Meanderings

Burghausen to Budapest

From Burghausen to Budapest.

October 2012

George, (Hil’s father), came a-calling from the USA. He planned to stay about 10 days but as it only takes a few hours to explore Burghausen, that meant he had 9 and a half days left over. So off we went on a short road trip to Budapest via Vienna.

We rented a car for a week from Europcar. Their office is just down the street from our apartment on Marktler Strasse. I guess we are regulars down there these days. Hil got a decent deal which added up to about 33 euros a day. So with a full tank and a passive aggressive GPS navigator we headed East across Austria, bound for distant Vienna.

We arrived in Vienna in the mid afternoon, but it being late October, we hadn’t much time to browse around before night fell. What we saw was very stately and impressively lit up. I guess the area we parked in was called the Museum District. At the Kunsthistorisches Museum we took in an exhibition about ancient Egypt. Ronan loved that but we lingered over long. By the time we got to the art gallery section, he was grumpy and brain dead. We suddenly had to shorten our visit and lengthen our stride. The Breugels and Vanmeers blurred into one long tapestry as we sped along at a brisk marching pace. The place was enormous. The halls went on forever like a giant art maze. Maybe it was lucky we were forced to accelerate or we’d still be walking now.

At the end of our indoor art hike we reached the museum’s foyer cafe just about closing time (5-ish). And a grander coffee hall I never have seen. Pillars and domes and 2 sugars please in my café al fresco. Very impressive.

 

Back outside it was already dark and chilly. We wandered about for an hour then drove off towards the Hungarian border where we’d booked a hotel.

 

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Our hotel was called Feyak Fogado. It was a cozy wee place in the Hungarian spa town of Mosonmagyarovar: a small town with the big name. “Ovar” to the locals (and I can understand why).

We ate dinner at a Windmill restaurant at the end of the street. I had a goulash soup which could easily have fed 4. The Hungarians certainly don’t skimp on the portions. There was plenty of meat and potatoes to sink my teeth into. And speaking of teeth. Here’s an interesting ditty.

Apparently Hungarian border towns do a roaring trade in “Dental Tourism”. Due to their lower cost of treatment than neighbouring Austria, 160,000 Austrians cross the border every year for appointments. Multiply that by 32 and that’s a lot of teeth.

 

Here’s something else useful. As of 2012, Hungary still uses its own currency (Forints) but accepts Euros in most places. Be sure to ask before sitting down to a meal.

 

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So, in the morning, after a great buffet breakfast in the hotel, we set off for Budapest.

 

Our Budapest hotel was called Hotel Mohacsi Panzio. It was on Bimbo Street. Yes indeed. Bimbo Utra. Imagine being lost and asking directions to Bimbo Street. It was on the Buda Side of the river and a 10 minute walk to the Danube River as a Bimbo Jet flies.

Back in the day, Budapest was once 2 separate towns on either side of the river Danube. One called Buda and one called Pest. Then a Scotsman built a bridge and the united towns became Budapest. I can’t remember what Buda meant but Pest (Pesht) is a Hungarian word for oven. I heard that there was a lot of lime in this area and ovens were used in its processing. I don’t think the word had anything to do with rats and plagues.

My first impressions of Budapest in October were of typical cold-war square block architecture in grey. But on closer inspection I thought that perhaps the architecture was older. There was a modest elegance to Budapest. Many balconies and facades had subtle individual features. I noticed intricate details and carvings like whispers of rebel statements camouflaged amidst the greys. I couldn’t help sensing a ghostly Cocteau glow of a Paris that swung before-Communism gatecrashed the party.

 

Nowadays though, communism has been chased out and Budapest has become a World Heritage site. Hungary has joined the EC and is pulling itself together. Seemingly a good wash and a few million Euros was just what this town needed (a bit like myself). Indeed the town centre area stretching along both sides of the Danube already shows what a good dose of elbow grease can do. Certainly the buildings on the metropolitan tourist circuit shine now like precious stones. Perhaps in time, the city planners will get around to cleaning up the rest.

