Follow The Discreet Traveler by e-mail!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Less Pest, more Buddha

I have more to say about our adventures in Austria and Hungary. And what adventures they were: from the moment we saw a monk with a backpack hop off a bus in Salzburg, Austria delighted us. When we got to Vienna, it was a Sunday afternoon, when most shops and stores are still closed. Luckily, our local bakery was not. Or our local Irish pub (there seems to be at least one of these in every city in Europe, if not the world).

I was going to say Hungary did not delight us, but it’s not fair to judge a country only by its capital city. Budapest did not delight us. Part of this was not Budapest’s fault: the first part of our visit was marred by illness, the second by yet another heat wave (nicknamed “Lucifer” according to one of our friends). And it’s not Budapest’s fault that we visited it right after Vienna and just before Prague—two cities we found absolutely delightful. Nonetheless, it goes in the “hard work” column, not the user-friendly one.

Austrian public transit was easy, logical, and cheap. Budapest public transit was difficult, complicated, and turned out to be extremely expensive. I won’t dwell on every episode lest it make me sound like an ugly American [sic]. Let’s just say, if you told me you were going to Budapest, I would recommend you stay in a nice hotel, only walk around the city centre, and leave within a few days.

Yet that’s not completely fair, because we’re not on that kind of trip. You only get a feel for a place by staying in cheap places, taking buses, or going some places that locals go. And as it turned out, my favorite place in Budapest was Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube, neither Buda nor Pest. It’s got only one road (no private cars allowed), it’s a lovely long park with fountains, and it has the Palatinus Strand, the largest outdoor water park in the city. Budapest is famous for thermal baths and the Palatinus has those, along with several pools. I could easily have spent twice as much time there.

Both cities have magnificent houses of worship. Vienna has the Stephansdom, where we sat in on the beginning of a service. 
Gothic stone pulpit (1515) in the nave, artist unknown
And Budapest has the Great Synagogue. It’s Conservative (not Orthodox) and, like many cathedrals in Europe, and mosques of course, it requires modest dress. I know this, but it was too hot to wear long trousers that day. The synagogue would happily have sold me a kind of smock thing, but it resembled the type of gown you wear when you are waiting for a hospital exam. I decided I didn’t need to approach the Ark of the Covenant, and just observed the synagogue’s interior from the entryway. The museum and memorials at the Great Synagogue don’t have the same restrictions as the inner sanctuary. 
Kipot (yarmulkes in Yiddish): mandatory head coverings for men. 3,000 forints: what a deal!
One thing we didn’t have the time to do from Budapest was a day trip, and that always adds interest to a city visit. From Vienna, we took a river cruise on the Danube, from Melk to Krems an der Donau. It wasn’t a cheap or locals’ thing to do, but we enjoyed the region, even its apricot schnapps. And we ended up spending more time in Krems than we’d intended. We found that elusive fixed-price lunch, which meant three courses. Many years ago, before I knew about veal, I tried that version of wiener schnitzel and didn’t like it that much; I tried a pork version this time and reluctantly concluded that it really isn’t for me. Luckily, the third course was baklava!

Then we started uphill to find the Krems train station. Distracted by the razor wire of a prison, which used to be a monastery, we hesitated at some railroad tracks that didn’t seem to be leading back to Vienna (or, for that matter, a platform). I asked a well dressed gentleman for help in English. 

He turned out to be the rector of Donau-Universität Krems, which is the building opposite the prison. Our new friend Friedrich was proud to show us around the largest continuing education university in Europe, and its historic building, which used to be a tobacco factory. Today we think of the tobacco industry as retrograde and wicked, but in its day, this company was progressive in the treatment of its mostly female work force, providing benefits such as child care. An unusual feature of the old factory is now the student film society. 

Friedrich succeeded in keeping us in Krems for longer, as well as directing us to the old town and back to our train to Vienna. I wish him and his mature students well.

Vienna also has a gorgeous museums quarter; its historic centre, the Innere Stadt, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. I really wanted to visit the neoclassical Kunsthistoriches Museum, which has a wonderful Picture Gallery of Old Masters, native son Gustav Klimt’s painting in the staircase, and a pretentious café where one can browse newspapers. I picked up The New York Times and learned, among other things, that Tennessee is the #1 state for jobs created by foreign trade. Who’d a thunk it?

Sunset at the Schloß Schönbrunn
In the evening T. joined me for a concert in the Orangerie of Schloss Schönbrunn, the Hapsburgs’ summer palace. Another palace, another Unesco World Heritage site. As if all this beauty weren’t enough, we were treated to some wonderful music—mostly J. Strauss (the Blue Danube, even though it’s actually brown) and Mozart. 

