Category Archives: Hungary

Entrance Tickets, The Budapest Parliament Building

Budapest parliament (1)

The five of us debated entrance to the Parliament building.  Even with half price entrance fees (2,000 Florints) for citizens of the European Union there wasn’t a great deal of enthusiasm to visit the interior and after a show of hands it was only Sue and I that paid up and waited in line to go inside while the others made their various ways back to the Hotel Gellért.

The forty minute tour took us up wide open staircases, through elaborately decorated corridors, magnificently appointed state rooms and into the debating chambers but the highlight was the central dome (ninety-six metres high, remember) and in pride of place the fabulous crown of Saint Stephen.

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European Capital of Culture 2000 – Prague

Prague Czech Republic

On arrival in Prague we joined others in a mini-bus taxi that took us efficiently to the city and our hotel for a very reasonable rate.  A good taxi ride, most unexpected, what an excellent start!

The hotel was first class and we had an interesting room in a converted attic that was clean and spacious but with a lot of what I thought were unnecessary instructions on how guests shouldn’t move the furniture around, I mean, unless they were practising Feng Shui and were particularly picky about the bed facing a special direction or something why would anybody want to?

Prague Czech Republic

The receptionist was very helpful but gave far more information about the city than anyone could possibly cope with in one go and forgetting most of it almost immediately as it went in one ear and straight out of the other left the hotel to find somewhere for an evening meal.

Because it was late we decided not to go too far and found a charming little restaurant in an adjacent street and sat outside on an uneven pavement at a dangerously unstable table and ordered a first meal in Prague.

After a generous beef Stroganoff (always one of my favourites) we walked around for a while had another drink and then went back to the hotel.  We found the way back without a problem, but once inside the labyrinth of stairs got completely lost.  We had missed the correct route in the confusing warren of corridors and were in completely the wrong part of the hotel.  We sorted it out after a while, went to bed and slept well.

In the morning there was a good breakfast with the usual cold buffet full of continental offerings but with some unusual hot items in addition.  There were sausages but unfortunately they were frankfurters and I am afraid that I just do not like frankfurters because of that horrible rubbery chewy consistency.  Not much chance of a superior Lincolnshire sausage here because it is close to Germany of course and clearly under the Teutonic influence when it comes to bangers.

Prague Castle and Cathedral

The weather was overcast but seemed to be ever so slowly improving so we left the umbrellas behind and went out into the city.  Our first planned destination was the City’s old town, which was reached by crossing the Charles Bridge and I know that it was overcast and there was no sun to help cheer things up but the famous statues were dull and grimy and seemed to me to be desperately in need of a good scrub.  There must be enough tourist revenues pouring in to fund the process and I am sure that the city authorities are thinking about it but they really need to get on with the job.

I have an idea to help them.  One statue, St John Nepomuk, is supposed to bring luck to those who touch it and it is polished bright where tourists rub their hands on it.  If the City spread the word that touching any statue would bring similar good fortune then they would all be gleaming clean in no time at all.

St John Nepomuk

Actually I found this statue a bit surprising because poor old John Nepomuk didn’t seem to have a great deal of luck himself in his lifetime as he was a Jesuit priest who was tortured and killed by King Wenceslas in 1393 and his body was thrown into the river.  Because of his aquatic final resting place he is regarded as a protector from floods but he must have been off duty in August 2003 when the city endured its worst floods for two hundred years and forty thousand people were evacuated and the cost of repairing the damage ran into billions.

The streets were busy and we walked until reaching the old town, which opened up into a spacious and welcoming central square and it was free of traffic so we were able to wander aimlessly around looking ever upwards and admiring the buildings that surrounded it.

In the centre is the Jan Hus monument, a religious reformer who was burnt at the stake for his beliefs.  I was beginning to detect a gruesome pattern here.  In the Middle Ages there always came a time where persisting with a point of view became dangerous to life and limb and poor old Jan obviously did not get his timing right, a bit like Thomas More and his out of touch views on King Henry’s wedding plans.

It was about half past ten so we sat at a pavement café and had a Staropramen, which is an agreeable Czech beer and surveyed the sky and speculated about whether the sun would come out.  Although it was early I don’t think anyone in Prague would have found this early drinking unusual because according to the Economist, in a poll in 2006, the people of the Czech republic are the biggest alcohol consuming nation in the World.

The weather didn’t look very promising but we strained my eyes searching for spreading patches of blue.  They appeared sometimes but always to be cruelly snatched away just when things seemed to be improving.  We optimistically assured ourselves that it would definitely be out by the afternoon.

