Between the Woods and the Water

Trip Start Feb 10, 2008
Trip End May 13, 2009

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Flag of Hungary  ,
Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The train from Krakow to Budapest cuts through the Karpathian mountain range to the wide flat Hungarian plain, with some hills to the east. I have just started reading "Between the Woods and the Water", by Patrick Leigh Fermor (PLF from now on as I will be referring to him quite a bit), the second book in his account of walking from Holland to Istanbul in 1933/4 when he was 18 years old. On the train I have just read pages 24 & 25 where he describes how Jenghiz Khan's grandson Batu brought his Mongol horde through the Karpathians in 1241 and laid waste to Hungary, destroying many towns, killing or enslaving almost half the population, burning Esztergom, only 60 kms from Budapest, which was saved only because Ogodai, successor to Jenghiz Khan died and the Mongols returned to Karakorum to choose the next successor.
This book will be my companion while I am in Hungary as the first few chapters will coincide with places I will be visiting and I am delighted by the thought of in some way following the footsteps of the author, going to some of the places he went to, and seeing what differences there are after almost exactly 74 years (the author crossed the bridge from Slovakia to Esztergom in Hungary on March 31, 1934 - I enter Hungary on April 9, 2008).
I arrive in Budapest very late at night but fortunately I have accommodation organised (my friends Alice and Alicia stayed at the same place last September) - an apartment rented out by a young Hungarian in a very central position in Pest. Buda is the hilly area on the other side of the Danube river and there was little contact between them until the Sechenyi (chain) bridge was built in 1849.
The first thing I do next morning is get a haircut and a shave - I am looking pretty wild as my last haircut was in Melbourne over 2 months ago, and I haven't shaved for over a month, and I feel incredibly light-headed and smooth-faced after. Near the barber shop I walk up steep Gul Baba (Uncle Rose - the rose being a metaphor for mystical knowledge) utca (street) which leads to the tomb and shrine of this celebrated Muslim dervish/saint who died in Budapest in 1541 when it was part of the Ottoman Empire (early 1500s-1686). The shrine is high up on a hill with an expansive view over the city and is beautifully decorated in Islamic style - it was a warm day and the caretaker very kindly invited me to drink holy water from the fountain, which I greatly appreciated, and felt much holier after it too.
I continue along to Buda Hill proper, which has fantastic views over the city and is covered with wonderful places to visit - St Matthias Church, Holy Trinity Square, Fishermans Bastion (so-called because it used to be a fish market - definitely the fish market with the best view I have ever seen), Buda Castle, Royal Palace, National Gallery, etc, all of which (except the National Gallery) are described in PLFs book, and apart from the inevitable hordes of tourists, would look pretty much like what they were in 1934 (PLF tried to imagine what Pest would have looked like from Buda in the 1500/1600s when it was under Turkish domination "the clustering domes, the minarets and the fluttering crescents"). Along the way I go into a Zoltan Kodaly exhibition (the most famous Hungarian musician, along with Bela Bartok, who was a close friend) and learn about their joint efforts to collect and save traditional Hungarian music, which they pretty successfully accomplished.
I walk the length of Uri utca, where the author lived in one of the mansions for a few weeks with a noble Hungarian family, and look for the kavehaz (coffee-house) where he used to drop in (described as less than a minutes walk from Holy Trinity Square and with a view of the gothic steeple of the church and a bronze horseman called Andrea Hadik) - it's still there but looks very different, and walk down the slopes looking to see if there are any traces of the Cuckoo, a venue where "gypsies bore down on the guests like smiling crows bent on steeping everything in their peculiar music" and "badly played this can sound like treacle and broken bottles" and "the czembalist went mad as the leading violinist, with his fingers crowding the strings in a dark tangle, stooped and slashed ... and closed in on his instrument like a welterweight in a clinch", but the slopes are now all landscaped and devoid of any buildings.
Down the bottom of the Hill there are a number of thermal baths, the most prominent being the Rudas (a Turkish steambath) and the St Gellert Gyogyfurdo (Hungarian for thermal bath-house, I think) in an ornate, overblown (but fabulous) 19th century style. Through some quirk of nature Budapest has a large number of natural thermal springs and elaborate bath-houses have been built around them. A bit further along the Danube I see a lighted cavern in a cliff (it's night now) and walk up to the Cave Church of the Order of St Paul the First Hermit, an order founded by Eusebius the Blessed, a 13th century hermit from Esztergom and named for St Paul the Hermit who lived in the 3rd century. It's made up of a number of little chapels burrowed deep into the rock, each with a few people quietly praying and worshipping.
