ITINERARY: (from Slovakia) Budapest (via Vienna to Paris)

October/November 1999


It takes a six-syllable phrase just to say "hello." Hungarian is a complex and unique language, unrelated to any other European languages except Finnish and Estonian. The original Magyar people came from east of the Ural Mountains many hundreds of years ago, and are quite different in language, cuisine and culture from the rest of Europe.

As the train crossed the Slovakian border into Hungary, it was immediately apparent that we were coming into a more prosperous country than those we had just left - the villages and farms were tidier, the buildings better kept. While there were still signs of underemployment (six border guards to check our passports when two would have been enough), a stronger economy was evident. Despite inflation, high unemployment and the instability of its currency, Hungary seemed more prosperous than the Czech Republic, Poland or Slovakia.


The worst slum we saw in Central Europe, however, was in Hungary. As we traveled into the country, dilapidated villages appeared alongside the train tracks. The houses were gutted or in total disrepair and surrounded by mounds of junk and filth. The ditches were filled with piles of old clothes and rubbish. This was startling, as the countryside and towns in Europe are usually cleaner than those in the U.S. We later learned that these are Romani (gypsy) villages. Originally a nomadic people from Northern India, the Roma have lived for centuries roaming about Eastern Europe, primarily Romania, and are now found as far as France and England.

The Roma meet with a great deal of prejudice throughout Europe - and often are accused of swindling and petty thievery, keeping their children out of school and general uncleanness. We asked our hostess in Budapest about the Roma. This cultured woman of about 45 is a college professor of Italian literature, art and cinema and a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, which was particularly terrible in Hungary. She said that some Roma have acculturated into the larger societies, but most have not made a successful transition from their nomadic, rural, almost Medieval lifestyle. Traditionally, they have specialized in such trades as horse-shoeing and knife-sharpening, but have not changed their skills to be employable in service industries and modern manufacturing plants. Some of them, she said, live on almost nothing. Under communism, they at least had some level of state support. Under capitalism, they are below the poverty level and show few signs of climbing above it.

However, they are not the only ones suffering during the transition from communism to democratic capitalism. Many people are worse off under the free market system. Where once they had little personal freedom and few consumer goods, they at least had a state job, however meaningless and tedious it might have been, and received state housing and medical care. Ilona said that the average worker does not value the right to speak out against the government if that right comes with unemployment and no real place in society. Of course, the change to capitalism has dramatically improved life for successful businesspeople and intellectuals. The rich get richer; the poor get poorer.

Budapest is a miniature Paris, filled with beauty and charm. It has incredible architecture and endless amounts of culture - concerts, opera, ballet, theater, cinema. Prague has more architectural beauty, but also more tourist junk and less culture. Berlin has been bombed so much that a lot of its old architecture has been lost, and its cultural life is still reviving. Krakow is beautiful in its own way, but poor. (The photos below are of Pest, taken from the Buda side of the Danube River.)




We went into Hungarian "rhapsodies" over Budapest - one of the most interesting cities we've visited since 1999. (Some of the others: Paris, Sydney, Katmandu, Istanbul, Hanoi.) The wide Danube River winds along under beautiful bridges, the charming metro is an art nouveau delight, the thermal baths are lined in mosaic and the wonderful opera house is all velvet and glittering gold. Many of the churches have bulbous, almost Russian-style turrets; the oldest buildings are painted "Maria Theresa yellow" - a rich golden color favored by the Hapsburg monarch. The large trees lining Andrassay Utca, a beautiful, Parisian boulevard near our hotel, changed from green to gold during our two-week stay.

BUDA is the more residential part of Budapest across the Danube from Pest - the commercial and political center of the city. We stayed in Buda with a Servas couple, an architect and a librarian, both semi-retired. During our stay in Buda, Lou and I went to the famous Gellert Baths, built on one in a string of thermal rifts in a fault line on the Buda side of the river. The Turks, who conquered Budapest and lived here for a century and a half, loved the baths as did the Romans before them. Lou looked especially fetching at the elegant Gellert. He zipped the legs off of his convertible safari pants, and wore the shorts portion into the spas - along with the mandatory blue plastic shower cap! The spa waters range from very cool in the pillar-lined swimming pool, to fairly warm in the thermal baths - where bathers sit under a marble lion spitting hot water. While in Buda, we also spent time walking in the hills - kicking through yellow leaves along the forest trails and inhaling the smoky autumn air.

