I’m deep in action on a secret mission
Contact’s broken down
I live my life around suspicion*
There’s a voice on the telephone…
Rory Gallagher’s guitar classic Philby (1979) was partly inspired by touring Europe and having to deal with all sorts of shady characters at all hours of the day or night. When I think of seven times in Budapest, doing this and that, including a spell in dental patient trafficking, I think of the above verse, but there is more to Hungary than that.
(*The vinyl version of this line is “Time drags by, I’m above suspicion”)
Even in a landlocked country, some of its best sights overlook large expanses of water. A ten-year period of occasional exploration outside the capital began in April 2009 with a trip to Lake Balaton. The village of Tihany lies near the narrowest point of the eighty-mile-long lake. The little lake behind the village is a geological anomaly that sits 25 m higher than the real one. The stone jetty below the Benedictine abbey for which Tihany is otherwise best known is on the eastern side of the peninsula of the same name. We had lunch below the crest of the great view beside the abbey (apatság) and then we got the ferry at the tip of the peninsula over to the south shore. The water of the hazy Balaton was a light, smoothie green, from the chemical composition of the floor of the shallow lake.
The Danube turns south at Visegrád, twenty miles north-north-west of Budapest. Above the small town with the ferry crossing and the creamy church stands the Vár, or castle, which offers a sensational view of the great river and the wooded hills that mark both banks, up around the bend. The evening sunshine lit up the panorama. It was after five o’clock when we got there on a June evening in 2012 and, though the man on the gate said it was zárva (closed), a bribe of 500 forints was enough to get us in.
At the other end of the decade, in the Rockline bar in Sopron, I made some new friends when invited to join the one remaining table, once the other stragglers along the counter had gone. Its online presence said, “Gastro pub” but the only edible items I saw in there were peanuts. Like in a playground, one of the first things they asked was my age. T. said she only knew L. because L. had once interviewed her for a survey. Z. told stories from his night at the Corvinus restaurant on Fő tér, the main square. I think the group expected to have to speak German to the stranger. It’s a border town, a beautiful Baroque border town, but the fact that I don’t make a dog’s dinner of Hungarian was a source of wonder. Languages are hobbies in which I don’t lose interest. The bar owner claimed Sopron hadn’t suffered too much in the war because it wasn’t on the railway line between Budapest and Vienna. He claimed it was in worse shape now, economically, on its last legs, but he was a glass-half-empty kind of chap, though kind.
At Sunday lunch Leonard Cohen was coming calmly over the speakers at the Generális restaurant on Fő tér (‘Main square’) as a man with no arms steadily and assiduously ate spaghetti at the next table. Cohen sang The Partisan with the angelic French chorus and the rhythm of a fluttering heartbeat. By then the man with no arms had gone, with his wife. A Thalidomide survivor, with small hands. Very small hands. But he managed to smoke and drink as well, while his wife was in the Goat Church across the square.
By his accent the man at the nearest table on the other side was from Dublin. He had gone pensive after settling up with a Danke blurted to the Köszönöm szépen from the waitress. On his phone again, he seemed to want to know badly if two Irishmen had died on Mount Everest in the past week. They did. Will I bother telling him? He’s about to leave. I told him. A talkative chap in need of a shave, he was in Hungary to walk from Sopron to Lenti. As well as something of his life on the buses, he told me he’d got up as far as the third level on Everest but then remembered his age (62) and had the sense to turn back and get down off it.
That evening I chose the Corvinus for dinner, having spotted my waiter friend downing a beer in a quiet moment on the quieter side of the building, facing the town hall. The venison stew was fine even though they threw some hash browns on the plate for trunking. The view from the table was free. As I left, cars were pulling up on the square and election boxes were being carried into the town hall. Those involved were all dressed up, like for a wedding.
At the Erhardt Panzió they have a good, varied breakfast menu to go with the basics laid out for the bleary-eyed. This means they don’t have to waste time and ingredients cooking uneaten food. A pretty young blonde with glasses asked me if I wanted anything off it but I just said, Ah nem, túl korán nekem (‘Ah no, too early for me’) and she smiled and went away. The next time I’ll even try the restaurant in the garden. After a chat with the same sweet girl, as I paid at reception, I walked straight down Mátyás Király utca to the station and soon left Sopron. Just an hour and a quarter later, I was back in Vienna. The same commuter train ends up in Bratislava.