But despite its currently crumbling facades, Budapest is not a noticeably dirty town. The streets may have a rough unshaven character but they are not litter strewn or particularly tattooed with graffiti.

 

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Budapest’s thriving and extensive shopping precincts are located mainly on the “Pest” side of the river. They have a busy and energetic atmosphere. We saw plenty of stalls cooking and selling traditional food such as chimney bread (yum), cakes and sausages. Artisans were selling jewelry and traditional art. There was raunchy street music including a colourful troupe of dancing kids dressed in scruffy pink and playing mad versions of classic rock tunes such as the Eye of the Tiger from Rocky and the Eurithmics’ Sweet dreams. They had some very battered and dubious looking tubas and drums but their enthusiasm was undeniable. Budapest certainly seems to have a youthful buzz to it. Even the older people seem to have a spring of vitality in their step. This is a city being reborn out of the dark womb of communism. She’s old and scarred but her wrinkles might be laugh lines.

 

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In order to maximize our time in Budapest, we got tickets on a Hop On Hop Off bus tour. This tour had 2 buses that left every half hour. One bus was “The Pink Bus” which drove from one bridge down to the next bridge at Margarita’s Island then crossed to the houses of parliament which are quite an eye opener. (Architecturally, they look like something between the British House of Parliament and the Taj Mahal.) From there the tour continues through the shopping district and past various points of interest.

“The Green Bus” takes a slightly different route and goes up the hill to the castle but it crosses paths with the Pink Bus. Our tour tickets were valid for both buses for 2 days. We hopped on and off from one to the other as we pleased at whatever point of interest we wanted to explore further. I think it was a fair deal and prevented a lot of frustrated waiting around and getting lost. Tickets were available from the bus at every tour bus stop. I’d say the cost of about 17 Euros (?) for 2 days was tourist money well spent.

By the way, the city also has an extensive tram system, bus lines, and an underground. For these, separate tickets must be purchased from kiosks or machines. Tickets cannot be bought directly on board. Beware of prowling ticket inspectors.

 

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One Budapest highlight for me and George came on our second day when we visited the Cezanne Exhibit at the museum on Heroes Square. I’d never been face to face with a Cezanne picture before. It was a humbling moment to see them in the flesh.

George got free admission as a senior while I paid about 8 euros. (I can’t remember the exact price but it wasn’t extortionate).

The synopsis of the exhibit was to compare pieces of Cezanne’s work alongside examples of the artists who had influenced him.

I was amazed at how accessible the pictures were. People crowded round them. Pointing and gesturing. Breathing on them: almost touching them. There were no rope fences or signs saying “Keep off the Paintings”. There were plenty of security guards though and entrance to the exhibition was gained through what looked like a glass elevator. It had one hydraulic door which you entered and when it closed, another door opposite opened and we walked into the exhibition hall. The exit procedure was the same except we got ejected unwittingly into the gift shop which induced in George a souvenier buying frenzy. But he survived it and bravely fought his way out in a mere 15 minutes. Something of a record I am led to believe.

Hil and Ronan in the meantime had gone swimming nearby at the Szechenyi Baths which boasted several pools of various sizes, depths and temperatures, including one pool where little fish nibbled dead skin and dirt from between your toes. Reckon I’d better keep out of that one. One nibble on my toes and they’d be doing the back stroke or they’d be mobbing my swimming trunks like piranhas. Could get nasty. Swatting and slapping and…. Yes, moving along….

Anyway, for the equivalent of about ten US dollars, Hil and Ronan had a great time. We met up afterwards and had coffee at a wee stall by the bus stop while George was busy pillaging the museum gift shop.

It was Hil’s Birthday so we went out for dinner at a nice place not far from our hotel. Near the big tram stop area on the Buda side. I ordered a big pork knuckle and the others had various schnitzels. The portions were huge. I made a pathetic attempt at eating mine. It was unfinishable but it was delicious.

That was our second Budapest dining experience. On our first night we’d went to a deserted pizzeria place. We were happily chomping away till a giant cockroach appeared on the table. Hil let out a stifled scream and swatted it. The bar staff appeared in a flash with broom handles brandished and pitchforks at the ready. I got the disquieting feeling this was a regular activity. I guess you know what they say about strange towns and empty restaurants? Don’t eat there. It was quite a cozy little place too. Shame.

