Sun 1st June
Last day, so of course I’m burdened by an un-realistic list of things to do, presents to get, places still to see. Or maybe I’m just pre-emptively stressing myself in preparation for the return to ‘not being on holiday’. (I was going to type ‘normality’ there, but a moment’s reflection convinces me this would be stretching things a little) Horrible thought. So lost do I become in pondering the perversity of inflicting this kind of pointless anxiety on myself that I end up inadvertently adding to it; I’ve wasted far too long over breakfast. Idiot!
The taxi from the airport struck me as being fairly pricey. Prompted partly by notions of economy, therefore, and partly by a slightly mad desire to experience the full spectrum of Budapest’s public transport by using every available flavour, I have decided to get a train to the airport. (Despite using metro, bus, other type of bus, tram and taxi, I still failed – forgot to take trolley-bus. Damm!). Being prey to some anxiety about train times – why am I inflicting this on myself again? – and not entirely believing the guy at the front desk in the hostel when he airily assures me that the trains go every half an hour, even on Sunday, I reckon the thing to do is to go to the station, get a ticket and check the time-table for myself. Then I discover that the railway station I need rejoices in the name of Nyugati Pu, which I find deeply appealing. (No, I’ve no idea why, it just makes me smile. Something to do with the sound of the word, perhaps? ) Of course I have to go there at once.
Despite its delightful name, the actual station itself is a bit of a disappointment. Apart from a rather nice, if old-fashioned, wood and brass encrusted ticket office, it’s rather shabby and incredibly noisy. On the whole, though, I’m still impressed because the ticket costs about a pound and the nice lady at the enquiries window speaks very good English. She confirms that the trains do, in fact, depart roughly every half-hour, and the trip takes about 20 minutes. I can record as a matter of fact that she was correct in every particular. I should have believed the guy at the hostel, and am now feeling slightly guilty/foolish for having taken what is essentially an un-necessary side trip.
On my way back to the metro, I see signs for the Westend City Centre shopping mall. Vaguely recalling something in the guidebook about it being the largest in Central Europe, I am tempted in for a quick look round. Apart from (as far as I can figure out) being largely underground, it’s just like anywhere/everywhere else, except the signs in the shop windows are in Hungarian, of course. It’s all a bit depressing, and (despite a lucky find, which solves one of my present problems) I’m glad to eventually escape back out into the metro.
The rest of the plan for today (you can just tell this isn’t going to work out, can’t you?) involves visiting various museums and other places of cultural interest around Városliget (the city park). It ends up involving quite a bit of walking as well – not entirely sensible on a very hot, intermittently thundery, day. The handy card which allows free public transport and free entry to museums expired this morning. I just managed to get to the station and back in time, and I can’t be bothered with the hassle of having to buy bus or tram tickets at kiosks before getting on the bus. So I end up walking a lot. Stupidly, as I later realise it’s possible to get a day ticket for all public transport as well. My feet might eventually forgive me.
Fortunately, there are some compensations. Studying the map I work out a route which includes walking along Andrássy Út – a wide boulevard around/along which (apparently) much of the 19thC cultural life of the city revolved. Every so often there’s a café or two…and …oh look, there’s a bookshop with a coffee shop attached, and it’s open. On the initial pretext of finding someone to ask about English language versions of Hungarian folktales I poke my
head in…and spot a cd section in a corner. After extensive rummaging and some soul-searching, I eventually emerge triumphant clutching a cd by an outfit called Besh-o-droM. I’m immensely pleased when I finally get it home to listen to;
its fab, exactly what I was after – a kind of high energy mash-up of all sorts of Balkan/eastern traditional forms with a very contemporary attitude. Hungary’s answer to Ojos De Brujo, possibly. Given that I chose it on the strength of the name of the band and a photo on the back cover of the CD which gives some indication of the instruments involved, I reckon this counts as a major result.
Whilst I’m in the process of buying this, a youngish man darts into the shop, picks up a basket…and is promptly chased back out into the street by the shop assistants! ‘He’s a thief, bad man’, explains one of theassistants, before sticking his head out of the shop door to hurl what sounds like some high quality abuse after the fleeing villain. I can’t help but have a sneaking admiration for the bare-faced cheek of it – especially picking up a basket first, evidence of a practical approach to the business of thievery. Nothing so exciting ever happened when I worked at Waterstones.
Carrying on down Andrássy Út, my intention being to visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Városliget, I stumble upon a festival of sorts. Indeed, it would be hard to miss it; roughly ¼ mile of the boulevard (leading up to Heroes Square, next to City Park) is lined both side with stalls, and crammed with people. It’s now very hot indeed, and the noise and general press of people is reminiscent of an eastern bazaar – I feel like I’ve temporarily stepped out of Europe altogether. It’s not an entirely comfortable feeling, but there are all sorts of interesting stuff to see and hear. Almost despite myself (and tiredness and sore feet) I’m sucked in. As far as I can work out, the bulk of the stalls each represent some region, town or (perhaps) village, all touting their speciality; food, crafts, wine, music. Interspersed with this are several large catering outfits, and a few more general trade stalls. I’m very impressed a stall promoting a magazine (something like Time Out, from what I can gather). They’ve dressed the stall with huge great drifts of shredded paper (their publication, one presumes) and it’s peopled by two women and a man wearing the most fantastic neo-renaissance costumes made entirely of pages of the magazine. A brilliant, playful notion very well executed.
