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Austria & Hungary - Part 2, Hungary

I caught the 10 am train from Wien Meidling to Budapest, first time travelling between countries with luggage on a train and a little nervous about my ability to heave suitcase, carry-on tote and myself on-board, stow luggage and find a seat, but it all worked perfectly, even sat right across from the luggage area. Arrived at Keleti a bit before 1 pm and was immediately overwhelmed by a sense of being in a very foreign country, hadn't felt that way in Vienna. Not much English signage, lots of people gabbling away and frazzled about catching their trains. I shooed away guys offering taxi services and found the ATM, then called City Taxi and was picked up in less than 5 minutes. I stayed on So utca at the Boutique Hotel Zara, very clean and modern hotel, great staff but an extraordinarily small room; room for the bed (which was NOT comfy), nightstands and skinny desk, no chair to sit in. Bathroom small but ok--after my huge room in Vienna I was disappointed, but everything was clean and nice so figured I'd only be in there a few hours every evening and the location was excellent for the tram and metro, plus the free breakfast was very good. I headed right out to the Kalvin ter metro, bought a 3 day pass and visited the Applied Arts Museum--loved it, just the kinds of things I like to see.

I explored the area a bit and had dinner from a stand at the Great Market Hall, Bremi, I believe. Such a lovely building, such wonderful things to eat! Overwhelmed by the choices but went for a pork sausage and big butter beans in a red greasy (in a good way) kind of sauce that was excellent with a Dreher beer. I decided to turn in early so as to get a fresh perspective on Budapest the next day.

Thursday I had a 9:45 tour of Parliament, really loved the statues of all the different types of craftspeople in Hungary. Lots of armed guards. Across Kossuth Lajos ter was the Museum of Ethnography and it was fairly deserted, not sure why, but as someone with Hungarian ancestry I enjoyed every display, so many beautiful costumes, implements and explanations of daily life in Hungary. Headed up Falk Miksa for the antique shops--a bit fancier than the collectibles I favour from the mid-1900s but I like to see old stuff no matter what. Had lunch outdoors at Café Picard and continued on to the end of Falk Miksa before catching the metro to the Terror House on Andrassy. Incredibly powerful and compelling museum, very well-done and meticulously detailed accounting of life in Hungary during their two periods of occupation. Made it to the Opera in time for the 4 pm tour, then back to my neighbourhood where I poked around the Danube and a bit of Vaci utca.

Friday I took the metro to Batthyany and bought my tickets for the HEV train to Szentendre. Rickety old train but I liked seeing a bit of the area surrounding Budapest. Szentendre was absolutely gorgeous, charming little medieval cobble-stoned town along the Danube just full of good things. Lots of touristy shops, but also a craft fair in the middle of town, antique shops where I found the perfect souvenir, lots of hand-crafted items and art galleries. The Margit Kovacs museum was a delight, I highly recommend that, especially if you like sculpture and tile work. Had chicken paprikas at outdoor café on the square, attended by a darling yellow tabby cat who was all over the town, in shops and restaurants, visiting but not seeming to bother anyone. Couldn't figure out the return train time but magically arrived just in time to leave at about 5 pm.

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Saturday was my last day in beautiful Budapest and I had decided I needed to find the Ecseri flea market, and thought I had my logistics nailed down. Well. Got off the metro at Ecseri ut and attempted to find the bus; no one seemed to speak English so I showed them my paper. Ah! Finger pointing to go back in metro. This confused me, but I did and found a young Hungarian girl who tried to figure out where I wanted to go, thought perhaps I wanted groceries. But she led me back up outside the metro and pointed to a nearby tram so off I went. Tram driver spoke no English but upon seeing my now-grubby paper held up 4 fingers and motioned me on the tram. Sure enough, in 4 stops he frantically waved me off the tram and pointed urgently in a direction. I mentally marked where I had exited tram and set off, went a few blocks, becoming hotter and more frazzled as I went, felt no flea market-ish energy nearby and headed back to the tram, my only defeat for the whole trip!

