (admittedly uninteresting-to-foreigners) historical nobility (southern) half of the Heroes Square monument

Legendary and historical kings on Heroes Square

The mounted Magyars on the central spire, Heroes Square

Eventually, art-weariness began to make things seem less and less intriguing for this day (a false, subjective impression bred from too-muchness at any museum), and we found our way back to the steps we had come up several hours earlier. However, in the lobby (where we had paid our admission, now filled with various groups of people, plentiful schoolchildren) I noticed that a pair of large doors led off to the Greek and Roman antiquities, and we went in there (me a bit trepidatious that perhaps this wing required an extra fee — it didnʼt).

Now The Lovely One has had more than enough of Greek vases — red-figure, black-figure and polychrome — from our visits to the British Museum, where she may also have gotten more than she wanted of examining the Lindow Man, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but she does like the sculpture and enjoys mosaics (after our visit to Volubilis in Morocco back in 1984). And we ended up spending another hour-plus amidst (yes) vases (all three kinds, but a limited number) of many varieties (of use), among which I pointed out amphorae to her, and lots of Roman statues or assorted fragments thereof (also true of the vases).

Pleasantly, almost no other visitors bothered to take in these genuine antiquities, and the gentle quiet made these final rooms a real highlight of our visit… for both of us (even with vases examined, sometimes minutely, by one of us).

The heroic couple atop the central spire, Heroes Square

Unlike yesterday, my own shot of Mucsarnok, the Music Hall

But then we descended again to retrieve our belongings and depart, in order to check out the monument(s) of Heroes Square, erected like so much else in Budapest for the millennial celebrations of 1896 (which is also why so many things in the city are 896 feet and/or meters high). We toured around the two sets of historical “heroes,” the first, older group on our side (toward the Museum of Fine Arts) being legendary and historical kings and the other group comprising lesser-known Hungarian nobles. I was reading from Rick Steves and either Frommer or DK, trying to be more informed and informative than had been our experience on Saturday over on Castle Hill. It was, however, actually raining, and our studies began to feel uncomfortably wet, even after we drew out the umbrellas (difficult to hold one and read from a guidebook), so after perhaps only a half hour or so, we headed off the large plaza to find again the Vőrös tere Metro stop and descend into the bowels beneath the streets.

We were headed back under Andrassy út toward the river…

Again, more to come… someday…

©2012 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Budapest, Fourth Day, part 2 [Monday, October 24, 2011]

Continuing from yesterday, here is the afternoon and evening of our fourth day in Budapest…

It was getting on and past lunch time although we hadnʼt been eating lunch this trip, ingesting calories in our room for breakfast instead. However, we had no plans for dinner yet, so we were scanning what these places along Liszt tér had to offer. Eventually, we started down Andrássy út, southwestward, drifting homeward, peering into storefronts and trying not to stare at our fellow pedestrians (“people-watching”), me thinking about taking the redline Metro that ran directly beneath this street. Rain was picking up again. Then, suddenly, mutually, we noticed a coffeeshop, and The Lovely One submitted to my suggestion we stop in for a hot beverage and perhaps a bite to snack.

The place was small and fairly busy, even after 1:00, and we werenʼt sure how to take a seat — wait for a host or just sit down (our books said both were possibilities at different restaurants/eateries). Eventually a waiter told us just to go on back from the front area (complete with glassed pastry case) and take any table we wanted (in the abrupt manner about which travel books try to warn American tourists). So we sat and waited. If I remember rightly, we had a menu listing beverages and maybe a few appetizer-like snack items. We figured out what we wanted (a glass of white wine for her and coffee for me and something to eat, but I have forgotten what), and eventually a waiter took our pretty minimal order. The interior was very elegant and turn-of-the-last century, the room about thirty feet square with booths on one side and tables, mostly for two or four, scattered closely around. Food arrived, and we ate, drank and talked about things — mostly just looking around and trying not to eavesdrop on other customers, most of whom had much more to eat on their tables than we did.

We lingered for about an hour, paying with cash, our usual gambit (to avoid currency-exchange charges with credit cards). I looked through my travel books for activities, but nothing (except the vague and never-to-be-realized possibility of the Terror Museum here on Andrássy somewhere) really appealed. However, upon exiting to the street, we realized that almost directly across was the Opera, a highly recommended short tour for architectural grandiosity, so with a little hesitation (should we? shouldnʼt we?) we crossed the boulevard and climbed the steps to the main entrance, found our way to the ticket line and paid for the next English tour, which we discovered at the main door was to start in only a couple more minutes.

