Pest to Buda: The Road to Yesterday

From the busy bohemian affair that is Pest, Buda is a world away. It is as if the Danube which bisects these two cities injects the air with a change that is palpable as you make your way to the capital of medieval Hungary. The good Welsh folk would declare us tup to have opted for a walking tour on a morning that proceeded to get distressingly foggy and frigid. But we will run with Kurt Vonnegut here. That “bizarre travel plans are dancing lessons from God.”

There was drama on the square outside St. Stephen’s Basilica. A bomb scare. Police arriving officiously and dawdlers scuttling equally hastily. We had left behind the grandeur of old buildings reminiscent of the golden age of the Austro-Hungarian empire, caryatids and brawny males holding up doorways, ornate moldings, some Art Nouveau architecture spicing up the mix, when we came upon Freedom Square. Memorials laced with irony. For there’s the memorial to the Holocaust in the form of an eagle, representative of Nazi Germany, attacking the Archangel Gabriel symbolic of the victims, when you know that the Hungarians colluded with the Nazis. And then there is that of the Soviet liberation of the country during WWII, a stark obelisk with the commie star crowning it. There is American president Ronald Reagan too caught in mid-stride facing the American embassy, as an acknowledgement of his role in ending the Cold War (“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”), leading to the welcome exit of the Soviet regime from Eastern Europe.

You know when not to talk politics I suppose even though the mind might be brimming with points you want to make.

What you do instead is gasp at the grandeur of the Hungarian Parliament which on the dreariest of days knows how to cut it even as you stand by the Danube and feel the icy fingers of the breeze pierce the barrier of your warm clothing, your feet doubling up as numb blocks that keep moving because they have to.

Sixty pairs of bronze shoes lined up along the banks of the river. Grisly memories of Jews shot along the banks of the Danube by the anti-semitic party that was ruling the city after the Germans had toppled the erstwhile government in the mid ’40s. Heartbreak. A city filled with heartbreak that time cannot wash away.

Just as we had crossed the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Vee abandoned us. He could take the cold no more. We carried on, toiling up stone steps, buoyed by visions of warm cafés awaiting us atop the hill. It is a matter of gravity that when we did reach the top of the hill, dreams were shattered. What was this? An open-air bar called Budapest Terrace. The temptation to be a stick in the mud was overwhelming, to throw a proper fit. We exchanged that urge for steaming cups of hot chocolate. Shiver and sip, sip and shiver, nose tingling, cold misery threatening to bog us down. But misery did have the panoramic company of the Danube and the moreish flavours of the best hot cocoa I have had in years.

As dusk gathered beneath the dim lights of wrought-iron lamps, we tread uneven cobbles, coming upon bronze statues and listening to Alejandro, the tour guide, narrate medieval stories of ambition and greed, the arrival of Renaissance art in the palace when a king wed a Beatrice of Naples, the Ottoman Turks and then the Habsburg queen Maria Theresa. Vee joined us again after warming his insides with pálinka. He had carried a bottle for us to swig on. It did its job as did the combined glory of hearty goulash (which you cannot get away from here), fried potatoes and chicken paprikash at a traditional Hungarian eatery.

Then it was truly dark and I cannot tell you how exquisite Buda was. Ludicrous baroque beauty that renders all adjectives redundant. The Fisherman’s Bastion, St. Matthias Church which was the site of many a coronation, old Roman excavations in the basement of hotels, the view of the parliament from across the Danube. We let it all come together in deserted Buda on a freezing December night and weave a mesh of golden spell upon us then, this golden city called Boodahpesht.

