Part 4 – Hungary: Land of Pusztas and Paprika
September 11, 2008
Dateline: Mohacs and Pecs, Hungary
Latitude at Mohacs 46.00 degrees North, 18.68 degrees East
From Croatia we motored overnight and docked at our first port in Hungary, called Mohacs (pronounced Mo-hatch with the accent on “Mo”), and which is our first entry into a European Union country. However, the real reason for stopping there is to go by motor coach to the ancient town of Pecs (pronounced Paych). Hungary uses the forint as their currency and the exchange rate during our visit was 158 HUF to the dollar, so as you can imagine, it took quite a few forints to buy anything, assuming there was anything to buy in Mohacs, but that would be a no for the most part. Pecs was a different story and made the stop entirely worthwhile, although in the half-day allocated, we pretty much hit all the high points. Our guide is Istvan, which is Stephen in Hungarian and quite a common name. Istvan bears a remarkable resemblance to Ross the Intern on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show – kind of chubby, kind of gay. Istvan, like our other guides, is quite the diplomat. Someone asked if gypsies were a problem in Hungary and his reply was “They earn their reputation” A note on accents – we have noticed that many of the guides have difficulty with the “th” sounds in English. South becomes Souse. We have heard it so often, we no longer hear it and have started using it ourselves.
En route we learned a few key phrases like yes is “igen” and no is “nem”. Good is “jo” (pronounced “yo”) and you can add it to “reggelt” for good morning, napot for good afternoon and so forth. Hungarians called themselves “Magyars” going back to their heritage as descendants of Central Asian and Mongol invaders – and thus the classic Slavic facial structure with the high cheekbones. The terrain here is gently rolling hills, although the Hungarians call them mountains, the Mecsek Mountains to be exact, and the city is 135 miles southwest of Budapest. Sixty per cent of Hungary is open land, part of a rich farming region that covers most of Hungary and stretches into Romania, Serbia and Croatia that is called the Alfold.
Pecs goes back to (you guessed it) Roman times and part of our tour today took us through the site of Sopiane (pronounced Soapy Annie), the original city of the Romans and the early Christian catacombs. The Romans called what is the current day Great Hungarian Plain, Pannonia, although the Danube was considered its border, with Barbarians lands to the east. Hungarians call this the pustza (pronounced pooh-sta with the accent on “pooh”) which literally means “bare ground”). A Pustza is also a ranch, but more on that in tomorrow’s travelogue. Speaking of Barbarians, I had always thought Attila, the Hun was from Hungary, but was told this is not the case. He invaded and occupied Hungary for a time, but they don’t claim him as one of their own. Attila and his followers are credited with running off the Romans after repeated raids and they set up headquarters in what is today Budapest, but once there was nothing left to loot, they more or less moved on and left an opportunity for the conquering Magyars to move in around 896 A.D. and the state of Hungary was established in 1,000 A.D.
Pecs in Medieval times was known as Quinque Ecclesiae which translates as Five Churches. The city walls were built after the Mongol invasion in the mid-1200’s, but a lot of good they did since the Ottoman Turks breezed into town and took over in 1541. Then it was taken from the Turks in 1686 by Europeans armies led by the Habsburgs and Hungary became part of their empire. They picked the wrong side in both World Wars and then the Communists came and they fared poorly under that regime as well. Hungary has never won a war, and we were told that when the Turks invaded, the locals in Pecs hid in trees on an island in the river. Given their track record, we wondered if this makes the EU allies nervous about having them on their side.
There was a large Jewish population here as well , and all major religions have at one point peacefully coexisted. In the town center, there is a rather unique religious structure called the Church of St. Mary, but it has come to be called the Mosque Church because when the Turks invaded, they tore down the old Romanseque church that was there and used the stones to build a mosque. When the Turks left, it was converted back to a Christian church, but in a rare show of unity the dome today has both a Christian Cross and an Islamic crescent. An interesting note on conversions: Pecs has one of the foremost porcelain factories in the world (called Zsolnay),known for especially delicate artistic pieces. When the Communists took over, they made them shift production to ceramic insulators since to paraphrase the Comrades: “The people don’t need no stinkin’ art”. We also saw large stretches of pipeline – all above ground and all an aesthetic nightmare – which provides steam for the city’s use (power and heat). This was also a Communist project, so we assumed they also felt “The people don’t need no stinkin’ underground utilities.