Exterior of the Opera House — the sky was decidedly not blue when we were there

Opera House — the auditorium

We waited (we hoped in the correct group) amidst hundreds in the big lobby at the foot of the grand staircase. Fairly soon, a very young woman arrived to guide our group; she acknowledged that she had usually led French-speakers and this was her first attempt at the tour in English. She was pretty hesitant, but she was also very cute, so the tour was a success, if probably less informative than some of the others in other languages. 

The Opera has various groups travel through the roughly dozen sights/stops in various patterns. We went upstairs first, then into the actual auditorium, then to various upper class lounges, retirement areas (upper-class in the olden days), finally arriving in a hallway/lounge for our “mini-concert” for which we had paid extra (but we hadnʼt paid the extra fee to take pictures, so everything today is borrowed — click pix to visit original sites, most of which are very interesting). A man arrived and sang three arias pleasantly, and we were done. The tour lasted about ninety minutes, with waiting times and mini-concert. We enjoyed ourselves.

The Opera is very plush and very ornate, decidedly the most elegant of our three visits this day.

The Grand Staircase — click for an excellent slideshow of Budapest from 2004, on TripAdvisor

Once we were outdoors in the rain again, we decided the better part of tourism was to continue back toward the river and our hotel. However, the rain got us both to decide to take the Metro to Vörösmarty tér and from there back out to Váci utca and then home. On the way back to our hotel, we found a grocery store where The Lovely One purchased some supplies (breakfast items, wine and some snacks for our late afternoon/early evening R&R sessions in the room — to be used almost immediately). While relaxing and sipping at the hotel, we decided to try one of Rick Stevesʼs suggstions for dinner, a restaurant, out on the main drag behind the basilica, so only about ten blocks away. We dressed and left about 6:40 to head past St. István tér (again) and across busy Bajcsy-Zsilinsky Út to the restaurant. 

I believe this shot actually shows our table, on the right, at Belvárosi Lugas Etterem

Belvárosi Lugas Etterem, a tiny place with only about twelve tables, decorated in a faux but pleasant rural-peasant country style, turned out to be Janetʼs favorite of the trip. She ate chicken in a yogurt sauce that she adored, served in a clay pot, while I had “steak Magyar style,” which meant on paprika-ed potatoes fried with onions and tomato), and we both started with gulyasleves (goo•yash lehv•esh, the “ly” combo being pronounced as a “y”), actual Hungarian goulash, which is a soup, the meaning of leves, as all the books pointed out to diminish tourist disappointment at not getting the Slavic/Germanic version, omnipresent for instance in Prague, theyʼd expected — delicious. Wonderful food, prepared very nicely.

For dessert, my love ordered and utterly enjoyed a sponge cake in chocolate and fruit-and-walnut sauces while I savored hazelnut palacsintas (crèpes, if youʼve forgotten from previous posts, the omnipresent and all-useful — meaning savory or sweet — Hungarian “pancake”). Then home, a pleasant walk past the basilica again, to our room and bed.

End of day number four.

©2012 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Back to Budapest — Monday, October 24 (Day Four)

Having taken a break from prodding my memory for most of the various other kinds of posts I like to feature here, letʼs return to the travelogue, to last year, 2011, to Monday, October 24, in Budapest. You will find it was still rainy…

Places of Worship (a Day or Two Late?)

Monday was our church-visit* day. I had vaguely considered a museum (and there are many of them, several tempting to me but one I knew would also inspire Janet — the National Art Museum, farther off than several history and a cultural and an agricultural, but particularly with the language barrier possible, the only serious choice) for a Sunday pastime “out of downtown,” but it was closed. As was the Great Synagogue, as I noted earlier. So we went on Monday, when it actually, definitely rained. 

looking from our hotel room down Mérleg utca toward the Danube and the palace across the river

No mere mist on Monday — from before we arose, about 8:00, there was steady precipitation. No downpour but nothing to ignore. We both took umbrellas along (again, although I donʼt believe we opened either on Sunday) as we left the room to descend the stairs to the lobby and be on our way. And outside, in the noticeable precipitation, we hurried along Mérleg utca to turn left onto Október 6 utca and then right to follow Zríny utca to our initial destination.