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Imre Nagy, the Hungarian Communist politician whose attempt to win Hungary independence from the Soviet Union cost him his life in 1958. This national hero now stands upon the bronze bridge gazing at the Hungarian Parliament.
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The Hungarian Parliament 

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Jews who were shot in the winter of 1944-45 into the river by militiamen from the Arrow Cross Party. “…I heard a series of popping sounds. Thinking the Russians had arrived, I slunk to the window. But what I saw was worse than anything I had ever seen before, worse than the most frightening accounts I had ever witnessed. Two Arrow Cross men were standing on the embankment of the river, aiming at and shooting a group of men, women and children into the Danube – one after the other, on their coats the Yellow Star. I looked at the Danube. It was neither blue nor gray but red. With a throbbing heart, I ran back to the room in the middle of the apartment and sat on the floor, gasping for air.”  Reminiscences of a survivor.
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Castle Hill
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Fishing Kids Fountain
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Matthias Fountain depicting a hunting party led by King Matthias of Hungary
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Hungarian soldier on Castle Hill
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Goulash
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Chicken paprikash with spätzle
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 St. Matthias Church

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A look at St. Matthias Church from Fisherman’s Bastion
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Fisherman’s Bastion, a paean in turrets to the seven Magyar tribes who arrived in Hungary in the 9th century
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Yes, the Hungarian Parliament
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The unfolding of Budapest’s beauty at night, the perfect place to prepare for a hangover (those Pálinkas can pack a punch) .

 

 

Portraits from Pest

In the flat plains of Pest, which the Hungarian calls Peshth, we took over the city on foot. It drove our friend Vee up the wall, those long evening walks by the Danube when the fingers ached with a strange intensity, startled by the piercing cold of the night when even breathing seemed like a bad idea. Lights twinkled through the fog that sat thick upon Gellért Hill high above us as we crossed the Liberty Bridge, the bridge that looks like it was fashioned out of turquoise metal and ebullience. The kind of ebullience that comes with freedom, freedom from the Nazis. But then the smothering of that very freedom by the Soviet for at least five decades.

A saint stood high above that hill holding aloft a cross, a man who was stashed into a barrel and rolled down the hill by irate Magyars when he attempted to convert them to Christianity. For all his sins, Gellért Sagredo had the hills named after him, the very hills down which he was tumbled to his death. And a hotel too. Hotel Gellért of the splendid Art Nouveau façade and iconic thermal baths, a reprieve from the harshness of a winter’s evening. The baths of Budapest are like grand flourishes of the city’s past. There are said to be 120 warm springs simmering beneath the surface of the city which the Roman, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires lost no time in tapping, leaving behind a legacy that the city is quite so proud of.

The intense cold drove us back into the arms of Pest’s hipster heart – District VII. It helped that we had chosen to stay in a chic little apartment a stone’s throw from a sprinkling of Christmas markets, classical cafés and restaurants, strung with fairy lights most becomingly on frigid nights. The kávéház, the legendary cafés like Café Gerbeaud where you gave into a long-standing tradition bequeathed by the Austro-Hungarian empire and found yourself transported to the grand old cafés of Vienna. The glutton in you was hard pressed not to pleasure the gut at every stop. And oh, those vintage clothes boutiques where it was difficult not to sigh over the warmth and prices of sable coats, pieces of decadence that demanded deep pockets.

We sought warmth in local bars, the kinds where old men sit and drown their loneliness in glasses of whisky and we revived ourselves in shot bars where a pretty bartender handed out tulip-shaped glasses of aged pálinka, feeling the burn of it soothe the cold away with a dab hand, murmuring ‘come child come’. And then we wandered around District VII, letting its intriguing personality seep into us. The Jewish quarter secreted away into the district’s inner parts, the synagogues with their onion domes and Moorish exteriors making the jaws drop. Derelict buildings flanked a warren of cobbled streets that seemed to be a repository of rundown structures, often crumbling away beneath layers of gigantic murals which are infused with the spirit of the city and that of the artists inevitably.

