Category Archives: Hungary

Three men on a Train – Budapest

We were in the Hungarian capital of Budapest with a place to stay and with permits to move about (in a limited fashion). We had cash in our pockets, and food in our bellies. A tram ticket to anywhere cost only pennies. We were wide-eyed nineteen-year-olds in an Eastern bloc communist country and it was time to go out and see what the city had to offer.

Actually no. Andrew and David were keen to buy souvenirs, so we spent a goodly amount of the day wandering around the tourist shops until their lust for t-shirts and whips had been sated. I amused myself by looking at the architecture, which had been described as “the most picturesque of the eastern cities”, but which thus far had been largely brutalist and monolithic, immense sooty-walled five-story blocks sat upon street-level shops. I hoped that things would improve when we left the shopping district.

 

Citadella on Gellért Hill, Budapest

As usual, I wanted to climb to the highest point in the city, which in the case of Budapest is Gellért Hill on the Western banks of the Danube. We set off across the dirty waters of the river by means of a somewhat rickety suspension bridge. We marvelled at the way it bounced with the passage of each successive vehicle, and turned to watch the effect of a passing truck. As it passed us, one of the steel sheets that it was carrying fell off and skittered past, narrowly missing us on the pavement. We hurried on, and then began the long climb up the extensive and picturesque stairway to the Citadella.

This fortress was built by the Hapsburgs when they gained control of the country, and was supposed to be destroyed when there was later reconciliation with Austria, but somehow that  never happened and it is now a tourist attraction on the basis of its views over Budapest, and the sculptures and monuments that have since been placed there.

Europe by Train: Budapest

The Danube and old city, from the Citadella. Historically, the city of Buda is on the left, and Pesth on the right.

Europe by Train: Budapest

A slightly different angle, showing the more modern city centre in Pesth

The fortress was reasonably interesting and the views were nice enough, improving greatly once night fell. We had a beautiful purple sunset, and then the buildings in the old town came alive with light, especially the castle and parliament building which stare at each other across the water, so we headed down towards the old town to have a look.

Europe by Train: Hungarian Parliament

The Hungarian Parliament at night

On our way, we got distracted by the sound of dance music and, by following our ears, ended up at a bar with a large open-air dance floor. The dances were complex in their footwork but were performed by linking arms to form a scattered ring formation. We watched from a terrace, and Andrew and David practised the foot movements on the table before going down to join the fray. I elected to look after our cameras and bags, and anyway I was quite happy to sit quietly with my beer.

From my elevated position, I could just make out the fact that two of the bodies were moving contrary to the general flow, although occasionally I must admit that they did seem to be doing the right thing at the right time.

After leaving the dance venue, we scoured the streets for a restaurant, and eventually caught one that was just opening. There were white table cloths, chandeliers, a live band, and a dance floor, and we felt a little out of place in our t-shirts, shorts and hiking boots. However, the waiter welcomed us in and suggested the three-course speciality with wine. Since it was easily within our budget, we gratefully tucked in to stacks of meat and vegetables, washed down with Bulls Blood wine.

After a really enjoyable meal, we found a tram heading in the right direction and climbed aboard. We already had tickets, which was necessary because you couldn’t buy them from the driver, you had to get wads of them in advance from old men who lurked in the subways under the streets. On the tram, we stamped our ticket with the hole-punch provided, which allowed us to stay aboard for as long as we liked.

We were heading for the tram interchange at Keleti Station, and in that we were successful. However, the last connecting tram home to Rákospatak Park had long since gone, so we hailed a taxi. We were low on local currency, but the driver cheerfully accepted Sterling, so we were treated to an exhilarating high-speed ride in a little Russian car over twenty minutes of cobblestones and tram lines; it should have been quicker, but he got lost.

 

Dining on the Danube

We slept in fairly late, and then I went in search of a cafe that sold Hungarian Goulash (gulyás). It was more watery than I was expecting, but with a pleasant slightly spicy taste. A passing wasp touched my plate momentarily, and instantly died. Shortly after leaving the cafe, my stomach started to rumble alarmingly and I had to find a discreet place to squat.

During a day of wandering, I realised that the beauty of the city lies not in its architecture (although Buda has its nice touches), but in the atmosphere. We were already beginning to feel right at home, and the fact that the exchange rate made us relatively wealthy did not harm our view at all. Local goods were all marvellously cheap, although imported items were likely to command vastly inflated prices. All in all we did not see many overt signs of the police state, and found young Hungarians to be helpful and friendly, older people wary at first but thawing quickly, although curiously all seemed to regard England as the epitome of freedom.

In the late afternoon, we purchased tickets for a dinner cruise along the Danube. We got aboard and ordered the first course, and then stopped to consider the scene: Three penniless students on a bread-line European tour, cruising down the Danube over the beginning of a three-course meal, washed down with creamy mocha coffee and fiercely rough Bulls Blood wine. It was so silly that we got somebody to take a photograph.