PEST is easy to explore on Budapest's metro - the first on the Continent, following the one in London. Our hotel was on line one, the shortest (about eight stops) and the most elegant of the three lines. Each stop is tiled, and features copies of old, sepia-toned photographs of the way that the area looked a century or so ago. The subway cars are tiny - seating perhaps 16 people on plush seats. It costs only 30 cents to ride anywhere on one line for 1/2 an hour, but another ticket is necessary to change lines and must be stamped at a machine. We were "busted" four times by ticket checkers, but each time had the correct tickets. Fortunately - as the fine would have been $32.00 each.

Food is very hearty in Hungary: soups, goulashes, gravies, heavy meat and dumpling dishes. Certain foods are ubiquitous: bell peppers, onions, tomatoes and cucumbers, and they put sweet Hungarian paprika in everything. The Hungarians - who never met a calorie they didn't like - serve Viennese-style cream pastries for a fraction of the cost in neighboring Austria. We had the bad habit of stopping off in the later afternoon at a tea shop of faded elegance, where we decadently indulged in excellent tiramisu and coffee for under four dollars for the two of us. Being good economists, we did our best to eat everything in sight, as it was all so reasonable! We left Hungary carrying about ten Central European pounds apiece. SIGH.


The Hungarians (defined by blood and/or language) are Magyars (pronounced "mad-jars"), who arrived here in 896 from western China. It's not likely they came in on the Orient Express; they probably took a few thousand years to make the trip. Since 896, Hungarians have been through wars, concentration camps, political repression and economic depression. The  vast, flat plains of Central Europe invite attack by bigger countries on all sides: here would come the Turks, then the Austrians, Prussians, Swedes and - more recently - the Germans and Russians. Almost every room in the Hungarian National History Museum is filled with portraits and sculptures of military heroes, weapons of war and exhibits of war's terrible consequences. Hungary has many memorials to national leaders, such as King Stephan who ran off the Huns, King Matthias who defeated the Turks and a peasant poet Petofi who launched the 1848 revolt of serfs against the nobility. The people finally got rid of the Hapsburg monarchy in 1867 and had a fantastically prosperous time until World War I. A lot of Budapest was built during these 45 years; as a result, much of the city architecture is beautifully coherent.

At the beginning of World War II, the Hungarians were caught between a rock (the German Nazis) and a hard place (the Russian Communists). Isolationist governments in Britain and France had just given Czechoslovakia to the Nazis and the United States, also in an isolationist mood, was uninterested in the storm warnings,. What was Hungary to do - fight against both the German army and the Russian army? Choosing what looked like the lesser of two evils, Hungary finally entered the war on the side of Germany in hopes that they would recover the huge losses of population and territory they sustained when lines were re-drawn at the end of World War I. The result was not pretty. The Nazis sent 600,000 Hungarian soldiers to their deaths on the front line at Stalingrad, and they sent 500,000 Hungarian Jews up the road to die in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Eventually, America entered the war and the U.S. Air Force dropped a lot of bombs onto Hungary - some partially leveling the Hapsburg Palace harboring Nazis headquarters, and exactly 23 on its gorgeous parliament (below), one the most beautiful public buildings we've ever visited. 


1956 was the year of an amazing attempt to take freedom back from the Soviets. We saw several exhibits in Budapest of freedom fighters throwing papers out of the windows of Soviet police offices, hundreds of Soviet tanks in the streets, people running from them and bullet-riddled buildings.  We were in Budapest briefly nine years later (1965), and saw the machine-gun bullet holes around the doorways of churches into which people fled. Bullet holes are still visible today. (See below.)