Prague Czech Republic

Weekly Photo Challenge: Eye-Spy

Durham Cathedral Door KnockerBudapest Hungary MarketBarcelona CatalunyaGermany Black Forest FasnachtIMG_0627

Anyone care to take a guess in which countries these pictures were taken?

Weekly Photo Challenge: Creepy

Budapest Hungary Market

Does anyone know what they are?  I don’t…  

Warsaw, The River Vistula, Gary Cooper and some Film Trivia

Warsaw and the Vistula

I’ll tell you how cold it was this morning, so cold that it stopped Kim from stopping every few metres and window shopping, so cold that my face was stinging and my eyes were watering.  It probably wasn’t such a great idea then to take a route to the old town along the banks of the River Vistula.

It was quite a long walk to even get there along a busy boulevard called Jerusalem Avenue on account of the fact that there was once a Jewish town around here and to mark the spot there is a curious fifteen metre high artificial palm tree which supposes symbolises the natural vegetation of Jerusalem.  To be honest I thought it just looked odd!

Eventually we reached the river and I knew straight away that I had made a mistake.  After all the hard work repairing the damage of the Valentine’s night evening meal fiasco I almost immediately flushed away any bonus points earned.

I had imagined the riverside walk to be a similar experience to strolling alongside the Danube in Budapest but it was immediately obvious that no one was going to write a dainty waltz and call it the Blue Vistula!  It was grey and ugly and there were no embankments just muddy no-man’s-land where the water met the silt and the river debris.

Kim wasn’t at all happy about this and to be honest neither was I. There was no one else around, just a busy road running adjacent to the path and we had to pass under several bridges where I imagined danger to be lurking in every shadow.  The bridges too were ugly, in complete contrast to those in Budapest.  In fact they were so ugly there were no love locks attached to any of them, which is of course a good thing, in fact they were so ugly that I imagine that the only lock someone would attach here would be a hate lock!

We walked quickly and as we got closer to the Old Town the environment became less threatening, there were more people and soon we were climbing steps and making our way to the restored streets and squares.  On reflection I am certain that there was no danger down by the river, it was just so unattractive and didn’t feel good.

Solidarity Gary Cooper

As we approached we passed the heavily guarded Presidential Palace and on the pavement outside there was a display commemorating some previous uprising or other and as a backdrop there was a huge canvas poster of Gary Cooper as Marshall Will Kane in the film High Noon.

I had no idea why until I looked it up later:

In 1989 there were some partially free elections in Poland and this was the official poster of the Solidarity movement and it shows Cooper armed not with a pistol in his right hand but with a folded ballot saying ‘Wybory’ (elections)  while the Solidarity logo is pinned to his vest above the sheriff’s badge. The message at the bottom of the poster reads: “W samo południe: 4 czerwca 1989,” which translates to “High Noon: 4 June 1989.”

Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa  explained it later:

“It was a simple but effective gimmick that at the time was misunderstood by the Communists. They tried to ridicule the freedom movement in Poland as an invention of the ‘Wild’ West, especially the U.S. But the poster had the opposite impact: Cowboys had become a powerful symbol for Poles. Cowboys fight for justice, fight against evil, and fight for freedom. ”

In 1953 Gary Cooper won the Best Actor Oscar for High Noon* and in 1990 Lech Wałęsa became President of Poland.

I digress for a moment.  Gary Cooper wasn’t present at the ceremony because of filming commitments and the award was accepted on his behalf by John Wayne.  In the speech Wayne said he liked the film so much he was going to try and find out why he hadn’t been offered the part.  This was rather hypocritical, he hated the film so much that he called it “… the most un-American thing I’ve seen in my whole life.”  With a town full of cowards and a scared Marshall (Cooper) he didn’t think it captured the true spirit of the old west as he personally preferred to represent it.  Soon after he collaborated with the film director Howard Hawkes to make the film Rio Bravo which presents a similar story line in a completely alternative way.  Wayne and Hawkes liked their own film so much that they remade it twice – El Dorado and Rio Lobo.

It was still quite busy today but nothing like as crowded and vibrant as the previous day so we walked around the remaining restored red brick walls of the Old Town which didn’t take very long and then at a previous fortress gate we made our way inside and really did nothing more than repeat the circuitous walk that we negotiated the day previously. In the Old Town square, the statue of Syrena, the mermaid symbol of the city, seemed hopelessly marooned in the middle of an artificial skating rink which looked cold, empty and uninviting.  It was raw and bleak, the stubborn mist hung low and the wind cut through our clothes like a sabre.

