Budapest Trip 2006

11th April 06 - 18th April 06



Zoltan's invitation

In the early part of 2006, a colleague Brian and I had struck up a friendship with a dynamic, young Hungarian employed by a German company that designed components for Xerox machines.  Zoltan, alias "Z" in the photograph on this page and I discovered we had similar musical interests. Easter weekend 2006 drew near and Zoltan had made plans to return to his home town, Budapest and visit his father, József. In the course of events whilst with us at Xerox, we were cordially extended an invitation. Brian and his wife Sue were due to fly out over the Easter weekend itself but in my case, I applied for leave, this being my first in 2006 since my trip to the USA at the beginning of the year. Flights were booked through the Hungarian/Polish airline WizzAir for the princely sum of Ł150 including airport tax. And so it was on the sunny morning of Tuesday 11th April, after retrieving my 700 quid "Knockabout" from a Royston garage after an 11th hour clutch cable repair, that I ambled across Hertfordshire hill and dale towards Luton Airport's remote parking facility at Slip End, relaxed and looking forward to the journey ahead, flight departure scheduled for 12h30.

Meeting József and Ritchie, a state-of-the-art alarm system

Upon arrival at Budapest's secondary Ferihegy Airport, Zoltan was there to fetch me, smiling, as always. The man has such a pleasant demeanour. My initiation of driving through the streets of central Budapest followed, to be repeated many times in the week that lay ahead.  It is quite an experience.  Owing to variety of reasons, I'm told, many roads have not been resurfaced for a while, probably not since the end of the Cold War. Anyway, it's a bumpy ride and Zoltan's take is that if you've got shares in the shock absorber industry in Hungary,  you simply have to well-off financially. It's not that they are badly pot-holed but meander across the tram lines running through the city centre, trams still very much a quaint feature of Budapest. Budapest has over two million inhabitants, about one fifth of the country's total population. The city is situated on the Danube, one third being taken up by the hilly Buda and Óbuda, on the western bank and the remaining two thirds by the flat Pest, on the eastern bank. Budapest was founded in 1873 after the unification of the three above-mentioned towns. The city stands on nine hills and is divided into 23 districts, numbered in the Roman numeral system.

Upon arrival at the family home, a huge three-storey building located in the hillsides to the north of the city in Óbuda, located in district III of Budapest, if the radio-controlled gate wasn't impressive enough, then the state-of-the-art alarm system would surely be.  Ritchie is one of the largest dogs I have ever laid my eyes upon, with one of the loudest barks I have ever heard, to boot.  He might be friendly if put to the test and though his wagging tail might be a crafty bit of deception, his profusely salivating jaws at the sight of me put me on my guard. Even Zoltan wasn't taking any chances, locking the dog away first, a ritual to be repeated throughout  the next week. 


  If, in reality, Ritchies'  looks alone were able to kill, to be honest, I surely wouldn't be here to tell the tail.  Zoltan's humorously intended remark, as we entered through the front gate, that some bones on the ground next to the pathway, was all that remained of the the village postman, sealed it for me. This coupled with the claim that this breed of dog was used as a hunting dog to track down escapee slaves in former times.

The house is shared between Zoltan's father, a retired accountant and Zoltans' uncles.  József and Zoltan (when at home) occupy the uppermost level. I took an instant liking to his elderly father, even shorter in stature than Zoltan. Though ill of late, the warmth of the man positively glowed from within.  "Il est sympathique", as the French would say. Another opportunity to practice my seldom used German skills presented itself, as József had learnt his German during the war. The rest of the family we were destined to meet in the days that followed, as we had been invited to a dual birthday celebration on the Saturday.



  We shopped at a nearby supermarket, shelves filled with items available anywhere. The selection of salamis and processed meats that occupied an entire length of one of the rows in the huge supermarket, was quite astounding. Often specially prepared food by Zoltan's uncle would be left in his Dad's kitchen for our consumption, as was the case. In the evening Zoltan and I drove into the city centre.  

Lajos Eros and Kati Vajda blow out the candles on their birthday cake; Zoltan and the apple of his eye, his cousin Susie, with whom he gets on exceptionally well.

