97 Days Adrift in Europe (Part 13) – Budapest

Many people will tell you that Budapest is their favourite city in Europe. Perhaps I didn’t look hard enough but it seemed less splendid than Prague and somewhat dull and jaded – that is until you look back at the photos and realise perhaps it wasn’t the city that is dull and jaded but the onlooker.

“Old Pest” – lots of beautiful buildings and street art

After a dozen cities and a myriad palaces, ancient bridges, tunnels, churches, squares and museums, one may get what I refer to as ‘Chateaux Fatigue’. It’s a syndrome bought on by travelling through parts of the world from which you would never escape were you to look at every magnificent building built between the birth of the Christ figure and about 1900.

It can take other forms such as “Cathedral Fatigue”, “Gondola Fatigue” (Monty Python c. minute 9.25), “Roman Ruin Fatigue etc.

I first discovered this syndrome (there are myriad traveling syndromes) when passing through the Dordogne in France. To travel in the Dordogne is to feel as if every rich French person caught Chateaux OCD.

“What are you doing today, Louis?”.

“Oh, Jean-Paul, I thought I might build a chateau”

“But Louis you built four chateaux, last week…”

“I know, Jean-Paul, but the peasants are so lazy and what else can I spend their taxes on…?”

Every tiny town, village, estate, bend in the river and overblown princelet had their own chateau. Much like right wing politicians in Australia. “I feel bored with representing my constituents today, perhaps I shall start a new political party. What shall I call it? Oh I know…..now what was my name?”.By the time you have been a week in the Dordogne, it’s “Oh look, another, 17th century chateau, how passé.”

Cathedral fatigue? Too many bloody churches? St Stephen’s Basilica is better than many and has great views from the top

 

Even the utility covers are elegant

I arrive in Budapest on a Sunday at Budapest-Keleti railway station. First impressions are of a very faded glory. The station is magnificent but no one remembered to brush its hair or cut its nails. It’s falling apart, grubby and has a slightly dingy feeling, a bit like the surrounding part of Budapest.

Budapest Keleti Station

In fact Budapest is two cities “Buda” on the left bank of the Danube and “Pest” on the right bank.

My brand new (as in just renovated) AirBnB is just 400 metres from the Danube which, for those interested in relatively useless facts, passes through 10 European countries. Is the Danube blue? Is it sunny? Is the ocean blue? Let’s see, apart from the bleeding obvious, which is that at night it is not blue, yes it can be blue. If it’s not in flood, if the sun is shining etc.

Blue Danube? Or black or grey

The point about the Danube is not its blueness but its role in myth, legend, history and culture.

F. László Földényi, probably the only man in human history to have four diacritical letters in his name, describes its place in the European psyche beautifully in this blog  from 2011 in which he describes the Danube thus:

“Blue, muddy yellow or blood-red: the colour of the Danube varies according to history and geography. Never able to truly form the countries through which it runs into a single political entity, it nevertheless connects peoples and regions reconcilable only in dreams or poetry.”

From my perch near the Danube, it’s an easy stroll down to the river and then along past Hungary’s Parliament which is built in Gothic revival style. From there, it is a short stroll down to the Szechenyi Chain Bridge.

Like the Szechenyi Baths, the bridge is named after Count Istvan Szechenyi who is often spoken of as the greatest ever Hungarian. Normally in European history this means that you killed a lot of innocent people, mainly nasty foreigners, although occasionally it’s your own mob, as in Stalin, Pol Pot.

To be fair to Szechenyi he does appear to have been a reformer, albeit a conservative one, if that is not too contradictory.

Nowadays you don’t have to do anything to kill millions of people, if you are a politician. You just do nothing, as per Australian politicians such as Abbott and Turnbull, who are deliberately and consciously consigning millions to death by doing nothing on climate change.

Fortunately most of the people who will die (at least from the perspective of Abbott and Turnbull) are black, yellow or brown.

Somewhat ironically, in Australia, most of those who will suffer from climate change most will be rich and white since, in our great egalitarian society, the biggest losers will be mostly “white” and wealthy. These are the only people who can afford to live near the coast or on large farms – the areas most likely to be significantly impacted by climate change.

On the other hand since their Ponzi schemes and family trusts will ensure they are wealthy enough to move away from the effects of climate change, without too much ill effect, perhaps they will avoid their fate.

The Hungarian Parliament buildings are a sort of poor man’s version of the UK Houses of Parliament. It is, nevertheless, a striking building, especially at night when reflected in the Danube.

Like most buildings of this type it is surrounded by statues – of men – men with guns, men on horses, men looking important. No women. If you aren’t killing or oppressing people you are not worthy of a statue.

Underground on Parliament’s Kossoff Square there is a great little museum to the 1956 uprising which initially succeeded and was then, subsequently, suppressed by Soviet troops.

The first day of the Hungarian uprising, 23 October, was declared a national holiday at the inauguration of the Third Hungarian Republic in 1989.

It would not be unreasonable to suggest that it is a somewhat better choice than Australia made with its Australia Day national holiday since the Hungarian day, in effect, celebrates liberation whereas Australia Day celebrates invasion and genocide.

But this celebration of death and disaster is a good Australian tradition since we also celebrate ANZAC day. We use this day to signify our memory of the slaughter of tens of thousands of Turks, who died at double the rate of the combined Allied force, and the futile death of thousands of Australians. Never mind the fact that it was a dismal, failed, campaign for the ANZACS (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps).

In Australia, in future, we will, no doubt, celebrate 7 September 2013, as National Idiot Day, when millions of idiotic Australians voted for Tony Abbott, a complete idiot who helped to destroy our climate and environment. And that is not accounting for the damage to the entire national psyche caused by witnessing that ex-Prime Minister in budgie smugglers.

