Destination: Budapest

  • Mission 1: Learn about Hungary’s dark, oppressive past under Nazi and Soviet regimes (ACCOMPLISHED);
  • Mission 2: Explore collections of old abandoned locomotives at the Hungarian Railway Museum (ACCOMPLISHED);
  • Mission 3: Sample cabbage strudel (that came on strong recommendation) (ACCOMPLISHED);
  • Mission 4: Relax in one of Budapest’s natural thermal baths (ACCOMPLISHED);
  • Mission 5: Understand Hungary’s predicament with the EU (ACCOMPLISHED);
  • Mission 6: Drive a tank or Kraz at Cold War Park (DEFERRED – probably enjoyed more cheaply elsewhere anyhow, e.g. Ukraine).

Highlight: Attending a classical organ concert in my beloved St. Stephen’s Basilica that I frequented almost daily.

Lowlight: Taking a wrong turn and what turned out to be a treacherous walk along a live railway track without a path and a near-miss with an oncoming train.

Feat of Architecture: The Hungarian Parliament Building is as spectacular as any parliament building in the world.

Recce Fact: Hungarians introduce themselves by stating their surname first followed by their first name (as in China), i.e. Orbán Viktor as opposed to Viktor Orbán in international media.

Hungary and I had quite a bit of unfinished business since my pitstop visit nine years prior exactly; also in October, coincidentally.

There are certain cities that flourish in Autumn while others appear lacklustre. Budapest is definitely an October city. Neighbouring Vienna – not so much in my opinion in spite of all the grandeur. It was lovely to walk outdoors in the autumnal air, kicking horse chestnuts down the street, hearing the crunch of orange-hued leaves under my boots again and to expend some shoe leather after a long summer in the Middle Eastern desert heat. Besides, if Hungarian cuisine was a season, it would definitely be Autumn with all the stews and comfort food.

First Impressions

Whenever I visualise Budapest it’s always from the panoramic vantage point on Liberty Bridge (Szabadság híd) looking out over the Danube with Buda on one side and Pest on the other. I repeatedly have to remind myself which side is which; Pest is the touristic centre side with the iconic parliament building while Buda is the hilly side and castle district. There are several prominent pre-WWI bridges spanning the Danube; all of which were sadly destroyed during the WWII siege of Budapest and subsequently rebuilt. Since I rambled-on aplenty in Mission Slovakia about the Hapsburg Empire and Mission Austria will be coming up next, I’ll gladly gloss over it here at the risk of repeating myself and focus on more recent historical context in reflection of the things I have witnessed.

I really rather like and admire Hungarian people (apart from that one cashier who short-changed me in the House of Terror and after some persuasion slammed the rest down on the counter in outrage – I shan’t hold it against her, it can’t be the most cheerful place to work). First because, unlike their neighbouring countries they do not fit the rude or abrupt Eastern European stereotypes (by Western sensibilities) that I have often encountered (*cough* Romania *clears throat*). Second, despite an oppressive history, they refuse to carry a chip on their shoulder. The same cannot be said for all those unfortunate nations with comparable history as past negative mentalities seem harder to shake. Third and most importantly, they march to the beat of their own drum and nobody else’s. In fact, that very trait will be a recurring theme throughout this Reconnaissance article.

Architecture of Budapest

There is more classical architecture in Hungary than one can shake a stick at. Baroque and classicist buildings are bountiful and even some of the more modern buildings mimic classical styles as opposed to being bland, minimalist and without character. Building embellishment and ornamentation seems to be a thing of the past these days which is a great pity. Personally, I blame IKEA furniture and the gradual decline in skilled trades and craftsmanship. Lazily conceived and unembellished? Call it modern and minimalist and everyone is suddenly impressed. Some of the peaked dome castles found in Hungary put me in mind of the typical gothic castles of Transylvania. That would stand to reason since Transylvania was formerly part of the Kingdom of Hungary before it was ceded to Romania post-WWI.

The one building that truly stood out for me was St. Stephen’s Basilica (Szent István-bazilika), named after Stephen I, the first king of Hungary who died in 1038 after having established Christianity in the state.

