(This is the second of two installments about Patrick’s travels in Hungary.)
There are several excellent museums in Budapest and a monthly free magazine called Program / Programme, which lists what’s showing there and at the newly-proliferating private galleries. Admission fees are nominal, and catalogs and color post cards of high quality are laughably cheap.
Outside of Budapest, the attractions are lively but less programmed. The southern city of Pecs (80,000) attracted me because it was the northernmost point of the Turkish rule by the Ottoman Empire. And there are two lovely mosques left to prove it.
One, after a history as a hospital and a cultural center, has been returned to its original Islamic vocation. The other, a lovely green patinaed dome smack in the middle of downtown, has been turned into a Catholic Church, with a neat Art Deco nave snuggling up to the original dome.
I stayed in a delicious Art Nouveau hotel, the Palatinus ($42), recently rehabbed to pristine condition. Riding into the center of the city, I noticed Domus, a new home-furnishings department store with roof tiles that were a brilliant exaggeration of the medieval cathedral roofs in Central Europe. Aha, I said to myself, there’s an architect loose in this city.
Later, exploring the commercial district, I stumbled upon a suite of 18th-Century houses that had been sweetly recycled into a complex of shops. I asked a young man running a tiny photo station if he knew who was the architect. He gave me his name and told me the man taught at the Technical Institute.
The hotel concierge phoned the architect, who was hesitant about coming over that night to schmooze because he couldn’t speak English. But he brought along his 17-year-old son (and architecture heir, apparently), who was Common Market fluent. We had a marvelous two-hour jaw in the hotel’s beer garden. There’s a fine Victor Vasarely museum in town, and there was a graphic design show at the City Gallery that shows how up-to-date Hungarian publicity and signage is.
I also took a trip to Lake Balaton, which the Hungarians boast is the largest fresh water lake in Europe. It has a great little museum which replays the trouble the locals have had since the time of the Romans to control the level of the lake. Until they did, it could not become the tourist attraction it now is.
There are four-stars at the south end of the Strand and no-stars at the north. I stayed north in a neat and tidy room (TV-less, but with a short-wave radio tuned to Radio Moscow). The reading lounge featured Pravda and Neues Deutschland. A busload of Polish vacationers arrived just as I did. So I got some heavy thinking in before I went to bed.
But when I went in search of a good fish dinner, I violated the first rule of off-season cuisine—the best restaurants are recycling. My first soup at the allegedly best place in town was lousy. But walking back to the train station, I saw a German go into some stand-up fish diner and I followed his example. Fresh and tasty, right out of Lake Balaton. Hazard’s Law: When the high season is over, eat in the street.
My best meal was at the thermal hotel on Magarethe Island in the Danube, between Buda and Pest. Fried goose livers. Washed down with a cold Czech beer. The luncheon was worth every forint of the 30 bucks it racked up on my Visa.
I wish I could say all my gustatory adventures were so satisfying. They weren’t. But I’ve never slurped a goulash soup I didn’t like. So toward the end of my stay, I two-tiered my diet—a string of soups followed by a big blast in an expensive restaurant.
Summing up, don’t go to Hungary hungry unless you’ve got a fat Visa credit line. And wander outside of Budapest, but not on a Eurail pass. Stay with a family by all means, but make sure they speak languages you do. Heh, my mute widow wasn’t all that bad. She saw that my blue blazer was losing a button and popping a seam. One morning I noticed she had quietly repaired the damages the night before.
And even when you get locked behind a language barrier, you can find other visitors to Hungary who speak English and can share their discoveries over a friendly beer or cup of coffee. Take it from this Eurail junkie, Hungary is not an open oyster, but with a little bit of prying, it’s a tasty divergence from the mainline European countries.
Flash! French Rail (1-800-848-7245) has just announced the East Pass (for Austria, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia), starting January 1, 1991. Stay tuned!
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, December 19, 1990