We sail toward Hungary’s capital city of Budapest on a cool spring morning, stopping first at the nearby river island of Szentendre. We are met by horse-drawn carriages and taken to the sprawling Bodor horse training facility, where we watch expert Hungarian horsemen. Some ride the showy and well-trained Lipizzaner horses, others the more muscular and equally trained Puszta breed. The costumes and style of the horsemen are reminiscent of the Mongol culture, and there are tents on the property that resemble yurts. This seems consistent with the fact that in 895 Hungary was settled by Mongol tribes who migrated from the steppes of central Asia, bringing their language and horse-centric culture with them.
Even though it’s still early in the morning, we are offered brandy and a pizza-like snack, in traditional Hungarian style. After the horse show, we are served goulash soup with a paprika hot sauce. The show is a nice diversion after a week of castles and cathedrals, and I can’t complain about the mid-morning snacks. Interestingly, we learn that paprika comes from America. Christopher Columbus brought it back to Spain after discovering it in the new world in 1492, and from there it quickly became popular in Hungary and much of Europe.
Back on the boat, the Danube makes a sharp right turn to flow south, continuing to the capital city of Budapest. Unlike virtually all of their Balkan neighbors, the Hungarian language is unrelated to the surrounding area. Not Latin, not Romantic, not Germanic and not Slavic, it instead shares lineage with the Finnish language, both descending from areas in the steppes of central Asia. We are told that Hungarian is one of the most difficult languages to learn. Not sure if this is true, though I’ll take their word for it.
Sailing into Budapest is a visual treat. It is an attractive city, spanning both sides of the Danube. The older portion of the city, the ‘Buda’ side is built on a hill west of the river, while the newer ‘Pest’ lies on flat ground east of the river. The word ‘Pest’ in Hungarian means oven, named for the abundant hot springs under the city. Not surprisingly, there are hundreds of spas in this city.
We begin as usual with a brief tour. Our guide attempts to explain key historical events, but this is a hopeless task. Hungarian history traces back to 895 and involves a continual succession of occupying empires. They were one of the first communist countries when that experiment began in 1918. They were occupied by the Nazis during WWII, heavily bombed by Allied forces, then liberated by the Russians in 1945, only to be forcibly occupied by the Soviets shortly thereafter. Interestingly, Hungary was the only Soviet satellite country where, beginning in 1972, citizens were allowed to travel abroad and to hold assets in foreign banks. Plus they were allowed some private ownership and free enterprise. This role as a forerunner to glasnost earned them the label of ‘goulash communism.
We learn that Hungary has produced some top thinkers in the world, many of whom were born here though left for other countries. Several top scientists at Los Alamos were from Hungary, as were a dozen nobel laureates.
As a place to visit, Budapest is a pleasant walking city and has nice vista’s from the hills. The night-time view, especially with lighted bridges spanning the Danube is especially attractive. From the ground level however, we don’t notice anything especially remarkable. The architecture is very mixed, even within individual buildings. The streets are clean and traffic is moderate, as are costs. There seem to be lots of young people and lots of smokers. About seventy percent of the city was destroyed by Allied bombing at the end of WWII, though almost all of it has been rebuilt.
If you walked this city and ignored the fact of the Hungarian language, at a quick glance you would not distinguish it from many other European cities. Everyone can speak at least some English, everyone spends time either drinking beer or having cake and coffee. Everyone wears the same clothes, watch the same movies, listens to the same music. They all distrust their politicians, dislike their bankers and bemoan the unemployment rate. The buildings are old, people are out and walking, cars are small, cafes are everywhere. As my Thai servants would say, “same same.”
Differences exist but are subtle. The apple strudel in Prague is better than Vienna. The goulash soup is better in Hungary. Prices are lower in Bratislava. Vienna has more orchestras while Budapest has more spas and a better riverside setting.
We hear about local politics. There will be an election next year and the educated class fears that a rising neo-fascist party will win control of parliament with just 30% of the popular vote. Maybe so, and it wouldn’t be the first time, though as a part of the European Union, such bold talk may be mostly campaign bluster. Still, with history as a guide, one can’t be too careful.
In almost every city in Europe, there are powerful reminders of WWII and the Holocaust. Budapest is no exception, and I tour its Jewish quarter. Their holocaust statistics are staggering. Some six hundred thousand Hungarian Jews and Romas were killed by the Nazis, mostly in the waning months of the war. Another two hundred thousand or so managed to survive, often with the courageous help of resistance fighters from other religious and ethnic backgrounds and from various foreign embassies.
After two days in this historic city, we set sail late at night, enjoying the brilliant sparkle of lighted bridges and the stately low-rise landmark buildings that line the riverbank – a memorable exit from the city of Budapest.