There is one very peculiar artefact within this building that I was oblivious to until my third visit – St. Stephen’s 1,000-year old preserved right hand in a golden casket on display within the main basilica. I had walked right past the little casket several times without noticing, as it requires a 200 forint coin to illuminate it sufficiently for the hand to become visible. What an oddity; to think they even take his venerated hand out on a walk during an annual procession every August. Apparently the hand was found to be in an undecayed state after St. Stephen’s body was exhumed, so they lobbed it off and it had being doing the rounds for centuries before finally returning it to Hungary after WWII.

Among other notable mentions of impressive holy architecture are Mattias Church, next to both Halászbástya (Fisherman’s Bastion) and Buda Castle (paid entrance to the church was required), and the Serbian Orthodox Church of Saint Demetrius.

I don’t know how I feel about places of worship charging entrance fees outside of strict worship times. In the case of St. Stephen’s Basilica, a mere 200 forint donation was recommended, but to charge someone purely for being a tourist while locals are always exempt, I’m unsure if that can be considered warranted or not. Granted, it must be terribly distracting for local individual worshippers to be surrounded by hoards of tourists with their lack of consideration at times, but to charge them entrance fees doesn’t negate that either; it may just reduce the numbers. Having said that, one morning I inadvertently walked into to a chapel during a mass service and didn’t want to make it obvious I was a tourist so just joined the congregation at the back and stood solemnly with my head bowed in respect. I waited there with some other locals since all the kneeling pews were occupied until I found a brief pause to subtly make my escape. This is why I am often afraid to enter places of worship; especially ones where specific rituals should be followed, e.g. gender segregation, kneeling or wearing head coverings, in case I make a faux pas.

Then there was a good-old familiar Calvinist church with a statue of French theologian, Jean Calvin, stood outside and an assortment of his quotes engraved on the pavement slabs. While Hungary is overwhelmingly Catholic with less than 5% of the population professing to be Protestants, it was slightly surprising to see this reformist church in such a central location. I didn’t have to go inside to know that the interior would be unspectacular, in typical whitewashed-walled Protestant fashion. Just imagine my dismay at spotting a takeaway named Kalvin Kebab on the other side of the road. Jean could be turning in his grave if only he knew.

As with everywhere that religions exist, so has religious persecution in one form or another. Perched high on Gellért Hill (Gellért-hegy) beside Citadella overlooking the Danube is a statue of poor old St. Gerard (Gellért) who was thrown to his death from that very hill in 1046. The pagans in rebellion put him inside a barrel before throwing him from the top (or so the story goes). True enough, after I hiked up the many steps to the top, I could see at the base of the statue a gargoyle-like pig-tailed pagan gazing up, ready to pounce on Gellért who was defiantly thrusting a holy cross up towards the sky in martyrdom.

Hungarian Oppression & The House of Terror

Forgive me while I preface this with a little rant about Hungarian cinema. I had hoped to gain some insights into the everyday struggles of dark regimes of the past in Hungary from a selection of acclaimed films. What I learned, rather, is that unfortunately I can neither enjoy nor comprehend slow-burn dramas. Perhaps the cinematography or realism is lost on me or I lack a certain type of intellect to be able to appreciate them, but without much narrative to cling to, these top-rated masterpieces on IMDB feel like a couple of hours of my life that I’ll never regain (or 7+ hours in the case of Sátántangó) watching people about whom little character insight is offered doing mundane, ordinary things in black-and-white. Notwithstanding that the likes of 1945 (about villagers’ guilt and their self-inflicted downward spiral to their own demise when two Jewish strangers return after the war) and works directed by Béla Tarr, e.g. Sátántangó (about a collapsed collective farm) and A Torinói Ló (about a horse but really it’s a nod to Nietzsche) drawing upon rather grim philosophical themes like nihilism are lost on me, it is interesting how these films have come up against political obstacles in their release, even in recent times.

