11 – 18 August 2017
I apologise, Budapest. I’ve now visited you nearly more times than anywhere else outside of my homeland, but I’ve yet to write anything about you. Before you get the wrong idea, It’s not you, it’s me.
I know people are rarely genuine when they say such things. But this time, it’s true. You see, when I’m not obliged to write something for a contract, I’m a wizard at procrastinating.
That said, Hungary has occupied some sizable moments in my life. My first experience was a whirlwind tour in which I was not only introduced to all of Kat’s family, but to her closest friends and favourite spots, as well.
Since then we’ve returned a number of times. We’ve walked Budapest’s cobbled streets – from it’s deepest districts to most touristy attractions – dragged ourselves across melting squares in the heat of summer, risked frostbite atop the Citadella, watched the city’s craft beer scene explode, and been surrounded with family traditions and the warmest of welcomes across several Xmases.
We’ve partied in ruins, slipped blindly through damp tunnels, spotted Bela Lugosi, pondered with Columbo and rediscovered pinball, to name a few.
Our experiences outside of Budapest have taken us from Esztergom and Visegrád, to lazy afternoons in Lake Balaton, countryside weddings, hilled trails, funiculars, and an unexpected ride in a sweaty boxcar.
That’s all to say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Hungary and exploring off the beaten path. Granted, I’ve had a fantastic tour guide, who is the sole reason I’ve been able to explore beyond typical touristy fare. While I’m not sure I could ever consider calling Hungary home, I’ve still fallen in love with the place.
*That said, I don’t want to delve into politics or social issues. I’m neither familiar enough with issues to comment with a modicum of authority, nor do I believe that my tiny blog is the correct place to do such things.
What I will say is that Hungary – in particular the friends and family I now have there – has been nothing short of amazing, making me feel at home since day one.
And now for a history lesson
Hungary is an interesting place with a tumultuous past. Being entirely land-locked, it’s hemmed on all sides by borders that have, at one time or another, contained enemies, family, and allies. History has seen Hungary exist as disparate groups of nomadic tribes, grow as an expansionist force, become fractured under iron-fisted rule, fall victim to opportunistic rulers, and rebuild time and again under the strength and determination of its people. Things haven’t often been easy for them, and that has become a distinct characteristic and source of pride for its people. That history has left an indelible mark on the culture and makeup of Hungarians.
Speaking as a North American who, in his generation, has lived through precious little political, social, and economic turmoil, it’s a very unfamiliar perspective. Being North American often feels like I’ve sat off the edge of an active world. We’ve had our hardships, but they pale in comparison to others in very similar climates and upbringings. I’m not bemoaning it, or talking about privilege, it’s just the way it is and was.
For example: Growing up, Communism was something I’d simply heard about. Communists were the baddies in movies. They spoke like Russians and caused no end of trouble for Sylvester Stallone. In my parents’ lifetimes, there was a fear that the Reds would one day light up our skies and rain hellfire on our streets. By the time I was arguing my right to watch The Simpsons, Hasselhoff celebrating the reunification of Germany and the red scare was a thing of the past.
It’s perhaps shocking to realise now, with Budapest having become a hotspot for stag dos and international party-goers, that the entire country was still a communist state when The Simpsons first shook the foundations of Canadian familes. While the west was alight animated antics, Russia still ruled Hungarians. Granted, by then it had become a soft socialism. Remember the determination I mentioned? Turns out the Russians learned early that they couldn’t rule Hungary the way they managed the rest of their empire. The Hungarians wouldn’t have it. It certainly wasn’t a picnic, but they were forced to enact a different sort of oppression.
By 1988, the yolk had begun to slacken. The entire Communist regime said its final good-byes in ‘94, while Hungary rebuilt under its own government, once again.
As a visitor, it’s a fascinating history. You can see aspects of it everywhere, intermingled with the drastic changes that have overcome the country since. Architecture stands both impressive and imposing, at times proclaiming its past, both more recently socialist and historically imperial.
Where would one find the biggest reminders of socialist rule? Many of those have been saved and stashed away in Szoborpark, or Memento Park. In it you’ll find statues of Lenin, Soviet ideals and loyal workers, as well a small taste of communist life and a peak at its darker aspects. It’s located somewhat outside of Budapest, but is well worth visiting. The folks who have arranged it have done an amazing job of capturing a period of history which shouldn’t be forgotten.
