Isten, áldd meg a magyart! Or: God Bless Those Awesome Magyars (and their Horsies!)

*First post done with WordPress’s new photo features; images are individual and can be seen larger by clicking on them.

**MANY thanks to Gina, Luigi, and Angela You-Know-Your-Last-Names for their excellent pointers, suggestions, and encouragement!

So . . . In late August, Miss L and the fam were coming to Barcelona for a couple of weeks and needed the apartment so I went on an eight-day vacation to Hungary, followed by a week in Norway for a conference and a few extra days of play. This entry gives a few highlights of the Hungarian adventure.

This is how I decided where to go: a Facebook poll asking friends for suggestions of CHEAP European destinations I may not have been to before. The (excellent) responses included Brittany, Lithuania, Latvia, Croatia, Lisbon, Sicily, Malta, Morocco, and Spetses Island, but for some arbitrary reason (and after a preliminary comparison of airfares/Airbnb prices) I settled on Budapest. Looking at where else I might go in Hungary (where I initially planned to spend the whole two weeks), I found out, LO AND BEHOLD, that Hungary is Europe’s cowboy country (!!!). The die was cast: I would go riding, and maybe get myself one of them cowboys. Beyond minimal research for lodging reservations, I had no time to pore over travel guides, and took off with very little idea of what I would find. Never have I been so pleasantly surprised by a travel destination.

I spent my first five nights in Budapest, at a cute Airbnb apartment on Váci utca, a touristy Ramblas-equivalent pedestrian street that was nevertheless very centrally located and ideal for my purposes. The gorgeous building, although slightly in decadence, seems to have been home to writer Lörinc Kovai and physician Sándor Korányi, if Google Translate and Wikipedia are to be believed.

building

The apartment itself (the one with no plants and a rather gross tiny red ashtray outside on the third picture clockwise) was modern and quite… groovy. It had little colored lights in the kitchen and a shower that could be called, well, psychedelic (but how I came to look forward to stepping into it, bathroom lights off, every night!).

When I first arrived in Budapest, I tried to withdraw an amount close to $100 (25,000 Forints) from the airport ATM, but got confused and took out 250,000 Forints (close to $1000–my first all-cash vacation!). Consequently insecure about my current reliability as a solo tourist, on my first full day I decided to rely on the Hop On/Hop Off Bus to get the lay of the land and avoid figuring out public transport. For about $25, it was a huge waste of money that a few minutes looking at a map would have saved me, and because it’s a one-way loop it sometimes took over an hour to get somewhere I could have reached by foot  in ten minutes. However, I did get a feel for the urban layout, and hear lots of music by Hungarian-born Franz (or Ferencz) Liszt as background to the cheesy narration. The technology was antediluvian, but at least buses owned by this company (the original Hop On/Hop Off!) had some charm–if not, alas, air conditioning.

The bus was a particularly silly choice since I’d decided to take the funicular up to Buda Castle and spend my entire first day meandering on that side of the city, west of the Danube (Pest is on the eastern shore). The gorgeous sightseeing afternoon was made even more special by surprise texting from a beloved boy toy who is currently (for inscrutable reasons) picking fruit in New Zealand, and had not been in touch since his departure in April. Thus engaged in amorous colloquy, I could feel all sultry and unforgettable while sauntering through the cobblestone streets, losing myself in the stunning colors of Matthias Church (to the sound of the organ), crossing Fisherman’s Bastion to drink in captivating views of the river and Pest, and enjoying a (delicious!) lemonade at the Piknik‘s romantic, shady terrace.

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That afternoon I had my first taste of glorious Hungarian cuisine–which they consider on par with French and Chinese, and they may be right. At 21 Hungarian Kitchen I downed, most unromantically, a scrumptious paprika chicken followed by peach mousse with almonds and red currants :

(The previous night I’d eaten near my place on Váci utca, at also excellent Buddha Bar–“set in an opulent palace dating back to 1900”. That was Thai, but still highly recommended.)