Some of those ramshackle buildings that have been slipping into gradual disrepair since WWII have been converted into pubs. Ruin pubs. Hubs of underground culture. The oldest of the lot is Szimpla Kert. Set up in a disused stove factory, it is a place for the youth to hang out with cheap drinks, watch outdoor movies, buy fresh produce from farmers on Sundays… The layout was fluid. A sprawling space filled with themed rooms, one leading into the other, distressed furniture, winding stairs leading to more rooms, psychedelic lighting that kind of makes it seem right that a bicycle should hang over your head, that you should slide into a clawfoot tub to sit in cosy comfort with your lover and that there should be a disused Trabant car (East German commie car for the hoi polloi) standing in the garden, a remnant of grim times.

In that ruin pub, we sat on a swinging party night with a bottle of wine and took in our eclectic surroundings when there was a discordant note struck by carrots. Not a product of my imagination, no sir, though that would be a possibility given the heady wafts of weed in the air. A girl circulated around us with a basket of carrots. Did we want to buy some? Now how do you say no to carrots? It was a strange night that, wrapped up in the apple smoke of the hookah. It made me dream of Berlin and it also made me think that the more you travel, the more you see this underlying thread of similitude (this innate urge to break free) that seems to bring people and places together.

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Boscolo Hotel, a 120-year-old building
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New York Café, the traditional kávéház in Boscolo Hotel 
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New York Café 
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Shot Bars in District VII
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Because Pálinka will be your saviour
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Evenings along the Danube
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Liberty Bridge, the shortest one to connect Buda with Pest
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 Gellért Hill
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My two favourite photographs are this and the next
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A walk that shattered us
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Hotel Gellért
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District VII
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Architecture inherited from the Austro-Hungarian empire

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Carl Lutz memorial in the old ghetto dedicated to Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz who had saved the lives of over 60,000 Jews during WWII.
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Szimpla Kert

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Theme rooms at the ruin pub
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The Trabant that stands in the garden

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The Sassy Winter Spirit of Budapest

I overheard a conversation at a Christmas stall in Bryant Park in the first couple of weeks in December last year. No darling, I do not make it my business to stand around people earwigging, but in this case I was hovering near a stall of fairy lights wondering if it was the owner who was gabbling rather animatedly with another woman about the dilemma between choosing Budapest and Prague. I was tempted to squeak in with my two bits about both but it seemed then that the other woman had a handle on the situation. She noted: ‘For me, it is Budapest.’ Those five words settle Adi and mine emotions when you mention the Hungarian capital that throbs with youth and energy. Actually make it three since we were there in the winter of 2016 with our friend Vee who we had met during the hike to Pulpit Rock.

Vee is a chilled-out guy who lives and works in London managing the wealth of millionaries, smokes cigars and lives life to the hilt with his plethora of Russian girlfriends. The feminist would want to pack him a wallop for carrying on about the quality of women in various parts of the world but the guy is good at heart and a seasoned traveller. Poor Vee was enthusiastic about travelling with us to Budapest but then he found himself there with us and I suspect that he wanted to beat himself up over his commitment to the cause. You will know the why and wherefore of it soon.

On an early morning in December, a few days before Christmas, the three of us landed in Budapest. I was disconcerted. A frosty sight greeted my bleary eyes when I peeped out of the cab. There is a shot of it in the post I updated on The Little Corner Apartment, the cosy nook in the Jewish Quarter that Adi and I stayed in for the duration of our stay. Later, when we walked to Vee’s hotel about 15 minutes away from our apartment, we had a measure of the day-time temperatures that averaged -3°C. With wind chill, it stood at -8°C. We quickly scarfed down that crisp sweet bread called Kürtőskalács (important to note: you can pronounce it, just keep at it) with glasses of hot mulled wine. Cinnamon, allspice berries, cardamom, star anise, mace, ah how those wonderful spices hit the right notes as we stared at a mob practising Tai chi on the pavements outside the hip Jewish Quarter and wondered why.  We revelled in festive Christmas sights that made our nerves hum with pleasure even as we tried to deal with the importance of going numb with cold. It so happened that without an ounce of planning we had adopted a ritual that would stand us (for the most part) in good stead. Drinking, eating and walking, repeated all through the day and night.