We walked across one of the numerous bridges spanning the Danube, down to the elegant, Bohemian-style tea-room in Pest, known as Big Ben, located at Veres Pálné no. 10, where his pleasant and gorgeous cousin, Susie, worked. She had learnt her good English on previous extended trips to the UK, where she had lived in Leeds. Zoltan, a begin fan of English Prog Rock band "Yes", had previously introduced Susie to the music, which I found quite extraordinary, given her tender age, that she would remotely identify with that genre of music whatsoever.  Zoltan presented her with a copy of a live DVD of the band. It was quite bewildering, that, in the course of walking along exclusively pedestrian walkways in the respectable main shopping area of the city, before and after our visit to the tea-room, on at least four separate occasions that evening, we were approached by girls, always in pairs, requesting the precise location of a particular street, whether we had a Budapest Street map in our possession and where we were from. No doubt we were slow to react in a more proactive manner!  Who knows, we might have ended up penniless if we had.

The story of the mobile

The following day Zoltan dropped me off as he had some tasks to attend to.  A spare SIM card was inserted in my mobile phone, requiring a pin number to activate. This proved my undoing later as unexpectedly, the pin number was requested each time the phone was powered off and on.  After the third attempt upon entering a false pin number, the use of the card is rendered null and void. Zoltan and I had not deemed it necessary to take the trouble to write it down. As I did not have his home address nor his telephonic detail, I was in a slight pickle, so to speak. "In the shite", to be exact.  My only recourse was to locate the tea-room we had been to the night before, on the corner of two streets known as Veres Palné and Iranyi and ask his cousin to call Zoltan with a message to the effect that we could meet there.  The only problem was that Susie wasn't on duty that day and the two girls who were, couldn't speak English or German.  Try and explain your way out of that one, if you can!  Fortunately, a rather attractive woman whom I later learnt was indeed the owner of the establishment and spoke perfectly good English, was summoned.

Embarrassingly I explained the dilemma I was faced with and I asked if she could call Susie and ask her in turn to call Zoltan to tell him where I was.  Whilst I waited and ordered a delicious cup of tea from the multitude of choices available, Zoltan put two and two together and within a short while, the owner, Sophie I think her name was  brought over a message via Susie as to the correct pin number for the SIM card.  They found it funny.  I was relieved.  The mobile now back in action, I called Zoltan and we arranged to meet at six at Franz Liszt Square near the Oktogon intersection, a street which is home not only to a music academy in honour of the famous composer but also numerous restaurants and side-walk cafes. It positively hums with activity at night.  The idea was that we would try out one of the restaurants for a typical Hungarian dish.  Zoltan had been recommended Menza Étterem (Étterem is a restaurant) and we chose a thick, delicious, chunky bean soup known as Jókai Bableves as our meal followed by a pancake dessert served with a chocolate sauce, both depicted in my Eyewitness travel guide. Prior to meeting up Zoltan, I explored sections of Pest depicted in my Eyewitness guide, including the spectacular Houses of Parliament and St Stephens Dome (St Istvan bazilika).  Much of the historical side of the city is being painstakingly restored, paved and cared for and there is no shortage of open parks and gardens in between. Budapest, to my way of thinking, has always been similar to Prague, another city built on the banks of a large river, in its structure and layout, with famous historic buildings located on hillsides on one side overlooking those on the other.


The Kiss and extended family Clan!


