Sunday, November 26, 2006
How did we get Hungary from Magyar?
Flew out butt ass early on Thursday morn. Had purchased a return train ticket to the airport but apparently the return is only good if you are return the same day. What the hell point is that? Ahh well. The flight was really easy. Wizzair is probably the nicest value carrier I have been on out here. It reminds me a bit of Jet Blue (but no TVs).
The hotel was a bit less central than I would have preferred. I took a lastminute.com deal. In retrospect, the deal was pretty bogus. I could have done much better having just bought a flight and hotel. Ahh well, it was clean and the goulash was very good.
After I checked in to the hotel, I gathered a bunch of brochures and started leafing through my options. One of the guided tours offered a free pickup. I figured this would be a good way to get into town and maybe I would meet some people. I went down to make reservations through the hotel and got some lunch. I had searched and asked around for a Thanksgiving dinner in Budapest but I was entirely unsuccessful. Instead I had goulash and the only turkey thing on the menu, Turkey Kiev. The goulash was excellent. The turkey kiev, well, I guess I have been spoiled by Anne’s chicken kiev, this didn’t hold a candle to hers. Finished up and the tour guy picked me up.
The tour was a bit more intimate than I had expected. Basically, it was me, an older woman from California and an older couple from Greece in the guide’s minivan. Ahh well, the guide was obviously a student of history and he took us to the major spots.
The Magyars are still very concerned about losing most of their population in 1920 (Magyar being the local name for what we call Hungary). According to the guide and most of the little blurbs I read, they lost 70% of their land and population under the Treaty of Trianon. As far as I can tell, after WW1 the state was a battle ground between various influences. The communists took power but lost a war to Romania. This led to the treaty in which they lost so much of their state.
I think part of the reason this is so prevalent in the Magyaran psyche is that they were in something of a Golden age in the 19th century. WWI was the start of a very rough period for Magyar. As the guide put it, they “had the money and interest to build art into their structures”. This is seen in the many, many great ornate buildings around Budapest. After WWII they were under the Soviet influence and that also shows heavily. From the general feeling of fear of the police to the break up of many of the great old houses in to apartments to the Soviet looking transportation and buildings, the legacy of communism is still very present. The first free elections were held in Hungary in 1990 over a state that was declared independent as of late 1989. They recently (2004) joined the EU.
One lament of Hungary is the trend to bring all the EU states under the EU Union. As one local argued, they were well on their way to that in the 19th century w/ a few states holding vast amounts of land, Hungary being one of them. This was at the height of their power but the trend then was to small independent states. Now as it trends back towards unionization, Hungary is beaten down from the communist era and is not playing from the position of power they once had.
One of the interesting things on the tour was a castle that was built in 1896 for the 1000 year anniversary of the founding of Hungary. The castle was built in three styles to pay respect to the three major architectural styles, gothic, baroque and Romanesque (I think). The interesting thing was that they originally built it out of paper and wood as it was only expected to only stand for the 1 anniversary year. It was so popular though, that they later rebuilt it out of stone.
Also remarkable, was just how many public statues they had. Most EU cities have a bunch but they had a lot even for EU standards. What makes this even more impressive, is that after the fall of communism, they took all the communist statues to a park outside of the city. I didn’t make it out to the park but even w/o the communist statues, there were great figures around every corner.
The tour left us in downtown Pest (pronounced Pesht, town is actually two villages across the river from each other, Buda and Pest). The last thing the tour guide pointed out was the First McDonalds in the eastern block. I went in but couldn’t bring myself to eat anything out of a McDonalds when there was local food to be had. This was also the first McD’s I have seen w/ a McCafe attached. A somewhat separate area that is laid out like a coffee shop, apparently Ronald is trying to take on the Starbucks crowd.
Wandered through shopping district that could have been in any town in the western world. Foot Locker and Versace. Pfft. Got dinner at a weird piano bar w/ more good Goulash and similar looking foods.
Next day started w/ wandering through a random street market and finding a large market building. A huge building, probably an old train station was a large farmers market. Upstairs was some more good golashy stuff. I wanted to buy some random liquors for presents but I didn’t know what any of the local liquors were.
To rectify this ignorance, I stopped at a small bar down a side street and decided to do a tour. Inicum is a non sweetened version of jaeger. It was nearly drinkable but just not quite. Palinka is basically the Hungarian version of Grappa though it can be made out of various fruits. The rumor is that it is better when it is homemade. It would have to be. Like grappa, it is basically drinking ethanol. Of the set of local liquors only Humberto (or similar) was drinkable. That was basically a schnapps. The next thing I saw was Absynthe. I ordered a round and took advantage of the handy internet terminal to look up more info on it.