Communism collapsed in 1990 and now the land that they had nationalized is mostly (90%) back in private hands, with a lot of private and corporate investors. The farm houses are tidy with flower boxes and well tended gardens attached. The grapes grown in this region are Tokay and thus the regional wines are white. Hungarians are noted for their ability to make liquor out of everything. They have a paprika schnapps which they call palinka and it is only slightly more palatable, than say, jet fuel.
They also grow peaches, almonds, figs, maize (which is what they call sweet corn) and corn (which is what we call feed corn) and most of all they grow the national spice: paprika. Paprika is derived from peppers which are dried and ground, but Hungarian paprika is much more flavorful than the wimpy US version which is mostly used to add color to a dish. It is also made into a paste and can be used that way as well. A dish made with paprika will be said to be “paprikas”, (e. g. you can have Chicken Paprikas or Pork paprikas). Hungarian farmers are having issues with labor for the farms since the farming population is aging and it seems all the young people want to go to the cities and thus they have an immigration issue similar to ours, but with Albanians instead of Mexicans supplying the labor. They do have a Halloween-like celebration of the harvest which phonetically sounds like “Busso”, but I never did get the exact spelling. In any event, people dress up in scary costumes to ward off the evil spirits, drink wine and eat donuts and have a parade, so we thought these are our likely our kind of people.
Upon arrival in Pecs, we walked to the city square and on to the cathedral. En route we noticed two wrought iron fences covered with padlocks (by covered I mean so thick the fence no longer shows). As the story goes, a young man was trying to demonstrate the depth of his love for the girl of his dreams and he attached the padlock to the fence, threw away the key and announced that this would forever be a symbol of his undying love. Since that day, thousands of lovers have supposedly followed suit and consequently the site has turned into a tourist attraction. Gary says it would be a good business opportunity for some enterprising individuals to set up a stand to sell padlocks to the tourist to add to the fence so he will probably be emailing this idea in to the Pecs Chamber of Commerce.
The Pecs Cathedral (called St. Peter’s Basilica) originally dates from the 11th Century and has been torn down and rebuilt several times. It was built literally on top of the Roman Christian Necropolis (now subterranean catacombs). Over the centuries Sopiane disappeared as structures were build on its ruins and stone was “borrowed “ from its walls. Only part of the site has been excavated and preserved with much more still to be explored by archaeologists. We were able to go into the catacombs to see the ancient necropolis – chapels, tombs and burial chambers, many of which were elaborately carved and frescoed. The necropolis was called the Cella Septichora after a 7 chambered mausoleum that was one of its major features.
We had free time so the beer drinkers in our group sampled the local brew at a sidewalk café called Zlaty Bazant and pronounced it good. If we had toasted in Hungarian, I think we tried but mangled it – we would have said egeszsegedre which would have sounded something like ah-gah-she-ged-rah with the accent on “ah”). You need quite a few Zlaty Bazants to get this right and you should never try this when sober.
September 12, 2008
Dateline: Kalocsa, Hungary
Latitude at Kalocsa 46.31 degrees North, 18.59 degrees East
We motored upriver a short distance to a small town called Kalocsa (pronounced Kah-low-cha with the accent on “low”), which over the centuries has had the strange misfortune of having the Danube re-channel itself and move away from the town by 4 miles, which more or less put a damper on their shipping industry ambitions. Our focus today is not on the town, which has quite a history, being first established in 1000 AD, but it was burned to the ground by the Turks. When they finally left, it was rebuilt, but the Danube had moved on by that time. Today we went to a local puszta – a Hungarian ranch, called the Puszta Bakod (pronounced bah-code with the accent on “bah”). It is a working ranch with herds of a special breed of cattle called Hungarian Grays. A herd of cattle is called a “gulya” and the soup or stew was called gulyasleves, which has been Americanized and termed “goulash”. We are in the heart of paprika country, termed piros arany (red gold) by the locals. Interestingly enough, it was those pesky Turks who first introduced paprika into Hungary, so their 500 year occupation had at least one positive note.