It may be an inconvenient fact today that Hungary willingly sided with the Axis Powers during WWII. But what were their motives for doing so? First, Hungarians were embittered, suffering from Trianon Syndrome having lost around two-thirds of their former territory where ethnic Hungarians dwelled; owed to the west and their callous carving knife.  Siding with Hitler offered hope to recoup lost territories and restore some of their former glory. Second, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany presented themselves as strong trading partners to help Hungary emerge from the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Was life worse in Hungary under Nazi or Soviet occupation? I suspect it depends on who you ask, i.e. for the nefariously persecuted ethnic minority groups classed as Übermenschen by the Nazis who had been all-but-obliterated by the time the Hungarian People’s Republic was established, the answer must be the former. Although articles describing daily life for the average Hungarian citizen post-Operation Margarethe in March, 1944 aren’t easy to come across, Hungary is unlikely to have been much of an exception to any other state under Nazi control at the time. Yet, I suspect the answer as to whether life was worse for the average Hungarian under Nazi or Soviet control will resoundingly be the latter.

So why did the Nazis invade Hungary, who were already on the side of the Axis Powers and actively engaged in their campaigns? Prime Minister Miklos Kallay was hastily dismissed and a Nazi puppet was installed in his place after failed attempts by the Hungarians to sign a peace treaty with the Soviets. This act of desperation was orchestrated by the head of state (regent Miklós Horthy) who knew the writing was on the wall and decided to take proactive measures to reach out to the Allies and mitigate an impending disaster. The Nazis, in retaliation, kidnapped his son to force him to undo any such treaty and decided it was time to step-in and take control.

Although some may be quick to point out that there was initial reluctance by Kallay and Horthy to participate in the deportation of Jews and ethnic minorities, 450,000 Jews had allegedly already been deported by the time the Nazi terror regime, the Arrow Cross was established. By the end, around 75% of Hungary’s Jewish population (approximately 565,000) had been killed.

The House of Terror (museum of oppression) in Budapest was in fact the headquarters of the Arrow Cross (NYKP). Even though their presence was short-lived since the Red Army arrived just months later, this brutal regime tortured and executed hundreds of people in the cellars. During the 40 years of the Hungarian People’s Republic that followed (from 1949-1989), the Soviet-instated secret police (AVO/AVH) continued a terror regime of a different sort, interrogating, torturing and executing accused enemies of the state, much of which took place in the very same building until 1956. Walking through the maze of cells and gallows today is saddening and eerie. One could hear a pin drop despite the steady stream of visitors, evidently jarred upon entering those sinister rooms, imagining the horrors that occurred within. One of the most callous acts I learned of was the tearing-up of detainees’ final letters to their loved ones before their execution.

The atrocities and brutality of the Magyar Államrendőrség Államvédelmi Osztálya (AVO) that would later become the Államvédelmi Hatóság (AVH) were precursors to the failed 1956 Hungarian Uprising that saw their persecutors lynched in the streets. Hungarians were tired of living in continual fear. Inside the museum, videos of interviews were played on-loop with real victims of the gulag, describing the shocking conditions from starvation, freezing cold conditions, squalor and lice of the flesh, being separated from loved ones with no idea of their whereabouts or wellbeing, etc.

“If I hadn’t lived through it, I wouldn’t have believed a person could stand so much.”

A memorable translated quote from an INTERVIEWED gulag survivor

The end of the Soviet era in Hungary came about in much the same way as it did in the rest of Europe as sweeping democratic reforms eventually lead to the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Hungarians and communism never gelled, as they had an anti-communist mindset from the very outset and were only given increasing reasons to detest it as time went on. Hungarians are patriotic people, they had less in common with Russia than their Slavic neighbours and were once a mighty empire. Under the fate of communism, they were impoverished (not only did they have to hand their individual wealth over to the collective but were paying heavy war reparations), subservient and downtrodden, censored and fear-ridden.

One positive that emerged after the attempted revolution was a type of reformed communism nicknamed, goulash communism. It consisted largely of economic reforms throughout the 1960s, a greater focus on consumerism and improving quality of life, fully stocked shelves etc. Presumably this made life slightly more bearable during the years that followed, but only in 1989 would they truly become liberated.

