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Posts Tagged ‘Hungary’

Zürich to Bratislava was a fairly long journey: three local trains got me to Bregenz in western Austria then I took a seven or eight hour train ride to Vienna and finally another hour on to Bratislava Petržalka, the western, communist-era part of the city across the Danube from the castle and the old town. Botond was there to pick me up and we headed over to his estranged wife So-young’s place; she’d just left for a couple of weeks in Korea.

I didn’t do much sightseeing in Bratislava while I was there. I went into the centre a couple of times and had coffee and lunch at Shtoor, the café Habiba and I had been to when we had been in the city a few weeks earlier. My inclination to sightsee was pretty minimal – I was looking forward to having no responsibilities or schedule. I spent a lot of time on the internet.

On maybe the second or third day there, I managed to drop the shower door on my foot. The injury didn’t seem too bad at first and there was no sign that I’d broken a bone. My foot swelled up a bit and there was a fairly hard lump on my instep close to my middle toes. Afterwards, it developed a purple bruise that spread in a ring across my toes and down the side of my foot over a period of several days. I went out one day, walking to the centre, and when I came back, it was very sore. Bo and I talked about me going to a doctor, but I semi-deliberately prevaricated over it and eventually it showed signs of getting better.

On the first weekend, Botond’s brother, Zsombor (in Hungarian, ‘zs’ represents the ‘s’ sound in ‘measure’), joined us and we (ie, Bo) drove to Austria for a camping/swimming/hiking weekend. With my foot, I wasn’t up for too much hiking, but we found an ‘experience trail’ – a trail leading through a narrow gorge and up a stream with games and activities for children. It wasn’t too long, so I didn’t suffer too much.

We stayed near Erlaufsee, a lake nestled between forested mountains that reminded me a lot of the Lake District. There were probably hundreds of people sunbathing and swimming along its grassy shores. The weather was hot and sunny until early evening when it suddenly turned stormy. I’m not a keen swimmer, but I went for a dip in my borrowed shorts; the water was chilly compared to the air, but not bad once you got used to it. In the evenings, a few fireflies floated around like burning motes from a fire. I’ve never seen fireflies in the flesh before.

On the Saturday evening, we visited Mariazell to have a look at the church and have dinner before returning to our borrowed and partially erected tent. The following day, we visited Lunzer See, another pretty but less touristy lake, had a look at some ski lifts and stopped at Melk to see the palatial monastery on the way back to Slovakia.

The next weekend, Botond took me to Lake Balaton, a large lake in Hungary, where we stayed at a holiday home – actually two homes consisting of a pair of semi-detached houses – along with a group of Bo’s old friends, their girlfriends and a couple of their newer friends. The lake had no actual beach – its shore was ringed by reeds and a concrete wall from communist times – but there were grassy areas nearby for people to set up their towels and whatnot.

I went swimming with the men. Well, only Bo was interested in swimming in earnest; everyone else was content to wade out – the lake bed went down at a very shallow angle, so you could walk out a long way without getting a drop of water above the waist – and throw a frisbee and ball around (in some sort of ball-frisbee combo game that was either just improvised play or I didn’t get at all).

Everyone seemed to speak English pretty well, but I suppose when it became apparent I was quiet, they mostly chatted in Hungarian. Still, it wasn’t a bad experience, just seeing the area and getting some reading done (I was enjoying Lord Jim).

On the second day, Botond and I went for a short bike ride together. Then, after lunch and icecream, everyone went their separate ways. Bo had lent me a Teach Yourself Hungarian book – which I didn’t make too much use of – but I learnt that the Hungarian name for the double-kiss greeting performed by Hungarian friends regardless of gender is a called puszi (sounds like ‘pussy’). I shook hands with the men when we said goodbye (one of whom said ‘Hello’, which functions like ‘ciao’) and puszied the women.

For the rest of the day, Botond took me to some nearby sights – the town of Keszthely and its palace and lakeside area, Szigliget Castle perched on one of several volcanic hills and the mill pond in a town called Tapolca.

Before I left Bratislava I was determined to do some sightseeing on my own and one day took the train back to Vienna to go to Schloss Schönbrunn. Getting to Vienna was easy enough – a return ticket from Bratislava’s main station was about €10. Navigating Vienna wasn’t quite so easy. I thought I’d take the subway but it turns out line 1 is closed, so I had to figure out which tram to take and from where.

I got there eventually, though, and queued up for a ‘classic’ ticket, which grants entry to all visitor areas of the palace and most of the grounds. The audioguide tour was pretty good and it wasn’t too crowded, so it was possible to linger comfortably and get a good look at the Imperial apartments of the Hapsburgs. A couple of my favourite rooms were one completely panelled with black and gold oriental lacquer work and another lined with dozens of frames painted blue to simulate porcelain, the frames filled with oriental-style drawings made by members of the imperial family.

I wandered around the grounds afterwards – much of which is free to access, but my ticket got me into the orangerie immediately behind the palace, the Gloriette up on the hill and the maze and labyrinth (which are mainly for children).