I did find the Cat Café on Revay utca, near St Istvan's. If you are a cat lover, you will love it, though it was mainly females inside, along with a few dispirited looking male companions. 12 cats live there and are attended by a cat wrangler to ensure no fighting or cats getting in your food, it's extremely clean. Nonetheless, one managed to get a bit of whipped cream from my iced coffee. Poked around the square at St Istvan's, considered trying to get to the National Gallery in Buda to see the Man Ray & Magritte exhibit but decided to just wander the streets and explore. Made it to the Market Hall for a last bit of souvenir shopping. Walked the entire length of Vaci utca back to the hotel, it ends right near So utca. Not too tempted by the stores, much prefer hand-made souvenirs but I did need to find a couple of things for people. Since I had to be up at 2 am to leave for the airport I had an early dinner outside at Futul on Vaci utca, quite possibly the best meal--stuffed cabbage on a bed of shredded cabbage with a pork sausage and bacon on top, and an enormous Dreher.

Overall my impression of Budapest was that of a vibrant, beautiful city--I never tired of seeing the ornate old buildings--full of great people willing to help if at all possible. Not quite as much English speaking unless dealing with tourists, some places no English signage but with my trusty map I was able to easily find my way and thought their transit system very efficient, if some of the lines a bit old. I felt safe out and about alone even in the evening and if you need a taxi, call City Taxi--quick service and no gouging.

I did not feel compelled to visit the baths and did not include the larger art museums since I was about done after Vienna--the Museum of Ethnography was very satisfying for me. I was 2 blocks from the Szabadsag hid and walked over that to Buda one evening to get photos at sunset, but did not explore much over there. I recommend riding the trams to get a feel for the city and be amongst the Hungarians. Just walking the streets in this lovely city was very enjoyable for me, and I must say Budapest truly captured my heart; I knew I would love Vienna and I did a hundred times over, but I was amazed at how quickly Budapest grew on me.

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14580 posts

Hi,

Good, enlightening report here. Keleti pu is the most modern and westernised of the train stations in Budapest. It has a nice feel to it. I can well understand that overwhelmed feeling where you realise that you're in foreign country. That reminds me clearly of my one and only time at the Prague train station in 1973, where the signage was in Czech, Russian, and German.

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Fred, my first impression of Keleti

In 2001 the train coaches from Vienna to Budapest were somewhat similar to the battered and dented old Mussolini specials we had “enjoyed” in Italy years earlier. Shortly after our departure from Vienna the train came to a stop. We were being boarded by soldiers in black uniforms carrying machine guns!!! One of the soldiers, a very large, very serious middle aged gentleman, approached us and said something in the most bizarre language imaginable. My wife was like a deer in headlights. Finally it occurred to her; passports! Tickets! Hand it all to him and smile damn it! I chuckled, we did, he did, the train moved on. For the first time I thought that I might be responsible for my wife disappearing behind the Iron Curtain – never to be seen again!!! Okay, it was 2001 and there was no iron curtain, but tell that to the guy with the machine gun.

The train arrived in Budapest a couple of hours before sunset. The Kelti station was a dark, soot stained, musty relic of the cold war, and upon leaving the train and becoming aware of our surroundings we were stunned. My wife gave me the, “what the heck have you gotten us into” look and I could only smile. A quick 360 degree spin and the only exit path became evident. Pushing the door open and looking out it was a beautiful day. Beautiful until I felt tugging at my suitcase. Some big burley, Russian looking commie guy was trying to nab my suitcase! No he wasn’t, he was a cabbie. He wanted a fare and he was going to get it by kidnapping our luggage. I pulled back, another cab drove up on the curb and stopped and a young kid jumped out and ran to what we hoped was our rescue. He and the commie began arguing in that same mystifying language we heard the soldier with the machine gun using. How the heck could they understand each other, I thought. The struggle of the cabbies ended abruptly and they looked towards my wife and I for guidance. Easy, the kid was small and skinny, I could whoop him if need be, so I choose him to drive us.