Europe by Train: Danube

Three men on a boat

Europe by Train: Buda Castle

Buda Castle

Europe by Train: Chain bridge

Széchenyi Chain Bridge

Having ordered our hors d’oeuvre (a Hungarian omelette in a spicy sauce), we ordered an inter-course second coffee, only to find that we had taken too long to order the second course because the kitchen was closing. Not to be dismayed, we decided to board the next cruise and finish the meal, if only to see the reaction of the rather pretty but confused Hungarian waitress.

Unfortunately the next sailing was already fully booked, so we decided to continue our meal in a restaurant ashore. We found one complete with a local band and wandering violin soloist, and did our best to continue our interrupted meal. Shortly after beginning my main course, the waiter smashed a glass next to my plate, covering both myself and my food in glass splinters. By the time I had removed all the shards from my bleeding knuckles, he had escaped and seemed unlikely to return to replace my meal, so I strode through the now quite crowded restaurant with my plate and buttonholed him at another table.

He eventually snatched it out of my hands and scuttled away, returning with a replacement and a nasty sneer. Thenceforth his behaviour degenerated to the downright rude, culminating in an overcharged bill, so we left with a somewhat sour taste in our mouths.

 

Three Men in a Sauna

It was our last day in Budapest, so we said goodbye to our landlord and shouldered our packs for the first time in three days. We were intending to leave from the impressive Nyugati station, and we’d heard that there was a sauna nearby. None of us had ever been to a sauna, and the thought of a relaxing bath was very attractive after a week on the road, so we bought some food for the evening and went to rent a station left-luggage locker.

Europe by Train: Backpacks

Metal-framed backpacks were state-of-the art in 1983

Unfortunately all the lockers were in use, so we re-shouldered both the packs and the shopping, and headed for the sauna. The sauna was closed.

According to our Interrail Bible, there was another one at the Hotel Gellért, back up the highest hill again. Our route took us through the Budapest Forest, a fairly attractive space in the middle of town, but to our mind nowhere near as nice as the well-planted Margit (Margaret) Island which is reached by means of a pair of curious T-shaped bridges.

By the time we got to the hotel, it was already half past three, but we bought tickets anyway for a sauna and massage. We were handed three small squares of cloth and were directed to the luggage store and changing rooms.

Once stripped down, we carefully examined the handkerchief-sized cloths, each of which had long tapes at two of the corners. After some puzzled discussion, we eventually decided that the best use was to tie it around the waist so that the tiny square hung down in front. Thus equipped, we boldly entered the sauna.

Once through the showers, a doorway led through a foot bath and into a large vault supported by stone columns and containing a shallow pool, a little over a metre deep, which was signposted as 36℃ at one end, and 38℃ at the other. A hurried glance at a couple of lounging gentlemen revealed that our handkerchiefs were being correctly worn, so after a brief swim we moved on through to the sauna proper.

The first room said 35-50℃ and held four wooden chairs. The second room said 50-60℃ and the smell of ammonia was more noticeable than the heat. I walked into the third and last room (60-70℃) and plonked myself down on a seat. It was only a little later that I noticed that other guests were tiptoeing around as if the tiles were hot coals, scrabbling for rubber foot mats, and perching gingerly on the arms and backs of the chairs. Actually it was pleasantly comfortable, and I sat back and relaxed. After a while I realised that there were two gentlemen seated at the back of the room, apparently reading newspapers. Closer investigation revealed that all the newsprint had run illegibly down the page, but I gave them ten out of ten for style.

We had been given numbered tickets for our massage, and every fifteen minutes or so the burly bald gentleman by the slab in the corner shouted out a number, and a customer made their way over. The only problem was that we didn’t  understand Hungarian, so every time he called out, we had to check to see if anybody else was moving. Eventually there was a lull where he repeated a number several times, so figuring that it was probably our turn, we made our way over.

After a gentle, relaxing, soapy massage which took all the ache out of back-pack weary shoulders, we discovered the cold pool and the steam room. The cold pool was more of a circular well, and I dove straight in before realising just how cold it was. Frozen in shock, I forgot all about coming out of the dive until I hit the bottom hard enough to graze my knuckles. Lying on the bottom of the pool, I turned slowly onto my back and peered up at the faraway circle of light, before eventually getting enough sense together to start stroking for the surface.

After that, it was a case of alternating the steam room and sauna with the cold well and bath-temperature pool until we sadly had to drag ourselves away. It was a wonderful, unforgettable experience, and I have been a confirmed lover of sauna ever since.

 

Back on the Rails

We’d run out of tram tickets, so we had to run for the station, where we discovered that the train timetabled for Greece was only going as far as Jugoslavia, a communist country that we knew to be completely closed to us. Never mind, we clambered aboard, and by using our usual tactics managed to commandeer a compartment to ourselves. To mark our departure from slightly wealthy to more normal Interrail living, we dined on bread and sausage, albeit washed down with a little locally-brewed cherry brandy.

We had heard rumours about the trip ahead of us, and needed to be prepared.

Three men on a train – Vienna and The Orient Express

There was only one carriage on the train that was going to Vienna, and it was jam-packed with people. We rushed on early and all three of us managed to squeeze into a compartment but there wasn’t  room for all our rucksacks, so I padlocked mine to the window outside in the corridor, between the less lucky latecomers who were squashed together out there on the floor.