A day in the Hungarian country

On the Thursday we decided to drive to Balatonakali, on the edge of the Lake Balaton, north-west of Budapest, where a weekend cottage owned by József , was located. It was a pleasant drive into the country to this natural lake, the largest freshwater body in Central Europe and a unique ecological asset of the Central European region, popular with tourists, especially in the warm summer months.  After checking out that everything was in order, József  was left to his own devices to potter around as he wished. Zoltan had other plans and we headed off further west towards  Szombathely, where a good friend of his, Dóra Kneffel, a tall statuesque blonde, stays.  Zoltan refers to her as Dóri(ka), which I understand to be a nickname.  Whilst the town is rather remote and is home to new businesses and industries, it does have a significant history and boasts a lovely restaurant, Gödör Étterem, its location an old cellar. Here we enjoyed lunch together. Dori spoke very good English and perfect German, an intelligence to match her undoubted good looks.  From there we proceeded to Koszeg, virtually on the Austrian border, a charming old town, steeped in history.  On the way back via Szombathely we stopped over as Dori's workday was winding up and went to have a look at a new apartment she had just purchased. It was modern, cosy and neat and I was suitably impressed with the quality of the finishing, on par with anything one would find in Germany.  Back at the holiday home, I helped as some of the plants that had been kept in the cellar had been brought out to the veranda, for the approaching summer.  It was dark as we headed back to Budapest and it had been a long day for József.  The construction of numerous, plush holiday homes throughout the countryside makes it quite obvious that the economy of Hungary in general is certainly on the up and that there is no shortage of cash. For the record, the Hungarian currency is the florint and the conversion seemed roughly 250 HUF to one Euro.


Koszeg, on the Austrian border


A day at the Turkish baths...and then a tea

We had set up an early booking for a visit to the Rudas Turkish baths in the city, located below Gellert Hill, for Zoltan, József and I. Friday was designated a men-only day. Women-only days are permitted, whilst Sunday it is open to both sexes.  The baths, which date back to 1550, have been completed refurbished and modernised. After purchasing an entrance card, one heads off to the change room cubicles. A small square cloth is tied around the waist - it ought to be supplied with an instruction manual that reads "tie in front with the cloth at the rear and slide around the waist 360 degrees" i.e. try tying this behind your back and see how difficult this is! A cleansing pre-shower is required. We met up with an old friend of Zoltan, Zsolt Mészáros, known simply as Bogi, whom he had met in Germany. There we stayed for the next 3 to 4 hours, moving between the sauna, steam room, octagonal plunge pool and four smaller pools at different temperatures, ranging from 28 degrees upwards.  An ice cold bath is available too, intended for the brave-hearted only. The main Turkish bath is covered by the original dome-shaped roof. A smell of sulphur permeates the air. The process drains one of energy and after some time, one is totally mellowed out.  I'm not sure I like this men-only thing, to be honest and massages conducted by men only.  I much prefer being massaged by a woman.  Around midday we headed back home, had lunch, slept and in the late afternoon headed downtown again for a tea at Big Ben tea-room once again, this preceding a mad dash to the airport to pick up Brian and Sue, whose flight was due in from Luton Airport.

Castle Hill visit... and then it was party-time

As I had already roamed the Pest area to a limited degree, it was agreed that we would spend time together exploring the elevated regions of Budapest on the "Buda" side.  We parked very close to Chain Bridge but resisted using the funicular railway, instead choosing a zigzag walking route up to the Castle District. It was a beautiful day bathed in glorious sunshine. The hill town of Buda grew up around its castle and Mátyás Church from the 13th Century onwards.  By the end of World War II, the old town had been almost utterly destroyed and the Royal Palace burnt to the ground but have subsequently been reconstructed.  The Mátyás fountain, the Lion Gate, the statue of Prince Eugene of Savoy and the Hungarian National are the most obvious constructions around the Royal Palace, with its distinctive Neo-Classical dome, rebuilt after the original Neo-Baroque dome was destroyed in the razing of the Palace.In the 15th century, a Gothic Royal Palace was built on the site, but it was rebuilt in the renaissance style by King Mátyás in 1458. After the Turkish occupation it was razed and reborn on a smaller scale.

   Maria Theresa further developed the palace and it was rebuilt again after World war II to a design originally completed in 1905. The statue of Prince Eugen of Savoy commemorates the battle of Zenta in 1697, the turning point in the Turkish War.  The Hungarian National Gallery contains a comprehensive collection of  artworks depicting Hungary's turbulent history from medieval times to the 20th century.

The statue of Prince Eugene of Savoy beneath the neo-classical dome of the Royal Palace; The Lion Gate viewed from a rear courtyard of the Royal Palace, designed in 1901.