Our host in Buda described what it was like in March 1944 when he was 13. He said that the U.S. was increasing its bombing raids every day and didn't have time to pinpoint the targets. Many bombs fell on residential neighborhoods, so his father sent him away to safety in the countryside. In November, the bombing stopped and he came back to live in Buda although the Soviets and Nazis continued to fight there for three or four months longer. A mortar shell once landed in the yard, shattering most of the windows in his home. In 1956 - when he and his wife were newly married - they were listening to the radio one evening. The news said that demonstrations were going on all over the city against the Soviet occupation. Then the prime minister - a Soviet puppet - came on the air and told the demonstrators to go home. Suddenly, rebels took over the station and the radio went dead. Our hosts drove across the Danube to Heroes' Square in Pest to watch protesters use acetylene torches to melt the bronze off of the huge, much-despised statue of Joseph Stalin. People were bashing in Stalin's skull and spitting on it. Our friends drove back home to Buda, elated at the prospect of freedom. Then they heard gunfire. Soviet troops and hundreds of tanks (stationed at some distance from the city center) arrived  later that night. All hell broke loose and many Hungarian civilians and soldiers lost their lives as the rebellion was relentlessly crushed.


Budapest is a culturally sophisticated city. In 12 days we went to an avant-garde dance concert, a David Hare play, a British film, a performance of Bela Bartok's opera Bluebeard, a choral concert in a Serbian church, an organ concert in beautiful King Matthias Church and - best of all - a performance of Verdi's Requiem in the majestic Budapest Opera House, which was built in 1875-84 and miraculously escaped war damage. What an architectural gem! We purchased the second-best box seats in the house (the best box is reserved for royalty) for $15 each. The royal box directly overhead was empty, but we could imagine the times it had held Hungary's Emperor Franz Joseph or England's Queen Elizabeth. The Queen of Spain sat there the night before our visit. The auditorium is in stunning neo-renaissance style, covered with gold-leaf carvings, red velvet, marble and gold columns, arched openings softened by velvet draperies, vaulted ceilings and - above the orchestra pit - an immense circular ceiling painted with figures from Greek mythology. During the performance, we rested our elbows on the red velvet railing and - bathed in the golden glow of the lamps ringing the auditorium - drank in the sounds of Verdi's great requiem. The acoustics are superb, reputed to be second in the world only to La Scala Opera House in Milan. For this performance, there were 120 in the chorus, 65 musicians, four excellent solo vocalists and a conductor who should try out for the Hungarian Olympic gymnastics team.

We left Hungary for Vienna and then went on to Munich, where we caught the overnight Orient Express to Paris. We splurged on a sleeping compartment - an expensive additional charge of $60 apiece. The sleeping compartment was wood-paneled with comfy berths that had freshly ironed LINEN bed sheets and a feather comforter! Towels and soap were provided, and we actually managed to shower and wash our hair while the fast train roared down the tracks. Good thing they provided a handle in the shower or we'd have been thrown out on the curves. At the end, the floor was awash.

To prepare for the 12-hour train journey from Paris to Spain, we bought freshly-shelled walnuts, crisp apples, dark chocolate, bottles of water, pistachios, pears, cheese and French bread. You can see why we enjoy riding the train. (Burp.) Roaring along on the high-speed TGV, we crossed France and headed into SPAIN



GUIDEBOOK:  Central Europe (Lonely Planet)

(1999 Prices)

Along with the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia, Hungary was one of the bargain basements of Europe in 1999 when the U.S. dollar was strong. For example, Lou visited a Budapest doctor because of the lingering effects of flu. The total bill for a 45-minute examination plus an antibiotic and two types of cough medication was less than US$27, and that included a 25% tip to the physician! (Dentists and doctors are customarily tipped at least 10%.)

BUDAPEST:   Medosz Hotel, Jokai Ter. $33/double with bath, including breakfast. ($44 in high season.) Great location, only a couple of blocks from the Metro and opera house. 




Joan and Lou Rose     joanandlou@ramblingroses.net