Leaving the wine cellars and treehouses of Noszvaj behind, we set off reasonably early for the resort town of Lillafüred. On a hike recently in Zala, himself had heard someone mention it and talk about a castle. The castle turned out to be the Hotel Palota, now at the top of the list of places I want to stay in Hungary. Read more
About six months ago, we got a present of an overnight stay in the treehouses of Nozsvaj in northern Hungary. The first available date that suited was the first Monday in September. That says something about how popular the place is. Read more
When we travel on a fixed route from A to B, we often miss so much in between. We’re so focused on getting there on time to check in, eat dinner, or do whatever we plan to do that we don’t stop along the way. Of course, if we’re planners, we do the research and plan extra stops into our itinerary. And if we’re wingers, we might just build in the time anyway and take it as it comes. We follow the signs.
We were heading to the Kreinbacher Estate in Somlóhegy for dinner and a wine-tasting. Check-in was a 3 pm. The journey would take less than an hour. So we left at 10 that morning, just to make sure we’d have time to stop if anything caught our fancy along the way. A sign pointing to an old cemetery or a ruined castle or a roadside market – anything.
Driving out of Zalaszántó, a village that was once home to the fab Florridora’s Pantry, an English tearoom in the middle of the Hungarian countryside, we remarked on how we’d never before driven through it. We’d come for tea more than once, but had never ventured beyond the corner. I’d a vague notion that there was some big Buddha somewhere in the ‘hood but I’d no idea where or what to expect. And then we saw the sign – Stupa.
I hung a left and drove until the paved road ended. Then we hit the dirt roads with their potholes and weed-ridden centre lines. Poor old Ime took a battering. At one turn, some people had parked and were walking uphill. The sign said another kilometre. I kept driving. Finally, we could go no further. About ten cars were parked and a handful of people were milling around the stand selling all things Tibetan. Wind chimes, incense sticks, prayer flags, posters of sayings from the Dalai Lama. The bells sent out their messages in the breeze and the waft of incense made an already humid day slightly headier. We walked further, passing a meditation centre on our left and more stalls on the right. I was excited about seeing Buddha. But I’d gotten it wrong.
We had seen our fair share of stupas in Thailand but somehow my brain had difficulty transporting one to Hungary. I was missing the connection. But there it was, in all its glory – the largest stupa in Europe, built in the village of Zalaszántó by a chap from South Korea. Could it get any stranger?
Zalaszántói Sztupa stands 30 metres high and 24 metres wide. From its perch, some 316 metres high on a hill above Lake Balaton, it has a beautiful view. It’s home to some tiny pieces of Buddha’s remains that made their way from Tibet via India and Switzerland only to end up encased in Zalaszántói Sztupa, reportedly making it the only place in Europe with a Buddhist relic and a holy place of pilgrimage. The idea belongs to Bop Jon (Jin Sui Lí), a Buddhist monk from South Korea who was part of the Buddhist Peace Foundation in Hungary. Back in 1990, he was on the lookout for a country in the midst of a regime change where he planned to build a stupa to represent peace, happiness, and enlightenment. But he also needed somewhere where the locals would be amenable to accepting of the Buddhist tradition. somewhere construction would be facilitated rather than hampered. Mayor Zoltán Huszti Ferecz issued the invitation and the rest, as they say, is history.
Using donations from South Korea, Hungary, and Austria (some 40 million HUF, equivalent to about 630 million today), the stupa was erected between March and September of 1992. And on 17 June 1993, the 14th Dalai Lama, Gyo Tendzin came to Hungary to dedicate it. By 2007, the weather had taken its toll; the stupa had to be refurbished and rededicated. Today, it’s a gleaming beacon of peace and serenity in the middle of a forested hill – the aerial view must be spectacular.
While I’m well-versed in Roman Catholic rituals and have a reasonable grasp of Protestant ones, I’m a loss as to what to do with Buddhism. We sat at the base, waiting for someone to stride confidently forth and begin. We weren’t looking for tourists, like ourselves… we wanted someone who really knew what they were doing. We didn’t have to wait long to find someone we could mimic.
We walked clockwise around the lower Pradakshina path and then the middle and then the top, where we paused and paid homage to the golden statue inside the glass casing. The top pradakshina was lined with 50 prayer wheels that we brushed as we passed. We did this three times, sending our prayers out into the world. The first time I counted – I had to. The second time, I tried to think of a Buddhist or Hare Krishna chant but failed miserably. The third time I prayed. It was lovely.
On the way out, we passed by the meditation centre again, not realising it was a temple, too. Next time. And there’ll be a next time. Of course, we stopped to buy some wind chimes and prayer bells – I love the sounds they make. There’s a lot to be said for the simplicity of Buddhism and more to be said about following the signs.
