We were in Vienna for a fortnight taking in its sights and sounds. Of the neighbouring towns, we had already visited Baden – a city that is accessible by tram from Vienna. After a brief respite of a couple of days we planned a day-long trip to Budapest which was only around 200 kilometres away. Austria and Hungary are neighbours and, in fact, during the times of Austro-Hungarian Empire they were one and the same country. In 2004 when we visited Vienna Hungary was yet to join the European Union and hence we had to have a Hungarian visa to visit Budapest.
We got on to a bus one morning which took us to Budapest. On the way there was nothing much that was interesting except the over-bridges that were built for wildlife to cross over from one side of the highway to another. Unlike India, Austria has only some small game; some species of antelopes, rabbits, foxes, etc., but the country takes care of them howsoever they might seem insignificant to most of us. They don’t want whatever they have to be crushed under the speeding wheels. Elaborate arrangements have been made to keep them away from the highway and to guide them on to the over-bridge in the event of their inclination to go across the highway.
Perhaps a word about Hungary is necessary here. It is a country in Central Europe in the Carpathian Basin. At one time it was independent, later it came under the Ottomans before being tagged on to make the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the Habsburgs. The Empire was lost as the World War I came to an end. During the inter-war years Hungary joined the Axis powers only to be with the losers. In the post-War rearrangement Hungary became a Soviet Satellite. During its “Satellite Years” Hungarians revolted against the harsh rule imposed on people. I vividly recall this uprising as it would be reported in the newspapers in 1956. This was my introduction to Hungary as I read about Soviet tanks rolling into Budapest, more specifically Pest. The uprising helped in opening the closed border with Austria. It was partially instrumental in collapse of the Soviet Union. The country soon became democratic and became a member of the European Union in 2004 even as we were in Vienna.
Our first stop was at Hero’s Square which is an important feature of modern Hungarian history. The central feature of Hero’s Square is the Millennium Memorial construction of which began in 1896 to commemorate the thousandth anniversary of the conquest of the Carpathian Basin and the foundation of the Hungarian state. The Square is noted for its iconic complex of statues of Magyar leaders and other important national leaders. It is also the re-burial ground of Imre Nagy who became the leader of the Hungarian Revolution that was suppressed by the military in 1956. Nagy was arrested, tried and hanged secretly by the then Communist Hungarian regime.
As we moved around on the Square my wife was collared by a Roma who was pushing her crochet work. The work was of great quality and the price was also steep – beyond the grasp of a shoe-string budget tourist. Roma’s, as is well known are ancient migrants from Rajasthan in India and are spread all over Europe and are generally badly treated.
We were whisked in the bus to the Castle Hill and dropped somewhere near the climb on to the Hill. The approach gave us a view of the other side of the Hill – green, fresh and refreshing bathed as it was the late morning sunshine. We had also saw a bit of the President’s Palace – an imposing building of fair proportions. Then we were taken through a dark area known as the Lions’ Courtyard that presumably had been scene of some action during 1956 uprising. Some bullet wounds were still visible on the external walls of this government building.
As they say the Castle District gives an architectural history lesson to the passers by. As one walks through it one finds some exquisite examples of medieval, neo-classical and baroque architecture generally in good repair. We walked past many of them. The most attractive was the spire of the Mathias Church with its many pinnacles. Virtually next door is the 19th Century refurbished Castle Garden Bazaar which has some attractive looking theatres and exhibition halls
From the Castle Hill one can descend to see another marvelous sight that is offered by the Chain Bridge. Numerous Hindi movies were shot here. But that is beside the point. A walk across it is a wonderful experience with the fantastic Hungarian Parliament on one side and the Buda Castle Hill brooding over the mighty Danube flowing below. The best time to visit the bridge is early in the morning when the tourists are yet to start off on their trips. The time we were on it past midday (we couldn’t have helped it as we came in from Vienna) the place was crawling with tourists.
Back again on the Buda Hill the guide took us to a pavilion on the escarpment of the Buda Hill – known as The Savoy Terrace. From the Savoy Terrace, supposedly one of the most representative areas of Buda, one gets an excellent view of the town of Pest and the sweep of the famous Danube River with a fabulous view of the Parliament building across Danube.
Here we were joined by an elderly Roma lady who too, like the one on Hero’s Square, was pushing her products of crocheted work. She was a friendly woman and told the young girl who was our guide how difficult it was for her and others like her to survive. She told us that they lived across the border in Romania and every morning they climbed into a train for Budapest and clear out of the town before night-fall. Their pickings are measly as they are constantly shoed away from anywhere near the tourists. Hers was a pathetic story. Romas are generally ill treated in most of the European countries.
From Buda we were brought down to Pest and were dropped in front of a massive Synagogue – reputed to be the biggest in Europe. As we had a brief peek inside we realized that Cochin Synagogue was no match for it. It is indeed enormous and immensely decorated.
The bus after picking us up from the Synagogue dropped us at Hungary Restaurant. Here on offer was Hungarian Goulash and bread. I had come across mention of goulash in Russian novels but never had the occasion to taste it. So, we ordered goulash and Hungarian bread for both of us.
The restaurant was located in a building of immense proportions and was very well appointed. We seemed to be rather early for lunch as many other tables were still unoccupied. Our waiter was trying to push a Hungarian wine and we ordered two glasses taken in by what he told us about it. Not that either of us was connoisseurs of wines but, to be neutral, it was perhaps proper to say that it was good. But the best was goulash which was served in generous quantities in bowls and tasted like Bengali meat preparation. Both of us liked it and needless to say, we lapped it up. It was followed by ice cream that too was pretty good. After the hearty meal we came out and saw numerous cases full of crystal ware. The exposition was in several big rooms. Hungarian crystal probably is not as good as of Czech Republic but the specimens we saw here were really eye popping.
We went across the street after checking up with the bus driver who told us that it would be leaving in an hour’s time. I do not know to this day the name of the place but there were large number of people hanging around, shopping or having coffee. We too had a coffee each and sat around taking in the ambiance. We took care to leave before it was time to be next to the bus. We couldn’t visit the public baths for which Budapest is famous. We just had no time.