Slightly dazed by the heat and noise, I stumble on. Eventually reaching Heroes Square to discover what all the fuss is about. Horse racing. The entire square has been converted into a race-track, around which handsomely attired riders hurtle their mounts. The costumes recall the Napoleonic era (must be amazingly hot on a day like this!), and it occurs to me to wonder whether this is a traditional event. Or maybe it’s more of that national re-invention, so necessary after the communist interregnum.
Having set out with the intention of visiting the Museum of Fine Arts, that’s where I head, forging through the crowds on all sides. At least it’s cool inside…a cooling drink and sticky cake in the basement café are somewhat restoring. I tramp around most of the museum, slowly on account of the heat. Even the museum attendants are wilting, one lady slumping theatrically against a wall, fanning herself with a catalogue and pointing eloquently to a thermometer hanging on the wall. It’s reading 27C. Whilst I’m OK with most things metric, I only do temperature in ‘old money’, so all I glean from this is the impression that it’s unusually
hot. Well I never.
Although I’m sure it’s good museum, truthfully my major recollection is not of the art works, but some very comfortable sofas set about in the main atrium. Sensible and civilised, why would it never happen at home?
Tate Modern, for example, would be massively improved by some comfortable (that’s ‘comfortable’ as in enjoyable to sit on, not as in ‘looks good in a design-ary kind of way but you wouldn’t want to sit there for more than about 10 minutes) seating that’s simply there to provide ease for visitors, and doesn’t require you to buy anything.So dreary are these thoughts, and so comfortable the seating that occasioned them that I very nearly fall asleep.
In retrospect, that might not have been a bad idea, although distressing for passers-by had I started snoring.
Impelled by a (not very sensible) desire to at least try and see something else, I rouse myself and stumble back out into the heat and noise…listlessly wonder through some more of the stalls. Once again, I’m really missing someone to talk to. This seems like something for locals, designed as a family day out, and I’m getting that ‘ghost at the wedding’ feeling again. Spotting interesting stuff all over the place it’s very frustrating not to be able to find out more. Most people on the stalls have a little English, but nothing like enough for a real conversation and it’s too noisy and busy to try and bridge the gap any other way. There’s a crowd around one stall, and joining them I find an oldish man and younger woman strumming dulcimers and exchanging verses of song. From the raucous laughter of the audience, I’m guessing they’re exchanging insults…it looks like a kind of contest, and I’d love to know whether it’s improvised, and more about the form. I’m familiar with the notion of flyting (insult) contests from my storytelling researches, but I’ve never witnessed one ‘live’ so to speak. Is it still a living tradition here, or are they just resurrecting something for entertainment?
A little way on I come across a man in a smock and daft hat demonstrating various whistles and flutes…beautifully. I linger extensively, and would definitely have brought one had I not already got one yesterday. It’s touch and go. He’s got things I’ve only seen previously seen pictures of (double whistles, block-flutes, end-blown flutes) and he patiently plays most of them,
at my request. He’s getting some very interesting overtones and other odd sounds. I can’t tell whether he’s throat-singing at the same time, or whether it all comes from the instruments. I try a couple, but can’t get anywhere near. Very annoying not to be able to ask the questions buzzing around my head. Eventually I tear myself away – I can’t really afford one of the bigger flutes
(which I covert excessively) and I suspect it’d take a while (and somewhere a lot quieter) to plumb the technical depths.
Cutting across the park in search of a noted secessionist house, I come across a quiet corner full of tables and chairs. There’s what looks like some pretty serious chess and draughts being played here. Just in case anyone should think its all intellectual, though, there are also several groups of fag-chomping, beer drinking old codgers playing cards. And arguing (probably not about the game) very loudly, for the sheer enjoyment of it, I suspect.
I find the house, I photograph the house. I wonder why it’s painted in a variety of shades of a fairly un-prepossessing mushroom colour.
I should probably be thinking about heading back to pick up my bags and getting to the station. In passing, I pop into a supermarket in search of cooling liquids and also manage to cross the last thing off my present list. Two round tangles of smoked cheese, nestling together in a plastic pouch, looking uncannily like edible testicles. Should I be worried that I have a friend who will be delighted to receive this as a gift? I’d be
pretty pleased myself, which probably tells you all you need to know.
The train gets me there, and it all goes downhill from there
on, really. Hadn’t realised that there are two terminals at the airport, and I haven’t the faintest idea which I need. Luckily a passing woman takes pity on my attempts to elicit information from a puzzled old guy. Thanks to her I find myself in the right place. This is the last good thing that happens for a while. Huge queues, twice…oh, and once again as I have to pay a baggage fee. A little slightly panicked last-minute shopping. Don’t know why I rushed, I’m stuck in yet another queue…for ages.
Seems unlikely that Sunday is the night everyone decides to flee Budapest, so I conclude the airport’s a bit too small for its current volume of traffic.
Isn’t it marvellous the way we’ve managed to transform something as inherently exciting as flying into probably the dullest, most uncomfortable way of getting from place to place? It doesn’t matter so much on
the way there, wherever there may be, but it’s harder to bear on the way back. As is the rain and greyness
Welcome home. It’ll be good to be back, just as soon as the memory of all that warmth and light fades.