Drive us where? After numerous attempts and numerous of responses of “no English” he began to understand that we just wanted him to drive around the town. Sort of an orientation tour was my intent. Budapest was lovely. Here was the Danube where it belonged; in the middle of the town unlike Vienna where the Danube was an inconvenience not an attribute; the buildings were not imposing, but because of the sight lines across the river they were panoramic majesties. As it began to get dark the cabbie began driving away from where the “action” seemed to be. He began driving higher and higher. Dear G-d he was taking us to some deserted spot to rob and kill us. I knew it. We should never have come to Eastern Europe! As predicted, on a high winding road he pulled to the side and motioned us out of the car. In the darkness I couldn’t tell if he had a weapon, but he must; all communist killers do. Once out of the car we turned to face him and over the roof of the car we saw the most magnificent view G-d ever created; Budapest with all its lights when seen from Gellert Hill. Our cabbie was very proud he had brought us here and my wife and I were almost speechless. I knew we only had a few days in this magnificent place and so I mumbled to my wife, “we’re coming back”. My wife, confused, just commented that we had only arrived. Thus our love affair with Budapest began.

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2609 posts

@James--It was bad enough fending off the pushy cabbies at Keleti, some were actually blocking people trying to exit the train, so glad I had the info to call City Taxi. You make a good point about the Danube, such a lovely integrated part of the city of Budapest but off to the outskirts in Vienna.

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14580 posts

My first time seeing Keleti was in May of 2010, struck me as interesting, same thing this past May, four years later, but with some improvements. I get the feeling I missed out on something and should have seen the station in the summer of 2001 given your description of the place on a train pulling in from Vienna. That would have been very striking and interesting. Instead, in the summer of 2001 I went to Poland for Warsaw and Krakow to and fro by train, including the 10+ hr ride direct Krakow to Berlin.

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18167 posts

The cabbies at the airport and Keleti are about the only two really painful tourist situations in Budapest. And when you get right down to it the worst that will happen is you end up paying $15 for a $12 ride. Could be worse. We have watched a lot of "cleaning up" going on in Budapest. Mostly well done, but there are times I wish more of the old life was still staining the walls. I don't ever want it to be as clean as Vienna.

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I was struck by how many buildings in Vienna had been "cleaned" ie, sand blasted (in this sense of the word) when I returned there in 2009 after an absence from the city since 1977. In the 1970s many of the famous sights in/out of the center and ordinary buildings outside of the center, when I first saw them in 1971 ie, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Schwarzenberg Platz, the Soviet War Memorial, Maria Theresien Platz, the different memorials, etc. were still black (not merely because of its color) esp in the outlying districts. True, Vienna is alot cleaner now compared to what one would have seen 40 years ago.

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18167 posts

Not wanting Budapest to be as clean as Vienna was not meant to be a negative comment about Vienna. Vienna is beautiful. Fred, I don't think you took me wrong (thanks) I was being a little melancholy about the changes in Budapest. I don't want it to ever become "standardized", but I think I wish in vain. I love taking guests about 2 blocks from where we stay and pointing up at a building and asking, "see those holes in the plaster that look like someone shot the place up with a machine gun?. Do you know what caused it? Good guess but WRONG! A machine gun caused it!" Then we can talk about 1956. Then there are tiny, tiny pieces of crumbling wall hidden in remote corners that once formed the deportation ghetto wall. Some day they will all be gone. Then there are some good things gong on, like the Stolpersteine.

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Yes, the example of seeing that sort sight in Budapest where a given side of a building or so is still riddled with bullet holes from either 1945 or '56 is important given its historical context and accuracy, which, true , should not be forgotten. On my two day trips to Budapest I've missed that, these grittier streets. Of course, if the streets/buildings are in such a dilapidated condition, they obviously should be refurbished, etc That stands to reason but it does not stand to reason to knock that old historical building (if such is the case) and replace it with a Starbucks or MacCafe.

