Notes on Budapest, November 2018

Notes on Budapest, November 2018

23rd November, Friday

Ninety percent of the passengers on the plane were women. Christmas market excitement was at fever pitch in the hen house. Our young taxi driver was very talkative and I wanted to go back into the language at the deep end. After checking in at the Opera Residence apartments, JP and I went to the Pótkulcs bar near Nyugati station. Michael caught up with us there. The staff were sour and unpleasant. The Kőbányai beer and the atmosphere were OK.


24th November, Saturday

We had lunch in the Central Kávéház and dessert in Café Gerbeaud before the clockwise walking tour continued.




Over in Buda, I should have cut out everything between Bécsi kapu (the Vienna gate) and Szent István körút, as inessential. Darkness fell but back in Pest I guided the lads as far as Beckett’s on Liszt Ferenc tér.

I’m deep in action on a secret mission,
Contact’s broken down,
Time drags by, I’m above suspicion,
There’s a voice on the telephone

When I got there, the lads were on high stools. I paid my respects to Declan and he put up a pint on the house.


At two in the morning we were the last to leave but the goulash (& bread) had been excellent trunking. We had slipped away for a while to explore other places in the rain but Szimpla Kert had a young queue and Kuplung and Fekete Kutya seemed to be gone. We only had the one in Kisüzem. Lower lighting might help there. It’s brighter than this stock photo suggests.


25th November, Sunday

Half past eleven, I was first into Beckett’s for the full Irish (breakfast). More rain. Having an earlier flight, Michael left in a taxi for the airport after that.


After the basilica, JP and I passed more time in one of the three elegant Café Vians before heading to the airport ourselves. The same taxi driver picked us up. Same non-stop chat.


Lake Balaton, Hungary

Lake Balaton, Hungary


7th April, Tuesday

Tired on the drive to Dublin, I missed the M50 exit near Palmerstown so I was up and down the road for a quarter of an hour before getting onto the right one. On the plane I threw my bag into a largely empty bin and a dickhead dad on the other side of the aisle, and in a row in front (the very first row), got awkward.

“Hey, watch the suit! Tsk!”

As he removed his property, the conversation developed.

“How was I to know it was your suit?”
“Because it’s a suit bag.”
“So, do you want your name on the bin altogether?”

He turned away and backed off. Thereafter he had a steward stashing his precious suit in various places, including the front toilet. His wife looked Romanian (she had a Dublin accent) – I later heard him say he went to Romania a lot – and his two kids ordered a feast from the trolley. There’s always one.

I’m staying in what might be termed overflow accommodation on a parallel street (Kút utca) to where the hotel actually is, above Margit körút in Buda, but the room is fine. This is actually a (small) apartment.

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8th April, Wednesday

I’ve been round to the hotel for the breakfast this morning and I paid up too. It’s warm here. The sun is shining but last night it felt balmy as I walked over to Pest. The breeze on the bridge over this huge river wasn’t cold at all.


Out of Budapest by noon, to look at holiday properties around Lake Balaton, we drove south-west and then down along the north shore of the lake, stopping first at Balatonfüred.

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From there we continued along the shore until we reached the hilly peninsula that juts out into the lake at Tihány.

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We had lunch below the crest of the great lake view beside the abbey (apatság) at Tihány and then we got the boat. The hazy lake was a light, smoothie green, at least from the ferry we were on, crossing from north to south.



The temperature got up to 25°C and my face is just a bit burnt. On the south shore we looked at properties in Balatonszemes before heading back to Budapest on the motorway.




9th April, Thursday

If the Biblical explanation of the origin of languages at the Tower of Babel has always carried the association of a great morning commotion, then hotel breakfast rooms in Europe suggest a different reaction: the cautious, discreet murmuring and whispering of many tongues as people woke up, had some food and drink and made no more noise than the odd bang of utensil against utensil, as they got their heads together in unfamiliar circumstances.