One of the most imposing sites in Pest is the Parliament building, the 3rd largest in the world (after Rumania and Argentina) and I take a tour there next day. Security is tight - a limited number of people can enter at a time and similar equipment to that in airports is used - luckily I have not brought my Swiss Army knife. The Parliament has 691 rooms, and is incredibly ornate - one of the touches I like is the brass cigar holders in the corridors, and the guide tells us that until 1839 only Latin was spoken and written in the Parliament. The most sacred object in Hungary is kept there - the Apostolic Crown. The original crown is of battered gold with the actual diadem Pope Sylvester 11 sent to St Stephen around 1000AD when he was crowned the first king of Hungary. The cross on the crown has been given quite a whack at some time in its life as it's quite bent, and during a later period the crown was overlaid with jewels and coloured stones. Unfortunately it's a bit of an orphan now as there is no royalty left in Hungary to lay claim to it.
After I visit St Stephen's Basilica, and the Museum of Fine Arts, which has a special exhibition on Life and Art in the Renaissance - King Matthias of Hungary was fascinated by the Renaissance in Italy and brought many Italian sculptors, painters, architects, etc to Hungary to assist in modernising his kingdom. I also visit the Hungarian National Gallery, where there is a massive print collection (much of it bought from Everard Jabach, a wealthy French/German art collector who lived in the 1600s), before having a light meal of grilled goose liver on parsnip puree with sour cherries and a glass of excellent Hungarian red wine. After I attend an intriguing dance concert called Rituale 2008, which showcases both separately and in intermixed forms tango, latin, hip-hop, belly-dancing, flamenco, and Hungarian folk dancing.
I have been covering large distances these past couple of days and my feet are sore and getting blisters, but there is no let-up as in the next few days I try and fit in as much as possible.
My first expedition starts out in a town about 20kms away called Szentendre, full of artists, sculptors, ceramicists, etc. Many Serbians, Greeks and Dalmatians live there, descendants of people who escaped from their countries when the Turks occupied them hundreds of years before. At a much later period many Germans also migrated there so it's a real hodge-podge of a town, both ethnically and religiously speaking - it has Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Calvinist, Lutheran and Baptist churches.
From there I caught a bus to Visegrad and arrive at lunchtime so have a goulash soup, fried catfish, Somlo sponge cake gnocchi with whipped cream, an espresso and a Unicum liqueur (Hungary's national liqueur, like an Italian bitter digestive) - other items on the menu were: calf's feet fried with tartare sauce, pig's backbone soup, fish soup with plucks (?), hung clear meat soup.
After this substantial repast I walk past the ruins of the Summer palace of King Matthias (built in the Italian Renaissance style, the first time it was used in Europe outside Italy)and up to the castle that was built to repel further Mongolian invasions on the high rocky hill that towers over the town. PLF had met a couple of swine-herds, father and son ("the firelight made them look like contemporaries of the Domesday Book") in the forest near here, had drunk a bottle of strong liquor with them, and slept a night in the open.
A particular geographic feature in this area is that the Danube, which until now has been flowing mainly from west to east, suddenly does a sharp turn and flows virtually due south through the whole of Hungary, before turning east again. From the heights of the castle at Visegrad you get a great view of the Danube and I wanted to cruise back down to Budapest but unfortunately the ferries don't start operating until May .
I am now just about to do a stupid thing - I walk back down the hill to Visegrad town and wait for the bus for Esztergom, but then find out it will be nearly an hour, then see a ferry coming from the opposite bank of the Danube and decide to take that to the town on the other side, where there is a train, and get to Esztergom more quickly that way. I am very pleased with myself for being so clever until I find out that the train doesn't go to Esztergom but Sturovo in Slovakia, from where I will have to walk more than 3 kms to the border, and walk back over the long bridge.
Anyhow it all turns out well as the walk is quite pleasant, I have added another country to the notches on my belt, I have a refreshing dark beer (Zlaty Bazant, only $1) at the nice little Panda Bar just before the border, and I cross the bridge that PLF crossed in the opening lines of the book "Perhaps I had made too long a halt on the bridge. The shadows were assembling over the Slovak and Hungarian shores and the Danube, running fast between them ... the frontier post was at the end of the bridge, so I hastened into Hungary". It was delicious to read this as I approached the bridge, at much the same time of day as the author "the last of the sunset".