We jump-started the routine at a café called Bouchon where couched within its warm mahogany tones, we tried out Hungarian red wines with fillets of rolled chicken and wild boar. At the end of the meal the waiter passed me a folded paper. Eeh, a note expressing amour? Even better, a hand-written recipe for the rolled chicken I had so admired.

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Street Tai Chi in progress
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Jewish Quarter
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Jewish Quarter
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St. Stephen Cathedral (Szent Istvan Bazilika)

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Wild boar and potato croquettes
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Rolled and stuffed chicken served with an apple and plum salad
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Heroes’ Square (Hősök Tere). Here there are statues of the seven chieftains of the Hungarian tribes, the Magyars, at the time of their arrival to the Carpathian Basin in 895 AD. Here there also figures statues of national leaders and the tomb of the unknown soldier.
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Vajdahunyad Castle 
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In the grounds of the castle 
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Vajdahunyad Castle was originally built out of wood and cardboard by the architect in 1896 commemorating a thousand years since the medieval Magyars had first settled on the plains of Pannonia.
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Then they found that its blend of Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance and Romanesque architecture appealed to the public, so it was rebuilt in stone.

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Adi tests the water of a spring near the castle
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Shots of Pálinka, traditional fruit brandy, became our go-to everyday
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A Ukrainian stone-carrier ship that is a bustling concert venue now
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Enough wine in my veins 
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The jazz outfit from NYC that had us grooving
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Christmas markets

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Deep fried Hungarian bread. Lángos. The guys were so surprised at the sight of it that they left me to finish it all by myself.
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Hot mulled wine
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Christmas markets at Deák Ferenc tér
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 Deák Ferenc tér
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“If my Valentine you won’t be,
I’ll hang myself on your Christmas tree.” 
― Ernest Hemingway

 

Bring Out Those Candy Canes and Hop, Hop, Hop

It’s Christmas! Our table at home is all ready to be laden with the goodies. There is mulled wine and chicken roast, roast potatoes and sticky wings, lots of Prosecco and a cheeseboard, the stars of which shall be aged Dutch sheep’s cheese and a garlic and herb Gouda. The quintessential Christmas fruit cake is always the nucleus of our Christmas celebrations – because the goodness of a rum-soaked cake cannot be overlooked – and some pecan-nutella Christmas tree puff pastry and salted-caramel gingerbread men. What is your table going to look like?

Since there is lots to be done, I shall go about it and leave you in the Christmas mood with the Cocteau Twins and these Christmas market shots from Budapest.Merry Christmas folks!

Frosty the Snowman – The Cocteau Twins

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That is our tiny glass blown Christmas tree from Murano. It sits on the window ledge and gives us wide, sparkly smiles.
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From the Christmas market in Deák Ferenc Square, Budapest. “Christmas isn’t a season. It’s a feeling.” Edna Ferber
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Hot blueberry teas and green apple teas and mulled wines in plum, strawberry, sour cherry and blueberry flavours. Those hot drinks are key to surviving freezing Hungarian winters.
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“Maybe Christmas, the Grinch thought, doesn’t come from a store.” Dr. Seuss
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“Christmas is doing a little something extra for someone.” Charles M. Schultz
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Christmas the Gellert Spa and Bath way.
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Sausages and hot wine. Aaaaah 🙂
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And some Sekler cake. Kürtőskalács if you can speak Hungarian. Crisp, caramelised coated yeasty dough wrapped around a wooden tool.
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The Christmas spirit steams off those hot vats.
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From the Jewish Quarter in Budapest. Because wouldn’t it be lovely to have such a twinkling cab turn around the corners in beautiful old cities?

Have a wonderful Christmas all you lovely people and let the mulled wine flow. As someone once said, “He who has not Christmas in his heart will never find it under a tree.”