We needed to find somewhere warm, and this is how cold it was, Kim didn’t object for even a moment when I suggested that we make our way to the Royal Castle and take a look at the Museum inside.

Royal Castle Warsaw

I took this picture the following day when the mist had cleared and the sun came back out!

* Best Actor for a western is quite rare.  Warner Baxter won  for In Old Arizona (1929), Lee Marvin for Cat Ballou (1965), and John Wayne for True Grit (1969). The most recent nominations for actors in a Western include Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves (1990), Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven (1992) and Jeff Bridges in True Grit (2010).

Age of Innocence – 1956 and the Shifting Balance of Power

Krakow Russian Tank

I continue my look at the World during my lifetime and now I reach 1956 when there were some really important events around the world that were to have an influence on international relations over the next twenty years or so.  The Suez crisis and the Hungarian uprising.

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Travel Pictures of the Year, 2014

Anonymous Pedestrians Wroclaw PolandSemana Santa Holy Week Siguenza 3Ballyvaughan IrelandThe Mallard National Railway Museum YorkCorfu TurtleHierapolis Pamukkale TurkeyBudapestCleethorpes Cloudy Sky

Travel Postcards of the Year, 2014

Wroclaw Postcard

Guadalajara Province Map

Galway Ireland

Corfu Map

Turkey Postcard 3

Map of Hungary

 

 

Budapest, The Gellért Baths

Gellert Spa Swimming Pool

In 1934 Budapest was awarded the supreme title of ‘Spa City’  and three years later, the first International Balneological Congress was organised and the headquarters of the International Balneological Association was established at the Gellért Thermal Baths in Budapest.

The Congress explained this decision with the following statement:

“…no city can put forward a stronger claim to this than Budapest.  Endowed by nature with a wonderful generosity of excellent thermal waters and unrivalled natural beauty; additionally, its high medical professionalism, the excellent equipment of its healing institutions, the high level of scientific research, makes Budapest the optimum choice for international affairs of balneology to be handled from here…”

One of the main attractions of the Hotel was that attached are the famous Gellért baths, which although originally built as part of the hotel are now owned and run by the local council but with free admission to hotel guests.  In the TV travel series ‘New Europe’, Michael Palin used the baths and made it all seem a bit confusing and a lot of trouble but I can confirm that there was no truth in that at all, the instructions were clear and all of his theatrical pacing of corridors looking for the lift was all contrived for effect.

The entrance to the baths used to be via an old-fashioned cage elevator with doors that slammed closed with a penitentiary like rattle and metallic thud and there was an old lady attendant who provided an admission card to the baths on the way down, it was still like this on our first visit in 2007  but that has all been modernised now, which is a shame, and entrance is directly through the hotel and into a modern reception area.

This was very straight forward but then, I have to say, it did get confusing with corridors and stairways that eventually led to a locker room and then more corridors and stairways that led to the swimming pool.

Thermal-Pool-Gellert-Spa-Bath

After changing we used the thermal baths that were a very incrementally agreeable 36˚ and 38˚ centigrade and housed in a room of  soaring marble pillars, colourful mosaic floors and pools of crystal blue water with alleged magical healing powers.  There was an anorexic looking man with a pale pallor jogging limply around the room and I wondered for a moment or two if I was going to feel thirty years younger just like all those old timers did in the film Cocoon.

I did feel good afterwards but not that good, I have to say!  The eucalyptus steam room was totally relaxing but the plunge pool knocked the breath from me and necessitated a hasty return to 38˚.  I am not sure that this is the correct way to progress through the experience I confess. Next door was the swimming pool with cream mosaic floor and sky blue tiled walls and a high glazed ceiling proving soft natural light.  Budapest is famous for its thermal baths and these were busy with local people relaxing in the water after a day at work and we enjoyed the experience with them after five hours of walking up and down those hills around the city.

I have to say that I am not a great one for swimming pools and spas I have to admit and I am definitely not one for treatments.  Kim and Margaret went for a punishing massage, Sue and Christine stayed a while longer to swim, Mike went to the railway station to do some sightseeing and I went back to the room for a beer.

I am a great one for bars however and when Mike returned and invited me to the cheap pub around the corner I didn’t take a lot of convincing so wandered around for a couple of pre dinner drinks.

gellert baths

For our final night we were returning to the Greek restaurant.  I had to concede that the Taverna Dionysos was a splendid place with a good menu and excellent food.  I would have liked to say that we found an ethnic Hungarian restaurant that was its equal but sadly I can’t so for a second time in three nights we sat down to a traditional Greek meal.