As far as I can tell, the active ingredient in absinthe (other than alcohol) is thujone. This is the compound that is found in the wormwood and is generally thought to be the “good part”. There is some debate on this. EU law currently allows up to 25mg/kg of thujone in beverages containing a certain level of alcohol. The older stuff was once thought to have as much as 360 mg/kg but more recent tests have shown the levels to be as low as 4-6mg/kg. Apparently gas chromatography tests give falsely high readings as other chemicals appear to be thujone. An interesting thing to note is that, according to the wiki, there is no evidence that thujone causes hallucinations. Epilepsy, yes, hallucinations, no.
I wandered back to Buda over the Chain Bridge (the first bridge joining the two towns) and stopped at the famous Gellert Baths. There has been a recorded history in this area since AD 86 when the Romans built a town on the site of an earlier Celtic settlement. This town, Aquinicum, was famous for its mineral spas and the tradition still exists today. There are many spas in Hungary, according to my guide of the day before; it isn’t possible to be anywhere in Hungary without being w/I 40-50km from a spa. This bath house was segregated men from women. I had brought a bathing suit so I didn’t need to avail myself of the loin clothes that they provided. Most of the locals seemed to just use them. It was really just a cloth to hang in front w/ a string to tie it around your waist. Think of a bunch of large eastern European men lounging in a couple of large house sized pools. Set this in a large tiled cave and you are getting close. The water wasn’t nearly as hot as I thought it would be. 36 deg C and 38 deg C in the two pools. Apparently there is a coed swimming pool but I didn’t see it. One guy was in their reading (good book too, the new Hobb). I could see myself spending some time in there reading. Sitting by myself wasn’t too entertaining after the first couple of minutes.
The steam room was something else. What a steam room should be. Super intense, so thick w/ steam you couldn’t see more than a couple of feet. Just the right touch of that mentholated smell to clear your sinuses. I could only take a few minutes of it. My hair was hot, nearly burning to the touch. Those steam rooms in the gyms I have been to are as man made snow to this Rockies powder. Same idea just not done nearly as well.
To complete the experience, I got a massage. 30 mins for 3500 florint (about 17 bucks). Again, this was a bit odd. A bunch of naked men being rubbed down all over a hall. A large-gutted Hungarian guy was my masseuse. I hadn’t had a Hungarian massage before. Not bad. He even through in the chiropractic next break that I have been needing. I could get used to cheap good massages. I assume I could find a more relaxing setting.
Stopped at the hotel afterwards to drop of some Christmas purchases and get ready to hit the town for the night. I’ll just lay down for a second. I woke up a couple hours later w/ all motivation to go hit the town drained out of me. Meh, I’ll try the nightlife some other time.
Next day, I planned to go to the art museum and then find a café to do some writing. The subway here is no more reliable on weekends than anywhere else apparently. They kicked us all off halfway to my destination. Apparently this is the 3rd oldest subway line in the world behind London and New York. I wandered around the Oktogon neighborhood a bit as it looked a bit more like a locals shopping area. I couldn’t find anything that resembled a coffee shop. This brought about two firsts for me. One was that I actually wanted to find a starbucks. The second was that this was the first country I have been in that didn’t have a starbucks. Figures.
Made it to the art museum for the Carvaggio exhibit. The exhibit was really good. About half of the rest of the museum was good. The other half was Jesus art or art that’s only redeeming value is it is about the bible. Completely uninteresting to me. I don’t mind Bible art (especially some of the non Jesus tales) but the art has to be interesting as well as being about the Bible. One unfortunate thing was that they were setting up for a big party/production in a couple of rooms which looked to have the renaissance art that I like. Ahh well, still a nice time.
Stopped at the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath to see the local bathing experience. Unfortunately, I was running low on florint and they only took cards for the entrance. I squeezed out enough for a towel and a rental suit (no loin cloths here) but I couldn’t afford a safe. I had my laptop, all my electronics and my passport w/ me. I locked them in a mini locker thing but I had trouble relaxing. This bath would have been much nicer. For one it is coed. They also had chess sets set up that people could play in the baths. I hung out near an unused one hoping to get a game but the first people that came to play were a couple. Not a whole lot of English going on around here. I looked into getting a massage but there was not availability for another half hour and I was twitching too much about my passport to relax. Ahh well… I could see this being a good thing for groups of friends to hit the baths on their way out for the night or after a day of play. Kind of like having mini beaches w/ good facilities everywhere.
Went to try to figure out the “Replacement” bus service and ran into two American girls volunteering w/ (different villages of) gypsies through their church. They were on their way to a Christmas bazaar thing so I joined up w/ them and we found a great little Christmas village w/ traditional bands playing and many craft stalls. Mmmm and hot mulled wine. We wandered around for awhile and I got a bunch more Christmas shopping done.
Afterwards, they went back to their hosts for dinner and I found some more good Hungarian food. The food is really good here. A bit salty sometimes but in general excellent. A lot of stews w/ hot paprika tastes and good bread. Yummm….
Plane was leaving at 6am the next morn which meant getting up at 4 so I headed back to the hotel after a fairly successful Central EU trip. I think I want to explore this Eastern block more. I gotta look into Transylvania next. Wizzair goes there…