Monday 28th September 2015, Budapest
It is very tiring exploring the city for more than a day or two at a time, so this morning we caught the train out to a small town along the route to Szentendre.
Pomáz is generally used as a gateway for walks into the forested Pilis Hills to the north of the city. Not feeling as energetic as in our younger days we decided instead to explore the little town. Actually it’s quite widespread but has the feel of a village rather than a town. It seems to be split into different districts with a few little food shops and a bar in each. We found the main part of the town some ten minutes walk from the station. Up a side road, amidst fields and a street of low houses, we found the post office for buying the stamps we needed for our postcards. The post office does far more than sell stamps. It also sells second-hand books, Mars bars and Kit-kats, cola, birthday cards and a plethora of other items. It seems to be something of a social hub and the staff was lovely, helping us beyond the call of duty, printing our stamps, sticking them on and sorting them for posting. We had cards for four different countries. Not everyone has internet access and we try to keep in touch with all our friends.
We were already feeling hungry before we set off to explore Pomáz. We found the town hall which boasts a genuine Roman sarcophagus on the lawn in front. Round the back we found a leafy little street of colour-rendered single storey cottages. The pavements were littered with walnuts and we gathered a few as finding anywhere to eat looked very unlikely in this scattered little town. Soon we discovered a pretty baroque castle. It seems now to be part of a school which occupies the grounds. In front were some pleasant formal gardens. A sign implied we may possibly get a coffee in the castle but as everywhere was deserted it probably only applies in summer or at weekends. We tried the main door however and it opened. We entered the hall but it appeared deserted. Then we heard a loud burp from behind a pillar. As we tried to slip quietly away the caretaker appeared and invited us to come and see the castle’s tiny museum. It occupied one small room and consisted mainly of faded family photos and some old furniture. The caretaker wandered off leaving us to explore and find our own way out. It was all remarkably casual.
It was looking as if lunch would definitely be a few crushed walnuts. Lost in the maze of quiet tree-lined roads we eventually came across a small square of tiny shops selling essentials plus a hairdresser, a baker, a bar and a rather pleasant cafe. Here we finally found some lunch, served in a room of dark wood chairs and tables covered with red check cloths. We were served with gulyas soup and slices of heavy white bread. All very enjoyable and people entering greeted us with the usual “jó nápot”.
Pomáz has a high number of Serbian refugees living in the community. Apparently it is quite common to hear older people taking together in Serbian. We found the pretty baroque Serbian orthodox church, locked unfortunately, but the notice board was covered entirely with messages in the Serbian language.
Later in the afternoon we continued on the train to Szentendre and strolled beside the Danube, stopping for coffee and some not very good rétes. We also bought some wine and bread to save shopping back in Budapest. On the train home we struggled not to fall asleep but once back in the flat we both slept deeply for an hour before supper. We’ve been very tired today and haven’t achieved as much as usual though it has been a very pleasant day.
Wednesday 30th September 2015, Budapest
Our time in the city is gradually drawing to a close. Yesterday we discovered how to check-in on line for our return journey. This we did over a coffee at the French Institute. All we needed then was to print out our boarding cards. No problem we naively thought. We will turn on our French charm in the library on the fourth floor. The librarian there proved completely underwhelmed by our French and simply ignored our attempts to ask in Hungarian. They didn’t have a printer he informed us! A library without a printer! I think not! We were happy to pay but he was having none of it. We asked if he knew where we might find a copy shop locally? “Non!” So we left, disillusioned with the French abroad. Back home we sat and thought about our problem. A rummage amongst our selection of wires, leads and adapters and, bingo! We worked out how to transfer the PDF file to my tablet without access to the internet or clouds! It’s all quite simple when you know but we are innocents abroad these days and need to actually understand what we are doing before we can cope with it. Theoretically we should now be able to show my tablet at the check-in and have the barcodes scanned. But it does say boarding cards should be printed. Searching in our travel guide we found mention of a 24/7 facility across the city. We found the shop and they cheerfully printed off our return flight boarding cards charging us all of 50 forints (about 12 pence for the two pages!)
Ian realised we were near the central public library and remembered visiting it back in 1995 when he made a study tour of Hungary, representing the British Library Association’s Local Studies Group. So off we went to find it.