Wrapping the above up in a neat little package
I’m no historian. Although I do enjoy joining bits of historical context to the places I visit, my fact-finding is generally Wiki-based. That’s to say, please be kind when judging what I’ve written above.
Hungary has a rich and deep history that weaves threads of nomadic culture, tribal unification, tumult, intrigue, empire, mysticism, oppression, deadly betrayals and glorious victories into a tapestry more sweeping and storied than most semi reality-based histori-series’.
So what happened in 2017?
As far as I know, it was nothing quite as historically significant as the details I glossed over earlier. Yet.
Nossir, 2017 was the first time in many years that I’d, once again, be meeting the parents. With a language barrier thrown in for added anxiety. Thankfully, it turns out that I had nothing to worry about … which would’ve been a small consolation to past Adam, who found himself anxiously squirming in his seat as the plane descended towards Ferenc Liszt Airport. It’s a fun sensation to be taken in with foreign scenery while, at the same time, being consumed by the pressure of making a good first impression.
Skipping ahead – past the nerves, anxiety, and introductory handshakes – I was welcomed with open arms from day one. It also turns out that newcomers are a good excuse to break out the good Palinka. A fact which I learned is readily taken advantage of by nearly every new relation. Repeatedly. This may have been helped by the fact that we were also in town for a wedding.
This also meant that I’d not only be meeting family, but an entire group of folks who can measure their friendships in decades. No pressure.
It turns out that Hungarians are another culture who are modest about their abilities with English. Perhaps it’s a European foible, in which people undervalue their understanding of a language if it’s anything less than mastery. No sooner would someone apologise for their English than they would slip easily into a conversation full of nuance and pop culture. If I could say the same of my understanding of French, well … then I suppose I would actually be able to converse in French.
Skipping details, it was amazing being able to finally put names to faces, spending time with people who I’d only heard of via embarrassing high school stories. It also turns out that a lot can be said with a nod and a raised pint, language barriers be damned!
Keeping the personal stuff personal
We spent a great deal of time in Budapest. The summer was clear and cooking, which is a perfect time to explore cobbled streets and open squares. This is just what we did.
Kat took me to favourite stops, old haunts, and must-see locations scattered across both Buda and Pest. We discovered new hipster coffee joints and tripped headlong into a burgeoning craft beer scene. Ruin pubs were explored. The Danube was our constant companion as we tracked and backtracked throughout the city streets. Statues were gawked at. We wandered aimlessly in an urban folly and explored the heights and depths of Buda castle.
Buda castle sits atop a warren of tunnels and caverns. At times these have served as shelters and cold storage for various food halls above. In a darker past, however, these catacombs were effectively the last resting place for criminals and n’er-do-wells. Most notoriously, Vlad Tepes is said to have spent his final days imprisoned in the winding tunnels. You may know him better as Vlad The Impaler: the inspiration for Dracula.
It’s with this deliciously bloody history that the tourist trap is sprung. Unsuspecting foreigners are lured into the depths with open wallets.
First impressions certainly supported our suspicion of it being tourist bait. I began to wonder if our forints would’ve been more effectively wasted with one of the grifters atop the Citadella, where at least it was warm.
*I’m lying for the sake of drama here. I love caves, caverns and, especially, ancient tunnels of the catacomb variety. Even more so if they include centuries of grisly history and intrigue.
As folk are guided through the first few bends, they’re presented with an opening salvo of vignettes; mannequins stand in giant dioramas, tableaus of finery and high society court telling tales of long-past intrigue and deceit. However, the creepiness is dialled up by the impression that the dioramas have fallen into a state of disrepair. I’m still not certain if it was a calculated choice or simple neglect, but the dust, cobwebs, and moldering gowns on display certainly added to the atmosphere.
The tour progressed pretty mundanely for the first while. With the sun shining outside, not many folks had ventured into the damp and chilly catacombs. Kat and I were left to wander through meandering and dripping tunnels, enjoying plaques of historical tidbits along the way.
Following one pathway, visitors are warned that the going will test their very sanity and to proceed with caution.
It’s cold and silly, but also led us to bump, jostle, and laugh our way through what would’ve otherwise been a pretty bland 100 metres of tunnel. Emerging on the other side, once more into sparsely lit caverns, we figured that would be the end of it. That is, until the lights went out.
Akin to something from a horror film, the lights behind and ahead began to wink out in sequence. A disconcerting and ominous sequence. This was followed by shrieks and laughter from other folks lucky enough to be in the tunnels at the time. A few long moments later, we were aware of a faint glow approaching us from around the bend. As it closed into view, through the haze of fog that was surely being pumped through the tunnels for effect, we realised that the light was being emitted by a selection of oil lamps.