Unfortunately, the bridge I was crossing was not exactly the one he had crossed on March 31, 1934. This bridge had been largely destroyed in 1944 (2 of the 3 spans), and had remained abandoned and unused until it was rebuilt in 2001. A further difference is that as Hungary and Slovakia are both EU members the border posts are no longer in use, so you can just walk over freely. The massive Cathedral on the hill, however, is still exactly as it was "resting on its ring of columns, the great dome and the two Palladian belfries".
It was late and I still had to get back to Budapest so I decided to extend my stay in Hungary and come back in a couple of days time. I asked some people where the station was and one young guy on a bicycle volunteered to guide me there - it was 3 kms away and the train went in less than 25 minutes so I had to walk really fast (on my blistered feet) while the young guy rode along and peppered me with questions about Australia, his ambitions (personal trainer & sportsman), and generally practiced his English with me, which was pretty good.
Next day was full of activities too - I walked around the old Jewish quarter (largest synagogue in Europe, 150 years old); Raoul Wallenberg Park with a sculpture modelled on a weeping willow with Holocaust victim names carved into the leaves (there is a small Raoul Wallenberg garden near my former house in Melbourne - he was from a wealthy Swedish family and provided gave diplomatic passports to many Hungarian Jews (estimated at 15,000) enabling them to escape - unfortunately was captured by the Russians at the end of WW2 and never heard of again); Heroes Square and the huge park behind with the Vajdahunyad Castle, an exact copy of the original in Transylvania (Rumania) "chief stronghold of John Hunyadi (also known as the White Knight) a building so fantastic and theatrical that, at first glance, it looked totally unreal". In the same park is the Szechenyi baths, a bright yellow baroque building with thermal swimming pools, baths, saunas, etc where I spent a pleasant couple of hours.
That night I went to a milonga and met an Australian couple - he was born in Hungary but had lived in Australia for 30 years and his wife was a blonde from Brisbane. They had been in Budapest for 3 months and she cracked me up when she said (in all seriousness) that when she arrived in Budapest "everybody looked like they were from a SBS movie" - for non-Australian readers SBS is our multi-cultural channel that shows predominantly foreign films.
So the next day I went back to Esztergom and walked the 3 kms into town again (on my blistered feet - have I got your sympathy yet?). Esztergom was the capital of Hungary for hundreds of years (the founder of the Hungarian state and church, King Saint Stephen was born here) and it is Hungary's ecclesiastical centre - the cathedral is the largest Church and is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archbishop). I sat in the Cathedral and read the pages when PLF had attended the holy Saturday service in 1934 as a guest of the Mayor of Esztergom "the burghers in their best clothes, the booted and black-clad peasants, the intricately-coifed girls in their coloured skirts and white pleated sleeves paneled with embroidery ... black and white Dominicans, several nuns ... and near the doors a flock of gypsies in clashing hues ... the Archbishop, white and gold ... enthroned under an emblazoned canopy ... the serried magnates - the coloured doublets of silk and brocade and fur, the gold and silver chains,, the Hessian boots of blue and crimson and turquoise, the kalpaks of bearskin with their diamond clasps, and the high plumes of egrets' and eagles' and cranes' feathers".
I really had to use my imagination as all I could see in front of me in the cathedral was a large Chinese tour group wearing mainly nylon tracksuits and baggy clothes.
I continued reading "after an interval of silence, sheaves of organ-pipes were thundering and fluting their message of risen Divinity. Scores of voices soared from the choir, Alleluias were on the wing, the cumulus of incense billowing around the carved acanthus leaves was winding aloft and losing itself in the shadows off the dome ... the procession was slowly setting off ... the enormous moon was only one night after the full ... the waiting band moved in behind us and struck up the opening bars of a slow march ... as the front of the procession drew level everyone kneeled ... the men bareheaded, the women in kerchiefs". All I could see and hear were the sounds of scores of tourists clattering about and the noise of the shutters on their cameras.
Exhausted by all this imagining I went and had lunch: bean soup (huge black beans about 2.5 cms long) with sausages and sour cream, and goose greaves with tomato, peppers and purple onions, all raw, a not altogether satisfying combination.
