After our brief sojourn in Slovakia, we entered Hungary. At this point in the journey I decided to get rather sick, and don’t remember a whole lot as I built up a fever. We arrived in the Hungarian town of Eger for a night’s stay. Eger had a medium-sized town square, and our hotel room was in a small B&B directly on the square. While I took a nap before dinner, Tracey went out and explored the town.
I haven’t talked too much about group meals, but this is a good chance to introduce the concept. About half of our dinners are coordinated through our tour, and all of us dine together with our guide and bus driver. The meals are generally a good opportunity to experience the cuisine of the area, and the guide always tries to introduce some unusual (to us) delicacy. For Eger, we went to an underground restaurant that resembled a well-worn hunting lodge. The food was full of paprika and boar, and the wine was poured out using very long tubes by the waiters. As the wine poured out, they quickly pulled the tubes back so that the wine was flowing into the glass three to four feet away from the end of the tube. The effect was outstanding, and their aim impeccable: it can be stressful to have a stream of red wine quickly flowing right by your light-colored shirt!
Let’s also talk about Hungarian Forint, or as our guide called it: the Hungarian Funny Money. The exchange rate was about 200 Forints to 1USD, so the effect was that you’d be carrying around large bills. The 18000 Forints in my hand? About 90 bucks.
As with most Eastern European cities, the central core is more-or-less maintained as a traditional square, but as you go further from the city center, more signs of communist architecture and pre-pressed concrete construction appears. In a town of 55,000 such as Eger, the effect is highly pronounced: in just a few blocks you can go to an entirely different architectural style.
Exploring Eger the next morning, we decided to wander around the castle grounds (it’s Europe, of course they had a castle) before going to climb up the local Minaret. Being a Minaret, they aren’t really designed for more than one person to ever climb them at a time, but climb we did. It was not for claustrophobic people, and the view from the top was terrifyingly high.
By “descend the stairs” it was mostly “use both hands and a foot to kind of jigger your way down.”
After Eger, we proceeded to the town of Recsk for a school visit. This is perhaps one of the most unusual aspects of this tour, and is where our group goes to visit a Hungarian public school for a few hours. We talked with students learning English, got a tour, and then had lunch in the cafeteria. It was weird being in a school cafeteria again, but the experience was fairly similar to an American school. Lots of carbs, plastic trays, and stern-looking cafeteria workers. The classroom was filled with English books and souvenirs, including a map of the United States.
Apparently, Washington is known for its torpedoes, coast guard cutters, laptops, and trees.
The classroom had a tape player on each desk. They were retro-tastic, but I was fairly sad to hear that they were replacing those desks at the end of the school year.
Moving on from the school, we went to a nearby winery for some wine tasting. Hungarian grape crops were traditionally strong and well-known locally, but after the Communist takeover, production was, well, communized: the owner of the winery where we visited told us of when his father was brutally beaten by Communist agents until he “voluntarily” signed over his land and equipment to the commune. Serving Russia and the other SSRs with its very dark red wines, the region collapsed after the USSR did. The local families were slowly rebuilding their ancestral vineyards, and we went to taste their crops. The other tour members drank us under the table, naturally.
Finally that evening, we arrived in Hungary’s thriving capital. Budapest reminded me of Paris: with ring roads around the city core and a well-running transit system, Budapest was modern, dynamic, and bustling.
The metro systems were straight out of the USSR, with ageing yet on-time transit stock.
Hungary does not try to hide their history, and they suffered greatly. We went to the excellent Museum of Terror, which traces the tragedies of not only Nazi occupation, but also the Soviet times.
One of the few Hammer and Sickles still left in the city: more than you’ll find in most other Eastern European areas.
And… Ronald Reagan? Apparently after the USSR dissolved, a local political party put up Reagan’s statute.
Budapest has an amazing market hall: the aptly-named Great Market Hall. We grabbed plenty of Paprika and some excellent fried bread covered with sour cream and cheese.
A Danube river cruise offered some spectacular views from the water of the Hungarian Parliament Building. Attracted by the lights, we could see a huge swarm of bats circling above the grandiose building.
Budapest, you see, is actually two towns that have combined: Buda, and Pest. Pest is the more urban area, and Buda is mostly residences and the large Buda Castle.
Decidedly communist pre-fab apartment complexes dotted the landscape of Buda.
Budapest is well-known for its hot baths, and they’re highly recommended by Rick. Although going to a large communal bath in an Eastern European city may be a little intimidating, we decided to go forth and visit the Szechenyi baths. Navigating a maze of attendants and layouts, we eventually were all changed into our bathing suits and wandered into the “health” section of the large complex. Here we found many hot tubs full of different temperature ranges, from barely luke-warm to 42C. After some nice soaking, we went outside to the “fun” pools, which were a big group of pools where the younger folks hung out. They featured plenty of jets and a dark outside atmosphere for a moody and calm place to soak up the heat. Of particular interest is a circular section of the pool with powerful directional jets: you could circle around in the current extremely quickly. It was like Mario Kart speed boosters, but even more fun.
Our three nights behind us in Budapest, we continued on to our next country: Croatia!