Nagykanizsa (know to locals as simply Kanizsa) is a town in southwestern Hungary. It gets its name from the Slavic Kynsa, which translates as ‘belonging to a prince’. And once you get by the blocks of panel apartments and the myriad chain stores and supermarkets and make your way to the centre to Erzsébet tér (Elizabeth Square), it’s not difficult to let your imagination take over. Read more
Hungarian wine is as good as it gets. The number of small organic producers is growing. The big guys continue to make the technical stuff and tourists in their droves descend on the major wine regions of Eger, Villány, and Tokaj. But there are plenty of other places, off the well-worn tourist track, smaller wine regions like Somló – which is actually the smallest of the 22 regions in the country – where producers like Kreinbacher work their magic.
A mate of mine, on a short-term contract in Zagreb, visited us in the village last weekend. I’d checked the trains and the direct one from Zagreb to Budapest passes through the next village. It should have been easy. It wasn’t. There was weekend trackwork and in the bus-train interchanges, something happened. They either got on the wrong train or didn’t realise the direct train wasn’t direct any more. Whatever.
I got a phone call to say they were in Izlaz, Croatia, when they should have been in Nagykanizsa, Hungary. The only way over the border by train was to go the whole way back to Zagreb and start again. Madness. So, we got in the car and drove to pick them up. They said they’d get the train to Virovitica or Kloštar Podravski so we checked the border crossings and decided to cross at Gola.
The drive was new to us and new territory is always good. We passed through Berzence, which has to be the Christmas tree capital of Hungary. Fields of them stood waiting to be chopped down and delivered to the cities and towns of Hungary in time for the big day. I wondered briefly how that had started. Had one chap tried his luck and when it caught on, everyone else baled in? The village dates back to the 1300s and if we do go back to get a tree, we’ll no doubt check out the Baroque Festetics House, which has to be related to the palace in Keszthely. There’s also a Roman Catholic Baroque church dating back to the 1700s, an eighteenth-century inn, and the ruins of Berzence castle. But we were on a mission.
When we got the border, there was one car ahead of us. We waited a couple of minutes to be called forward and then surrendered our passport cards and car registration papers. And then we sat. And sat. And sat. I noticed the fence – the famous fence along the 348 km (216 mi) border between Hungary and Croatia that has divided the two countries since 17 October 2015. I’d not seen it before. And I was surprised at my reaction.
I’ve touted Hungary as a great place to live because of the easy access to the rest of Europe. In my mind’s eye, I had visions of a United States of Europe where you can nip from Hungary to Slovenia as easily as you can move from California to Arizona. My mental map didn’t have walls or fences. Okay, so there were checkpoints crossing over into Serbia and Ukraine, but that was only to be expected as neither one is in the EU, but Croatia? The Schengen schilling was slow to drop. Of course. Croatia is in the EU but not in the Schengen zone. Hence the delay.
We sat some more and finally yer man came out. The name on the car registration matched the name on the passport card and the photo on the passport card was of me. And I had already said that I owned the car. He asked me where I lived. I gave him the Budapest address that was on the car registration. But that wasn’t enough. I had to prove that I lived there. I dug in my wallet for my address. He checked it carefully. I got a distinct feeling that he wanted to create another obstacle but couldn’t come up with one. WTF! Since when has Croatia had a problem with Ireland? Has there been a spate of middle-aged Irish women nicking 15-year-old Hungarian cars and smuggling them across the border? Eventually, he gave me back my stuff and walked off. The barrier lifted and I drove through. In the rearview mirror, I noticed the couple behind me. He asked for their ID, had a quick chat, and then waved them through. They were in a Honda.
I couldn’t decide what I was feeling. Was it relief at being allowed out, or relief at being allowed in? At this stage, my mate, trying to be helpful, had gotten another train a few miles closer to the border – but to another border crossing. We finally connected in Kopřivnice, home to the Tatra truck company. Back in the days of Communism, the company payroll was 16 000 strong, about 1000 of which were Vietnamese. Today it’s about 3700. Once owned by a consortium which included Ronald Adams, the American who made his fortune selling graduation rings [FT has an interesting article on the takeover], it’s now owned by a Czech armourer [the things I learn when I blog!].
Anyway, we decided to go back into Hungary through Letenye, hoping that this busy crossing would be deserted on a Saturday afternoon. And it was. The Croatians barely glanced at our papers, delighted no doubt to see us leave. And the Hungarians didn’t seem that annoyed about letting us back in. Maybe three in a car is the magic number.