  Our little tour continued toward the old town, on the northern side of the Royal Palace.  Once the homes of aristocrats and merchants, the houses on this street have medieval foundations. Almost all have some remnant of a Gothic gateway or hall, while the facade is Baroque or Neo-Classical. The buildings are now mostly private homes for the idle rich, interspersed with commercial ventures and museums. During a coffee break, Brian and Sue imparted some very good news that called for some celebration.

Brian, Sue and Zoltan, alias "Z"; A spaced-out Peter, alias "Cipofuzo", contemplating his next shot.


  Well, celebrate we would later in the day back at the Kiss and extended family household.  It being Easter weekend, there were quite a few people about enjoying the good weather, including a fair number of tourists. Much to my annoyance, as we were on the spot, so to speak, we were not able to get inside Mátyás Church, as significantly long queues had begun to form.  

Images of the old town, including Lords Street, once the home of aristocrats and merchants.


Sue wasn't feeling well and we were late for our appointment, so much as we would like to have spent more time there, we headed back to the car.  For Zoltan, bless his soul, who went out of his way, it was a nightmare, trying to juggle and satisfy the needs of these "bloody tourists".

To be honest, Zoltan is such a good-natured fellow that it takes a lot to wind him up real good. I suspect he enjoyed the experience of having us there and was proud to be able to show us around his home town. Anyway, I kept him on his toes, as I continually use oft-used idioms when expressing myself.  The joke was that Zoltan would constantly say "uh, I must get a pen and write that down, so I don't forget these things". It made him laugh. He got his own back though and thus it was that I acquired a nickname, "Cipofuzo", Hungarian for shoe laces, presumably because mine were almost always undone. It rubbed off on the others. After a brisk walk back to where we had parked the car, trying to distract Peter from attempting any more photographs, Zoltan stepped on the gas and "flew" back home along the bumpy roads to the suburb of Óbuda, located in district III. To be honest, that's the way he drove all the time and is probably the best way to handle the bad road surface. En route, he had to stop off at a confectionary store, Daubner Cukrászda, in order to purchase a few items for the birthday celebration.  This included a Hungarian speciality that resembles a large cake but is in fact an ice-cream tart known as "Parfé torta" or "fagylalt torta". Kept in its container, it doesn't seem to melt as quickly as conventional ice-cream.

Zoltan's family are true salt-of-the-earth folk and though the obvious language barrier existed, there was no doubting their kindness, good nature and genuine generosity, itself embedded in Zoltan too. A small tent had been set up in the backyard and a table laid out for the occasion. Lajos Eros and Kati Vajda were celebrating their birthdays. They had already eaten, so we were watched very closely as round after round of food was brought to the table. A bowl of fruit punch was placed on the table yet my preference and request for some red wine was acceded to without a moment's hesitation. Later we were to sample some local aperitif. After blowing out the candles, the tart was cut and shared all round, though, to be fair, I truly felt I was about to burst and didn't really have the place for it. After this mighty feast, which thankfully comes but once a year, we excused ourselves.  I do not recall whether we rested before or after the next stage of our schedule but rest we did.

We drove to Gellért Hill, which rises steeply from the Danube. It is one of the most attractive sites because at a height of 140m, a stunning view of the whole of Budapest is afforded one. n 1046, heathen citizens threw a sealed barrel containing Bishop Gellért, who was trying to convert them to Christianity, from the hill to his death, so the tale goes. Afterwards, the hill was named after this martyr.  The hill is long regarded as a notorious spot.  During the middle ages, witches were even reputed to celebrate their sabbath here. The Gellért Hotel and baths complex lie at the foot of the hill.  Positioned high on the hill is the Liberation Monument, designed to commemorate the liberation of Budapest by the Russian Army in 1945.  The central figure on the monument is that of a woman holding aloft a palm leaf.  The arrival of the Russians in Budapest was a liberation but also the beginning of Soviet rule. After Communism's fall, a figure of a Russian soldier was removed from the monument and a plaque listing the Russian war casualties was also transferred elsewhere. Dusk set in as we attempted to take photographs in the fading light.