At Szechenyi Chain Bridge you can see the famous Yoga cafe. This is a very special Hungarian tradition involving a combined eating area and yoga class.

When you have finished dinner and feel bloated and unwell you can work off your dinner with a free yoga class adjacent. In case this makes you feel unwell, buckets are provided.

Alternatively, if you do yoga first and feel hungry, rescue is at hand. In Hungary the Yoga Cafe chain is more popular than McDonalds. In fact the term “chain” came from this cafe which opened next to the chain bridge and were the world’s first “chain” of restaurants

Left the famous Szechenyi Chain Bridge and right the even more famous Yoga Chain Restaurant

My remaining three days in Hungary are taken up with exploring the the old city on the Pest side of Budapest. Buda and Pest were two completely separate cities until the Szechenyi  Bridge was built.

I also travelled upriver to visit Szentendre which was the centre of the Serbian community in Hungary, though only about 100 Serbs remain, today. The departure of the Serbs was because others were latterly as unpleasant to the Serbs as the Serbs have been to others.

The Serbs fled from Kosovo and southern regions of Serbia in fear of Turkish revenge. The Austrian Emperor, Leopold I, allowed Serbian refugees to cross the Danube in 1690, and during that period, many Serbian families settled in the region around Budapest.

Szentendre, known as Sentandreja in Serbian, thus became the religious, cultural and political centre of Serbs in Hungary. They were later persecuted in World Wars 1 and 2 and most fled back to Serbia.

Szentendre: lots of Serbian Orthodox church glitter plus artists markets

Szentendre is on the Danube River, north of Budapest and reached by a one hour local train ride. It’s known for its baroque architecture, churches, colourful houses and narrow, cobbled streets.

The main square, and the alleyways around it are lined with art galleries, museums and shops. Just off the square, the 18th-century Greek Orthodox Blagovestenska Church is worth a visit for the elaborate decor and an ornate partition screen.

The old city of Pest is architecturally stunning and St Stephen’s Basilica and the Opera House certainly give nothing away to any other cathedral or opera house…providing you are a fan of gold and glitz. The upper parts of the cathedral also provide stunning views over the Danube and the old city. Even so, Prague still has my vote.

The Budapest Opera House. Hungarians reckon no other can hold a candle to it

My last day in Budapest takes me down to Heroes Square. It’s a half an hour walk from my AirBnB.

This area is half tourist trap and half locals hang-out, but is a must-visit area of Budapest.

Here in the City Park, one of Budapest’s largest inner city parks, you can find not only the said Heroes, on their horses, but Szechenyi Baths, the largest medicinal bath in Europe.

There is also Vajdahunyad Castle on its lake, the Zoo and Botanical Gardens and two museums, the Kunstalle Art Gallery (contemporary art) and the Museum of Fine Art. And you can easily get there via Metro to the Szechenyi station on the M1 (yellow line).

Vajdahunyad Castle is yet another monument to nationalism, Christianity and war – and their brother, genocide and persecution.

One could argue that Christianity and war are pretty much the same – or at least cause and effect.

The castle was built in 1896 as part of the Millennial Exhibition which celebrated the 1,000 years of Hungary and Magyar history since the Hungarian Conquest of the Carpathian Basin in 895.

In its juxtaposition with Heroes Square, built at the same time, one is left in no doubt about the role of men in religion and nationalism, and the associated blood and gore.

Vajdhunyad Castle and Heroes Square. More monuments to militarism

From an egalitarian point of view the sole redeeming feature of Heroes Square (apart from artistic value) is that when the monument was originally constructed the last five spaces, on the left of the colonnade, were reserved for members of the ruling Habsburg dynasty.

The Habsburg emperors, in a fit of democracy, were replaced with Hungarian freedom fighters when the monument was rebuilt after World War II.

The Zoo & Botanical Garden is the oldest in Hungary and one of the oldest in the world. It has 1,072 animal species. It you enjoy seeing imprisoned animals this one is for you. Although parts are fine most of the larger animals are kept in enclosures that are in poor condition and are unacceptably small.

You can spend most of the day wandering around City park and its environs but the Idiot Traveller warning, here, is this: keep an eye on the time. In true style I came here primarily for the magnificent Szechenyi thermal baths but reached the entrance just as they were closing.

As a result, for my sins, I came face to face with a remnant of East European customer service. This occurred in the person of a very large, very unfriendly, cross between a staff member and a concentration camp guard.  Her version of customer service was to shout at me when I attempted to ask her simple questions about entering the baths.

There are 18 baths in total, their water supplied by two thermal springs, the temperature of which is 74 °C and 77 °C. By the time the water reaches the pools, temperatures vary between 18° in the cooler pools and up to 40°c in the “medicinal” pool.

Stirred, but not shaken, by my encounter with a remnant of communist era customer service, I head off back to my AirBnB to prepare for my departure for Croatia. Maybe Croatia, another former bastion of fascism will have better customer service than the ex-Soviet Union Hungary does.


¹This is known as “fake news” or alternatively “alternative facts” and is introduced here to ensure this blog is up to date with the latest trends.

This is Part 13 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

  1. Part 6 – Travelling South
  2. Part 11 – Prague
  3. Part 12 – Travelling Crazy – Banks

The Flickr Archive of images used in this post can be found below:

  1. Budapest: Liberty Square
  2. Budapest: Detail
  3. Budapest Opera House
  4. Budapest: Old City
  5. Budapest: St Stephen’s Basilica
  6. Szentendre