The “Black Sheep” of the EU
Budapest Hungarian Parliament

It’s no secret that Hungary has been considered a bit of a problem child of late for the EU. I say child because it was one of a batch of states that joined post-2000 (in 2004 to be precise). It’s no coincidence that Hungary has been at odds with the EU since Viktor Orbán’s most recent rise to power in 2010. All cards on the table, I have personally relished in watching his defiance play-out against EU’s institutionally-imposed norms and expectations. My own country might have washed their hands of the EU through Brexit (which, for the record, I wouldn’t have voted for at the time though am now much more at peace with it), but it is bold that Hungary are opposing the EU from within so long as there is fundamental disagreement.

Reasons why Mr. Orbán is such a controversial character are well-known to most: from his stance on the refugee crisis and migration (not to mention the building of a physical fence along a Schengen border – a big no-no in the EU’s book), resisting liberal reforms on an array of social and identity issues, alleged anti-Semitism, corruption and generally misaligning with several core values of the rest of the EU.

Granted, he is a loose cannon in public speech and could choose his words more carefully if he cared to, but he deliberately appeals to right-leaning voters with emotive language and Hungary still has a high proportion of such voters. While not everyone in Hungary supports him or his party, the EU care little about the sentiment in the country and want to drag it kicking-and-screaming into its own vision of societal norms and the law. Rather than acknowledge that different peoples have different histories, realities, values and sensitivities, they portray them instead as behind the times and lesser-evolved/progressed. I can relate to this because my own country, Northern Ireland, is often accused of the same primarily because of the Christian conservative views of the main ruling party (the DUP). Orbán hit the nail on the head when he declared:

“Let us confidently declare that Christian democracy is not liberal. Liberal democracy is liberal while Christian democracy is, by definition, not liberal. It is, if you like, illiberal.”

viktor orbán SPEAKING AT balvanyos (july 2018)

And there we have it, an example of fundamental differences in how people choose to define their identity that are extremely challenging to reconcile. In the EU, however, it must be their way or the highway, so why do they allow Hungary to resist? My best guess is that no one wants to take on Orbán directly and their processes for taking legal action are so slow and complicated that we are still waiting to see if there will be any tangible repercussions beyond empty threats.

I’ll leave it to the Hungarian people to name their genuine concerns and complaints with Orbán’s government, but as an outsider, the demonising, caricaturising populist dictator narrative has been well and truly exhausted at this point and is full of inconsistencies at best.

For example, the accusation that Orbán is an anti-Semite. Why, because of his opposition to the foundations of former-acquaintance George Soros on the basis that he happens to be Jewish and a Holocaust survivor? Soros is 1,001 other things as well as being a Jew and Soros himself refuses to play the anti-Semitism card to gain support, so why do others feel the need to play it on his behalf?

The other accusation is that he has sought to absolve the Hungarian people of blame in their participation in the Final Solution. Indeed, the erection of a monument in Freedom Square in 2014 commemorating the victims of the country’s Nazi occupation has received significant backlash for this reason. Viktor Orbán has openly acknowledged that both Hungarian society and authorities were culpable and failed to protect the Jews, Romani gypsies and other ethnic minorities among them. Some feel that words are only that, just words, and expect that Hungary should reflect this sentiment by being more embracing towards refugees and migrants today, à la Merkel. Yet, Hungary takes a hard stance on holocaust denial, hate-speech and symbolism and maintains a strong relationship with Israel. Surely he cannot be expected to pass blame onto today’s generation?

The Jewish population in Hungary today is said to be around 100,000 and the Dohány Street Synagogue nearby the Budapest Ghetto is the largest synagogue in Europe. I felt a bit intimidated to go inside lest I didn’t heed the correct etiquette but I’m sure the interior is equally impressive.