At the Puszta Bakod we were greeted by Hungarian Cowboys called “Chicocas” (pronounced cheek-oh-cash with the accent on “cheek”. In envisioning the chicocas you should think more gaucho than John Wayne type cowboys. They ride with a saddle, but it has no girth so they have to stay balanced on the horse on their own just as if they were bareback riding. They also brandish long whips called ostors (pronounced oss-tors with the accent on “oss) but they never touch their horses with them – they crack them to make a sound like a gunshot. Horses and cattle are intended to react to the sound, but the horses we see are trained
to obey very subtle voice and physical commands. The horses are aspecially bred and are half-Arabian (for speed and stamina) and half-Hungarian (for size and strength. The Hungarian Gray cattle are not so easily trained and can get quite feisty so they need the more heavy handed approach. They are however, quite hardy creatures, bred for both their meat and their ability to pull wagons easily. I don’t know if they make the connection between over-achieving at wagon pulling to avoid ending up on some one’s barbecue grill. Gary bought an ostor and tried
it out, but he is going to need some remedial work since with his initial efforts he hit himself in the back of the head with the tip. They also have a special breed of sheep called racka which have short twisty horns and dreadlock fur. They don’t use the whip on the sheep at all. They are kept in line by special breeds of herding dogs including the komondor, the kuvasz and my favorite, the puli, which has dreadlocks of his own (the better to blend in with the herd).
Two of the most interesting horse behaviors we saw are totally unnatural for horses and that is to lie down on command and stay there and to sit on their haunches on command. The lying down part had a very practical application in the olden days when,for example, soldiers wanted to ambush invading Turks. Riders would have their horses lie down in a wheat field and they and their riders could not be seen by the enemy and they could hide or ambush (whichever seemed to work out best for them). The sitting down part seems to be mostly to amuse the tourists.
The chicocas put on a great show for us, demonstrating their own and their horses skills. There was a historical aspect – showing us how they pulled working wagons, as well as fancy carriages, along with rodeo type skills that showcased the horses’ training and the riders’ skill. The most impressive skill (called 8 in Hand) was a rider who handled the reins of 8 horses with no wagon – he stood on the backs of the last 2 horses as they galloped around the arena at top speed.
After the riding exhibition we traveled a short distance out on the prairie for a few refreshments and had a chance to mingle with the horses and found that they are very well mannered. We also had the opportunity to fill their trough from a hand operated well. We learned they prefer to drink out of the bucket rather than the trough – it got a little murky there with all those horse lips dripping water back into it so I guess that demonstrates why they call it “horse sense”. This is definitely the wide open spaces – the highest point of the Great Plains is only 346 feet higher than the lowest point, which more or less explains how the Danube can move pretty much where ever it wants. We returned to our ship and departed for Budapest, where we arrived in the wee hours.
September 13, 2008
Dateline: Budapest, Hungary
Latitude at Budapest 47.29 degrees North, Longitude 19.03 degrees East
Budapest is actually two cities which were united in 1872, with Buda on the hilly side of the Danube’s west bank, and Pest on the flat east side. At around 2:00 a.m. we docked on the Danube on the Pest side of Budapest. We are told the correct pronunciation is “Buda-Pesht”. There are conflicting reports about the origin of the name “Buda”. Buda was the name of Attila the Hun’s brother, but also a Slavic word for water. Pest is simpler – it is the Hungarian word for almond and supposedly almond trees covered the eastern bank of the Danube in the olden days. The history of the city goes back over 1,100 years and they had their millennium celebration in 1896. The city was established when 7 Slavic tribal chieftains called Magyars brought their people down from the Ural Mountains in Central Asia to live here. Interestingly enough, the Hungarian language’s closest relative is Finnish, so apparently there was a lot of wandering going on. Of course the Romans were here first with their city called Aquincum which was settled around 89 A.D. and the Celts were here even before that. Aquicum was the capital of lower Pannonia, as the Romans called the Great Plains area. Sometime in the 4th Century, they left , driven out by the barbarians, and thus clearing the way for the Magyars. In 1361 Buda was declared the capital and a nobleman named Stephen (later declared a saint) became Hungary’s first king and then patron saint.