After that, I walked towards the city centre, had a look in the Schottenkirche, passed the film festival going on at the Rathaus and dropped by the Votive Church. Then I got a tram back to the station and the train back to Bratislava. Due to a misunderstanding, I got a bus home while Botond was waiting for me at the station.

It was great to spend time with Botond and to stay in So-young’s very nice apartment. Bo showed me how to make lecso (‘lecho’), a simple Hungarian dish of bell pepper, tomato, paprika and smoked sausage (or egg); we made and ate quite a lot of it. And, although I didn’t spend much time in the historic centre, Bratislava is a very pleasant place to hang out in. For the next stage of my travels, Bo took me to a town in the middle of Slovakia on his way home to Gödöllő near Budapest.

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Early on Friday evening, Botond picked us up from Lauren’s place in Bratislava and drove us to Hungary (possibly via Austria); once again, all the border checkpoints were deserted. The drive took a total of about three hours. Although Budapest was our main interest in Hungary, we were actually going to stay in Bo’s hometown of Gödöllő. However, on the drive there, we stopped in Budapest to visit a bar and meet some of Bo’s friends.

The bar was one of a popular breed of watering holes in Budapest – ruin bars. These places are in old buildings – Victorian, maybe – that haven’t been taken care of too well. Some of the walls are missing swathes of plaster, revealing the brick and stone underneath. One place we visited the following day – Instant (in Hungarian, pronounced more like Inshtont) – was decorated in surreal fashion with a herd of rabbits flying through the air and an old photograph of a family including a boy with a caulliflower head.

After grabbing something to eat at a nearby Turkish kebab place and coming back to the bar for a beer and chat, we headed off to Gödöllő. We stayed at the flat of Botond’s brother – who we never got to meet (he was staying in Budapest with his girlfriend) – but first we dropped in for dinner with Bo’s mum and her boyfriend. They didn’t really speak any English, but they were very friendly nonetheless. The food was great – chicken stew and meat wrapped in sauerkraut.

The next day, Saturday, Bo picked us up once again and took us to the Royal Palace in Gödöllő. He told us that, as a youth, he’d failed a test to become a tour guide there. This fact belies his skill as a guide, as he was full of information about every place he took us to. We picked up a friend of Bo’s and headed to Budapest – specifically, to Pest. The city is divided by the Danube into Buda and Pest, which were originally two separate settlements. Pest has all the bars and shops and the parliament; Buda has the castle and expensive homes.

Our first stop in Pest was the parliament building, where Botond had reserved a place on a tour for the four of us. The building is a very impressive place. It’s a neo-Gothic building, like the Houses of Parliament, but where the Palace of Westminster has Big Ben and Victoria Tower, the Hungarian Parliament has a dome. The interior is decorated with lots of gold and statuary and the crown jewels are housed under the dome. These latter had been smuggled to the USA in a barrel of oil at the end of the war to protect them from the Soviets.

Afterwards, we went to the nearby riverside and saw a monument to Jewish people who were killed there. The monument consisted of lots of bronze shoes at the edge of the promenade.

After that we went up to the dome of the city’s biggest church, St Stephen’s Basilica. It was pretty windy, but it afforded some great views of the city. When we got down and went to go inside, we were put off by a clergyman collecting ‘donations’. The fee for going up to the roof was, I think, 500 forint – less than 2 euros; a tiny fraction of the entrance fee to London’s equivalent church, St Paul’s Cathedral. Still, we’re cheapskates on a budget, so we didn’t go into the church.

Later, we saw the almost as massive Jewish synagogue. We met other friend’s of Bo’s for dinner – I had gulash. We went for a drink at another bar and saw a kind of flashmob dance performance there.

On Sunday, Bo took us back to Pest and showed us round a palace that he described as a mash-up of lots of other buildings from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nearby was Heroes’ Square, a large open space flanked by two art museums and dominated by statues of important figures from Hungarian history, including the tribal leaders who settled in Hungary long ago and Saint Stephen, Stephen I, the first king of Hungary.

After that we went over to Gellért Hill and looked at the monument there, the Liberty Statue.

Then we walked over to the Buda Castle area, had a picnic just outside the walls, then went in and took pictures from the plaza by the palace that looks over the Danube. From there it was a very short walk to the president’s house (a white building). There was a small camp of hippyish left wing protesters outside. Their protest was that it had recently come out that President Pál Schmitt had copied his PhD thesis. Bo taught us how to say ‘Pack up, Pál Schmitt’ in Hungarian. The next day, he resigned.

We walked along further and found another beautiful church looking out over the river between two fairy tale castle parapets that are now cafés.

We walked down the hill and went to a Bohemian little tea shop. I had a Bounty tea – it contained coconut and chocolate; Habiba had a ginger tea. Then it was back to Gödöllő for dinner. In the morning, our faithful guide and driver, Botond dropped us at the railway station and we caught a train to Vienna – our first journey using our Eurail pass.

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