While showing a level of outside support, I do not laud everything that Hungary do, as their loyalties are forged entirely on their own initiative and not by extension. For example, having anything more than tepid bi-lateral relations with both China and Russia whilst being firmly inside the EU and NATO will naturally prompt the west to raise an eyebrow. Even though these relations are clearly economically-driven (e.g. major investments, gas supplies and joint nuclear projects), there should be sufficient healthy scepticism passed-down from a post-war generation to avoid jumping straight into bed with Russia. One cannot hunt with the fox and run with the hounds, particularly as the Ukraine crisis is developing on Hungary’s doorstep. Thus, Orbán will have to tread carefully in managing his special relationships.

Hungary’s prime minister is well-known for his obsession with football (and heavily funds it as well). I too enjoy the sport, but I thought it wise to give the Hungary vs. England match a miss while I was there due to the recent sanctions for racial abuse by Hungary fans towards England players, as openly supporting England in a pub full of drunk Hungarian football hooligans might not be the brightest idea. Should a country be judged by it’s worst examples of football fans? I think not, but it serves as a cautious reminder that such people do exist (as they do everywhere) but appear to fear little consequence.

Railway Museum and a Brush with Death

How ironic that I nearly met my maker on my way to the Hungarian Railway Museum (Magyar Vasúttörténeti Park) by almost getting mowed-down by a train. I’ve had a few scary encounters on past Reconnaissance Missions but this was my first brush with death. As to how it (nearly) happened, I’ll come to that in a moment.

First, I want to stress that the railway museum was one of the biggest drivers of my second trip to Hungary. Those photos of abandoned trains from the Soviet era had been calling to me for many years and I was over the moon to finally be going there. My granny has always loved steam trains since growing up near a railway in Marino (Holywood, Northern Ireland) so I suppose it has rubbed off on me as well.

The reason why I especially love locomotive museums of any kind is because, as a mechanical engineer, it is fascinating to see the machinery and inner workings at large. I firmly believe that engineering students shouldn’t be introduced to engines with textbooks or on a scale as small as automotives, but should be brought to locomotive museums instead. It’s so much easier to visualise how it all works.

Furthermore, I highly respect Hungarian masters of their trades and tend to associate them with engineering as much as the arts (my former tattoo artist also happens to be Hungarian). For example, the Ottoman Cannon built for Sultan Mehmed II was designed and build by Hungarian engineers (Orban & co.) and was probably the largest constructed in history. Without it, the Byzantine-held walls of Constantinople might not have been breached in the siege of 1453. It was pioneering, even if it was too powerful to sustain itself in the end.

I also recall from Mission Kuwait, how the Hungarian team were celebrated as heroes after they played a pivotal role in extinguishing the oil wells set alight in the 1991 invasion by Iraq. Although various highly-skilled task forces tried and tried, they could not extinguish the raging, relentless fires that burned in the scorching desert heat. The innovative Hungarians rigged up two MiG-21 engines with a Soviet tank and were able to cut-off the fuel to the fire with an immensely powerful water jet.

I opine that if you find yourself in a sticky spot and need to improvise, it would be handy to have a Hungarian around. Even if not all engineers by trade, they are incredibly resourceful people, as evidenced by my good friend László carrying a bottle of pálinka and paper cups with him wherever we went. We were prepared for any eventuality, equipped with fruit brandy.

As a tourist commuting around the city by bus, tram and the old metro system (which is still working jolly well to cut down on congestion), I couldn’t help but notice that bus or tram driver is a common profession for women, unlike at home. It’s a pity because I have always thought of it as a noble occupation. Public transport in Budapest is very accessible. The railway museum was quite a jaunt from the city centre, and at some point on the commute it was necessary to walk the remaining 20 minutes or so of the journey on foot. I diligently followed Google Maps’ navigation along a trodden path veering off from the main street.

Before long, the GPS guided me onto a man-made footpath parallel to a railway track. Now, I had no idea if the railway track was still active or not, but assumed it was so as to err on the side of caution.

As I continued, the path underfoot gradually converged with the railway track until I found myself walking on the outer edges of the track itself as there was a hedgerow of jaggy thistle-like growth all the way. Suddenly I realised when I saw the yellow electrical hazard/warning signs (in Hungarian language of course), this cannot be right, but at this point it would have been as treacherous turn back as to continue. If a train came around the corner, even if I saw it in time, I would have no other choice but to leap into the jaggy hedgerow and hope for the best. My heart was pounding in my chest as I pressed on in trepidation, the whole time completely furious with Google for not mentioning that part of the pedestrian route was an active railway line!

