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Posts Tagged ‘hungary’

I am, surprise, no longer in Romania, or Hungary. In fact, I made it home in the middle of December, and then spent a couple of weeks lying on the couch with a really bad cold. Between the cold, Christmas and the weather I got out of the habit of blogging. And then I started planning my next trip. I’m still planning (Europe again), but I am going to try to finish up the last trip before leaving! (Besides, today the alternative is doing my taxes.)

The New synagogue, Szeged

The New Synagogue, Szeged

October 16-19, 2014: Szeged, in Hungary, is just across the border from Timisoara in Romania, but that doesn’t mean they are connected by a railway line. To get from one to the other I had to travel north back to Arad, cross the border, and then north again to finally switch to a southbound train in Bekescsaba. I would also need to get up early to make a 7:30 train – my reluctance to do so no doubt accounted for the fact that I set my alarm for 6:45 instead of 5:45. Luckily I woke up at 6:30 and was able to shower, dress, finish packing, cram some food into my mouth and still make my 7:05 taxi. Not a good omen, but things were going according to plan until we crossed the border, and the Hungarian ticket collector explained to me that the tracks were out south of Bekescsaba and I would have to switch to a bus for a few miles.

Well, OK, annoying but presumably manageable. Except that when I got off the train in Bekescsaba there were no signs pointing the way to the bus, no-one else seemed to be looking for it, and no-one I asked had any idea what I was talking about. When I finally tracked down the correct bus stop on the outer perimeter of the bus station the connecting bus had, of course, departed and I had to wait for the next one. Since I was still limping, crisscrossing the bus station in search of the elusive stop was particularly aggravating.
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Arriving in Szeged to find a comfortable modern tram waiting to take me into town, and that the hotel I had stayed at back in 2011 had not only given me the same room, but had opened a well-reviewed restaurant, did improve my outlook. I had loved Szeged on my first visit, and it boasts one of my favorite buildings anywhere, but I might not have returned if I had been able to visit the New Synagogue on that trip. Then it had been very firmly closed – looking abandoned, in fact – but friends had visited in the spring and been able to gain entry, and their photos were enticing.

So, Friday morning I limped across town to the synagogue, knowing it would be closed for the Sabbath the next day. Only to find that it was closed anyway for a Jewish holiday… I was beginning to feel that I was just not supposed to see inside this building.

Fortunately, I was staying in Szeged long enough to try for a third time, and I was finally able to enter the morning of the day I left. And even though the sanctuary was being transformed for an upcoming concert, it was well worth the effort. Besides admiring the beautiful sanctuary, I spent some time in the foyer with an exhibition on the Jewish presence in Shanghai during WWII. I had not known that a number of Jews had sought sanctuary there, and been kindly received by the Chinese. Although the Japanese occupiers had been less well-disposed, herding the Jews into a ghetto, at least they hadn’t tried to exterminate them.

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Szentendre from the Danube, 2004

Szentendre from the Danube, 2004

October 20-21, 2007: Having already done the river trip to Szentendre (verdict: boring stretch of river, very pretty town but overrun with tourists), this time I decided to go inland, to the former palace at Godollo. This turned into a bit of a trek. I started by taking the metro to the end of the M3 line at Ors Vezer ter, where I found the HEV station quite easily, but not anywhere to buy a ticket for the suburban train. I boarded with my fingers crossed, and luckily no inspectors showed up. However, shortly after a crowd of school kids got on we stopped at a station, an announcement came over the P.A., and everyone got off. Turned out we had to take a seriously overcrowded bus the rest of the way to Godollo.

As I’m not a fan of baroque, and as the Godollo palace is definitely baroque, I had been more interested in the trip through the countryside than the palace itself, but I quite enjoyed it anyway – particularly the gowns belonging to Sisi (Empress Elizabeth, the Austro-Hungarian Princess Di) and a big chapel with a glass-enclosed viewing gallery. However, only coffee and cake were available for hungry visitors – no lunch. I don’t seem to have taken any photos at the palace, but this gown from the Esterhazy collection at the Decorative Arts museum would have been right at home there.