Things went along swimmingly for a couple of hundred years until those pesky Turks showed up. Once they were defeated, Hungary joined forces with neighboring Austria, kind of like the scrawny nerd makes friends with the big guys as school. Consequently, they didn’t co-exist as equal partners in the Austro-Hungarian Empire – Hungarians were significantly less equal than Austrians in the scheme of things and the royal family of Habsburgs (often spelled Hapsburgs) from Austria ruled Hungary as well. Second class or not, this proved to be their last good
alliance for a while. They were on the losing side in both World Wars. In WWII the retreating Germans destroyed what bridges were left after Allied bombing raids. Over 250,000 Hungarian Jews died in 1944 and early 1945 alone. However today, Budapest has the highest Jewish population per capita of any European city. Then as WWII was drawing to a close, the Russians came to “liberate” the city, which they translated as raping and looting, and in the aftermath of “liberation”, they instituted a severely repressive Communist government. There was a Hungarian Revolt in 1956 against the Communists, but it was quickly and harshly quelled. The revolution began as the prime minister at the time, Imre Nagy, declared that Hungary would not be part of the Warsaw Pact (which was the Communists version of NATO). Moscow begged to differ and sent tanks into Budapest to underscore their position in this difference of opinion. As part of the crackdown, the Soviets decided to make Russian the official language of Hungary. There was a student protest that started in Elizabeth Square and before it was all over more than 2,000 Hungarians were killed. The Hungarians were hoping that other disgruntled Soviet occupied countries would join them, but they were about 30 years ahead of their time. Prime Minister Nagy was executed for his decision and everyone who could, fled into exile.
President Reagan and Margaret Thatcher are largely credited with the decline of Communism in Hungary. With their help, Hungary actually had a 2 party election in 1990 and the Communist Candidate did not win. Privatization and capitalism were in and haven’t yielded any ground since. As the Soviet Union started to dissolve, Hungary managed to slip out of the corral with the rest of the herd of Soviet Bloc nations in the general exodus. Their joining both NATO and the EU is hopefully a sign that they have at last picked a side where they can rule their own country.
We started the morning with a city tour to see the highlights, which included a visit to Matthias’ Church (Matyas Templom in Hungarian) which is officially known, but not locally known, as the Church of Our Lady. It was built in the 13th Century by a much loved King named Matthias, of course. Many kings that followed him added and changed things as it was destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries. Today it is a grand Gothic structure sitting high on the cliffs of Buda overlooking the river. Royal weddings were held here, as well as coronations, the last being in 1916. Next to the Church is the Fisherman’s Bastion, built to
commemorate the city’s Millennium Celebration. It was built on a section of the original medieval wall and was erected between 1895 and 1902.It has 5 limestone medieval turrets connected by stone breastworks with galleries with cloisters in a re-creation of what they envisioned to be here in medieval times. It derives it’s name from medieval times when the Fisherman’s Guild (sort of like a union in the olden days) defended this section of the wall. It is one of the most prominent landmarks in the city.
We did a drive-by of the Royal Palace, also on the heights of the Buda side where there is a vast museum, but we still had miles to tour so we thought we’d save that for later. On the Pest side of things, the high points were Parliament (a huge Neo-Gothic building, only slightly smaller than Ceaucescu’s Romanian behemoth) which was started in 1884, but not finished until 1902) and Heroes’ Square, also built for the Millennium Celebration.
One sight that we missed that will have to be saved for a future time is the world famous Gellert Hotel and Baths. The Hotel is from the era of the Grand Hotels (e.g. the Ritz, the Waldorf Astoria, and so forth) and is built on the highest hill in Buda, site of a former Citadel. The hill, also named Gellert, was named after a Christian missionary bishop by that name who in 1064 A.D. was stuffed into a barrel and shoved from the summit to land in the Danube far below by a group of Hungarian dissidents who apparently chose not to convert. The hotel is situated at the sight of a number of hot springs that have been converted into baths, large enough to accommodate hundreds of people. In case you can’t afford the Gellert, there are over 120 hot springs all over the city to work out those tour bus kinks. The elaborate baths located here and throughout the city are one of the few things (in addition to paprika) left behind by the Turks that the Hungarians really appreciate.