I picked-up my pace, petrified that I would a) be hit by a stampeding train, b) electrocuted somehow or c) caught on camera and arrested by the authorities for dangerous trespassing. When I came to what looked like an outdoor station/stop, I realised I was definitely not where I was supposed to be, as it was impossible to get off the track and onto the platform without crossing yet another set of live tracks and jumping over a locked gate.

So that’s exactly what I had to do. And sure enough, just as I landed on the platform a slow-moving train passed me by on the narrow tracks that I had just come along. I sat on the bench and picked a thousand needle-like burrs off my shoes and clothing, just thankful to be in one piece and not to have been apprehended by any security forces.

I was ready to launch warfare on Google Maps feedback but in hindsight, it seems I missed a subtle turn-off onto a secluded path that continued on the other side of the hedgerow. If I made that mistake, it’s possible that others might as well. After all, these things have happened before, like the time Google had me trespass through a Macedonian military camp to reach the Albanian border at St. Naum. There was no other choice, but thankfully the border guard was obliging and even carried my suitcase. Or the numerous times Google has suggested a walking route in Dubai where no pedestrian footpath exists (as is common), but only ten-lane motorways. There was a more direct bus I could/should have taken to the railway museum, but I had sought the faster option. Never blindly trust Google Maps indeed.

Because of this nerve-wracking experience, I couldn’t relax to enjoy the railway museum as much as I would have liked to, but it did have some fascinating locomotives on display. The outdoor museum is massive and one could easily spend all day exploring the trains, both inside and out. My favourites were the rotary snow plough trains. I would have loved to have seen them in action (provided I wasn’t walking along the same track at the time).

Thermal Baths & Ponderings

Budapest is home to several Roman thermal baths; most notably Gellért Baths on the Buda side and Szechenyi Baths on the Pest side. Szechenyi is the larger of the two and consists of a large complex of indoor and outdoor baths; 18 in total to be precise. Unlike the thermal baths in Tbilisi, the air doesn’t hang heavy with the stench of rotten eggs so that’s one bonus. Szechenyi baths is nestled in the middle of a large green park close to Vajdahunyad Castle and Heroes’ Square with statues featuring ancient Hungarian tribe leaders (Seven chieftains of the Magyars) and other notable figures.

Szechenyi Baths attracts masses of tourists and locals alike by day and regularly opens for pool parties after dark. The first pool party rave I ever saw online was actually from 2009 in another aquapark in Hungary, where Chicane performed live. How I would have loved to have been there back in my raver days, but am a bit long in the tooth for all that now. The neo-baroque building, painted mustard yellow, is over 100 years old (built in 1913). Hungary has long been famous for its thermal baths since Roman times owed to Budapest being situated along a geological fault line. Thermal baths were later revived by the Ottomans after their 16th century conquest of the region. Interestingly, Hungary’s Expo 2020 pavilion in Dubai is centred on the theme of the Aqua Roots of Hungary – the Land of Waters with more than 1,300 thermal springs.

Szechenyi Baths triggered some bittersweet memories for me that I had long suppressed, as the place where I had first eloped on a romantic getaway with my ex-husband nine years prior. I recalled how he had jumped on a plane with me, not having a clue where Hungary was on a map, and it was there right under the spurting fountains of Szechenyi grand pool that we made our commitment and conjured up all the crazy life plans that would and did ensue. I didn’t know how I would feel about going back inside again; this time solo and divorced since one year back so I just took a leisurely stroll and admired the exterior of the building on this follow-up trip. Anyway, I had a dose of the sniffles that I didn’t wish to make worse by bathing outdoors in the middle of October at 8 degrees; nothing that palinka couldn’t fix.