Szent István Bazilika and its square in the rain

The first stop was a place we had been at and by many times already (with several more to come, including two bypasses this Monday evening), Szent István Bazilika. This time we were going inside, so we climbed the big steps out front, forked over our coins to the priest at the doorway (where I really didnʼt pay sufficient attention to the carved portrayals of the Twelve Apostles on that portal) and went inside…

Dark and huge. What else can you expect in a cathedral? (Okay, basilica.) Big columns, domed glitter overhead, not many people, statues, niches, side chapels — lots of red, gold, blue. But mostly it just seemed hugely dark. The floor was interestingly ornate but also somehow not as finished-feeling as other churches we had visited elsewhere. We wandered to our right first, passing St. Gellért in statuary around to the main altar with a big white statue of St. István. We wended back down the nave and around to the left by the altar to enter the little set of rooms that led to our sighting of the fair-sized shrine for the forearm of St. István himself, with helpful information sheets (in several languages but mostly Hungarian) on the building and its restoration. We looked and departed, back into less rain outdoors.

We made our way next southwards along Bajcsy-Zsilnszky Út, Erzsébet tér and Károly Körút to the Synagogue, where we stood patiently in line (me desperately reading travel books I had brought along and the various signs for information on how much we were to pay and what we had to do to gain entrance). We had seen this place, of course, yesterday, its two great Moorish-domed steeples piercing the gray sky, appearing as imposing and dramatic as the books had suggested (and as churchlike, too — Steves quotes an early, sardonic observer decreeing it “the most beautiful Catholic synagogue in the world”).

It seemed, although the books indicated otherwise, that all visitors stood in line at the tour counter (a small shed built outside the great fence) but we distinguished ourselves from the tour group tourists by telling the guys inside that we wanted not to take the tour but just purchase admittance (cheapskates, us, and maybe we missed some information, but both Mr. Steves and Frommer seemed to have lots of information from which I could, and I did, read while inside, as I had at St. István). Then we went to a different line to pass security (quite reminiscent of TSA at airports, except we got to retain our shoes) and finally, presenting our tickets, pass inside.

One of the great chandeliers and the view toward the front within the Great Synagogue

looking to the left inside the Great Synagogue — notice the womenʼs gallery above the nave

Gloriosity of gold within. Huge, but unlike the basilica, bright (sufficiently so to permit photographs, so we have some here). We wandered around, dodging groups (and eavesdropping sometimes) to examine the gilded decor, making our way up front along the left side first (I think) and then back along the right (or maybe vice versa). This place was definitely big and splendiferous (largest synagogue in Europe, second in the world) — all gold, red, wood and wonderfulness. Very Oriental, too — the Moorish inspirations being very evident (although I felt more of that in one of the five we toured in Prague, which was even more gilded and ornate but of course not as large). After a while and many attempts at natural-lighting photos, we went to the door to the museum, leading into a lobby with a staircase and elevator.

the Holocaust sculpture and the back of the Great Synagogue

Being us, we headed for the steps only to be stopped and signaled to the elevator by a woman in the coat-check/ticket area. So we entered and ascended several floors to come out into a display covering four or five rooms (and steps up to modern artistic interpretations of antisemitism on the floor above). We patiently examined the many items on display — siddurs, prayer shawls, cups, Torah cases and crowns… a massive plenitude (and also the exhibits one flight up), learning and reviewing about Jewish festivals, imagery and symbolism and daily life.

When we finally returned to ground level and passed outdoors (shielded by the porch) to look at the mass graves on the northern side of the synagogue, quietly grim, and then pass into the weather to visit the silvery Holocaust Memorial sculpture and garden, the rain had set in for real. By now it was past 11:30, and the morning damp had become the midday downpour.

With the definite wet, the day seemed palpably colder, too. I got us (even after the previous dayʼs mild disaster) onto a tram to head around to Oktagon, from which we wandered Liszt tér, noticing mostly restaurants and cafés…

Monument topped by symbolic abstract sculpture denoting the dead, engraved with the names of the slain — click for a really big picture

However, I approach a thousand words, which is more than I intended for today, so the rest of Monday, October 24, will have to wait.

* Is there an appropriate word for “place of worship” that doesnʼt seem particularly Christian-centric?

©2012 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Budapest, Day 3 (part 3) — feeling lost

Yesterday, I left off with The Lovely One and me standing at a stop (returned again southwards from Elizabeth Bridge, back down at Liberty Bridge), waiting for a number 47 or 49 tram to carry us across the Danube to the northern foot of Gellért hill to check out the exterior of some baths.

We boarded a tram fairly quickly (although I couldn’t tell you, probably even a few hours after, if it was a 47 or a 49*) and crossed the Danube to Buda. Here we were in a real commercial downtown area, much different than at the western end of Széchenyi lanchid (Chain Bridge) just to the north (the previous day, afoot). Lots of businesses lined the streets, busy pedestrians, traffic. The tram stopped a couple times, with plenty of exchange in passengers on and off. However, I wasn’t sure where to get off or if we passed right by the baths and could see what I wanted to see from the tram (or whether we were at the baths yet). Then the train, like the street we were following, climbed, turned, and rattled into a different kind of neighborhood, gradually less business-filled and more urban-residential. And the buildings gradually began to thin as we did not stop for a while. 

Now I was sure we had passed the baths without realizing, and as we eventually reached a stop in the middle of the broad boulevard down which we were traveling, wasn’t sure if we should get off here or somewhere less… empty. Here the buildings, large apartment structures, were set back from the street, traffic had thinned to nonexistent, and the very openness the civic designers had sought to create felt… uncomfortable. So I kept quiet, and we passed a series of stops in this kind of environment until the openness began to feel positively (negatively?) midwestern, verging past suburban toward potentially rural. The stops stopped, too, and we just rode.

GoogleMaps™ image showing part of our adventure — the cursor arrow points where we started; we ended up off the map about where this caption says, “GoogleMaps™” or even further southwest

We crossed multilane highways, up over a bridge, an elevated overpass, and stopped. Finally. It had been quite a while since the last stop, and we were clearly out beyond where we should be. Janet had grown wisely much more uneasy with this less-than-scenic excursion and determined we were getting off there — before it was too late somehow — to catch a return tram. 

So, in the real middle of nowhere, we exited the car, just us, finding ourselves still on the downside of the overpass, a big twenty-plus-storey residential concrete-and-glass block structure about three hundred yards away, on the other side of more tracks, off the overpass, across a green space and a street. Nearer, a yellow structure, more than a shed, about garage-sized, with elementary-kid art on the side toward us showing happy people doing something supposedly fun in an outdoor setting, was almost as high up as we were. Otherwise, a pretty barren if somewhat restricted view.

It was cold, the wind cutting. I looked around and led us to the farther side of the tracks and uphill somewhat to the spot that seemed to be the stop for trams going the other way. And we waited, alone in the empty highway crossroads, at the shaking tram sign on the embankment, under the steel sky that now looked very fraught with rain. Very alone in this very empty place, where now no trams arrived for a long time from either direction. 

Someone was not happy with me. We both continued to feel nervous, out of place, chilled and uncomfortable. After some time, perhaps ten or fifteen minutes, other people climbed up the hill behind the yellow building to wait at the outbound stopping point where we had exited. A group of older people (probably our own age, although I always see my own age as people older than myself), men and women — two couples and an odd woman out, all gazing surreptitiously, sometimes obviously at us with disapproval and suspicion (well, so it seemed to me) and probably dislike. They conversed among themselves a little, while Janet and I shivered in silence.

Finally, after maybe a full half hour, a tram arrived heading back the way we now wanted to go, and we quickly got on the nearly empty train, which shuddered and clattered away back toward the river and civilization. We returned through all the sights that had seemed so ominous earlier, now friendly and more clearly suburban and residential. Back into downtown Buda by the river, across the bridge and back to Pest, where Janet quickly got us right off the vehicle immediately and headed us down Váci utca toward home. It was about 4:00 PM.

Our day wasnʼt over yet. We still had the much-foretold and otherwise heralded demonstrations to encounter…

* Checking one of my maps, I bet it was a 49. The 47 route doesnʼt appear to go far enough south.

No travel picture with this post because during the experience I forgot all about having a camera bulging in the pocket of my vest. The shot you see is a fake: I stepped outdoors just now, before posting, and snapped another gray and heavy sky. This oneʼs full of frozen rain.

Yes, I am dragging this Sunday out (probably too long, I realize). However, I did want to steer myself away from the “we did this and then we saw that and then we went there and then…” trap that travel writing (like mine) can stumble into. I wanted to express a dose of that particular tourist terror that can arise from the tiniest slip of expectations into utter surprises when youʼre in a distant place, especially without the local language. Nothing was wrong for us that afternoon, but even so we got just a little goosepimpling of spooked. And that minor and self-imposed unhappiness was an element of the whole wonderful experience, too.

Besides, itʼs true.