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My feet, which had started complaing the afternoon of my first day in Budapest, were still unhappy. The helpful woman in the T.I. booth at the palace told me that a ten minute walk would take me into town where I could catch a regular train back to Budapest. At a slow limp, the 1 km took rather longer, but I enjoyed the quiet, almost rural, back streets. The regular train, unlike the HEV, was pretty decrepit, but I was able to check out the distance from the platforms to the metro at Keleti station, and realized I would need a taxi the day I left. Lunch was, for the second time, at Duran, and I am glad to see that it is still selling its wonderful open-faced sandwiches. (Caviar! Smoked salmon! Shrimp! Cheese! And cheap…)

My last afternoon, after a not very exciting visit to Gyorgy Rath Asian museum, I headed back to Andrassy ut, thinking of visiting the other Asian museum, Ferenc Hopp, only to find the wide avenue filled with men in black vests and red and white neckerchiefs, drawn up in military formation behind big red and white flags.

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I asked one of the spectators who they were, and I swear I heard “Goths”. Despite all the black, this seemed unlikely. The Hungarians after all, were proud descendants of the Magyars, not the Goths.

I moved on and tried someone else. This time I learned they were actually the Hungarian National Guard, and that the U.S. and the Western press and CNN all misrepresented them… I edged away from the lecture and started taking photos – of the Guard and of journalists taking their own, posed, photos. I walked on up to Heroes Square, to find a big crowd and more flags. I decided that there would either be a lot of speeches I wouldn’t understand, or some form of mayhem I’d prefer to avoid. Back on the metro, headed south, I saw more trains than usual headed north, packed with burly men in khaki.

Riding the shuttle in from the airport, the local sitting next to me had told me all about the riots that had erupted the year before on the anniversary of the 1956 uprising, on October 23rd.  It know looked like good planning that had scheduled my departure to Vienna for the day before, but I confess that it was pure chance.

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Wandering Budapest

Inside the Museum of Applied Arts

November 3-9, 2011: Between the apartment and the Art Nouveau tour, my visit to Budapest would have been a success regardless of what else I did, but I did enjoy a few other sights as well.

The “top ten” lists for Budapest include places like the Opera House, the Terror Museum, the three bath complexes, the Great Synagogue, and Castle Hill, all worthwhile sights, but places I’d seen before. I did go back, for the third time, to the Museum of Applied Arts, as much for the building as the collection, and to the covered market, which confirmed the bad news I already suspected. Since my previous visits, Budapest had been “discovered” and was now firmly on the tourist trail.

The market was mobbed, with tourists outnumbering the locals. Vaci ut, the main pedestrian street, was full of tourist shops and tourist shoppers. I hated to think what Szentendre, the cobblestoned village a short boat-ride away, would look like now, as it had already been over-run in 2004. Fortunately, Budapest was big enough that some escape was possible by avoiding the main streets.

Vaci ut.

Except that I wouldn’t skip walking Andrassy ut however big the crowds. (Luckily, most people took the metro instead of walking.) I did the whole length, slowly, camera in hand. Then I went back, on the advice of my Art Nouveau guide, to see the inside of the recently renovated number 39 with the Alexandra Bookstore on the ground floor and a lavishly decorated cafe above. At the north end I stopped off to visit the brand-new Gold Museum (aka the Zelnik István Southeast Asian Gold Museum), full of beautifully displayed Asian artifacts, but unnecessarily anal about handbags (everything is under glass anyway!).

Orthodox Synagogue

I finally made it onto Margaret Island, a great place for the energetic and with views of both Buda and Pest. I rode the old-fashioned tram up and down the Danube in daylight and at dusk. I visited the Orthodox Synagogue, and found it as interesting as the Great Synagogue. I still failed to get around to seeing the inside of the Parliament Building, or heading out to Esztergom Basilica, but I had to leave something for next time.