I didn’t order anything from the trolley on the plane – the guy in the Tory shirt in front of me (Irish, of course) was shaking his (reclined) seat so much he would have dumped anything on my table into my lap. He did calm down after he got his grub but before the end of the flight he was blocking the aisle with the newspaper he’d got. I wasn’t hungry or thirsty so I said nothing.


Hungary 2012

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Sunday morning, the twenty-fourth of June, in a rented apartment near the Budapest Opera, I was waiting for a lift to go and see the Danube Bend, a Duna kanyar. I’d left an empty Beckett’s bar early the night before to be as fresh as I could for this, in the circumstances. The manager was standing outside. He said it was demoralising. In effect, the pub had seen its best days before the Crash. That and the fact that numerous Hungarian dentists had set up shop in Ireland meant the Irish weren’t coming any more. The foreign students in the city kept the pub going during the school year but the summer was a dead loss.

Budapest (esp. with a sore throat) was hot but at least at night it was nothing I couldn’t handle. Under the weather, and not in a self-inflicted way, I’d got a bit lost after leaving Beckett’s Thursday night and trying to find Jack Doyle’s, for a last one. A pretty but forlorn-looking young hooker called out to me on Rákoczi út (“Where you go?”) but I waved her away. I might have said, “Hol van a gengszter veled?” (‘Where is the gangster with you?’) but I was already lost enough by that stage.

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There was a major thunderstorm in the early hours but that was less of a bother than the sore throat. The next morning I met two girls I knew – they had lived in Ireland – for coffee at Corvin Negyed. That was a pleasant experience, as was asking two cops for directions on the way. Hungarian is the only unusual skill I have and even police officers are friendly when they witness a foreigner not make a dog’s dinner of it. Later I got tablets and went back to bed until the mid-afternoon.

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The first sniffle arrived on Saturday morning. It wasn’t just the noisy air-conditioning that had me awake at half past seven, Irish time. Before a bath later, I felt a bit stoned, naked in the apartment. It felt like I’d been there a long time. There’s a tickly cough now. Sleep more if you can. You’ve nothing else to do.

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Passing the afternoon with a river cruise turned out to be a good idea. I met a middle-aged American couple (Sam and Diana) while boarding the boat. They were some fun and I felt better after it, physically and therefore mentally. Originally from the Bahamas, Sam had enjoyed his time in the US National Guard, back in the days that were out of harm’s way, when it only meant getting to play cards and drive military vehicles.

On Sunday morning, after a Hungarian friend picked me up, we headed north out of the city with a couple of his kids on the back seat. First stop was the Roman ruins of Aquincum, before we got to Szentendre. He didn’t show me the picturesque town but instead headed for the Skanzen Village Museum, 4 km outside it. It’s a big site with village reconstructions from the country’s five regions. I didn’t get a kick out of the sun, which was still too high for the state of my head. A head cold is odd to feel in such heat.



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I took a photo of a guy asleep in a back room in one of the houses. That’s nice work if you can get it but most of the guides were old ladies, even at the house where this guy was at, on a bench by what looked like a lunch table.

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After that we continued to Visegrád where I got a short coughing fit before we bought ice cream cones.

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My nose was running up on the Vár, or castle, which offers a sensational view of the Danube and the wooded hills that mark both banks, up around the bend. The evening sunshine lit up the panorama. It was after five when we got there and though the man on the gate said it was zárva (closed), a bribe of 500 forints was enough to get us in.

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I still felt quite wrecked on the way back to Budapest but stopping for burgers started the comeback and then I had a few bottles of Carlsberg while watching the Italians make a show of England at soccer but not beat them until the penalties. Then I left Beckett’s, which had emptied swiftly after the match.

It was raining Monday morning as I made my way to a colleague’s office in Hattyu ház, opposite the Mammut shopping centre in Buda. He wanted to explore other possibilities once I told him the dental tourism thing was gone, in Ireland. I could only think of showing them tourist wonders like the Vár at Visegrád.