©2012 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Budapest Day 3 — National Holiday (part 1)

Today, finally, I have the start of my continuation of the Budapest trip (late October 2011). The most recent piece, on our Saturday, the second day in town, was here.

Crowds gathering for the National Holiday, October 23 — a gray and drizzly day — the Elizabeth Bridge over the Danube in the distance

Sunday had been our day of dread (to be over-the-top in my expression) since I had discovered during my hurried, brief stint of rushed research that October 23 was a major national Hungarian holiday — commemorating the 1956 uprising (savagely suppressed) against communist rule (eternally enshrined, at least for Janet and me, in the Chess anthem “1956 — Budapest is rising”). Our previous experience with European holidays indicated everything could be closed for the day. And it was a Sunday, too. Furthermore, when we had raised the holiday issue with the charming desk staff at the hotel, all three girls reacted strangely and mentioned “demonstrations — not to worry” (demonstrations, evidently, about which we knew nothing) before assuring us that restaurants would be open and that the staff world advise us of available attractions to seek on the holiday. 

Saturday night, when we returned from dinner and the concert, the girl at the desk stopped us to offer a sheet of paper with about a dozen things to do — all of which took us tourists out of downtown, where the demonstrations would occur. I think three of those destinations were baths, so perfectly Hungarian, as my reading back in Iowa had quickly taught me, but my beloved and I had pretty well decided, packing, that we wouldnʼt include bathing gear. Sure, a mistake — Rick Steves would be nasily disappointed. We were depriving ourselves of an experience. Even so, me particularly not imagining myself getting mostly naked, I thought we might at least see the Gellért or Széchenyi baths from the outside. After all, as long as the offices were open during the holiday, we were intending to buy transit passes first thing on Sunday and get much further out and about than we had so far. 

Sunday came rain. I awoke sometime in the middle of the night to hear rain falling outdoors.* Looking out from the living area, even my unbespectacled eyes could see the streets and masonry glistening and catch hints of the precipitation in the globular halo of streetlights. By morning (well, very late morning; apparently jet lag caught us up overnight, and we both slept from sometime after midnight until 11:30 AM), the rain had diminished to drizzle and less, but it was a gloomy, dark and chilly day — sadly so after the cloudless brilliance of the day before. Tourists, committing themselves to be outdoors, more or less, throughout the day, never really like to see it rain. But this present morning (okay, nearly noontime) damp seemed very much diminished from my blind experience in the night, and besides I had planned us to be bus borne or trolley-carried or civic-spelunking on the metro (maybe, I dreamed, on the suburban train half an hour northward to the Roman ruins of Aquincum — a dream because we never got there, not this trip). 

After morning ablutions and a bit of breakfast bread and fruit with instant coffee**, we descended the steps to the lobby so I could verify at the desk that public transit would be running and the ticket vendors present. The girlʼs reaction to my inquiry came close to “Duh. What else?” but quite polite — she assured me the transit workers and the police would be on the job today. 

GoogleMaps™ rendition of our Pest neighborhood; the hotel is marked in red, Deák tér in blue

So we set off outdoors, finding only mist in the air, through wet streets to Deák Tér. Although we had been that way once before, I wasnʼt sure just what park was Deák tér (this one mostly an open, paved square) nor just where the metro entrance was (I assumed, correctly, the tickets were inside the subway station). Our problem was that although I could, using one of our tour guide maps, steer us toward Deák Tér, passing along the edge of Erzsébet tér (where it seemed protesters or celebrators were setting up for some kind of apparently major event, supervised by police — lots of police and yellow cop tape everywhere, even along streets), I couldnʼt exactly find Deak tér. I had come to believe, more or less correctly, that a tér (“square”) was a park, like Erzébet or Roosevelt tér along the river in front of the Gresham Palace. I was forgetting, however, that the equivalent namešti (in Czech) in Prague were large open, paved areas with three to six streets converging more or less at the corners. Deák tér seems like an excessively large intersection with some bits of park and a big church (the Great Synagogue) at various edges of the street, and a tram line running through the middle of the major big, wide, multilane boulevard. Fortunately, in one green area a cheese festival had been set up for the weekend, temporary booths and Sunday crowds drawing Janetʼs attention. 