I do hold two rather amusing memories from my experience of the baths though. One is from the outdoor whirlpool (absolutely bags of fun). If you don’t hold onto something, the strong current just whisks you round and round like inside a standing mixer. I’ll never forget the little chubby boy who was making great entertainment for himself by curling up into a buoyant little hedgehog-like roll and wiping everyone out like a cannonball. My other amusing memory was getting out of the pool after an hour or more and suddenly feeling like I weighed two tonnes under the effects of normal gravitational force again. The body is highly capable of trickery.

Hungarian Cuisine

Hungary is well known for its paprika-enriched dishes; namely chicken paprikash (paprikás csirke) and goulash (gulyás). The slow-cooked chicken on-the-bone paprikash that I had this time around just melted in the mouth, far removed from any of my attempts at replicating it from online recipes where it resembled a sort of stroganoff with paprika. Oftentimes it doesn’t look very appealing as the sour cream starts to separate, but perhaps that’s just how it is meant to be. It all goes down the same way anyhow. My favourite feature of the paprikash dish is the nokedli that it is so often served with; the starchy spätzle type noodles popular in central and Germanic Europe. I have suffered from longstanding confusion about goulash, from first understanding it to be a stew and then authentically a soup. As it turns out, gulyás (lit. herdsman) is authentically both a soup and a stew in Hungary, where it hails from, due to the multitude of variations that exist. The addition of caraway seeds (that I’d forgotten about) gives it a distinct perfumey flavour. Budapest is comfort food galore, and it’s even possible to find Jewish comforts around such as cholent and matzah soup.

Perhaps the best place to sample an array of Hungarian delicacies is the Central Market Hall (Nagyvásárcsarnok); at least for those who don’t mind crowds. While the entire ground floor consists of butcher, bakery, delicatessen and pantry goods stalls, upstairs is split between textiles, kiosks selling lángos (fried bread that looks like cloud bread with toppings but would be too oily for my liking) and other street food and a busy cafeteria. To my dismay, however, the only delicacy I was looking for was nowhere to be found. My best friend Karina is the biggest fan of Hungary that I know of and recalled the most amazing cabbage strudel she had tried and still craves from the Central Market Hall many years prior that I just had to try. But could I find a strudel? Sadly not.

Not to be defeated, I marched myself over to the other side of town to Anno 1926 (strudel specialists) on my local friend’s recommendation. I always supposed that strudel was an Austrian affair, which turned out to be half-correct, as it was popular throughout the Habsburg Empire from the 18th century, but it’s by no means exclusively Austrian. I stepped into the unassuming little café and was immediately confronted with a diverse array of strudel flavours, from cabbage to banana and a baker freshly preparing them behind the counter. I opted for apple and poppy seed, as the tiny black specs that get stuck in your teeth have been long heralded for their multitude of health benefits (sugar aside) and I didn’t regret it. The savoury cabbage strudel that I had later for supper was different altogether; both buttery and peppery but slightly confusing for the palate. Certainly worth the jaunt. As far as other pastries go, I began each morning with a cappuccino and a chocolate swirl (kakaós csiga), contributing to my post-mission waistline expansion. My only regret was not getting the chance to try any cottage cheese dumplings (túrógombóc). Hungary is certainly not a fat nation but is also not a skinny nation, and I like that about it.

My honourable penpal László was kind enough to gift me some homemade pálinka; a strong spirit, much-loved by the nation, typically made from apricots, plums etc. Although it is produced in neighbouring states, the name has been geographically protected by the EU since 2004, much in the way that Greek yogurt cannot be so-called unless it is actually produced in Greece. This was a controversial decision for former territories of the Kingdom of Hungary, now outside present day Hungary, who have as much historical claim to pálinka as anyone. Although Hungary is famous for wine, they were nearly all dry varieties and therefore not to my taste. I did, however, enjoy the local beer Dreher, brewed in Budapest. It had a much lighter flavour than typical Central European beers. Unicum is an almost black herb liqueur popular in the country. While it looks like Jägermeister, from my recollections of my first trip I remember that it does not taste much like it at all but is less sweet and more bitter and eucalyptus-ey. Even the cafés in Budapest sell alcohol, so one can easily order an aperitif with one’s eggs benedict in the mornings.