In the afternoon we had a tour of the Baroque/Renaissance style Opera House where the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Elizabeth presided over the opening extravaganza in 1884. He had made some rules about how large the Opera House could be since he did not want it to overshadow his own city’s opera house in Vienna. Unfortunately for him, he did not make any rules about elaborate décor – sculptures, paintings, frescoes, and the amount of gilt that can be applied to any given surface. It is reported at the opening he left in a huff in mid-performance and never returned because he was so incensed over how much more beautiful it was than its Viennese counterpart. The Empress Elizabeth (nicknamed Sissy) however, who was much beloved by Hungarians, was not so petty and she came back several times. Sissy, we learned, was quite an interesting character – more on her later. On the outside of the building there are statues of composers by the dozen – everybody who was anybody – which adorn every nook and cranny, as well as statues of the four Greek Muses. Inside it is equally ornate with marble staircases and carvings, 3 stories of boxes, so richly gilded that it seems to be solid gold, and a giant fresco on the ceiling of the Greek gods on Mount Olympus, punctuated by a 3 plus ton bronze chandelier. The stage has 50 trap doors to raise and lower scenery. The seats are covered in a rich burgundy velvet with small vents under each seat which was intended to be used for cooling. It was a rather simple approach which involved water and ice cubes, but never really used – the problem being that ice was in short supply and was very costly in those days. For example a block of ice was 4 forint, whereas you could get a whole horse (alive and kicking even) for 6 forint. There is a special royal staircase that leads to the royal box, and at the top is a huge mirror which served several purposes. Per protocol, the Emperor and Empress ascended the steps and never turned their heads. With the mirror they could see everyone in their silk finery to the sides and behind them. Also the reflected images reportedly made the person look thinner and smaller. Sissy supposedly liked it a lot, but Franz Joseph, who was rather short of stature, apparently wasn’t so thrilled. And there were electric lights – very unusual for the time – which really highlight the “bling” factor, and which may be the final straw that sent Franz Joseph over the edge. The Royal Box was at the center of the stage for optimal viewing of the performance, but we were told that Sissy liked to sit in a box close to the stage on the side to ensure optimal viewing of her own royal self, by her adoring subjects. The Royal Box in later years has been used by highly placed government officials, and highly esteemed celebs, most recently including, strangely enough, Madonna. We didn’t hear whether she had worn her pointy-boob outfit to the Opera, but we certainly hoped not. The Ugly American legend has plenty of help here as it is.
After the Opera House, we had a special treat of tea and dessert (a blueberry crepe) that they are famous for at Gundel’s Restaurant. It was built in the 19th Century and has served the upper crust – Kings and Communists, alike for almost 200 years. The crepes were spectacular and beautifully presented. The restaurant itself, very unassuming from the outside, is as lavishly decorated as any palace imaginable.
After the Gundel’s experience, we were on our own so we walked to St. Stephens Cathedral, named for the first Christian King of Hungary, who was later named a saint. The plaza itself is a work of art with elaborate mosaics covering the whole area. The plaza held several outdoor restaurants where we had some very nice Hungarian wine and admired the exterior of the building. We did manage to stop our drinking long enough to go into the cathedral where mass was just concluding.
St Stephen’s is a beautiful structure – a mix of Neo-Classical and Neo-Renaissance (started in 1845 and that’s where the neo or “new” comes in, but not completed until 50 years later). They had a major “oops” in 1868 when the main dome collapsed, so it was back to the drawing board on that small detail. Because it is new by European Cathedral standards, it has avoided the grime that the really old structures have to deal with and it did have a total make-over in 2003 and thus its exterior is the intended color of freshly cut sandstone. It is equally fabulous on the inside with two huge frescoed domes, marble pillars and an elaborate altar. In a side chapel called The Chapel of the Holy Right (no, it has nothing to do with politics) They have a religious relic called “The Holy Right” which is supposedly the right hand of St. Stephen (not an image, but the actual hand, pickled or somehow otherwise preserved), but we took a pass on seeing that. The cathedral burned during WWII, but was rebuilt in 1948-49. The Nazis had taken the bell from the tower for melting down to make weapon, so that had to be replaced as well. Fortunately, many of the treasures including ‘the Holy Right” were moved elsewhere for safety before the pilfering and the fire took place.
We explored the extensive pedestrian mall, lined with restaurants, which included the famous Gerbeaud Coffeehous, founded in 1858. We toyed with the notion of skipping the preliminaries and going right to dessert, but Gary was on a mission to find stuffed cabbage rolls (kapuszta) here in the native city of his grandparents – Grandma and Grandpa Emery, who had emigrated to the US in the early 1900’s as children. So he felt certain that he would find the Holy Grail of kapuszta here in the homeland. Unfortunately, he had to settle for Italian food since the restaurant in which we had planned to dine was closed, and the smells coming from the pizzeria were too tempting to withstand. And thus the quest for kapuszta continues.
September 14, 2008
Dateline: Budapest, Hungary
We had docked overnight in Budapest and were to be here all day, and thus we had the day free to explore on our own. We had seen a bike rental place at St. Stephen’s Cathedral and so we set out on foot to find it. We walked down the Danube for a way to see a memorial to the Holocaust victims which was both moving and unusual. Not all victims of the Nazis were sent to camps. At one particular spot on the Danube, right in the heart of the city, a group of Jews were rounded up, ordered to remove their shoes and summarily shot and their bodies were shoved into the river. The Nazis apparently had plans for the shoes since the Allies found millions of pairs of them as they liberated the death camps. This memorial consists of perhaps 20 to 30 pairs of shoes – everything from work boots to high heeled evening shoes – that have been cast in iron, looking as if someone had just stepped out of them. I was reminded of the bronzed baby shoes so popular with the baby boomer generation, but with very different and somber message of remembrance.
Upon arrival at the bike rental place, we hunted up the bike attendant who unlocked the bikes, sized us up and picked out a “mount” for each of us. We plunked down a deposit of 70 Euro per person – which required a visit to the bank – those Euros just seem to fly out of your pocket here. We did a few practice laps and hit the bike trail. We kept our biking to the Pest side since it is flat. Buda, we would do on foot in the afternoon.
The city has several bike paths, some of which are even connected to one another, and only occasionally did we find ourselves in a dead end. There are parks full of gardens, fountains and the temperature is just right for a pleasant ride. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the bicycle seats so we agreed to keep our biking adventure at around 3 hours. While there are many sculptures and statues in the parks and along the avenues, there are none are of the Communist leaders, which was quite unusual since in the Soviet era, the city was awash in likenesses of Lenin, Marx, Engels et. al. Once the regime fell, they were yanked down off their pedestals (literally) and were warehoused for a period of time. Eventually a few surviving statues were dusted off and put in the newly created Socialist Statue Park, but there were only a few people who felt those years under Communisms were the Good Old Days and consequently, it is visited so little, it has more or less become a graveyard for former heroes of the proletariat.
We headed down Andrassy Avenue, under which the first underground railway was built in 1896, toward Heroes’ Square, passing a lot of high end stores and then various embassies, along the lines of Massachusetts Avenue in Washington DC. Right smack in the middle of all this elegance is the former headquarters of the Communist Secret Police (the AVH – counterpart to the KGB) which is now a museum for victims of their practices, as well as Holocaust victims. This building is now called the Terror Haza (House of Terror). It also had been the headquarters of the Nazis in 1944 so there was a long tradition of torture and murder in the eerie cellars of the buildings. No one seems to understand the reasons why it has not been torn down, but for now it remains a wart on the grandest avenue in Budapest.
We arrived at Heroes’ Square (called Hosok Tere in Hungarian) at the end of Andrassy Avenue and at the entrance to City Park. It was here that the Soviets held their military reviews and it was here that in 1989, 300k people attended a rally on the day Imre Nagy (the Prime Minister who had been executed as a result of the Hungarian Revolt of 1956) was reburied in a place of honor. It is a very large plaza surrounded by parks and museums, featuring a column 118 feet high with the 7 Magyar tribal chieftains at its base, on horseback with swords swinging, mouths open wide in a warrior’s scream and belligerence oozing from every pore. You can just imagine them yelling the Magyar equivalent of “So, you wanna piece of me” to whatever stray barbarians Attila may have left behind. There is also an elaborate colonnade with 14 Hungarian heroes looking on.