Festival meant park, and some serious damp study eventually revealed to my worried scrutiny that the stairwells leading down were more than just a pedestrian underpass for crossing the big, wide, busy avenue. We discovered, in fact, when we descended a whole expansive mall-like area with shops and food stands. But at first no metro. However, the general flow of people and a lucky guess led me to the transit ticket booth. I had tried to prepare a full Hungarian sentence, requesting our seven-day passes, which in the stress of the real encounter degenerated into, “weekly pass, two,” for which I belatedly remembered to switch my gesture for the number to the European thumb and forefinger. The woman behind the glass answered in passable, minimal English and showed me the amount to pay on a calculator. In less than a minute we had our passes for bus, tram, metro and local suburban train.

* (We nightly opened a window for the fresh air, exactly as we had with the small portals in our garret in Prague, but here in Pest we had no pigeons to worry about. They had flapped at the opening in Prague threatening to but not actually entering, forcing us to keep the windows almost but not quite closed there. In Pest, we kept the opening small mostly from a sense of security.)

** (great stuff they stocked for our kitchenette each day: I enjoyed a cocoa-coffee blend and even brought a couple baglets home to enjoy one of these wintry days)

©2012 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.


Reviewing Bliss Hungarian Style

Pest from the Castle in Buda, featuring Széchenyi lánchid across the river toward our hotel (hiding behind the elegant Four Seasons Gresham Palace)

We returned from Hungary successfully. And our flight home was infinitely less aggravating than our return from Prague two years ago (which does have a downside — I came away from OʼHare two years ago with a story idea, almost completed, for the Tourist; no one annoyed me enough to devise a means to fictitiously kill him or her this time, unlike the pompous slick who mercilessly reclined his seat into my face the entire flight, thus earning an excremental demise by drowning, outside baggage claim, in my short story*).

The recent trip was a lovely experience. I now know what all those items in the image I used from Wikipedia are — namely: an aerial view of Buda Hills across Parliament and the Danube from Pest, the Chain Bridge—south side with one of the lions, Heroes Square at the end of Andrássy út, Parliament viewed from a boat on the Danube, Fishermanʼs Bastion north of the castle in Buda, St. István Bazilika in Pest (quite near our hotel), and finally a view up the river toward Margaret Island from Gellért Hill in Buda. Since I really didnʼt know any of those things before the trip, the awareness now is pleasant.

Anticipating our time this October might be too reminiscent of Prague, we harvested instead an entirely new set of treasured memories along the Danube. Budapest was extraordinary and interesting, lively, and although not as antique as Prague (having suffered destruction repeatedly over its history, particularly in the closing months of World War Two) still romantic and exotic to dulled Midwestern eyes (even if reconstructed recently).

tram tracks and trees along the Danube, Eótvos tér, heading “homeward” toward the hotel

Travel books had warned us that Hungarians might seem stand-offish and remote, even officious (as Czechs had also felt), but we experienced none of that, meeting pleasant people who did their jobs well and folks who spoke with us and helped us out if necessary. Although I did study my Hungarian handbook and memorized important sentences to say in nearly a dozen situations, none of it was necessary. Everyone with whom we spoke or had dealings possessed some level of English sufficient to their and our needs. My feeble pronunciation and probably grammarless constructions earned faint smiles and quick English responses every time, except with our cab driver to the airport on the final morning. The hotel had called to schedule the cab for us the previous morning, and because it is a German chain (Starlight Suiten), the cab company dispatched a driver with German but no English. Even so, we communicated, and he enthusiastically accepted my payment and “Köszönöm”** with an unexpectedly warm handshake.

The city was beautiful, interestingly mixing restoration of past glories (like the Rick-Steves-criticized Royal Palace aloft in hilly Buda or the sturdy Chain Bridge/Széchenyi lánchid over the Duna*** and just across Roosevelt tér [park] near our hotel) with contemporary energy and industry. We loved the food (all except one Rick Steves recommendation that was our worst meal of the trip, ranking below even airline eating — not to ridicule the renowned Rick whose book, along with DK and Fodor, did steer us well usually). The people were wonderful. The sights and experiences were invigorating and vividly memorable. We had a marvelous time.****

(And I have absolutely nothing appropriate to say for this day, Halloween.)

* I guess that the opportunity to review what lies where and in which order in the passport clearance—>baggage claim—>customs experience arriving in Chicago helped with the old tale, however.

** “Thank you,” which I hope I pronounced keu-seu-neum (with those eus like French neuf, accent, as with every Hungarian word, on the first syllable).

*** Danube

**** Yes, we wish we were there… And I will have much more to say about the trip (perhaps in too much detail, again) in days to come.

©2011 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.