 

One last highlight of the bus tour was the stop up at the castle. The bus stops for 20 minutes here. There are a few trinket stalls along the roadside. It was early evening when we stepped off the bus and saw Budapest stretched out below us like a shimmering tapestry. The view across the illuminated city was stunning. A surreal aura of golden magic lamps emanated up into the sky like someone had just opened a gleaming treasure chest in a dark room. The daytime grey was banished. In the flick of a switch, Budapest shed her sombre mantle and was crowned and clad in threads of gold.

It was quite a sight. One I will always remember.

 

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So that was our trip to Budapest. We went back to the hotel that 2nd night and tucked Ronan into bed. George kindly kept an eye on him while me and Hil went down Bimbo Street for a nightcap in the nearest bar.

Up in the morning, had breakfast and we set off back West in the car.

Summing it all up I’d say Budapest was an interesting enough City. It feels quite alive. A young people’s city. I imagine in Summer it must really be hopping. We barely scraped its crust. A weekend visit to a strange town is like having a fleeting bar-room conversation with a total stranger.

 

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So did I like Budapest? Sure I did. But like I said, I’m not a big city person. I think Budapest is a work in progress. But it’s making good time. I presume The Cold War set it back a bit but I think it’s moving forward now with a tangible sense of optimism. The shops are open and there’s art, culture and an entrepreneurial buzz on every corner.

Can we please go in Summer next time?

 

Note to Buskers: We stopped in at a small Austrian town called Melk. It had a touristy fussgangerzone and looked buskable.

 

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Though this was my first trip to Budapest, it was actually my third time visiting Hungary.

Our first trip was to the border town of Kotzeg for the East/West Music festival. We were living in Regensburg at the time. This was just after The Berlin Wall fell. Kotzeg hadn’t quite got to grips yet with the open borders and free trade. Everything was still dirt cheap and the town had very few shops and facilities.

I remember the menus prices read like Deutchmarks at first glance. The prices looked the same till I realized the meals were priced in Forints not Marks. Much cheaper.

We (me and Hil) got to stay at a big old house that had been provided for musicians to crash out at. We’d gone along with John Kirkbride and Big Muck. They were performing with the Regensburg blues band Tana Nile at the festival venue in the town castle. I was supposed to be in town as a fine example of an impoverished western street musician. My stage was a street corner but somehow between beers, I never quite got round to busking.

It was a fantastic festival. I think Zoltan from the Alte Maltzerei (a Regensburg music venue) had a hand in the organizing of it. The castle was totally jam packed and under siege from music cravers. The atmosphere was wild and electric. There was great music, improvised folky polka punk dancing, and cucumber sandwiches. Zoltan was Hungarian and very proud of his country’s culture. The East West Fest was a showcase of the music from both sides of the old Iron curtain.

We enjoyed it so much that the following year we went again. This time we went with Huck the dog and Simon and Beate in a convoy of 2 VW vans. By then the town had gotten its act together. There was now a supermarket with well stocked shelves. The bars and restaurants had upped their prices but still weren’t too expensive.

Once again, the festival was a lot of fun. Afterwards we slept in the vans right outside the castle in what must have once been the moat. Next day Simon infamously drank some Hungarian Palenko(?) schnapps that had been recommended for its taste and strength. He declared it tasty but was unimpressed by its strength. Half an hour later, still claiming it had no effect, he crashed his van into a ditch and had to be towed out. It was all very entertaining.

Up till that point, we’d been driving around aimlessly, looking for a good BBQ spot. Kozcegs surrounding countryside was all flat sun-fried farmland. We couldn’t find anywhere to pull over and have some peace and shade. We explained our picnic dilemma to the guy who’d towed us from the ditch and he immediately gave us permission to BBQ outside his back yard gate in a shady grove. That was very kind of him. We spent a pleasant afternoon there then we drove home and that was that.

I still didn’t manage to busk.