The experience set me wondering about borders and visas and how they affect my travel, however subconsciously. I would love to go to Russia but as the visa would cost more than the flight, I’m dithering. I’m very fond of India but again, as the visa can add significantly to the cost, I prefer to go there on someone else’s dime and tag on some personal days afterwards. Qatar recently added some 80 countries to its visa-free program but that in and of itself wouldn’t entice me back. Turkey’s convoluted system did my head in and would make me think twice about visiting Istanbul again. And while I, as an EU citizen, have the freedom to travel within its borders, Brexit might change all that for my UK friends, and apparently cost them more – a €7 charge to visit EU countries. I wonder if I’ll be able to cross the Irish border and go to Belfast without having to show my passport? Amazing, really, to think that I never really appreciated freedom of movement until I began to see it dwindle.
[Note: Fence pictured is the one dividing Serbia and Hungary – I figured I’d had enough attention in Croatia – and they look the same.]
Hardly a week goes by without someone asking me for advice on where to eat and what to do in Budapest. Usually it’s friends asking for friends or colleagues with different interests and requirements. In anticipation of a raft of questions coming as the summer holidays approach, I thought I’d spend some time drafting a summary of where I like to eat and what I like to do in Budapest, a list of personal favourites, for what it’s worth.
Fricska Gastropub, Dob u. 56-58, in District VII, is still my favourite upmarket restaurant. The chalkboard menu changes daily and usually offers a choice of four starters, a couple of soups, half-a dozen main courses featuring everything from fish to steak to wild game, and a few tasty desserts. When they run out, they run out. It’s a popular spot, so reservations are recommended and can be made through their website: http://fricska.eu/en/. It’s closed Sunday and Monday.
For Hungarian fare, I like Huszár Étterem, II. János Pál pápa tér 22, in District VIII. They do a particularly good Jókai bableves (bean soup) and an excellent goose with red cabbage. Their trout is worth trying, too. It’s within spitting distance of Keleti train station, which makes it a popular spot with tourists and locals alike, who seem to enjoy the live music offer. It’s often booked out for private parties, so best to check ahead of time to make sure it’s open. And it’s great for large groups. http://huszar-etterem.hu/
Kompót Bisztró, Corvin sétány 1/B, in District VIII, is a favourite for lunch. Their buffet breakfast is popular as is their daily menu (at about €5). It’s a nice place for dinner, too, with terrace seating on the bustling sétány. Corvin sétány is a pedestrian zone boasting myriad cafés, restaurants (including fish, Italian, Indian, sushi, a hummus bar, and one of the best burger joints in the city, Epic burger), a craft beer pub, a casino, and my favourite wine café in the city, Vino és Wonka. They, too, have a chalk menu featuring wines from smaller Hungarian vineyards, a few nice antipasto plates, and some great chocolate.
And while in the Corvin area, there are a couple of interesting museums worth checking. Like the Holocaust Memorial Center, Páva utca, in District IX. If I had to choose between this and the House of Terror on Andrássy, this is the one I’d visit. The museum is linked to the Páva utca synagogue, once the second largest site for Jewish worship in Budapest. It’s closed on Mondays.
Further down, on Dandár utca 1, also in District IX, is the Zwack Unicum Museum, which, to my mind, is one of the best in the city. Exhibits showcase the history of the Zwack family, makers of the famous black liqueur and a video biography of the firm’s history gives a rare insight into how life once was and now is in Hungary. And, as with all good liquor tours, tastings are included. Closed Sundays, tours are available in English. www.zwackunicum.hu. And you can get a combination ticket that includes entry to both this and the Holocaust Memorial Center.
Back then to District VIII, to the Hungarian Natural History Museum, Ludovika tér 2, which dates to 1802. This is a fascinating place with all sorts of exhibits including a dinosaur park. The interactive games make it all that much more interesting. It’s closed on Tuesdays, by the way. It’s practically next door to Orczy park, Orczy út 1, which is a lovely spot to walk or picnic and has a great kids playground and adventure park. And over the road again, are the ELTE botanical gardens on Illés u. 25, a lovely spot to while away the hours looking at interesting plants and flowers. Open daily.
Further out on this side of the city, at Népliget, is the Planetarium, with its fantastic photo display and tours of the solar system (in English, too). It’s currently under renovation but check to see if it’s open when you get here.
Budapest has plenty to offer in terms of music and exhibitions. One of my favourite venues for live music is Kobuci kert, Fő tér 1, an outdoor venue in District III. Set on a rather lovely square, within walking distance of the Danube, it’s a happening spot that offers ticketed events (from as a little as €5), reasonably priced drinks, and decent grill food. BudapestPark , Soroksári út 60, in District IX, is another rocking spot, as is Barba Negra, Prielle Kornélia u. 4, in District XI. Check their websites for details of what’s on.