In December 2019, the last time I was anywhere before the virus, I got a train east to Győr, which lies halfway between Vienna and Budapest. It was colder there, an hour and ten minutes across the deep grey plain. Part three of The Good Soldier Švejk begins with the battalion setting off across Hungary and we see a crew of friendly characters begin to assemble around the title character. These include the calmly cynical Quartermaster Vaňek, the occultist cook Jurajda and the anarchist Marek, the last of whom Švejk has known since they shared a cell in Bohemia. We are also introduced to the glutton Baloun and the idiotically enthusiastic Cadet Biegler.
The train stops at Raab (modern Győr) where the men are meant to be issued with Hungarian salami but instead get two postcards each. Another train carrying a German-speaking regiment goes through the station without stopping but one of its singing soldiers falls out of a wagon and is impaled on a points-lever, which gives the Czechs something to stand around and look at.
Before they move on, Lukáš’s superior Captain Ságner mocks Biegler’s military and literary pretensions so Biegler, already feeling unwell, gets very drunk. He then dreams of floating through the universe in the front half of a staff car that has been hit by a shell. We’re flying to heaven, General, and must avoid the comets. When he meets the Lord, the Lord turns out to be Ságner, who orders two angels to throw him into the latrines. A terrible smell fills the wagon where Biegler is sleeping just as the glow of lights over Budapest comes into view. He has contracted dysentery and is offloaded to a hospital where he is mistakenly diagnosed as a carrier of cholera.
In Budapest the theoretical issuing of cheese to the men is replaced by a box of matches, another postcard and the happy news that Italy has declared war on them. In the staff carriage, Biegler is replaced by the pontificating of Lieutenant Dub, a Czech reserve officer and informer who will soon prove to be the arch-enemy of Švejk. The men are ordered to leave the wagons a second time, only to watch their train with its piles of army bread and sacks of rice get sprayed with disinfectant. Sent off with some money from Lukáš to get something to eat, Švejk buys a hen but not before he’s arrested and accused of trying to steal it. As he explains, all he did was pick it up to ask who owned it.
The feathers thrown out of the van attracted the attention of Lieutenant Dub… He shouted inside that whoever was plucking a hen should present himself and in the door appeared the happy face of Švejk. […] Švejk held the hen’s bowels and other intestines under Lieutenant Dub’s nose.
Before eating in Győr I photographed the riverbanks. Then I had to find a bank ATM in the belváros (‘old town’). Baross út had most of the mulled wine and snack huts. Dunakapu tér by the water had the blue Ferris wheel. Fortified by Hungarian cash I went into the appealing Pálffy Étterem on a corner of Széchenyi tér and made sure I wouldn’t emerge hungry. It was half past three and the feeling was not of pangs but a dull ache in the cold. The feast needed a walk and it got dark as I headed downriver again.
The lights were on, in and around the bishop’s citadel, reflecting on the Rába before it meets the Mosoni-Duna arm of the Danube, having added its own little sister just before that. Then I wandered the calm yet active old town again but despite a cup of mulled white wine my back started to freeze so I retreated to the hotel at six. I caught up on some sleep. Out again after nine, I had another mulled wine, took some photos of the lit-up town hall and entered the McDonalds for a burger night cap.
Northeast of Miskolc, Švejk’s unit finally gets some goulash next to the Slovak border, about 40 km west of Ukraine. The station is crowded with many different units and wagons can be seen loaded with shot-down aircraft and howitzers with smashed barrels. Lieutenant Dub is telling everyone this is war booty when the wreckage is clearly Austrian. Then he spots Švejk talking to a group of soldiers nearby and goes over for a listen.
Whatever way you look at it, it’s war booty after all. At first sight it looks a bit tricky when you read here on the gun carriage “Imperial and Royal Artillery Division” but it was probably like this: the gun fell into the hands of the Russians and we had to win it back. Booty like that is much more valuable…