The rain had stopped briefly by the time I headed back to Pest (on a tram) to pick up my bag and hand back the key but it was heavy again when I got to Beckett’s to kill a few hours. I got something to eat there but a cold sweat on my neck led me to down a couple of hot whiskeys too. I didn’t fancy looking for an ATM in the rain but the manager then charged a fiver to change fifty euro into forints (business must be bad, I mused) so I slipped away and hailed a taxi. As the plane crossed over the Danube Bend I got a photo of the Vár and the bend from another angle.

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János Kádár in the House of Terror

János Kádár in the House of Terror

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The Irish comedian Tommy Tiernan had a routine that discussed the standard 1-2-3 division of Irish school classes. For Tiernan, group (1) consisted of those who did arts degrees; group (2) numbered those who went on make money; and, as for group (3), well, that was just where the bus brought them.

A Hungarian friend once explained the very different streaming trinity that operated in schools in the Eastern Bloc:

(1) the children of Party apparatchiks;

(2) the children of actual workers;

(3) the children of those that the parents of group (1) employed to keep the parents of group (2) in line.

On 13 February 2008, I paid a visit to the House of Terror, the Terror Háza, on Andrássy út in Pest, where the tour started on the second floor with an animated map graphic showing the ebbs and flows of Hungary’s borders in the twentieth century. The lines moved to and fro to a rhythmic, ominous soundtrack that was soon echoed elsewhere in the building by the “Hungaria” onscreen ranting of the widely supported fascist leader Szálasi, in a room lined by Arrow Cross uniforms.

Even when the SS had fled, after the Russians had crossed the Danube upriver, the Arrow Cross continued to shoot any Jews they could find on the Buda side of the city. Many Arrow Cross thugs and torturers nonetheless found new jobs in Rákosi’s post-war secret police and, indeed, there remains a sizeable fascist following in Hungary to this day.

The even more enthusiastic (Stalinist, as opposed to Nazi) puppet Rákosi appeared sinister in a more low-key way than Szálasi – he was like a bank manager, with a shaved head – but it was interesting to note that Kádár himself had received a dose of the medicine there, before he got the top job.

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A bright, likeable boy with an impoverished upbringing (his father abandoned his mother before he was born), János Kádár tirelessly resisted the various forms of fascism that Hungary endured up to 1945. Having been spirited away to Moscow during the Uprising in 1956, he was recommended for the top job by Yuri Andropov and he sided with the inevitable Soviet invasion. In accepting a Soviet garrison of 200,000 in its aftermath, he was able to divert much Hungarian defence spending into welfare.


Today he remains the much-missed (by many) Jani bácsi (‘Uncle Johnny’). His regime proved to be the most liberal state in the Eastern Bloc, even though the communists had destroyed all independent cultural and folk institutions, leaving a deeply cynical, atomised society. Kádár died in 1989, having famously devoted his last, haunted speech the year before to the fate of Imre Nagy, the reformist prime minister tried and executed after the Uprising and virtually made a saint in the West. As it happens, Nagy was a dangerous NKVD informer while in Moscow and he also keenly administered the post-war expulsion of 200,000 Germans from Hungary.

Kádár ruled from 1956 to 1988 at a time when Western loans, Eastern Bloc protectionism and some low-key private enterprise helped maintain a standard of living beyond the reach of most Hungarians since 1989. “A krumplileves legyen krumplileves, elvtársak” (‘The potato soup should be potato soup, comrades’). Life is a compromise, he also famously observed. His favourite book was said to be The Good Soldier Švejk.


The House of Terror dungeons were smelly and it wasn’t like a wine cellar – my companion, a dental patient, thought they might have added some audio (“screams”) down there but then added that it would surely have freaked out the many young girls we saw touring the place.

After all that, I suggested Beckett’s Irish bar, where soon we got talking to a familiar English face in the form of J., late of the French Foreign Legion and security contracting in Afghanistan. He told us that when the late bomb-maker Edward Teller, a Hungarian, was asked during an Internet Q&A session if he thought there were aliens on Earth, his answer was unequivocal.