After our meal it was still quite early so instead of  going directly back to the hotel we walked along a busy main road and looked for somewhere for a final Budapest drink.  It was turning colder with a north wind sweeping down from the Tatra Mountains in Slovakia and blowing sharply down the river as though someone had left the back door open.  We weren’t dressed for this so we quickened our pace and was grateful of the warmth of  a modern bar full of young people  where we had that final drink before returning to the Hotel Gellért.  It was a real shame that this was our final night!

The following morning we made our purchases at the indoor market, had a last slice of cake at the hotel and then made our way back to the airport on the metro and the shuttle bus.

I have to confess that Budapest was an absolute revelation, I had not been expecting anything so grand, it was easily as good as Vienna and in my opinion much better than Prague, the scale of the city eclipses Bratislava and Ljubljana and I liked it as well as any other I have visited.

hotel Gellert Budapest

Budapest, The Castle and a Cruise

There has been a castle and a palace in this strategically important position since very early times but when the previous building was destroyed in the civil war of 1849 the palace was rebuilt between 1850 and 1856.

When in 1867 Franz Joseph was crowned the king of Hungary as Austria and Hungary became the Dual Monarchy the palace became an important royal home and the newly autonomous Hungarian government set out to create a royal residence so splendid that it would match any other in Europe.  The process of rebuilding lasted about forty years between but just like the  Hotel Gellért was completed in 1912 just as the Hapsburg Empire was about to topple over into the abyss of history and both Budapest and Hungary was about to lose top table  international status.

It is indeed a very fine building with magnificent architecture, impressive sculptures, magnificent landscaped gardens and a view to die for.  Prior to 1867, under Habsburg rule, Buda and Pest were subordinate in status to Vienna and Bratislava but after the agreement of Compromise which created the Dual Monarchy, the twin cities underwent rapid growth and expansion to become a major European city.

Like most of Budapest, the entire castle district was destroyed in the last year of the Second-World-War because Hitler declared it a fortress city and ordered it to be defended to the last man regardless of damage and destruction or loss of human life.  The defending Germans and Hungarian fascists loyally obeyed their orders but there was a high price to pay for this military obstinacy and in a few weeks the city was almost completely destroyed to the extent that what we see now is all due to post war reconstruction.

After the city finally fell Soviet revenge for holding up the Red Army advance was swift and brutal, with reprisals against the defenders  going largely unchecked.  Fuelled by alcohol, drunken bands of Soviet soldiers rampaged across the city, dispensing instant justice to those who resisted their violent advance and opportunist looting.  Budapest gave up one group of savage invaders for another.

But the city has done a first class job in putting it back together again and although there are obvious gaps where grand buildings once proudly stood there is now hardly a trace of the damaging legacy of the war.

Statues

The castle is at one end of the castle district next to the restored official residence of the President of Hungary and we passed a theatrical changing of the guard ceremony as we walked to the other end of the district and to the Matthias Church which dates from 1015, was destroyed in 1945, and has recently enjoyed extensive renovation.  It was hastily reconstructed after the war but the communist authorities only made available sub-standard material for the project and the whole thing had to be done again properly and its multi coloured tiled roof sparkled magnificently in the afternoon sunshine.

The Church stands next to a public open space where there was a lot of intrusive restoration work taking place but it didn’t spoil the visit to the adjacent Fisherman’s Bastion which is a magnificently restored viewing terrace with seven towers that represent the seven Magyar tribes that settled in the Carpathian Basin in 896 and has magnificent views over the Danube looking in both directions and with an especially fine view of the Parliament building on the other side of the river.

Budapest Hungary Cathedral

Our plan now was to get as much value as we could from our city bus tour tickets but without too much collective enthusiasm for the open top bus itself we thought that it was a good idea to take the river cruise option again instead – this time in daylight.

So we made our way on foot down the zig-zag footpath that dropped down from the top of the castle to the river bank below near the Chain Bridge and we walked a few hundred metres to the boat stop.  We waited for a while until doubt began to creep in because no one else turned up but five hundred metres further on a line was beginning to form.  We were waiting in the wrong place and had to hurry up to get to the pick-up point just ahead of the boat as it slipped across the Danube and approached the jetty.  We really have been unlucky with boat trips this year!

To be honest the night time cruise was better than the daylight option but we stayed on board and listened to the commentary for a second time as the boat visited Margaret Island and then sailed south down the river before making a 180° turn and returning to the jetty at the end of the trip.

Leaving the boat we walked back to the hotel because now we were looking forward to visiting the famous Gellért baths for spas, swimming pools and massage treatments.