Back in Pest, I took the FREE RIVER CRUISE happily included with the Hop On/Hop Off bus ticket. Although this meant I had to come down from my Empress Sissi groove to mingle with The People, it also offered sunset views as enchanting as inexpensive.

Day 2 I headed (on foot) to St. Stephen’s Basilica, named for the first King and founder of Hungary (in the year 896, if you want to know, and the number 96 has remained symbolic in Hungary; for example, no building can be taller than the Parliament’s 96 feet–see fact #12 here). I didn’t think I could like this church more than Matthias, but it was magnificent in its sumptuous ornamentation.

Lest you overdo it exulting in the opulence, here lies the incorrupt Holy Right Hand of St. Stephen to remind you that dust we are, and to dust we shall return (although at least parts of him did not).

The afternoon was spent ambling along Andrássy ut, more Passeig de Gràcia or 5th Avenue than Ramblas. Right at lunchtime, I happened to stumble upon the restaurant where I’d been planning to have dinner, so plans changed. I got an outside table at Klassz, which seems to be everyone’s mid-range budget favorite in Budapest (top of the line is the Michelin Star Onyx, where I did not eat on account of being already stuffed and exhausted every evening). I had a fabulous first course of foie gras (foie is very much a Hungarian thing–it’s everywhere if you love it and can handle the guilt), followed by the heart of Snow White.

(Well, in reality that is Mangalica pork belly–Mangalica being a breed that presumably rivals Spanish Ibérico for its fatty deliciousness, and has in fact, unbeknownst to most of us, begun to be raised in Spain). Tasty morsels accompanied, not by the Veuve Clicquot their awning announces (Klassz is also a choice wine bar), but by a very nice Hungarian bubbly I discovered and began to drink everywhere, Kreinbacher Brut.

After that, ashes to ashes and dust to dust again (twentieth century version) at the Terror House,

Terror Haza.jpg

a controversial museum that memorializes the successive Nazi and Soviet “terror regimes.” Perhaps the multimedia exhibits are a bit on the Disney side of things: you do have to walk through actual detention cells in the building that served as police headquarters during both the fascist and communist periods, and they literally lock you inside an elevator to tell you all about executions. The exhibit’s voyeuristic character and conflicting political intentions have been widely critiqued, as they are here. But for me it was definitely educational and thought-provoking.

The day ended with renewed faith in life, delivered in the form of a rose-shaped ice cream cone at Gelarto Rosa and, waddayaknow, by the miracle of stumbling onto a street wine fair right in front of St. Stephen’s.

By the way, I should mention here that Hungarian wines were, like Hungarian food, a very pleasant discovery. I didn’t get very lucky at the fair (tasting blindly and ignorantly), but I did have some very good samples at different restaurants. The bottle of 2011 Eger Thummerer Bull’s Blood classic I bought at the airport–with my remaining monies from the ATM disaster–and drank in Norway with Miss Kari was mind-blowing (even though “classicus” is the lowest of the region’s three quality categories).

Day 3 featured a visit to the Parliament, a building so beautiful on the outside and inside it is hard to describe the state of mind it inspires. A lavish display of solid gold ornament and color and craftmanship that reminds you of how powerful Hungary was at the end of the nineteenth century. In addition to hallways and the parliamentary chambers (below), they showed us the Crown Jewels, but photos of that are not allowed.

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This was followed–or preceded, I can’t remember–by a lunch of foie (again) and goulash at the very quaint Cafe Kör. A lucky reminder that I’d been confusing goulash, which is delicious, with borscht (which might be the greatest recipe of all time, but I hate all things beet).

And then pretty much aimless wandering, because it almost seems there isn’t a single building in old Pest that isn’t spectacular, what with all the neo-Gothic, neo-Renaissance, neo-Baroque, and neo-Classic jewels of the empire and the beautiful art nouveau or secessionist style. It’s not just the grand buildings that are incredible: it is virtually every single construction, whether carefully restored or still bearing marks of decay and even war. (Soviet-era building blocks, mostly outside Pest, are interesting in their own way, and there are remnants of Roman and Ottoman architecture too, which I mostly saw from a bus.)