Downtown, Akvárium Klub on Erzsébet tér 12, is more central, with lots of outdoors seating. Across the river, Mátyás church, 2 Szentháromság tér, in District I, offers free organ recitals on Sunday evenings at 6pm. It’s a great way to get to see the church without paying the admission fee and while there, you can enjoy a spectacular view the city from the Fisherman’s Bastion, which is breathtaking at night. Lot of churches in the city offer musical events as does the famous Liszt Ferenc Academy on Liszt Ferenc tér
But while you’re over in the Castle district, the Hospital in the Rock Nuclear Bunker Museum is worth a visit, at Lovas út 4/C. It’s a little pricey, but worth the money. The guided tours are excellent. And when it comes to things in rocks, visit the Gellért Hill Cave in District XI which, in its day, has been a chapel, a monastery, and a field hospital for the German Army during WWII. It re-opened as a church in 1989. The self-guided tour (headphones) is available in many languages and well worth the admission. It’s across the road from the famous Gellért baths, high on the list of Budapest spas, but doesn’t come close to my favourite, the Rudas baths, Döbrentei tér 9. They open late (10pm to 4am) on Fridays and Saturdays. Quite the experience.
There is so much to see and do in Budapest that I could go on and on. And perhaps I will. Next time.
First published in the Budapest Times 11 June 2018
The Balaton (aka the Hungarian Sea) is a tale of two lakes. The summer version sees the 592 km² body of water full of sailboats and bathing beauties. Its strands are full to capacity as locals and tourists bake themselves to a crisp as the smell of lángos and the pisztráng competes with Ambre Solaire. Keszthely, the largest city on the shore, sitting as it does on the lake’s westernmost tip is no exception. It heaves and burps tourists of all sorts, lots of them local. Keszthely has three strands: the Városi and Helikon strands near the ferry pier and the Libás strand further to the northeast. Even though planned to accommodate 1900 people, which would give sunbathers at Helikon Strand 10 sqm of space each, I have my doubts. Balaton strands at the height of summer view from above are like postage-stamp albums.
But in February, when the temperature hovers at about 2 degrees and the sun peaks out intermittently to check that all is well, it’s a different story. A much nicer story.
Two magnificent buildings sit facing the water at the between the Városi and the Helikon strands, one clinging vainly to its glory days and the other looking all the better for its decrepitude. My thoughts immediately went to renovation and I made quick note to buy a lotto ticket. What I wouldn’t give to own such a place and to have the wherewithal to do it justice.
The water was smooth enough and the birds were plentiful. The swans were out in all their glory and some silly humans with a suicide wish were throwing bread at them. I didn’t stay around long enough to see what would happen when the bread ran out. Swans aren’t known for their placidness. And I’m sure I’ve seen signs urging people NOT to feed the birds. [I’m still carrying the emotional scars of a seagull attack in St Ives a few years back and I blame some well-intentioned tourist for their forwardness.]
The Varósi strand bathhouse (szigetfürdő, or Island Bath), with its decorative entrance, dates to the late 1800s. I had little trouble conjuring up images of old geezers tipping their hats to parasolled ladies, of wives strolling arm in arm with their husbands, of nannies pushing heir-laden prams. It’s all rather period-like.
Off to the left, a pier leads out to the ferry terminal where the Kisfaludy steamboat first arrived in 1846, heralding the birth of boat traffic on the lake. Until it retired in 1887, the boat would ferry prisoners of war, aristocrats, and salt across the Balaton. A heady mixture. In 2015, a replica of the original Kisfaludy took to the waters, this time as a floating museum that includes an exhibition of nineteenth-century boating and a library. Today, ferries run from May connection the city with Balatongyörök, Szigliget, and Badacsony on the lake’s north shore, and Balatonmáriafürdő, Fonyód, Balatonboglár, and Balatonlelle on the south shore. Fishing season opens at the end of March and by then, the pier will be lined with rods and reels and anglers who live in hope of catching something other than hayfever or a cold.
Poised at the edge of the lake is a life-sized statue of Csik Ferenc, journalist, doctor, and Olympian, winner of two medals (gold medal in the 100 m freestyle event and bronze in the 4×200 m freestyle relay) in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. (Remember the one where Jesse Owens gave Hitler something to think about?) Csik died during WWII, aged 31. A short but glorious life – a little like the calm that descends on the Balaton in winter/spring.
Where has the summer gone? Is it my imagination or is time flying by ever so quickly, much quicker than years ago when it seemed as if we’d all the time in the world to do whatever it was we had to do. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of the aging process. Or perhaps it’s because many of us don’t have weekends any more. With growing expectations from employers that we be online and available nearly 24/7, the days blur into weeks and the weeks into months and the months into years. Read more