I’m not a big cake person, but I must admit that apfelstrudel and coffee at the aforementioned local bakery was a pretty nice thing to check off the list. So was the Wiener Riesenrad, a giant Ferris wheel that’s been turning since 1897. 
View from inside the Riesenrad. Apparently Orson Welles rode this in The Third Man.
My conclusion about Vienna was that it was expensive, as expected, but easy. When I asked a Viennese person if she spoke English, she was most likely to reply “A little bit,” then speak it fluently. “A little bit” is the actual amount I speak other languages, as we have established; Austrians are just being modest.

We had high hopes as we climbed into our train compartment on a Belgrade-bound train, looking out the window at sunflower fields. Then we alighted at Budapest’s Keleti train station. Those of you who read the news may recall that not long ago, this station was making headlines during the Syrian refugee crisis. Hungary’s right-wing government has since cracked down on what it calls migrants, and built a wall on the border with Serbia and Croatia, but for a time Hungarian people were piling into the station with food, blankets, etc. Thousands of volunteers assisted refugees along the highways to Austria, as well.

The Hungarian language (Magyar) is unique outside Asia for reversing given names and surnames. The little bit of Hungarian history I learned was from the stops on the subway: our local station was Móricz Zsigmond (named after a major novelist in the tradition of Zola), and the central stop in the middle of town is Deák Ferenc (a reformist leader who worked out the Act of Compromise with Habsburg emperor Franz Josef). 

I once had a landlord with the first name Ferenc, which is how I recognized this reversal of the order of names. The most famous man with this name is Hungary’s most important composer, Liszt Ferenc—“Franz” Liszt. 
Liszt had one Austrian and one Hungarian parent and was born in a Hungarian village that is now part of Austria. Despite the limitations of his Hungarian, works such as Hungarian Rhapsodies were influenced by traditional Roma music, and he identified with the “Gypsy” people.

It was sobering to find that within walking distance of our place in the Buda Hills was a nuclear bunker. But of course there was. This was the middle of Europe in the middle of the Cold War. A country like Hungary takes atomic threats seriously. Separated from Austria by an electrified fence only a generation ago, it won’t repeat the mistakes of the past. Will it?

Walls and nuclear threats aside, I enjoyed Hungarian food. Lángos, fried dough with cheese and sour cream, is the go-to snack, and I was excited to get some cabbage rolls (also topped with sour cream) that reminded me of my Grandma’s. It was with some trepidation that I ordered pork medallions “Budapest style” (goose liver on top), but even that was delicious. 

Maybe it was to do with having not felt well the first couple of days, when we were also staying at the cheapest hostel in town (it showed). In fact the lángos were what T. brought me for breakfast the first day I was feeling ill, with the memorable words “I’ve no idea what these are.” When I did feel good enough to venture up the hill, we discovered that the Buda side, where we were staying, is actually quite nice. The Citadella, a Hapsburg-era prison for insurrectionists that was obsolete by the time it was built, features great views over the river and the Pest side, as well as this Liberty monument.

She used to watch over statues of Soviet soldiers who died liberating Budapest in 1945, their names listed in Cyrillic letters. That all got junked after communism and the soldiers are now in Memento Park, a collection of thrown-away communist memorabilia displayed outside the city. We didn't visit. But it's a good idea for embarrassing statues.

There was more good food, and Hungarian wine, at a nearby terrace overlooking Buda. I had a fish called pike-perch from Lake Balaton. This was a splurge, but we’d been wasting so much money on the false economy of a cheap place we didn’t dare store food or cook in that, what the hey. Four generations of one family (speaking non-native English) sat at the next table, celebrating a new baby boy. T. said to me, “People all over the world hold a baby the same.”

In a Gellért-hegy café I heard the strains of a familiar song. Someone on the TV was singing “Fix me, Jesus, fix me,” like Jodie Manross used to sing:
“Fix me for my dying day
Fix me for my starry crown.”

All this must have mellowed me. The next day, we were in a Kentucky Fried Chicken which featured the life of Colonel Sanders in pictures all along the wall, captioned in Magyar. (It’s all about finding free toilets on this continent.) As is often the case, the men’s and women’s bathrooms were labeled only with words in a language I don’t know, not pictures. I picked the women’s door solely because I’d just seen a urinal through the other door when a man came out of it, but I could easily have made a mistake. Which is what I’m pretty sure the young man already in the women’s bathroom had done. But I don’t know him from Adam so I didn’t even blink. I just thought, Go for it, buddy. Be whomever you want to be.

Parliament, on the Pest side (left), always looks nice.


Anonymous said...

Entertaining and perceptive as always. Among the gems we enjoyed were two very different comments: one on "Memento Park," the right place "for embarrassing statues" of the Soviet occupation. And the second, the touching "People all over the world hold a baby the same." Groove & Pop

Janet said...

Sorry Hungary did not match the experience elsewhere. My only visit was 40 years ago, when I was living in what was then East Germany. Budapest was heaven by comparison with the grime and bleakness of Leipzig - the river, the wide boulevards, those wonderful thermal pools, the exotic food and the unwontedly wide range of consumer goods. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its politics took a rather ugly turn, which may well explain some of your more recent experiences. Still, onward and upward!