We spent a fairly wretched night sat bolt upright in our cramped and stuffy compartment, although at Salzburg the corridor emptied enough to become navigable and I spent some time sitting on my rucksack in the breeze from the window. Then as we entered the final three hours of the journey, the passenger on the seat opposite to mine left the compartment , and I wasted no time reclaiming my seat and putting my feet up on his, dropping instantly into a deep and comfortable slumber.

 

Vienna (Austria)

All too soon, we found ourselves decamping somewhat dishevelled and bleary-eyed onto the platform in Vienna. An attempt to spruce ourselves up found us scalped in the station toilets and in the cafeteria; we hadn’t realised just how expensive Austria could be. We spent even more attempting to use the telephone to find a hotel, and then once again when we checked our backpacks into the left-luggage office. We hadn’t even left the station, and we had already blown a fifth of our daily budget.

We did however now have a destination in mind, a “student annexe” to a proper hotel in the centre of the city. Glad to have left our backpacks behind us, we sprinted across five-lane intersections without any understanding of how the traffic worked, found the hotel, and reserved our rooms with a handful of notes. It was so early in the morning that no rooms were yet available, but the concierge amiably agreed to let us use some showers around the corner.

Suitably refreshed, Andrew volunteered to guide us on a whistle-stop tour of the attractions of Vienna. He did a great job and we enjoyed a whirlwind of largely Gothic splendour, a pot-pourri of cathedrals, palaces and government buildings.

Europe By Train - Vienna

The stunning shiny roof of St Stephens Cathedral

Europe By Train - Vienna

Andrew and I pose outside the Hofburg Theatre

Europe By Train - Vienna

The three of us by the Pallas Athene fountain outside Parliament

The city was photogenically beautiful, and everything was conveniently situated close to the central Cathedral. The prices, however, wore us down. A combination of entrance fees and our lunch in a tourist cafe wiped us out, and we began to consider our escape to less expensive climes. The Thomas Cook International Rail Timetable, arguably one of the most amazing books ever published, showed that if we ran we could still catch a train to Hungary, which was importantly and famously inexpensive.

We made a hasty (and expensive) phone call to the hotel to cancel our reservation and, thankful that we had left our packs at the station and not at the hotel, ran for the train.

 

The Orient Express

Almost everybody has heard of the famous Orient Express, with its art-deco rolling stock and white-tablecloth service, subject of books and films throughout the twentieth century. However, none of those trains (for there have been a number of them) were in fact “The Orient Express”, although they did use those words as part of their name. The “true” Orient Express was from 1883 to 2009 the more prosaic everyday train that ran between Paris and Vienna, with sections going on to Budapest and Bucharest. The version that we caught in 1983 lacked in every way the glamour and history of the drama phenomenon.

Europe by Train: The Orient Express

All aboard the Orient Express

We managed to secure a compartment to ourselves by the now standard practice of hanging up our washing and dirty socks to make it seem less palatable to other travellers, and stretched out to enjoy the ride.

As the designated accountant for the trip, I spent some of the time totting up our IOUs and calculated that we had spent an average of £5 per person per day which, Vienna notwithstanding, meant that we were still £1 per day under budget, and we were now heading for some cheaper nations.

At the time of our visit, Hungary was still solidly behind the iron curtain. This meant that we had five separate visits from green-uniformed officials who checked for stowaways under our seats, guarded the exits at every station, and re-counted the passengers after every stop.

 

Budapest (Hungary)

As soon as we disembarked at Budapest Central, we were accosted on the platform by a man in a suit and umbrella who offered us all a room to sleep in for £9 per night. Andrew bartered him down to £6, slightly below the suggested rate in Katie Woods’ wonderful Europe By Train, which we had been using as our bible.

Our new friend Leslie led us to a money exchange where we got hold of some florints, waited while we scoffed down a welcome schnitzel and chips at the station cafe, and then took us home on the tram.

We crowded into the tiny lift of his apartment block, arrived creakily at the seventh floor, and were led into the living room of his flat. The room was packed with furniture and mats, the walls a mosaic of insulating carpet tiles, and dominating it all were a 26″ television (tuned to a single channel) and an old bakelite radiogram. Leslie gave us a soft drink, some milk, and a bowl of slightly battered pears, and we settled down to sleep wherever we could find some space.

We woke up after a good night’s sleep, and asked for some hot water to make coffee. Apparently coffee is a scarce resource here, because Leslie was very shocked when we offered to make him one, and even more shocked when Andrew left some dregs in the bottom of his cup.

Suitably refreshed, we tackled the first order of the day, which was to register our new address with the Alien Control Centre. We got back on the tram, which cost only pennies per ride, and gawked out of the windows as we traversed the ugly concrete streets, alongside tiny scurrying Lada and Skoda cars, to get to the central police station.

Europe by Train: Pigeons in Budapest

Chasing pigeons around the Ladas

Leslie handled the registration process, which involved a lot of arm-waving and discussion, while the three of us perspired freely while hemmed in and hustled about by machine-gun toting henchmen. It seemed to end well, though, because we left with papers that entitled us to stay for three days as long as we did not leave the capital city.