And I do hope to go back to Budapest. But also to so many other places… So the reluctance with which I headed to the airport to start the trek home wasn’t solely related to the early hour. (The streets were eerily empty at  4:30 am!)

The Book Cafe at Andrassy ut 39

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Among the extensive information on Budapest on the apartment website I found a link for Pal Street tours, which offered an Art Nouveau tour. Like apartments, individual, as opposed to group, tours, are usually too expensive for budget-minded solo travelers, but I was saving enough on food by eating in that I succumbed to temptation. And I was glad I had.

We skipped outlying sights I had seen on my own, like the Ethnographic Museum and the Zoo, and spent two busy and informative hours in Central Pest. I’m just going to post some of the photos.

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Nesting in Budapest

Fisherman’s Bastion, my favorite shot from 2007

November 3-9, 2011: A sobe at the southern end of Andrassy Ut. That room in an elderly woman’s apartment, with shared bath, was my “home” in Budapest in 2004. A great location, but short on privacy.

A somewhat ramshackle hotel near the Elizabeth Bridge. My Budapest lodging in 2007. A pretty good location, but short on comfort.

So, where to stay in 2011? I still wanted the Pest side of the Danube – better transport, more restaurants, and a great view of Buda. (You can’t see Buda when you’re staying there.) I was tempted by the Leo Panzio, which had been full in 2007, but then I remembered reading about some great apartments in a trip report on Fodors, and with a little searching I found the reference.

Buda, from Pest

Now, apartments are a great deal for families, and for couples traveling together, but like rental cars are usually not cost-effective for singles. But this time I got lucky. Between winter rates, and a new, small, addition to the collection, I could actually afford an apartment. In fact, it was so affordable I went for Liesel, with a bedroom, rather than Pierre, with just a sofa-bed (a very large one, it turned out).

Pest, from Buda

The owners are clearly captivated by Budapest. Between the info on their website, and the collection of notes in the apartment, it’s hard to think of a question they haven’t anticipated. And the apartment showed the same loving attention to detail, from the spa bag with extra towels to the food in the fridge, from free calls to the US to the addictive Nespresso machine, it was truly a home away from home.

After two months on the road I was more than ready to settle in and enjoy the comforts.  I took full advantage of the kitchenette and the nearby stores to eat in for a change. Of course, the gorgeous French cheese shop mentioned in the notes was one reason – bread, cheese, and pate did nothing for my cholesterol levels and everything for my tastebuds. And the eggs I found in the fridge made the most beautiful, golden omelet.

The Nespresso machine is off to the right

The apartment, on Szervita ter just one block from transport-hub Deak ter and two from the Danube, was also walking distance to ever-popular Duran, which sells delicious open-faced sandwiches (you don’t need Hungarian to drool over the pictures on their web site), Cafe Gerloczy, where I ate an excellent lunch, and my previous fave, Cafe Central, which had changed owners and unfortunately gone down hill.

But I did manage to extract myself from the apartment occasionally to admire Budapest itself – there are reasons why I was back for the third time. But that’s for the next post.

Buda at night

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Cool to Kecskemet

Kecskemet's town hall

November 2-4, 2011: By the time I reached Kecskemet, my third stop in southern Hungary, my expectations were high. Maybe that was the problem, because the town just didn’t excite me the way Pecs and Szeged had. If I’d seen it first I’d probably have liked it more. Not that I would suggest skipping it, especially if you favor the National Romantic style of Art Nouveau, but it didn’t rate the two nights I gave it.

Art Nouveau...

Since the Szeged-Budapest rail line runs through Kecskemet, with hourly trains, it would be an easy stop off on the way, or perhaps a day trip from Budapest. After the bus trip across country from Pecs to Szeged (no train available) I was glad enough to be back on the rails, but it was a bit of a slog from the Kecskemet train station to Fabian Panzio, my cute B&B – the town was bigger and busier than the other two.