Yes. There are ten million of them… and they all live in Hungary.

Vienna & Salzburg between Budapest & Munich

Vienna & Salzburg between Budapest & Munich

August 2015

At Keleti station in Budapest, in an August heatwave in 2015, the machines wouldn’t give international tickets and the office was slow chaos, with backpackers getting the most awkward tickets possible and people farther back in the queue having to hold open the heavy door that led into the tight space with the hatches. With the low chairs at those hatches, it was like a small dole office. A fair-haired North American chap with dreadlocks eventually came away from one of them to relay the news to his two female dreadlocked companions – also white – that they would have to make five changes, wherever the f*ck they were going. The set-up might have done with a few of the goose-stepping Hungarian soldiers we’d seen up on the Vár the day before.

A guy in front of me watching them wore a t-shirt advertising Iron Maiden and The Trooper. He must have given up his dreams of martial glory for the sake of heavy metal.


Anyway, we got on the train with just a few minutes to spare and the three-hour trip to Vienna was comfortable. Within two weeks Keleti made international news, thronged with refugees. Across the aisle on the train, some Brits and a spherical though pretty Indian girl with an American accent had some ‘psychedelic’ colouring books that didn’t keep them entertained for very long. Two of the chaps vanished to the bar carriage.

If anything Vienna was even hotter than Budapest. Every twenty minutes, late that night, I went to the bathroom to wash my face and neck. At the Westbahnhof we had gone down to the packed U-Bahn but on the Volkstheater station platform I simply couldn’t see the correct exit, it was so far away, so we emerged on the Burg Ring and passed the correct exit on our last daylight slog, up to the Hotel Admiral. That night we made it back over the Ring, down through the dark Burggarten and up the steps to the Paumen Haus with its red neon sign. There we sat outside and got things we needed such as chairs, drinks and food.

After each of two brief stretches of sleep I had a shower in which I turned the tap from lukewarm to cold. Then I went back to bed again, my ears full of water from that and from sweat rolling into them. Even my shoulders were sweating. I’d been turning the old air conditioning unit on the wall on and off and sometime after dawn I just left it on and finally managed to sleep properly until nine.


We spent the whole day walking around the Ring and the Innere Stadt. There was no way we were going to any outlying palaces with vast gardens of low hedges and shrubbery that offered no protection from that sun. My companion really liked the Café Central and we got to hear a young string quartet on Kärtnerstrasse (“They’re not gypsies, they’re conservatory students”). I’d still like to know the name of this tango.


We did the walk I’d mapped out:

(1) up the Ringstrasse to Schreyvogelgasse (Harry Lime’s doorway);
(2) down to Freyung to the Ferstel Passage;
(3) a pit stop in the Cafe Central;
(4) along Herrengasse to the Hofburg and a detour through the arches to Heldenplatz;


(5) back through the arches to Kohlmarkt and Graben (we lunched in the vicinity);
(6) down to Stephansdom (in and around the cathedral);


(7) Kärtnerstrasse (incl. a detour to the Loos bar where I tried a mojito, because I recognised the name, but it was like mint soup);
(8) back to the hotel via the Opernring.


At eight in the evening we went to the Witwe Bolte, which was practically around the corner from the hotel. After a garden supper, during which the skin of my head still felt a bit prickly, we were back in the hotel by ten.


My head continued to melt. The dissolution restarted as soon as I lay on the bed. Cold water from the tap gave brief relief but then a rivulet rolled down somewhere. I filled the sink so I could have a dunk now and then.

There was a slim, dark girl doing long hours down at reception. She was wearing a white garment with buttons, that evening. It made her look like a nurse. She had matching dark frames for her glasses and she kind of embodied the female cool around there, even though most were typically, for Austria, solid and well built. She’d checked us in the day before. By then my head was already melting, unconnected to this hotel, given the time it took to sort out the three-stop journey on a packed U3 line from the Westbahnhof and then make our way on foot. I explained we had just come from Budapest and she looked at me quite sympathetically before remarking on the weather (“Das ist heiss”).