Comparable to that "bullet holes" example in BP is my second time going over to East Berlin solo in August 1989. The opening of the Wall took place in Nov. 1989. I went to that area which is now the "in scene/place" for the 20 something set in Berlin....Prenzlauer Berg.

Not only were the streets deserted, not even Sunday afternoon strollers were around...just empty. What caught my eye right away was this one side of a building either left that way intentionally or "they" were not going replace it...the side of that building was riddled, plastered with bullet holes (Einschüsse) left from 1945. You can bet that particular block/street now is totally unrecognisable, gentriffied, yuppified, etc. I've never gone back to Prenzlauer Berg since.

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@Fred, a great number of the buildings and many of the neighborhoods as a whole are "protected".

Some (most) of this is my speculation.

The center of Pest and much of Buda as well is constructed and planned as many 19th and early 20th century cities; primarily apartment blocks with retail on the first floor and courtyards in the center. Even the occasional mansion could be mistaken for an apartment block. Getting into these buildings is a great lesson in the life of the culture.

During the communist period the ownership was primarily by the state. Large apartments were cut up into numerous smaller ones and parceled out at the discretion of the state. After the change I get the impression it was pretty much like musical chairs. Where ever you were sitting when the communist music ended became your home; but now you had to pay for the repair and upkeep, which many couldn’t afford. That condition appears to continue to this date thanks in part to a less than stellar economy. Sure, where people were living on the main avenues like Andrassy ut and those in the tourist zone of District V were able to sell their apartments for a good profit and the corporations, foreigners, and new wealthy were able to come in and refurbish at least the exteriors.

Sometimes the gems of history are well hidden. I was in a basement not long ago that was constructed of the familiar vaulted masonry construction, except in one area where the structure was cast in place flat concrete slab. I would guess where a bomb fell through in WWII. Something of the magnitude of 90% of the buildings were damaged during the siege but less than 5% were beyond repair. A little later history is reflected in the building that I stay when I am in Budapest. If you were to visit “The Hospital in the Rock” in Buda you would be shown a small vestibule with steel doors on both sides. That was the room where in theory the radiation would be washed off before reentering the shelter/hospital. In the basement of the particular building I stay at there is a basement room of about 750 sf with a similar steel door / wash off room arrangement. For sale too by the way. It is the ability to touch so much history that is still so very relevant that fascinates me.

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Christa, your last remark about touching history and the two steel doors with the wash off room. I've seen it, and oddly enough I own one. No, not just the door, but the pair of doors, the wash off room and the shelter.

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14580 posts

@ James...thanks a lot for the link above. That's the sort of thing historically I am keenly interested in seeing, such as the MH Museum on Castle Hill, gives me more incentive for coming back aside from the food. I hadn't heard of the particular site, those specific fortresses, but only the name of site on the Danube.

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@Fred, we stumbled upon the site pretty much by accident. It isn't much marketed. Completely unsupervised roam the complex of underground facilities used up until the time the Russian's pulled out. Apparently it at one it was among the largest munition dumps outside of Russia. Just outside the gates is a railroad siding and what looks to be a warehouse. This was a holding center for Jews during the holocaust. There is a matching fortress on the Slovakia side of the river but I don't know anything about it.

I imagine you know about the underground Fall Out Shelter / Hospital in Buda. And I happen to own an old Cold War fall out shelter but besides making the comparison with the one in Buda about the steel doors and the wash off area there isn't much to see.

Then there is the tank driving or amphibious driving or troop transport driving; what ever lights your fire. http://tank.hu/
Soviet Artillery at the Citadella in Buda. Also note the damage to the walls left from WWII http://www.aviewoncities.com/img/budapest/kvehu1634s.jpg

Abandoned airbase: https://www.flickr.com/photos/blackdogone/sets/72157622097568642/

And I will poke around to see what else I can dig up for you.