Hungary and a dash across to Vienna.
Budapest is a lovely city, easy to get around by various sorts of transport and full of interesting buildings. We stayed in a fairly basic Apartment/ Hotel on B+B basis on the Old Buda side of the city. It was easy to catch a bus across the river and then use trams or the Underground to see the sights and like all big old cities it doesn't take long before you've developed Museum and Church feet! O'Buda dates back to Neolithic times and has layer upon layer of history. Romans built stuff there and then it swung through Magyars, Mongols, Turks, Hapsburgs until finally it found its current identity after the 1956 Uprising. We walked around the old Town, so reminiscent to me of the Ludwigsburg I remember around Wilhelmsplatz, it is being re-furbished, but in comparison to Germany, very slowly. Our little bit of culture included a tour around the famous Opera House where every surface was decorated with wood panelling or carved marble, gilt and glass. And we made sure that we went into the Museum that holds the Crown of St (King) Stephen with its wonky gold cross. We really enjoyed this lovely old city sitting on a gentle curve of the graceful Danube amid rolling green hills.
We hired a car for the rest of the week - a small Suzuki Swift - and set off for Holloko. This village of mainly wooden houses has been reconstructed after each fire exactly as it was before, so it is medieval in feel. Long, narrow single storey houses with traditional wooden tiling and each with their own bit of garden housing chickens or pigs or rows of vegetables. Cobbled roads, a grey dull day and it all seemed a bit flat and dull. On to the town of Eger. What a difference! Full of baroque buildings, pedestrianised centres and life. More Church feet . We liked Eger, indeed it would be difficult not to find it charming.
Then on to the Caves - where I sent you the postcard. Aggtelek Karst region straddles the border with Slovenia and the caves run for 25km. Under both Hungary and Slovenia. These caves were mere babes in comparison to the stunning caves in Lebanon, but the black and rust coloured dripstones , stalagmite pyramids and enormous chambers are very interesting. One enormous underground chamber is used for musical recitals and the guide put on a bit of classical tenor as well as some modern Vangelis. Now that was good!
Two of the best reasons for going to Hungary are to try to see some of the thousands of Common Cranes that migrate through the Great Hungarian Plain and the other has to be to sample their famous Tokaj wines. The drive to Tokaj felt a bit like being in England. The grass was green and the wooded hills were covered in the colours of autumn, glorious golds and russets, beige and mushroom. When it was dull , it was dull … but when the sun shone it was the evocation of "mists and mellow fruitfulness". When you live in a Mediterranean climate for a bit , you forget how lovely morning mist and deciduous forest is! Tokaj seems to dislike its fame, the accommodation is mainly Pansio-type and grotty, the shops and shop ladies are charmless and no-one had a smile for visitors. We went to one of the oldest cellars for wine-tasting and spent a happy hour sampling Haslevelu, (like German Auslese) 3,4 and 5 Puttonyos wines which gradually got sweeter and sweeter … and then a local sherry. Carefree, we sauntered back to our car, smiling at everyone!
Next stop was the Hortobagy (pronounced Hor-to-baj) and those cranes! We arrived at 4.00 and the information place was closed! We decided to try and guess where the cranes might fly and then sit around in the car and wait. Not so easy! The Great Hungarian Plain is vast and most of it is not accessible unless you have an 'off-road' vehicle. We were in the right place to see hundreds of cranes fly low overhead - but ordinary cars cannot get anywhere near the ancient fish ponds which are their favourite roosting area. Spent that night in an horrendously expensive Riding Village Hotel. (Of course the other major activity on the plain is horse-riding!) At 6.30 the next morning I was up and ready to go out with a local Ornithologist, to see more of the cranes. Four Germans made up the rest of the party. We drove off in a Land Rover - and this was essential as the Putza is quite rough and there are no tracks. The Guide knew his way by driving towards a big tree, an isolated building, another big tree and so on - for 8 km! (Not a place to be caught in the fog or heavy mist!) Finally, we arrived at one of the Fish ponds and climbed a rickety observation platform to view the birdlife. It was a grey day and my warm Splashdown coat was zipped up to my chin, but I forgot the cold when I saw hundreds of birds; cranes, egrets, curlew, redshank, various ducks and a spectacular Sea eagle.