A grinning employee did his best to sell the ‘ominous’ atmosphere, while clearly enjoying his job of handing out oil lamps to giddy tourists. While the lighting before had been mood-setting, it couldn’t hold a candle (ha!) to the atmosphere generated by the dim light of a flickering lamp. While we guided ourselves slowly through the rest of the near maze, needing to lift our lamp within centimetres of plaques now, in order to read them, I was struck by the thought that such an experience would never happen in the west.
Canada, certainly, would never allow oil-fuelled lamps to be carried by dopey tourists through subterranean passages. This would be even less likely when there’s a reasonable chance said lamps could be passed off to children. The lamps would need to be LED-fueled. In fact, tourist boards would probably get so mired in considerations over the optimal luminance of said LEDs, in order to ensure not only legibility of signage, but also visibility of terrain, that they’d likely scrap the idea before it ever left the confines of a conference room.
Kat’s family was keen to spend time with us outside of dinner settings. Her father, especially, was eager to show me more of Hungary than Budapest could offer. As such, one day found us bundled into his car and whisked north into the countryside.
You’ll often find no better view of a country than via a trip through its smaller towns and rural regions. Our city breaks often don’t offer enough time to let us out of urban centres, so it’s always a treat when we get the chance to explore a bit beyond the beaten path.
I thoroughly enjoy the vignettes of local life that can be spotted out of moving windows. Aside from folks going about their business, it’s a great chance to take in architecture, regional trends and local wildlife.
As a foreigner, you start to notice the subtle differences in things that you no longer notice back home. For example, it turns out that most utility poles in Hungary are concrete and steel, resembling tall and narrow ladders. There’s really nothing more to say about them. I’ve done zero research as to why they’re like that. I hadn’t really been expecting anything in terms of utility poles because, honestly, I hadn’t thought anything about them. They were different and that was neat.
Moving on, storks also became more common after leaving the city, as identified by huge nests that appeared atop many of the poles. Apparently they’d been in decline for a number of years, but many regions were experiencing a resurgence due in part to conservation efforts along their migratory routes. Now you know.
The high castle of Viségrad was our first stop. After touring untold numbers of castle ruins in the UK you’d think you’d know what to expect when visiting a castle. Viségrad put most of these to shame. The site is a fantastic combination of restoration and ruin, offering unedited views of a derelict past alongside awe-inspiring glimpses of what the castle once was. Parts of the site have been lovingly restored, allowing visitors the ability to wander up through dilapidated courtyards and preserved rooms which reached their heights in the 12th century. Other portions remain relatively untouched, in a state of ruin that the castle had be left to for much of the last 800 years.
Perched atop a hill, climbing the remains even now gives an impressive view up and down the Danube, over the Slovakian hills of the river’s far banks, as well as across the countryside of Hungary itself. It’s not difficult to imagine the imposing sight the castle would’ve been for travellers to the region during its height. Towering out of the rocks along an integral trade you, it would’ve acted as a not-at-all-subtle reminder of the power of the Magyar, a warming comfort, or harrowing portent, depending on which bank of the Danube your horse was stabled.
Heading west along the Danube, Kat’s folks brought us next to Esztergom (esh-tare-gøme). For a brief few centuries, some centuries ago, the city acted as the capital of Hungary, before such things were relocated further inland to Budapest. However, the city still acts as the Hungarian seat of the Roman Catholic Church, which should give an accurate idea as to the architecture you’ll find there. Imposing. Imperial. Marble. Columns.
A little bit of research reveals that Esztergom is one of the oldest cities in Hungary, with ruins from the middle ages often turning up during construction and excavations. The site itself was apparently quite a popular stop on the Danube during ancient times, with those zany far-reaching cats, the Celts, even setting up shop for reasonable chunk of history.
That far-reaching heritage can be spotted even from a short drive through the treets. Signs direct sight-seers to ancient sites and digs, all the while the city’s castle and cathedral loom overhead, exuding the height of imperial glory. It’s quite the sight to take in.
While religion isn’t a selling point for me, religious buildings offer an awe and spectacle that are undeniable attractions. Esztergom cathedral’s interior towers above visitors, with gold leaf and painted ceilings extolling all manner of Catholic virtue and history. It’s difficult to not feel lost in such places, with nothing but your own echoing footfalls to punctuate the stone-deadened silence.