A Hamburg gentleman of about sixty spotted me at breakfast, applying a serviette to my face, and he came over, hoarsely repeating the German word for hell (“Hölle! Hölle!”). His wife was Danish, a quite tasty blonde, twenty years younger. She appeared at reception as we were checking out and asked about the fire alarm that was going off, only to be told it was nichts, nur das verflixte Telefon. The woman at the desk was waving the receiver as she spoke.

On the way to Salzburg we got talking to a retired American couple who’d sold their house in upstate New York to move to Florida. I think Bob sold his mass of Waterford glass in the house on ebay. His wife had fallen off the train that had brought them to Linz. I didn’t ask why they had come by Linz. They were thinking of squeezing in the Sound of Music tour, despite the lack of enthusiasm of the holiday planner, their daughter.

We were in Salzburg by 2pm and though it was a hot if reasonably short walk to the hotel, my companion wanted to make the most of the afternoon, in case it pissed rain the following day. We got the no. 3 trolley bus as far as Mirabell. On entering the gardens we passed two very dark chaps with a clarinet and accordion, playing Stranger on the Shore. “Now they are gypsies,” I said.


Another reminder that US citizens always like to catch a show came from a woman who keenly spotted a marionette theatre poster as we left the gardens. We walked to the Dom and then dined outside at the Zipfer Bierhaus, where two wasps had to be killed, one by me, one by the waiter (“Raus!”). My companion became convinced that Salzburg was the best, with the most stylish clobber. “Have you noticed how soft-spoken the people are?” I asked. We retreated to the hotel early. The rooms had electric fans.

Though I didn’t hear anything, it rained for much of the night. The breakfast at the Guter Hirte was the best, with scrambled egg, scrambled rashers, little sausages, and then we did the Festung. These mist-covered mountains were all now to see. Anyway, across the river we climbed the Kapuzinerberg steps, though the greenery that hadn’t been there that snowy February curtailed the view.

Down from the hill, I had a look in the Shamrock and my February wingman, Daniel, was there on his own. He told me about his most recent abstract paintings that might soon get some café exhibition space. After there it was a trail of churches plus the sight and sounds of a jazzy procession of bishops, skeletons and devils on their way to put on an Everyman (“Jedermann”) show for the crowd gathered on the stand that had been erected on the enclosed Domplatz.


I had a few more in the Shamrock that night. At half past eight my pal had to leave. It seemed they had to put up with a lot of tourists messing, in and around the pub. Only recently, he said, he’d opened the door onto Rudolfskai well after closing time only to be greeted by the sight of an American girl rolling around on the ground, fighting another girl of indeterminate nationality in front of cops and onlookers.

After a hot dog at the Heisse Kiste Würstelstand across Staatsbrücke, I walked up Steingasse, which was spooky in the dark. The warm red light was on but there was a restaurant, clinking and nattering, right across the alley, though the few diners al fresco were shielded from the sinners by some plants. I didn’t have a theoretical hour to spare.

We left the hotel at ten the next morning. This time I had heard heavy rain but it was only gloomy out by then. In the station a black vintage train pulled up at our platform. Uniformed serving staff jumped out to unravel short rolls of red carpet below each carriage door. Who could these passengers be? They were Australian casualties from Linz. These war wounded had to be practically carried off. One old lady was handed down a set of wheels like those that belong in a nursing home. The next woman out that door was a bit younger and had better pins but she sported a broken arm.

I managed to sleep a few minutes on the train to Munich. We dined across the street from the Hofbräuhaus, which was very hot and mental, on the evidence of a few seconds inside. What is it, though, about Bayerstrasse? This day I saw two beggars there without feet. One at least had knees, which kept him upright, like Toulouse-Lautrec.