Late lunch/early dinner that day was at Cafe Gerbeaud, which is luscious in every possible way (same management as Onyx, by the way, and next door). All I had was a ham and cheese sandwich–but a delectable ham and cheese sandwich, followed by one of their also worth italicizing exquisite cakes, a little strawberry bomb. And prosecco (they did not have Kreinbacher!). Then walked home and collapsed by 9:00pm, after the groovy shower of course.

Day 4 I took a ten-hour bus tour (with The People once more!) to the Danube Bend–something I again might have enjoyed better if I’d done it on my own. In any case, with our guide Laszlo, fabulously fluent in five languages (he repeated the same words again and again for all the different tourists), and our driver Laszlo–but not their other brother Laszlo–we crossed into Slovakia for a quick photo stop looking back toward Esztergom, seat of the Catholic Church in Hungary. Having gone inexplicably hyper-Catholic on this trip, I feel bound to confess that I bought a selfie stick from a street vendor (Bless Me Father For I Have Sinned). Hence, most pictures of me on that and following days are taken, quite laboriously, with said photographic aid, which was really hard to use–especially while embarrassed to be seen doing such a thing. (Naturally, it ended up breaking.)

slovakia

Then we went to the Cathedral, which was in a beautiful setting, but not itself as divinely ornate as either Matthias or St. Stephen’s, or the Parliament even. But it also has relics–this time quite contemporary, because Catholics are still into that shit. This time it’s the entire skull of Esztergom Bishop Meszlényi, who was reportedly killed by communists in 1951, and beatified only in 2009.

We had a pretty bad lunch with a pretty good view of the Castle of Visegrád, at a location where the Danube in fact bends sharply. I unfortunately wound up sitting between two elderly couples while folkloric violinists played the Blue Danube waltz (yup!) and what they considered music from the guests’ places of origin (for some reason I got “When the Saints Go Marching In” for NYC)–all underneath a giant stuffed boar’s head.

We next went to Szentendre, an “artist’s colony” that, while pretty, utterly lacks any interest unless you want to buy cheap tacky souvenirs. Or expensive tacky souvenirs. Laszlo set us free for a couple of hours, during which time I gave up on promenading in 90º heat and hid in the one and only terrace bar I could find to imbibe a fröccs–a wine spritzer Hungarians swear is the only way to keep cool in summer (and I’ll drink to that!). The return to Budapest was a couple of hours by boat, which I appreciated for the river itself (and who knew there are beaches on the Danube?).

This might have been the blandest day of my trip–I would have preferred a trek to Eger wine country, but that was hard to fit in a single day. Next time! In the evening, I again had a quick dinner at Gerbeaud (this time the Bistro instead of the Cafe). Less remarkable than all the other places I’ve mentioned so far, but still quite good food and a very nice terrace in which to relax (before my groovy shower and final collapse).

Gerbeaud Bistro.jpg

Days 5-6, however, totally made up for the bland Danube tour!!! I made my way south via a rickety train (railways in Hungary are not yet what they are elsewhere) to the charming city of Szeged, where I was finally ripped off by a taxicab driver–something everyone said would happen in Budapest but didn’t. The man INSISTED there was a meter right in front of me when there was none, and the invisible meter racked up a handsome charge for a very short ride. I just had time for a nice lunch at a random restaurant named Kajak featuring another typical Hungarian dish–a chilled fruit soup–and a very short stroll through lovely parks and plazas surrounded by secessionist masterpieces.

And then a car service picked me up to take me to my final destination, the tiny village of Rusza on the Puszta–the Great Hungarian Plain, almost at the border with Croatia. There was the lovely, magical, phenomenal Homoki Lodge, a boutique hotel centered on riding and spa life.