... and Art Deco

My digs were small but comfortable, the T.I. helpful, the museums open… But winter was definitely setting in, the architecture disappointed after Szeged, and I had a particularly bad meal in a well-reviewed restaurant. (Avoid Kecskemeti Csarda, and eat at Kisbugaci Csarda instead.) After investigating the Folk Craft Museum, the Ornamental Palace and the council chamber (not quite up to Subotica) I took refuge in the modern three story mall near my B&B, where I could thaw out and indulge in drinkable coffee next to a big bookstore.

Although the coffee, and the food court, and the cheap SIM stand (where I had to fill out a quite remarkable amount of paperwork) were all welcome, I could have done without the Christmas decorations. Really, it was only the beginning of November!

The mall

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Super Szeged

Szeged's Town Hall

October 31 – November 2, 2011: I really liked Pecs, but I loved Szeged. Mostly because it had so many Art Nouveau buildings, and eclectic Art Nouveau at that. It looked like the town had been lavishing some love on those buildings, too. Take the gorgeous Reok Palace, filling the corner of Kolcsey utca and Tisza Lajos Korut, which was described in my Lonely Planet as having “been left to the elements, and … coming off second best”. By the time I saw it, it looked fabulous. The New Synagogue, on the other hand, “Szeged’s most compelling sight”, was in dire need of help. It’s gates were locked, and the grounds overgrown.

Reok Palace

The New Synagogue

Although the town center was bigger than Pecs’, it was still eminently walkable. Well, aside, perhaps, to or from the train station. I arrived by bus from Pecs at a busy bus station on the north-eastern edge, but then rolled my case westwards towards the river and my hotel, the brand-new Soleil, through oddly quiet streets. Then I remembered that while I was arriving on Halloween, a big day for American kids, the next day, All Saints Day, was a big day for a lot of Catholic adults. The helpful woman who checked me into the hotel confirmed that I had indeed arrived in the middle of a holiday.

The main museum - not all buildings were Art Nouveau

Thanks to the holiday, I didn’t see inside any of the town’s museums, just the main church, but with so many beautiful exteriors, I really didn’t care. The folk art museum hadn’t sounded that enticing in any case, so I spent my time strolling the streets, enjoying the sunshine and taking loads of photos. I enjoyed my hotel, too, and rather wished I was staying longer (I had yet to see my apartment in Budapest…) My room had a loft for the big bed, loads of storage, a desk (with free wifi), a coffee maker, and shared a lounge and kitchen with another room. The only complaint I could make was the lack of an outside railing for the stairs to the loft – I descended with great care!

I didn’t find a restaurant to match the Susugo in Pecs, but I didn’t eat badly, although I was definitely finding prices higher in Hungary. When I headed for the train station, and the hourly train to Kecskemet, it was with considerable regret.

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Surprised by Pecs

At the beginning of this trip, all I knew about the end was that I would fly from Budapest to Washington, spend four nights there, and then take Amtrak home. How I’d get to Budapest was something I’d figure out later. Maybe the train from Zagreb? (Perhaps it had improved since 2004…) Maybe traveling north from Serbia via a couple of southern Hungarian towns with Art Nouveau architecture? I took along a few pages from Lonely Planet “Hungary” covering part of the south, just in case.

One side of Pecs' main square

After I saw the lovely buildings in Subotica, just over the border in Serbia but clearly a legacy of Austro-Hungarian occupation, southern Hungary became even more enticing. When I ran out of time to visit the Istrian peninsula, and found the train from Sarajevo to Budapest, I added Pecs to Szeged and Kecskemet as stop-offs on the way to Budapest. I didn’t have any guidebook pages for Pecs, but remembered reading about it before I left. I’d get off the Budapest-bound train in Pecs, take a bus over to Szeged, and then ride the train again to Kecskemet and Budapest.

Roof of the Post office

It turned out to be an inspired decision, especially where Pecs and Szeged were concerned. Both towns had undergone excellent renovations, and in both towns I stayed in brand-new, interesting small hotels. Given the unexpected hassle of the train trip from Sarajevo, I was especially relieved to check into an en-suite room in the Hotel Arkadia, which I had found on agoda.com, a site I more often use for Asian hotels.