We took a lunch break at a small restaurant at Vajdahunyad Castle, which was built especially for the 1896 Millenium Celebration. It is a copy of a castle from Transylvania (which belonged to Hungary at one time) We didn’t actually dine in the Palace, which is now a museum, but in a waterside restaurant called Anonymous, tucked behind the Jak Chapel, a copy of Romanesque Abbey in the town of Jak, complete with a cloister. The restaurant gets its name from the anonymous monk who chronicled the life of King Bela III.
We biked back to the Parliament Building, and debated whether to park our bikes and tour, but opted to keep riding to see the Jewish Synagogue instead. A tour of parliament would take all day if it were to be comprehensive or be minimal in coverage if done in an hour or so. The Parliament seems only slightly smaller than Rhode Island. Its actual sprawl covers 17,745 square meters. I would convert this into feet, but it’s probably higher than I could cipher. Its dome is almost 300 feet high. A few other highlights: there are 29 staircases, equaling a total of 20 kilometers, 233 statues, 27 gates, 10 courtyards, and 691 rooms. However, unlike its Romanian counterpart, it is a beautiful Gothic structure – still we opted to admire it from the outside only. We will have to save the inside for another visit since it is really stunning in the pictures we have seen.
We made a stop at a statue of Imre Nagy, the national hero, and , who was executed by the Communists for his role as Prime Minister in the 1956 Revolt. The statue is on a small square in the center of the old part of Pest, very unassuming and striking at the same time. The sculpture stands in the middle of a small bridge, the figure clad in a hat and trench coat of the mid-fifties era, and he appears to be looking at something in the distance.
We rode for another half hour though the streets of the Jewish Quarter to the Dohany Synagogue. It was built in 1859 and is still in use today. It is the largest in Europe and the second largest in the world. The bleakest moment in its long history was in March of 1944 when Adolph Eichmann and the Nazi troops marched into Budapest to establish a ghetto (the term came from Venice actually which is where the practice of segregating minorities behind high walls originated). Twenty thousand Jews took refuge inside the synagogue during the winter of 1944-45, but 7,000 did not survive and were buried in the adjacent graveyard. We returned our bikes and proceeded across the Danube to tour the Buda side. We learned on our tour about two of the things that Commies considered way too subversive for the proletariat: golf and car racing. They did allow Grand Prix racing to come here in 1986 and. Communism collapsed 2 years later so there may have been something to that. If the US had only known we could have infiltrated the Secret Police with golfers and been building race cars instead of building missile defense systems. Who knew?
We crossed the Szechnyi Chain Bridge, a suspension bridge with lions guarding the entrance to each side. The sculptor of said lions was reportedly ridiculed because the lions have their mouths open as if ready to pounce, but he had left a blank space where the tongue should be. If they were able to make jokes in Communist era, his critics would have said it’s because the people aren’t allowed to speak, but the lions actually pre-dated the Commies. The sculptor reportedly took his detractors to the zoo to show them that lions’ tongues do not show when they are in the ready to attack position. Apparently no one bought the idea and it’s still an inside (inside Budapest anyway) joke. All seven of the bridges across the Danube were blown up by the retreating German Army so all of them had to be reconstructed.
Once on the Buda side we took the funicular railway (called the siklo), built in 1870, to the top of the hill, 95 meters above the river. We found ourselves at the Buda Castle, which had a wine tasting in progress. We toyed with the idea of joining in, but there were a lot of tents with a lot of wine demanding to be sampled and so we decided the rest of Buda would remain unexplored if we got distracted in this fashion and we soldiered on in our walking tour. The Royal Castle was started in 1242 by King Bela after the devastating invasions by the Mongols, and he concluded they needed a fortress, not just an everyday palace to
fend them off. Subsequent rulers expanded and enlarged it. Fortress notwithstanding, the Turks laid siege and took the castle and largely destroyed it. It was not restored until Maria Theresa’s reign between 1748 and 1770 under the Austro-Hungarian Empire (AHE) when she ordered it restored. You may know Maria Theresa as the mother of Marie Antoinette (she with the missing head, courtesy of the French rabble). However Maria Theresa was a woman of much more substance than her flighty daughter and she chose her own husband (a lesser noble whom by marrying her became significantly more noble). She had 12 children, ruled the AHE for several years and presided as commander-in-chief to send the Turks packing for good. Today the Palace houses a museum.