It occupies a prestigious site at the junction between two important streets. Beside it is an impressive fountain known as the Fountain of Hungarian Truth, erected in 1928 and recalling the Treaty of Trianon, signed after the First World War. Under the terms of the treaty Hungary lost over half its territory. Even today the fountain still acts as a location for right-wing Hungarians to protest and demand the re-instatement of their former borders. At the time of the signing of the agreement the British newspaper magnate and owner of the Daily Mail, Lord Rothermere, was so incensed at the injustice of the treaty to Hungary that he campaigned strongly against it in his newspaper. So moved where the Hungarians that they actually offered him the throne!! It seems his newspaper empire kept him quite busy enough however and he reluctantly declined! The fountain honours his name.
The library has undergone restoration and extension since Ian’s visit. There is a bust in the entrance to the city’s first librarian, after whom the present library is named – The Szabó Ervin Library. We climbed the marble staircase to the fourth floor and wandered in astonishment through the former family home of the Wenckheim family, whose wealth came chiefly from having a monopoly on Hungarian onions!
Whereas in Britain there have been savage cuts to our libraries and the services we once offered, here in Budapest the public library building has been restored to its former splendour after many years of Soviet neglect. Originally the library was housed, as libraries always seem to be, in a building never designed or intended for a library. The building was constructed in 1887 in the neo-baroque style. It has now been wonderfully restored and somehow the public library has been allowed to retain it. Thus we wandered through this enormous former family home, furnished with gilt mirrors, ceramic heating stoves, polished wooden flooring and large, comfortable sofas where library users could relax amidst the most stunning surroundings to browse the newspapers or plug in their laptop! It is freely available to the residents of the city and it is stunningly beautiful!
Next we took a look at Macdonalds. It’s not just libraries that are housed in splendid buildings in Budapest. You are unlikely to ever eat a cheeseburger and fries in such palatial surroundings anywhere else in the world! Macdo’ has taken over the main hall of the Nyugati Palyaudvar or western railway station.
Walking back towards the river and the Elizabeth Bridge we passed the Mátyás Pince, one of the city’s most prestigious restaurants.
On our first visit to Hungary with Hubert and his then girlfriend, back in the Soviet days of the late 1960s, Ian and I were given a ridiculous currency exchange rate of three times its actual value. (This was just as well for all of us as coming from East Germany, Hubert received very little for his DDR marks!) We were obliged to change a certain amount of currency for every day we would be here before we were even allowed into the country. On our last evening we realised we still had so many Hungarian forints left that we’d never be allowed to leave with them – and they’d be worthless in the West anyway. So the four of us went to the Mátyás Pince, one of the city’s most exclusive wine cellars, for a fabulous meal accompanied by live gipsy music and cimbalom playing. Back in England we were impecunious trainee librarians but for one night in Budapest we could live like kings and spend what we liked! The cloakroom attendants took my worn fake-suede jacket, lovingly stroking it, and hung it away while we dined. When I went to collect it they didn’t want to give it back and kept touching it. I felt very uncomfortable. It was old and tatty but still way beyond their purchasing power. I’d willingly have given it to them if I’d had anything else to wear but I needed it for our draughty return to Vienna the next day on the hydrofoil up the Danube.
Skip fifty years to yesterday. We pressed our noses to the window of this exclusive restaurant, peering inside. The menu was in the window and they still have a cimbalom and there are still gypsy violins at the tables of an evening. But the prices are now well beyond our piggybank. We don’t care. We had the experience once. A waitress came out to ask if she could help with the menu so we told her we were on a nostalgia trip and wouldn’t be dining inside this time. She returned inside without giving my nylon cagoule, pulled on for extra warmth as the evening had turned chilly, a second glance. Our glory has passed. How are the mighty fallen.
Back at the flat we had an early supper and trotted down the hill to the National Dance Centre to collect our tickets for the evening performance. We’d opted for the cheapest seats though they weren’t that expensive. In fact, when we collected them they were for the centre of the second row and we had amongst the best seats in the house! Ours not to reason why.
The dancing was fast and furious. All you need to be a Hungarian folkdancer is boundless energy and astonishing speed. The men stamp, jump and slap their legs while the women twirl endlessly and very fast whilst singing and shouting in strident tones. The ladies all look beautiful – though from the front where we were sitting we could see their make-up melting. Apart from one brief pause the show was continuous for two hours, with dancers taking over from each other while the lively music from violins and cimbalom was performed on stage with the dancers. It seemed to be a mixture of traditional folk-dances and a modern approach to bring village dances into the realm of modern dance. Thus some of the men were dressed in white trousers, high black boots and long wide white skirt, as may be worn by the wild horsemen of the plains, topped with a colourful embroidered waistcoat, while others were dressed as ordinary office workers in dark suits and ties. This didn’t work for us. Those in the colourful clothes of the Hungarian puszta looked really good but city suits are not seen at their best when leaping around slapping thighs and twisting knee-joints into impossible positions! (Imagine a swarm of bees up your trouser-legs.)