  Until now I had not mentioned that this was not my first visit to Budapest.  I had been here in 1988, one year prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and I had walked to this hilltop with a Russian girl of Jewish extraction I had met at the Great Synagogue in Pest. She had travelled to this city to meet the father of her child, who had been living in Paris as an artist.  They were to meet to discuss the possibility of marriage that would effectively have bought her freedom, which he declined.  She was so terribly disappointed but put on a brave face nonetheless.

Festive Scenes around Fisherman's Bastion over Easter weekend; View through an archway towards Parliament building.


Thus, when I boarded a train back to Vienna from Keleti pu, the city's main train station, Elena Podbelskaya was forbidden from doing the same, given the political situation at the time. She later emigrated to Israel and married, I believe.  It is a pity that more time was not spent on this trip to visit to some of the museums in the city such as the Great Synagogue, the National Gallery at Castle Hill or the Museum of Fine Arts at Heroes Square, but I intend this next time around.

Introducing Brian and Sue to Rudas Baths

As luck would have it, on Sundays Rudas Baths are opened to both sexes, though the requirements change in that costumes are to be worn and towels brought along. It was fast becoming accustomed to this luxury and generally felt that it was doing me the world of good.  Some very attractive woman arrived there that day but I got the feeling that it probably attracted more tourists on that day than on others. I found myself testing my tolerance levels. I would sit in the hottest sauna room at 80 degrees centigrade for twenty minutes and then upon leaving, force myself into the cold pool, which, to be honest, I could not bear for more than 20 seconds. We returned our wet gear to the house and after a brief rest, resumed our tour of the city.  Parking near Chain bridge as we had done the previous day, took the venicular up to the Castle District in order to save time, purchasing return tickets in the process. The purpose was to have a quick look at the interior of Mátyás Church.


Rudas Turkish Baths beneath Gellért Hill.


  A Parish church was built on the site between the 13th and 15th centuries. Though St István (St Stephen), as the first crowned king of Hungary, was responsible for accepting Christianity for the Hungarians, King Mátyás Corvinus enlarged and embellished the church named after him. Much of the original detail was lost when the Turks converted the church into the Great Mosque in 1541.   

Mátyás Church and Fishermen's Bastion, the conical towers an allusion to the tribal tents of the early Magyars; View across the steps below Fisherman's Bastion towards the Danube.


During the liberation of Buda, the church was almost totally destroyed but later rebuilt in Baroque style. The church sustained more damage in 1723 and was restored in the Neo-Gothic style. The most recognisable buildings in Pest are the Houses of Parliament and St Stephens Basilica and the State Opera House, all located in Pest.  Hungary's Parliament building is the country's largest building and is a symbol of Budapest.  Designed in a Neo-Gothic style by Imre Steindl and built between 1884 and 1902, it is based on the Houses of Parliament in London. Dedicated to St Stephen or St István, the first Hungarian Christian King, the Basilica was designed in the Neo-Classical style, using a Greek cross floor plan. Construction began in 1851 and was taken over by renowned Hungarian architect Miklós Ybl in 1867, who added the Neo-Renaissance dome after the original one collapsed in 1868. The church was completed in 1905.  It received the title of Basilica Minor in 1938, the 900th anniversary of St István's death.  The State Opera House was built to rival those of Paris, Vienna and Dresden.  It's beautiful architecture were the life's work of Miklós Ybl.

Brian and Sue had seen none of the Pest area. Bad weather set in making a walkabout difficult, so as I had been into St Stephen's Basilica earlier in the week, Brian and Sue popped in for a glimpse. We had a coffee at the large open square adjoining the church and returned home.


At some stage in the course of the weekend we did some further shopping at the huge supermarket in Óbuda, whereupon I seized the opportunity to stock up on some Hungarian salami and wines from Hungary's renowned wine-growing region known as Tokaj. It is with special interest that I wish to visit this region at a later date, not withstanding the fact that the suburb in Cape Town where my house is located is named after the famous region in Hungary.  Tokaj produces dessert wines primarily. In the evening we booked a table at a restaurant Cosmopolita Étterem located in Buda, unfamiliar to Zoltan. Susie and Bogi and his girlfriend were invited. The restaurant seemed to lack some ambience in my opinion but the company was great and it was good to be able to get together. Bogi, we were to discover, was a DJ at a local radio station. We dropped Susie off and searched for a place where we could have a last drink together but somehow ended up in a large modern shopping complex. In doing so, it was interesting to observe that no matter where in the world you go and no matter what city you visit, you will always find the youth attired in the high fashion that is recognised within that city, be it pink boots and mini skirts, for example, much to the amusement of (how shall I put  it) more mature folk who simply gaze on in amusement.

