Monday, October 24, 2011

Bratislava & Budapest

Budapest  Day 1 –Memories

It’s been over 20 years since we were last in Budapest, in the days when it lay behind the Iron Curtain. My most vivid memory is a swim in the Gellert baths, warm spa water, pool surrounded by pillars and stern, women guardians insisting on us wearing a shower caps. It’s now a classy hotel and although I can afford to stay there, I wouldn’t want to. We’re in the Bohem Art Hotel, ‘boutique’ as they say, much better than those big chains with their dumbed-down, corporate décor.  It’s colourful and quirky – free coffee in the afternoons, free WIFI. Any hotel that does not offer free WIFI in this day and age is clearly run by cretins.
Last time there were no bill boards, no adverts, few modern cars and lots of grand but crumbling buildings. We bussed it out to Eger, the home of Bulls’ Blood, the wine that supposedly fortified the locals in their fight against the Turks. We can remember eating gloriously as the exchange rate was so favourable and the gypsy musicians in the restaurants. This was BC – before children.
Dinner the first evening at the Trattoria Tuscano (I know Italian in Hungary). Off the beaten track but cosy and excellent food and wine. Tuscan bread soup, truffle pasta, butterfish and wild boar stew, with a Levinto red.
Budapest  Day 2 – History of Hungary
Next morning a short walk to the huge fresh produce market. They had an excellent set of cabinets showing dozens of species of mushrooms and an office where you could get them identified. Poisoning is clearly a worry! I’m a bit of a schroom freak, sow as in my element. Then round to the Museum of Applied Arts, not to see the applied arts but the Secessionist building in which they’re housed. It’s a truly strange mixture of almost Rococo panels, green/orange roof and Gaudi like features. To be frank, it doesn’t work but you’ve got to admire their sense of adventure – this was before turn of the century i.e. 19th century.
Then to the Hungarian National Museum, which is a huge neo-Classical affair. Hungary lies landlocked between the East and Western Europe and has been subjected to control from both sides. The Romans occupied west of the Danube but the Huns came from the East. After the schism in the Catholic church in 1054 between East and West, Hungary aligned itself with the west. The Mongols invaded in 1241/42 killing an estimated 50% of the population, after which castles were built by the dozen and when they came back in 1286, Hungary could successfully defend itself. The Ottomans took complete control of the country in 1526 but by 1718 the whole of Hungary was finally freed from Ottoman rule. In 1825 reforms were put in place but the country was under Hapsburg control, eventually siding with the Germans in the First World War. Siding again with the Germans in the Second World War, they became a Soviet satellite post war. The 1956 uprising put Nagy in power, but the soviets responded in 1958 by invading and executing Nagy. Then, in 1989, the wall fell, and that era came to an end with Soviet troops leaving in 1990-91. Hungary joined the EU in 2004.
So it has see-sawed between east and west, being subjected to sometimes savage control by outside powers. All of this is told well in the Museum and you come away with this sense of struggle against outside forces that has at last resulted in stability within the European Union. It’s easy to scoff at the EU but the history of Hungary is a testament to its necessary existence.
Over the bridge for lunch at Marcello’s where I had cold Blackberry soup, much better than the cold, milky Cherry soup I had in the Gay Hussars in London.  Then up to the Castle in the late afternoon sun, where a fine trio were playing jazz and classical music in the lookout café, and back down to the river, over the Chain Bridge, built by Adam Clark, who was also a Scot, from Edinburgh. There’s some fine architecture here, from Secessionist surprises to more predictable neo-Classical and Baroque beauties.
Excellent evening meal at Sercli on Veres Palne. Gulash soup, duck salad, lamb in Hungarian ratatouille and cherry and poppy seed strudel.
Budapest Day 3 – House of Terror
Left our luggage in the Nugyati station then walked to the Parliament building, which was closed. It was October 23rd, the day of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 (the year I was born) so closed. The Soviets invaded on 4 November. It’s this 20th century history I wanted to explore.
The House of terror is no entertainment venue but the actual name given to the building which housed both the Nazi and Soviet secret police. It had been highly recommended. In the atrium there’s a soviet tank and on the walls pictures of the hundreds of people who dies at the hands of the Nazis and Communists. It’s dark, foreboding and tells the story of oppression without pulling any punches. Both the Nazi and Soviet invasions are shown in short film clips then room by room you get the apparatus of suppression. The Nazi rooms are black and grey, showing how the Arrowcross became the Hungarian Gestapo and SS. The Jews were ghettoised and murdered, most being sent to Auschwitz. Both excelled in propaganda through uniforms, badges and symbols. Both had their concentration camps and gulags. Both selected racial groups for selective punishment and extermination. Both used this one building to try, imprison, torture and execute their enemies. The Soviet rooms are red and show the car with the red sofa in the back. But it’s the soviet expulsion of thousands to the Gulags that is the most harrowing, with interviews of the few that survived and the widows of those who never returned. In another room some women who had been imprisoned in Budapest were shown meeting their woman guard. It was harrowing.
This, like the Kafka Museum in Prague is exemplary in its use of light and sound to convey atmosphere and context. It gives you more than facts and knowledge taking you into the realm of understanding and feeling. It’s hard not to be moved by the suffering.
Just a few facts, however, are telling:
300,000 Hungarian citizens were captured, deported and lost their lives in the Gulags
There’s a cell like an upright coffin which had lights at eye level to keep you blinded
A cell where you couldn’t stand-up
A water cell where you had to sit in cold water
A torture cell with pliars, electric shock equipment
A gallows
The last Soviet soldier left in 1991
The last Hungarian prisoner of war was returned in 2000
Back in Bratislava
The railway station is a bit run down but we took a tram into town and had a good wander before heading off to Budapest. We’ll be here in a couple of days. Feels like more of a large than a city, but the centre has a relaxed feel.
Back in Bratislava to another Art Hotel (Art Hotel William) – huge room in centre of town. Walk round to the wonderful Blue Church. Decorates with what looks like blue icing and little mosaics. Then up to the Castle, which was a little austere – and closed! The museum was not worth visiting. As Gil said – I’ve got better stuff on my mantelpiece.
We flew here to see Callum fight in the England Tae Kwon Do team at the European Championships. It was odd seeing him in his England track suit with the word England emblazoned across his back. We’re both Scottish and the only remnant of nationalism I have is sports nationalism. But he’s done himself proud after training and competing solidly for 9 years. He got to the quarter finals, which as great for his first outing in the England team. Julia Cross coached him (she’s the most successful competitor ever in ITF TaeKwonDo). She also happens to be Scottish!
Pizza Mizza’s a find. Excellent thin crust pizza and good pastas. Tram back to town past some pretty grim housing. And this is a country that’s helping to bail out Greece!
Final dinner in Mestiansky Pivovar, who brew their own (tasty) beer and serve a fine gulash. A brace of beers each and home to the excellent Art Hotel Willem. Post-Soviet, stag parties have arrived here - sex clubs, shooting Kalashnikovs in the forest, cheap bars.
Final word of praise for eastern European, actually European, public transport. We took trains, buses, trams, trolleybuses and metro trains – all were cheap, comfortable and on time. Only 16 Euros return from Bratislava to Budapest.

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