Photography, wisely, was not permitted so you will have to imagine it. The stamping and rhythm, the colour, costume and speed of the dancing were astonishing and we both thoroughly enjoyed the evening despite knowing it wasn’t truly authentic having been choreographed for the stage. We took these pictures with permission at the curtain call.
Wednesday 30th September 2015 continued, Budapest
This morning we were awake earlier than usual and the sun was shining. We still hadn’t found time to revisit Székesfehérvár where we had camped a few years ago with Modestine. From there we had taken the bus into Budapest to spend the day with Peter and Kati from Exeter, here visiting their friends and family in Budapest.
So this morning we made an early start and caught the train from Déli Palyaudvár (station) direct to Székesfehérvár which we reached in just over an hour. The station there was being rebuilt, as was much of the town, so we had to scramble amidst the heaps of gravel, stacks of tiles and exposed railway track to exit the station. This we found was a couple of kilometres out of the centre along an uninspiring road. Seeing people climbing onto a bus we joined them, assuming it would take us to the centre. We ended up at the local hospital in a rather dilapidated area of Székesfehérvár. Eventually though we worked out how to get to the centre and were soon stumbling over the uneven cobbles of the old town. We were surprised and a little disappointed at the changes since we stayed there – or memory had given it a rosy glow. So much has now been built over or is in the disruptive process of restoration. To be fair the old city centre is being painstakingly restored to its former appearance. Most of the surrounding area was badly bombed and redeveloped with a jumble of unattractive high rise flats that are functional but soulless under the Soviet regime. Now development is continuing and residents are served by a brand new shopping mall which is exactly like any other throughout Europe with the same chain stores, sports shops and cinema complex. The luxury shops they all craved in the past they now have. Gone are the individual little cafés. Now they have Macdonalds, Starbucks and Kentucky Fried Chicken. No doubt residents are delighted but the charm has been lost.
Not everything was spoilt by any means. In the old town buildings have been carefully restored. The twin towers of the baroque church are swathed in scaffolding and plastic, eventually to emerge like a splendid butterfly from its chrysalis. The streets of the old town are being pedestrianised, the old cobbles replaced with smart paving slabs. These have less character but are certainly more comfortable for walking.
In the early days of Hungary’s history the seat of the kings was at Székesfehérvár rather than Budapest and it is here that the first Hungarian king, Istvan I is buried (minus the bits that are in reliquaries in Budapest cathedral and Esztergom.) Thirty eight kings had their coronations at Székesfehérvár and many of these are buried there.
Seeing a nutcracker in a shop window we purchased it for the flat here. We have a pile of walnuts gathered in Pomáz but nothing to crack them with. We conclude that our Hungarian host uses the traditional method of stamping on them with his high boots while slapping his legs and whirling around the flat. Unaccustomed to local techniques and concerned for the state of the polished parquet flooring in his lounge we opted for a more orthodox approach. We also found some small painted wooden dolls which we purchased for our various grandchildren. They seemed so much nicer than the similar and more expensive ones for sale in Budapest.
After a pleasant lunch and coffee in the bakery we sought out the Budenz museum in the heart of the old town. This is a late 18th century baroque house owned by Budenz Josef and occupied by the Ybl family. Miklós Ybl (1840-91) was born in the house and became a notable architect. He designed the Budapest Opera House, parts of the Cathedral and other buildings of note around the capital.
There were three staff on duty and we seem to have been the only visitors. They insisted we only needed to pay half price because of our age. The economics simply cannot add up. We were issued with a beautifully printed ticket and given a hand-written receipt for our 300 forints – about 35 pence each. The lights in all the rooms were turned on for us and we were accompanied upstairs to see the personal living quarters of the family. Nobody spoke English so Ian’s Hungarian was fully used. They were very friendly and we enjoyed our contact with the staff as much as we enjoyed exploring the house.
The day had turned very chilly and the charms of Székesfehérvár had been exhausted. It was a long way back to the railway station, especially as we didn’t really know which route to take and risked ending up back at the hospital, so we explored the bus station. Three buses an hour went to Budapest and soon we were skimming along the motorway. We both slept until we reached the city over an hour later where we were dropped at the bus station by Népliget railway station. From here the metro carried us into the centre and from there, home. We were both exhausted from such a full day.