I retired back to Budapest in the late afternoon and decided to go to the Turkish Rudas baths, originally built in the 16th century. I have never been to Turkish baths before so I was very curious. First I was handed what looked like a little white apron (I guess you would call it a loincloth) and it feels very funny when you put it on as you have a bare bum. So there we were, scores of men in our loincloths and bare bums walking around and bathing in the steamy atmosphere - there was a large main room with an octagonal pool and a dome over, and 4 smaller pools of different temperatures arranged around. Off this there were lots of passages leading to steam rooms, showers, massage rooms, etc. I decided to have a massage as with all the walking I've done and the baggage I've carried my muscles were feeling a bit tight. So I lie down on the massage bed (still with my loin cloth on and my bum bare) and the powerfully muscled masseur puts his hands firmly on my bum and starts running them down my legs. It takes me just a little while to be relaxed with this :)but when I do I find the massage is really good - I can feel the tightness being worked out of my bum, thigh and calf muscles. Up till now virtually all the massages I have had have been on my upper body, so it's a novelty having mainly my lower body massaged (about 2/3 rds of the time), rather than the upper.
That night, relaxed in the legs, I have a goosey dinner at the restaurant virtually next door, Kishakukk 1913. I have grilled goose liver (again) this time with baked apple rounds and Tokai sauce, crispy leg of goose with crushed onions/potatoes and stewed cabbage, and poppy seed parfait with whipped cream. From never having eaten goose before I have now eaten different parts of it 4 or 5 times in the last 8 or 9 days.
On my last day in Budapest I visit the ruins of ancient Aquincum, a Roman city of around 50,000 people in 100-200AD, which was the capital of the Roman Province of Lower Pannonia, on the edge of the Roman empire in this area. Across the Danuvium (Danube) were dark forests and wild tribes, while Aquincum had a Roman amphitheatre which held 15,000 spectators, hot baths, paved streets, etc. A fascinating thing, and something I knew nothing about was that the Roman legions were accompanied by musicians, not only for marching, but for entertainment. In the museum at the site is a Roman organ, the best preserved and most complete portable organ ever found of this kind, made of copper and mounted inside a wooden cabinet. It is believed to have belonged to the Firemen's Society.
A beautiful inscription relating to the wife of an organist who died at 25 was found on a sarcophagus in the ruins:
"Entombed in stone, here lies a dutiful wife, the beloved Sabina. Well grounded in the arts, she alons outshone her husband. Her voice was a delight, and her fingers skillfully plucked the stringed instrument; but now, untimely snatched from life, she is dumb. Her years numbered three times ten, all but five, alas! Plus three months and twice seven days. In her lifetime she took part in public concerts on the hydraulic organ, thereby giving great pleasure.
Aelius Iustus, stipendiary organist to the 2nd Legion Adiutrix, her husband."
For my last meal in Budapest I have lunch at the famous Kehli Vendeglo 1899, a former manor house not far from Aquincum. It was the favourite haunt of Gyula Krudy, a writer whose work sang the praises of country cooking, according to the restaurant - many of his sayings are inscribed on the walls and written on the menus.
Entrée was fish soup, which was served with sliced hot green peppers and hot red pepper paste - it was so good to have spicy food again after months doing without - after eating the soup I spread the chili paste on bread and ate it like jam; then I had Gyula Krudy's favourite dish, marrow bones with toast - 2 huge bones and a long fork to get the marrow out; dessert was pumpkin and poppy seed strudel, and then I treated myself to a very fine 5 year old plum palinka (the Hungarian national spirit).
That evening I caught the Budapest-Venezia night train, and fortunately had a 4-berth cabin to myself, thanks to the lady from whom I bought my ticket at the Budapest railway station. When I went to the counter she was grim and unsmiling but we got talking, she asked me if I spoke Italian as I would have to make another connection in Venezia to Rimini, and when she found out I was born in Sicily she completely changed and started smiling and excitedly saying she had been to Sicily 5 times and had been to Siracusa, Noto, Avola, Ragusa, Modica, etc, (all towns near where I was born) and after that it was all plain sailing, and she called out a cheery ciao when I left.
As always I would have loved to stay another couple of days - more thermal baths, ride the funicular up Buda Hill, and go to the Memento Park, similar to Stalin World in Lithuania - display of statues and memorials from the Soviet era (one of the most famous things is Stalins's Boots, a replica of those left on the pedestal when the 8 metres statue of Stalin was pulled down in the Hungarian Uprising of 1956). A very endearing feature of my time in Budapest was the number of virags (flower-sellers), more than I have ever seen anywhere else.
So here ends my trip to northern and central Europe as next time you hear from me will be from Italy.

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