You’d think nothing could get me more excited than horses and pampering, but in fact the apex of my happiness came from getting to stay in a yurt, and not just any old nomadic tribe’s yurt–a total GLAMPING experience. This means my little “tent” had every amenity on earth, beginning with air conditioning, as well as adorable design (and one of the most comfortable beds I’d slept in since time immemorial–horned as it was). All arranged tree-like around a central “trunk,” on three vertical levels. Of particular note was the skylight right on top of the bed, which you could open up with the push of a button to see the stars.

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Since Ruszta is quite literally in the middle of nowhere, you stay at Homoki on full board (or at least I did), which made for a few more excellent breakfasts and dinners, complete with wine discoveries. On the equestrian front, the only other guest at the Lodge (it was off-season) was a thirtyish lifelong rider in the British Army who takes regular equestrian vacations all over the world, so it was quickly determined that she and I were not of similar aptitude. I therefore got a private ride with Oliver, the lodge owner, who almost made me swoon by appearing in full Magyar cowboy attire, which is vaguely reminiscent of a gaucho. (I didn’t actually get myself one of them cowboys, but just riding behind him was enough!) It was my first time on a Hungarian saddle, and we rode for several hours through both open plain and woodlands, past quite a few deer and fields of everything you can imagine (so many crops!) including peppers, as this is paprika-producing country. It was the hottest day of the entire vacation, though, and I ended up only half alive with heat rash and a sunburn (though surprisingly not very achy). But to recover I had chosen a spa treatment! I passed on the leeches and settled for foot-calming reflexology, followed by lazy lounging by the picturesque pool. And then a sunset drink (the Homoki Special!).

Further recovery was to take place back in Budapest, on Days 7-8 (my last in Hungary!). Although the city is full of thermal baths, most in spectacular settings, there was so much to do that I decided to choose just one place and leave it for when I’d be most likely to appreciate it (after four hours on a horse and two rickety trains). My pick was the Géllert Baths, because they are probably the most iconic (together with the Széchenyi Baths), so I decided to stay that last night at the Géllert Hotel in Buda. The Superior Double Room was a splurge by Hungarian standards (about 150€), but not at all going by hotel prices anywhere else, and entrance to the baths (about 20€) was included, as well as a good-quality buffet breakfast.

The hotel has not been renovated since NINETEEN-SEVENTY-THREE, but I swear if it had, it wouldn’t have been so charming. I arrived mid-afternoon and didn’t leave the premises again until I got into a cab for the airport the next day. I had one last foie before settling into my gorgeously decadent top-floor room, which opened out into the most beautiful cobweb-filled terrace ever, which in turn looked out onto a commanding view of the river, and Pest across the Liberty Bridge (Szabadság híd)In between enjoying the afternoon view and the evening view, I slipped into the hotel robe and made my way downstairs to the spa, where I soaked in each one of the dazzling mosaic sitting pools, jumped into the incredibly fun 1927 outdoor wave pool, and did laps in the indoor swimming pool. All of it restorative as much because of the mineral-infused water said to alleviate joint and spine inflammation, vertebral disk problems, neuralgia, vasoconstriction, asthma, and bronchitis, as for the eye-popping beauty and peace of every space (except for the wave pool, that’s not about peace!). A late-night wine and cheese at the hotel bar, and off to my comfy bed to enjoy the only portable a/c I’ve ever seen in a hotel room (although it worked quite well!).

And that was that. After a good night’s sleep, I had a last-minute vicissitude: with a hotel stylist who did not speak a word of English and replaced what I thought was the worst elements-battered hair with a swanky 1990s-Ivanka Trump bump do. (Come to think of it, I should have just left the “before” style alone.)

Revitalized and armed with dragon lady hair, but with tears in my heart, I left my newly-beloved Hungaria. SO MANY things I couldn’t fit in this trip–one more place to which I must return.

plane

Budapest, Margaret Island (Parliament visible on the left)

My next adventure, in Norway, coming soon to a theater near you.

About WRF

New York-based Spanish Cultural Studies professor and academic author venturing (nervously) into new forms of writing: travel and food-logue, cultural commentary, pseudophilosophical speculation, opinion, reminiscence, prophecy, examination of conscience.
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