But I would have put up with much less comfortable digs in exchange for   the town itself. Small enough to be walkable, with a long main “square” amply provided with benches, it still boasted plenty of photogenic buildings. And a remarkable cathedral. Not so unusual on the outside, I was blown away by the interior, literally covered with decoration. I was reminded of Albi, whose cathedral was plain and forbidding on the outside, and a kaleidosope of color on the inside. I was tempted to return to Pecs’ cathedral for Sunday mass, so I could see the place lit up, but wandered the streets instead.

Organ in Pecs' Cathedral

Then there was the 16th century Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kassim, dominating the main square. A reminder of the years of Turkish occupation, it had been converted to a combination church and museum. The Jakawali Hassan Museum was also housed in a 16th century mosque, but a much smaller one, and with a much quirkier exhibition. The main room was walled with mirrors, and I became somewhat disoriented. I had hoped, in true ecumenical fashion, to also visit the large 19th century synagogue, but it was closed and I had to settle for photographing the exterior.

Pecs' Synagogue

Besides the buildings I visited a couple of museums. The ethnographic wasn’t especially interesting, but I had a nice time at the Zsolnay ceramics museum, the firm having been responsible for much of the tile work decorating buildings of the late 19th and early 20th century. Unfortunately, their fountain, one of Pecs’ signature sights, was covered over for the winter.

I ate well in Pecs, too, notably at Susogo, next to the National Theater on the main pedestrian street. Here I progressed from coffee outside, to lunch inside, which impressed me so much I made a dinner reservation. A nice touch for solo diners was the wide-screen TV, fed by a camera in the kitchen, supplementing the view of the action in the street below. But the main attraction was unquestionably the food, notably a couple of soups and a duck breast with foie gras.

I didn’t need the covered fountain to tell me I had arrived in the off season – the evenings were cold, and the souvenir shops a little short of customers. But that was fine with me. I did see one small tour group, clearly on an excursion from a cruise ship, and a number of independents, but I suspect that the town has yet to really make it onto the tourist circuit. See it now!

The Cathedral Crypt

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No, this is not going to be a piece about how sorry I was to be heading for Hungary. I was actually rather pleased… Not that I regretted visiting the Balkans, which I had found always interesting and sometimes beautiful, but I was ready to rest up a bit.

Ottoman era house museum in Sarajevo

This would be the second time I had arrived in Hungary by train, the first being an unfortunate journey from from Zagreb to Budapest back in 2004. The fast train I had expected morphed into a slow train that stopped at every station. The old-style carriages with non-AC compartments, a hot day, and the hours we spent traversing the southern shore of Lake Balaton, a blue vision of coolness out the window, added up to misery.

My go-to site for all things train is seat61.com, and Mark Smith had nothing much to say about the Sarajevo-Budapest Intercity I would take to Pecs. No doubt all would have been well, except that that the railway workers in the Republika Srpska had gone on strike. Where’s that? That’s part of Bosnia. Actually, saying it’s part of Bosnia is shorthand as the country is properly known as Bosnia and Hercegovina, but almost half of it is the semi-autonomous Republika Srpska, the area ethnically cleansed by the Serbs during the war.

Thanks to the strike, my direct train journey involved three trains and one bus. When the train from Sarajevo reached the internal border with Republika Srpska, we got off the train and boarded a bus – only one was needed as there were less than twenty of us. A couple of hours later, at the international border with Croatia, we got off the bus at an isolated station, crossed the tracks and boarded a second train. At this point I figured I was set for the rest of the journey, but no. At the Hungarian border the remaining passengers, less than a dozen at this point, were kicked off the train again.

Turned out we had to wait for the southbound Budapest-Sarajevo train to arrive, and for its passengers to clear immigration, before we able to board the third train of the day. I believe that the people going through to Budapest had to change trains yet again in Pecs, but I was so glad to arrive I didn’t hang around to find out. I was too busy tracking down the (helpful) Tourist Information office.

Central Pecs

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