I had been dreaming of all the hearty traditional dishes I would be eating every evening and so purposely reserved a hotel in the touristic centre (Pest side). The reality, however, wasn’t quite what I had imagined. Cafes and diners closed quite early (around 6pm) which left only pubs and fancy international types of restaurants open after dark for wining and dining. On a couple of occasions I did try these tourist-trap restaurants and was ushered both times into a tight and uncomfortable table for one. I could almost see the visible disappointment on the hosts’ faces at losing another potential cover on a two-person table. This led to me thinking of alternative options for my evening meals; one being a picnic from the Spar supermarket (consisting of a beer, a kifli crescent roll, cheese of some sorts, German cured ham, crisps (paprika flavour of course) and Túró Rudi (a chocolate-covered curd bar). As luck should have it, next to my hotel was a good butchery decorated with plush pigs on every table that sold ready-to-eat black pudding (hurka). And on my last night, I resorted to a Zing Burger and didn’t regret it. This Hungarian high street chain is nothing like McDonald’s, offering a high quality menu for a low price.

My final culinary mention is one inspired by the season; Hungarian chestnut purée (gesztenyepüré). Searching high and low, I eventually found it and it was really quite fitting given that the streets and parks were practically littered with chestnuts having fallen from the trees by mid-October. It doesn’t look particularly appetising, but with its sweetness balanced by unsweetened whipped cream folded into the extrusion, it is a unique delight and I do get an odd craving for it, even today.

Sounds of Hungary

Having repeatedly visited St Stephen’s Basilica, you can imagine my excitement at the chance to attend an evening concert there. The concerts are regular, several times per week, with different orchestral themes. When I saw the organ concert advertised, I knew that was the one for me. Although there is nothing animated to look at as the audience sat with their backs to the organ perched up in the rafters, the great bellows of the almighty instrument filled the entire chamber. How poignant that Hungary’s own Ferenc Lizst featured on the programme. I have come to understand that Liszt was a real musical pioneer at the time and even now, there is a certain style/technique of playing that is associated specifically with him. My favourite comedian, Bill Bailey, attributes Liszt’s superhuman abilities to his giant hands. Budapest’s main airport (Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport) is named in his honour. Interestingly, you can still see the grounded Malév Hungarian Airlines’ fleet at the airport; the flag carrier airline that collapsed in 2012. The story of its financial collapse is an interesting one with EU involvement at the centre.

And so, off I was down a rabbit-hole for the remainder of the evening watching YouTube videos about organs. I had never imagined that large church organs have dedicated rooms filled with tens-of-thousands of pipes; an incredible feat of engineering for their time; or that organists have an extra stave on a musical score to contend with for the pedals, while I can barely manage two. Below the multiple tiers of keys, organists are constantly doing a little dance with their feet (as seen in the footcam in this Canterbury Cathedral performance) and are pushing and pulling out stops (hence the expression to pull out all the stops) in between. The opening song was Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor which everyone knows as soon as they hear it, if not by name. Was there ever a more appropriate piece written for the organ? I have watched other organ concerts online but, although they might start off with rejoicing hymns and uplifting classical pieces, at some point they always descend into what I can only describe as horror jazz; because maybe that’s what organists most enjoy playing?

See Reconnaissance Jukebox for all my personal favourite Hungarian songs (not Liszt, Bartók nor any other classics but a real dolly mixture).

Mission Hungary Summary

Having been to Hungary twice now, I wouldn’t return for the reason that many others return, i.e. that it is a relatively cheap getaway. I would describe the cost of living/holidaying in Budapest as skewed in the sense that some things (mostly local produce) are cheap but most things are at least on par with the rest Central Europe; not surprising really with 27% VAT. Still, with most missions accomplished and thus no pressing need to go back, it would most likely be people that bring me back again, e.g. my best friend Karina who is obsessed with the country or else my longstanding penpal who it would be a pleasure to meet again in person in the future.

Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, please do drop me a message below and tell me your thoughts about Hungary: