Brenda and Brent - Hungary

Tuesday, September 20, 2005
Illmitz, Austria => Budapest, Hungary

We are back out in the pouring rain looking for birds. We do come across armed border patrol and some form of rural art -- strange wooden carvings and rocks and wire sculptures -- about five feet tall and placed every 50 metres or so, and wonder what government department had this brainwave! But no birds! It is bustards we are after, apparently, but they are too smart to be out in this weather. So we head across a small border crossing in an out-of-the-way area, but the guard is too busy chatting on her cellphone to pay us any heed, so the crossing was painless. I have chosen this route because I want to visit the Esterhazy Palace in Fortod where, among other things, Haydn was the composer-in-residence in the late 18th century. It is smaller (say 200 rooms?) and less ornate than many other such buildings here but to my mind therefore all the more stately. In tandem with the crushed white gravel for its sweeping circular drive, it looks clean and elegant. The drizzle keeping the other tourists at bay probably helps.

The route toward Budapest is not particularly scenic. Although we have skipped the motorway in favour of the slower secondary highways it is all agricultural land interspersed with small towns or large industrial, dirty, depressed areas. It is popular to blame these on the communist era. We are told that 15 years ago people would not typically do this drive because the roads were bad, you couldn't count on finding diesel and the highway patrol looked for too much in the way of kickbacks. Today it seems safe and the roads, while not great, are just fine. Still, I was glad to get to Budapest. At 2 million people, it is a large bustling city. Somehow we lucked out getting straight to our hotel, getting lost only twice and still getting there without so much as a wasted kilometre. Skilled driver? Horseshoes? No, I think it was the excellent navigator.

September 21, 2005

Budapest is in a very dramatic setting. The Danube slices through it with Buda on one side and Pest on the other. The Buda side has hills and is home to the castle and Imperial Palace and, on the next hill, the citadel. At night both are lighted up and from across the Danube are a stunning sight.

Pest is the commercial centre and also houses the Old Town. The enormous parliament buildings are flanked by five- and six-storey buildings lining the eastern shore of the Danube. Sprawling out to the east is the city and, beyond sight, the city suburbs. Because the buildings are limited in height, nothing detracts from the spires of the Parliament Buildings or St. Stephan's Church. Were if not for the two modern buildings (Marriott and Intercontinental Hotels, but who's bitter) it would be an absolutely perfect vision.

Although the skyline and river view is gorgeous, the city is not as well maintained as Vienna. We wondered how a relatively small but prosperous economy could support the Vienna infrastructure. The question when posed about an almost equally small population (10 million) and less prosperous economy can support the Budapest infrastructure seems to be that it cannot. While there is a faint diesel smell in Vienna, it is pronounced here. While the buildings in Vienna are in a constant state of being repaired, many here are falling into disrepair.

On the brighter side, the city and country have made astounding strides in the last 15 years. This bears less resemblance to a rather poor Eastern European image than one might expect. Certainly Budapest is a thoroughly modern city.

Today we walked and walked and walked. Our feet are pooped. Castle Hill on the Buda side is about 1 km long towering on a limestone bluff about 200 metres over the Danube. It comprises an old town, the Imperial Palace, the old cathedral and some monuments. Most of it has been blown apart and rebuilt following wars with the Turks, WW II and the Russians. Hence, while historic, and part is a UNESCO World Heritage site, next to nothing is original. Nonetheless its a great place to get a sense of the ancient Turkish spread, the (now-familiar) Austro-Hungarian Empire with my pals Marie Theresa and Franz Josef and now modern Hungary.

Restoration on this site is done with a jackhammer and bulldozer, however, so its enough to make one cringe and be glad to see it before its too late.

We next toured St. Stephan's Cathedral (yes, same St. Stephan different church. He gets a lot of respect for in the year 1000 bringing Hungary into Christendom and thereby buying the area some protection for the marauding Turks). I didn't get a look at his mummified right hand -- ghoulish streak thwarted again!

We checked out the Great Synagogue (world's second largest after New York) and prowled the National Market (full of peppers and paprika), wondering how one stall differentiates itself from the next, but mostly we wandered the narrow cobblestoned malls and just soaked up the atmosphere.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Today was the quintessential Budapest Day! We started by soaking in the thermal baths at Szechenyi. It was a bit tricky to figure out the logistics of payment, lockers, towels (never did figure that bit out, so had to drip dry), co-ed areas, segregated areas, hot pools, warm pools, mineral pools and cold pools. But it was worth it to laze about and watch the folks strut their stuff. There were a svelte few but most were average or larger than average squished into (or hanging out of) Speedo suits. Some old geezers stand in chest-high water and play chess. Some stand under the fountains for a pseudo water massage. But most just lounge and float. Brent was having a hard time getting into it (the escapade, not his Speedo!), but once we found a circular ring with a 15-knot current that whisks one around, he began to see the redeeming features.

Lunch at the market -- cabbage roll, sausage and langos, more Hungarian than the Hungarians.

Then a tour of the 1200-seat opera house -- smaller than Vienna but, if anything, more gilt-covered. Are we going to tour every opera house in the world, Brent wonders? I wonder, why not?

The opera we saw tonight was stunning. We were in the first tier of loges, front row, next but two to the Royal Box. At 11,800 forints (about $70CDN) per ticket, this is almost one-third the price in Vienna. The staging and costumes were as sumptuous. The voices seemed great to me. The acoustics are marvellous. And we didn't have to order the tickets weeks in advance; we got them yesterday! An aficionado might be horrified, but it seemed top-notch to us. Othello is over-the-top dramatic which gives ample opportunity for weighty solos and moving arias. The crowd scenes fill the room with sound and the dramatic moments hold one breathless. By the time the curtain comes down on each act, there is so much applause bottled up it just has to come out. That is one difference from North America -- there is a curtain call after each act, so the artists get lots of positive feedback. (Carmen told us of performing the role of Desdemona, when her Othello trod on her limp hand as she lay dead. Great story, but I'd even forgotten that chuckle during the performance.)

Strolling back through the old town we had our last look across the Danube to the floodlit castle atop the cliff -- it is indeed a unique city profile.

Friday, September 23, 2005
Budapest, Hungary => Eger, Hungary

Today we travelled to Eger in the the northeast corner of Hungary toward the Ukraine. The country is so small that we "stretched out" the trip by looping through a National Park (route 24), but with our B.C. forests as stupendous as they are, the dry, small area of small oaks is not much to look at -- and birdman didn't find anything to write home about.

Even on these small roads, I wouldn't care to cycle. The narrow highways and secondary roads pass through quaint, charming towns and villages, with tidy yellow houses and red roofs, where cycling is the preferred form of transportation, usually on a 30-year-old bike meandering down the road. But between villages, its a rare sight; the roads are winding and since the entire country is populated with a village every five or six kilometre's, there is always traffic. Flat, though. This whole plain covers not just Hungary but stretches into Slovakia as well.

Eger is a delightful town, in part because it is full of history -- this is the spot that stopped the invading Turks in the mid-16th century. The local hero, Dobo, has the square and statue and stuff to show for it (although the Turks came back successfully at the end of the century). The castle overlooks the city, the cathedral looms large. There are thermal baths close by. And the vineyards and production of Bull's Blood (Egri Bikaver) remind me of the days in the 70s when this was my wine of choice. I wonder if it was the price or the "hefty taste" that attracted my palate? The best part though is that much of the old town is a pedestrian-only area. Sidewalk cafes are everywhere, food and coffee is inexpensive and people-watching is the prime occupation. This is the third sunny day of our trip, so its enticing to make the most of it.

Our Hotel Minaret is across the street from the 130-foot minaret that was once part of a Turkish mosque - the most northerly minaret in Europe. It wasn't our first choice, but Rick Steves of travel show fame has written this town up with a high recommendation. One hotel keeper told us how good for the town the chapter on Eger has been; in fact, Rick Steves brought a tour group through here last week. While I love to watch his TV show, I had no idea he has to lead tour groups. Poor guy!

Anyway, for future reference:
  • try Senator Haz Hotel
  • eat the fresh salad with yogurt at Offi Hax
  • skip the one-litre beer at Bajor Sorhas (I had to have a nap!)
Saturday, September 24, 2005
Eger, Hungary

We decided to "take a day off". These are my favourite holiday days! Take time to think about what we've seen and observed and learned and over-looked. I worked hard at it. Coffee in the square. A little later another sidewalk cafe experience. For dinner - yup, a sidewalk cafe.

The only excitement of the day was a local wedding. No Hungarian folk costumes here -- this was the bride in white finery. But the bride and groom strolled arm in arm into the square, followed by a parade of their wedding guests and finishing up with a four-piece band turning out Hungarian folk music and dressed in sort-of folk costume. So a little bit of local colour in an otherwise exhausting day.

Sunday, September 25, 2005
Eger, Hungary => Mikulov, Czech Republic

European countries are so small, it is possible to really get around! We left Eger on the East side of Hungary, drove virtually across the country to its northwestern corner, cut through Slovakia and are now in a small Czech town on the border of Austria. At home, we'd be at about Campbell River by now!

While the geography is very similar, and not particularly interesting, especially when viewed from an autobahn, there are other noticeable differences. Entering Slovakia there is a great swath of relentlessly barren and poor-looking apartment buildings. The northeast part of the country with the Carpathian Mountains is apparently pretty special, but in this industrial area these is some distance to go to shake off the Communist era and the poor cousin to the Czech Republic. On the other hand, the border crossing was seamless, with us waving our passports at crossings where no one cared, so trade and prosperity may not be far behind.

The Czech town of Mikulov is near some good birding territory. But it is also small and cozy with a small old town, some historic buildings and some rolling hills with old ruined buildings. It is very inexpensive (hotel $40, dinner $5, small beer $1). Its a tourist town and given its proximity to Vienna, likely a popular stop on the day-trip agenda.

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