Brian and Sue depart

Unfortunately, early Monday morning, it was time for Brian and Sue to depart.  For them the time had been too short and they had hardly had enough time to enjoy more of this wonderful European city.  Zoltan drove them to the airport, whilst I got off and wandered around once more with my camera, exploring the Jewish quarter.  It's hard to stay away from the Danube, though and one finds oneself drawn back to it, as it remains very much the focal point of Budapest.  I stumbled upon a wine festival at a square en route to the Great Synagogue and called Zoltan later so that we could meet there. People thronged the wine tasting stalls, food and a variety of confectionary was on sale, all rather civilised, a nice way to spend the day.  Live music was on offer, though I didn't really like the jazz band on stage.  I met Zoltan later at the Chain Bridge and we returned to the festival. Though he was honouring the drink and drive policy strictly, this did not stop me from sampling a few of the special wines on offer.

The magnificent interior of St Stephen's Basilica  and its Dome.


  We returned home, I packed for the next day. Zoltan and I arranged to meet Susie in the evening in Franz Liszt, along with Gyuszi, for a round of drinks. This avenue positively comes alive at night and is obviously quite trendy, a social buzz indeed, regardless of the gorgeous women passing by! One could be anywhere in Europe.  

The trams operate as a distinctive mode of transport throughout the city centre; Classic Trabants are still to be seen throughout Budapest.


Accommodation in the Kiss household had been more than comfortable. Brian and Sue and Brian had been allocated a double bed in the lounge, whilst I occupied a bed on the level just up the stairway. Zoltan utilised the room in the loft which had been his "home" as a student. It transpired therefore, that my snoring proved to be a non-issue as far as the others were concerned.  There is an amusing side to all of this in that on several occasions, Zoltan and I ended up in conversation at the kitchen in the wee hours. 


I recall  one instance where I stopped in mid sentence, my mind a total blank and in low power fatigue mode, as a result of sheer exhaustion. Zoltan stared at me in astonishment. On another occasion he popped downstairs to see his uncle. Upon his return, he found me head down on the kitchen table, with the "saw mills operating at full capacity"!    

View south of the Pier towards Elizabeth Bridge, from Chain Bridge; View south of tram line from Chain Bridge with Gellért Hill in the distance.


Departing Budapest

Though we had planned to leave well before the time for the airport so as to catch my 10h20 departure to Luton Airport, Zoltan got wind of heavy morning traffic via a telephone call from his uncle.  We made it officially with minutes to spare, though the departure was slightly delayed. Zoltan's concern was to make it back in heavy traffic, pack and head back to the airport in time to catch his own flight back to Germany.  All good things come to an end and as Zoltan's friend Bogi put it, the twinkle in my eye suggested that before long, I would probably be back to enjoy Budapest once more in the not too distant future.  Who am I to argue?  Thank you, Zoltan!

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December 05, 2005

More Big Sex Beds for Budapest

From our tourism and travel desk comes word that the local subsidiary of French hotel giant Accor, is planning an ambitious expansion in Hungary, capped off by a big showpiece in Budapest. According to - ha, get it, this report, the highlight of the expansion will be a 175-room Novotel on the Danube embankment in Budapest opposite Parliament.

The new Budapest hotel will feature the now-traditional menu of bar/restaurant, conference rooms and spa and wellness services. While there are loads of hotels in Budapest, this is merveilleux news, because for some reason the Hungarian capital remains a tough town to find a nice room for a decent price, especially one with proper francia ágyak (large, shag-worthy beds; not to be confused with francia agyak - French brains). Though in this case you may have to deal with those, too.