In the courtyard adjacent to the Palace we passed a stone building still bearing the holes from bullets and artillery shells from a WWII battle as we worked our way up Tarnok Street (street is utca in Hungarian) back to Holy Trinity Square (Its Hungarian name is Szentharomsag ter which I would never attempt to say out loud) where Matthias’ Church is located. We strolled the streets of this storybook village with some houses dating back to medieval times, and stopped for a late lunch at a quaint little place called the Voros Odrog which translates as the Red Devil. They had a little carved likeness of the devil at the entrance, but he looked pretty harmless – sort of a red version of the Duke Universisty mascot. We had a round of goulash and worked our way back down to the river for the trip back to the Pest side and crossed the Elizabeth Bridge, named for Sissy, wife of Franz Josef of the AHE. We had dinner on board and then went up to the top deck with our wine for a look at the lights of Budapest as we motored northward. The City is really beautiful at night with all the Gothic splendor of the Parliament and the Matthias Church, the dome of St. Stephens and the Fisherman’s Bastion, all softly lit.
September 15, 2008
Dateline: Neszmely, Hungary
Latitude at Neszmely 47.44 degrees North, 18.21 degrees South
We motored overnight to our last stop in Hungary, which is a tiny village called Neszmely (pronounced Nes-mel ee with the accent on “Nes”) in the heart of Hungarian wine country. The idea, so we’re told, is to give us a feel for the country life. The weather had turned blustery and chilly with a driving hard rain. We walked a short distance to a specially constructed lodge-like building with open pit fireplaces inside to taste wine and make strudel. Vantage (the tour operator with whom we are traveling) has made arrangements with the village people (no relation to the Village People from Saturday Night Live and “YMCA”) to provide the wine tasting and strudel making lessons. Everyone from the village turned out, including Her Honor the Mayor. As far as we could tell, we were the biggest thing to hit Neszmely in weeks – at least since the last boat docked. We hope the village recovers soon.
We were divided into two groups and our group first had the strudel lessons. The idea is that we would make the strudel and eat it for dessert after our lunch, which the town ladies provided. Stu and Gary were our token strudel makers and it was very entertaining to watch. The ladies first demonstrated rolling out the dough (or stretching it really) onto a card-table-size table on a clean table cloth. They refer to pastry as pasta so once we got the hang of that terminology, it became easier. The pasta/pastry has to be almost paper- thin before it is ready for the filling. Then the chef ladles on the poppy seeds and cherries (cooked already) and then it is rolled up, baked and sliced. The cooking teams had to mix the dough from scratch and then knead it – or in their case beat it into submission to render it stretchy. Fortunately for the roll-out part, they brought out new dough that the village ladies had prepared ahead of time and the mission proceeded from there.
Afterward we did the wine tasting at which we were all much more skilled (we hardly spilled a drop). The wine was Hilltop Vineyards and very good – 2 dry whites, 1 dessert wine and one red. We determined that we will look for these labels: Hilltop Premium Merlot (this one is easy), then the Craftsman Cserszegi Fuszeres and the Craftsman Kiralyleanyka. We would skip the dessert wine, (Craftsman Harslevelu.) but then we tend to skip all dessert wines since that seems to be something of an oxymoron.
Lunch was a very hearty and delicious creamy chicken soup in a big pottery crock-like bowl which was covered with the largest biscuit this side of Texas. It may be these “biscuits” are the failed strudel dough we tourists made earlier. Whatever their origin, they were big and tasty. When the strudel was served we noted that it was apple when we distinctly remembered putting in cherries, but then we learned ours was coming out next. So we had the difficult task of eating two strudels each.
We slogged/waddled and staggered back to our ship in the rain for our late afternoon departure for Bratislava, Slovakia. The verdict on Hungary is a definite thumbs up. We had a great five days. I do have one closing note on the Hungarian language: I am taking all sorts of liberties with little squiggly marks above vowels in many Hungarian words and names in that I am leaving them out completely. The English language keyboards either don’t have them or I am unable to find them, but hopefully I am not changing any meanings of words by their omissions. So it’s to Bratislava and our next adventure!