Poetic phrasing aside, being one of the tallest buildings in the city the cathedral offers stunning views in every direction. Tours allow access to the domed rooftop gallery of the building, as well as the adjoining towers on either side. From these vantages, the Danube once again stretches off through the hilled countryside, while the city itself appears to grow out from below. Red-tiled roofs and white stucco walls provide a beautiful contrast to the brilliant greens of the countryside in summer. Across the nearly emerald water of the Danube we could easily see the neighbouring city of Štúrovo, in Slovakia.
Esztergom and Štúrovo are now a major artery between the two countries; however, the cities were actually separated in 1944 when the Maria Valeria Bridge was destroyed by retreating German troops. Shockingly, the bridge wouldn’t be replaced until 2001 thanks, in large part, to decades of Communist tomfoolery in the 20th century.
Thanks for sticking with me this far. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed the historical tidbits I’ve scattered about along the way, as well as my telling of it all. As much as I hope other folks get something out of reading my words, I also do this for myself. Every trip tells a story. Too often I pop off to foreign parts, focussing on snapping photos and plotting routes. It’s fun, but I worry that I sometimes get lost in it all and forget to simply enjoy moments, as they happen. Thinking about writing these posts while we travel forces me to slow down and take things in.
Back to Budapest
Returning to the city, we got up to plenty more over our remaining days in Budapest. That time mainly involved visiting with friends as much as possible in the time we had left. This is where the craft beer, restaurants, and family dinners came in. It was all fantastically fun, and it felt great to be pulled into such a tight-knit group.
At one point, Kat surprised me with tickets to a completely unexpected, and little-trafficked, attraction in the city centre. Hidden in a dark basement below the touristed streets of Pest, advertised by a somewhat garishly flashy doorway, is the Flippermúzeum: an interactive love-letter to the history of pinball.
Which was just as well as it meant that we were left to play to our hearts’ content! Together with one of Kat’s close friends, we spent over an hour trying our hands with more pinball machines than I’ve ever seen in one place. Their website proclaims that they run over 140 different machines, and that’s hard to argue.
All set to play without the need for forints (or quarters, as many of the machines are American), the museum boasts everything from classic mainstays and movie tie-ins to wackier contraptions. One such machine used magnets to create an artistic interpretation of the lunar surface. Rather than physical obstacles, the balls would swing and wobble between magnetic fields as they careened towards scoring zones.
Other machines resurrected bygone communist days, with aging mechanics and brutalist stylings harkening to the Soviet era that created them. While some of these felt like cheaply-made knock-offs, a few had stood the test of time and were captivating interactive time capsules.
I honestly can’t imagine the amount of work and passion it must take to keep some of these machines running. Not a single unit in the museum is for show and all can be interacted with. That’s quite a shelf-life, considering that some of the exhibits date from as far back as the 1940’s!
As I reach the end of this trip, how about a brief sojourn to the Riviera? The Hungarian Riviera, that is!
See what I did there? Pretty witty, you might say.
Or not. Regardless, that’s exactly what the area around Lake Balaton, the largest freshwater lake in Central Europe, is known as. It’s a moniker that is well-earned. Stepping off a train platform in the middle of the Hungarian countryside, I didn’t know what to expect. The setting around me felt like any rural scattering of homes you’d find in Canada’s cottage country. Everything had a seasonal feel, with small schools and shops catering to a limited number of loyal locals.
It’s when the lake itself came into view that the nickname made sense. Stretching to the horizon, Balaton shimmers with an enticingly milky blue. Even from the high shore above, it appears warm and welcoming, almost mediterranean.
While other portions of the lake have a reputation for being party central, our little corner of the lake was known more for seasonal cabins and a scattering of laid-back locals: the perfect place for backyard bbqs and cold IPAs on wooden decks. Had the water been about 10 degrees cooler, it could’ve been anywhere in Ontario’s Muskoka region.
Instead, the water was warm, clear, and inviting. I could imagine spending hours on the beach, dividing time between reading in the shade, enjoying langós at the beach hut and bobbing around in the shallow water. Like so many places we’ve visited, the only downside was our own limited amount of time.
Limited though this time was, we’d planned perfectly. As a storm rolled in across the lake, we found ourselves in the shelter of the cabin, roasting up a veritable summer feast. No matter where you are in the world, you can’t deny the comfort of a charcoal-cooked meal, eaten al fresco in good company.