While I was birding, Brian was supposed to be arranging a half-hour riding lesson for us. At no point had he ever professed an interest in riding, but I thought that as we were out there on the Great Hungarian Plain we should at least try a bit of horse-riding on the Putza! When I got back - he hadn't arranged anything, protesting that the weather was grey and he wasn't all that keen. I had to go through the whole persuasion saga again, but would you believe his luck … when we went to book a lesson - they had no horses available! The Epona Riding Village was a disgrace for a supposedly 4* Hotel. We had no-one to carry our cases, only 1 waiter at dinner doing drinks, orders, serving and clearing, dim lighting all around us as only half were ever on and at breakfast no waiter service at all! And to top it all - no horses for us to ride on! We certainly wouldn't give it a recommendation.
On to Debrecen and the biggest Calvinist Church in Hungary. No paintings or statues, just plain white walls and a definite feel of austerity after all the embellishments in Roman Catholic Churches. Somewhere along the main street one of us muttered "Apfel Strudel …" and then the other added " mit Schlagsahne …" letting the words hang in the air. I think it was me that then said " …elegant café in Vienna …" and within 20 minutes we were in the car and on the road to Vienna!
What can I say about Vienna? A glorious city full of the most amazing streets and buildings seemingly untouched by war and damage. Bot SO expensive! Our small pension with minute shower room, for one night cost £75.00 plus £10.00 for parking! Like Budapest, it's easy to get around by public transport so we went into the centre to find our 'dream' of delicious coffee with a slice of Apfel Strudel (mit Schlag) in an elegant café to the gentle strains of Mozart ….. We had asked, and been told that Café Aida was one of the best. Well, there it was in the pedestrianised shopping centre, next to Marks & Spencer! Inside the small crowded café was full people and cigarette smoke while outside the tiny tin tables were all occupied. We had to adopt guerilla tactics to get a table - watch for a fumble at a purse and zoom in ready to plonk a bottom down on the plastic chair as soon as it saw a crack of light! The coffee and strudel mit Schlag were good but the ambience wasn't. Where was Elegance? Refinement? Sophistication? Disillusioned that our 'dream' wasn't going to be realised we wandered of around the streets. More Church feet as we went into the great Stefanskirche to see the most beautiful carved staircase and pulpit as well as a riot of religious paintings, statues and altars. More wandering and at every Conditorei I looked to see what their Apfel Strudel looked like - until we finally succumbed and had another - this time with a mountain of Schlag! I'm ashamed to say that after all that we went to an old Viennese restaurant and had a Wiener Schnitzel mit Pommes frites. Well, at the prices Vienna charges for everything I don't think we'll be back too soon!
The next day we did more sightseeing - to the Palace of Schönbrunn. Wow! Do they know how to milk a royal story! Photographs of the Empress Elizabeth (nicknamed Sissi) and Emperor Franz Josef were everywhere, you could buy "Sissi" watches, mugs, scarves, films, jewellery etc. ( It reminded us of the Diana saga) There were loads of people and we shuffled slowly around the 40 rooms listening to our audio guide. Many of the rooms were decorated in gold and white with rococo designs on every surface - an interesting place but Ludwigsburg Schloss is just as good!
Back in the city we found the nearest we could to our elusive 'dream'. The café Mozart for coffee and another Apfel Strudel mit Schlag … but no Mozart soothed our ears, a sad omission. Totally replete we beetled back into affordable Hungary. In fact the medieval town of Sopron is just inside the Hungarian border and very many Austrians make the trip there to buy their Wurst, have cut price haircuts and dental treatment! But it was Saturday and everything was closed, so we just wandered the ancient heart of the city. On Sunday morning we found a Mineral and Gemstone Fair in a huge Hall. Outside were dusty, battered old Romanian estate cars and inside table after table laden with minerals and polished semi-precious stones. We spent a happy two and a half hours there, all the time wishing Dad/Grandpa was there to help explain what was indifferent or good or simply beautiful! We bought a little Romanian brass miners lantern (it uses carbide), a small meteorite, a blue (ashamed to say I don't know what stone, but it's not lapis) necklace and two mineral pieces. The currency was mainly DEM, and quite a few sellers said "Alles … alles fur 200 DEM" indicating a whole table groaning with minerals. Our last Hungarian meal was in a small café / restaurant in the middle of Sopron's medieval area. In the centre of the main Square stands the tall and intricately carved Trinity Column, (1701 Plague pillar) and there's a feeling of space, calm and history.
A fairly uneventful drive back to Budapest through field after field of sweetcorn, sunflowers, undulating meadows and deciduous forest. One thing puzzled us - we hadn't seen any evidence of pepper growing for all the paprika they make!
Maybe it's all in the south?
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