Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Yesterday Sean and I decided we wanted to see a few sights around Budapest, so we opted for one of those hop on/hop off bus tours; we'd enjoyed them in London and Dublin and figured this would be a similar way to get an overview of the city that wouldn't kill us with a marathon walking tour. We waited for the bus in Heroes' Square (above), where the leaders of the seven tribes that founded Hungary are commemorated. There are also a couple of art museums there, one of which we'd visited the night before on an eerily quiet, deserted outing arranged for the INPUT conference attendees -- a few dozen of us wandered around the Museum of Fine Arts in half-light, wondering how we were going to get back to our hotels after the buses dropped us off.

There is a lot of construction going on at Heroes' Square, which is far more than a square: it's a huge park. Above is, I believe, a lake that has been drained. All over Budapest you can find half-finished construction projects; some one them seem to be active, and it's nice to see run-down areas and sites of importance getting a face-lift, but you'll also find piles of broken-up asphalt, mounds of dirt, half-dug trenches, and so on that appear to be abandoned. It's difficult to figure out what Budapest's plan for the future of the city is.

This stunning castle sort of building is located behind Heroes' Square. It's an agricultural museum.

Finally, the bus arrives! Chuck Pocket selects the language he wants for the audio tour. Such a kidder -- I think he opted for Finnish. All the signs on the bus seemed to be in German.

Sean and I decided we really only wanted to hop off and see two things in depth, and here we are at the base of our first stop, Castle Hill. To the right you can see the tracks of the funicular.

A view from the street level of Castle Hill; the funicular is out of the frame to the right.

In line for the funicular. (Siklo means funicular.) We waited about 20 minutes in line for a 2 minute ride up the hill. A worried American couple behind us in line seemed perplexed about the cost and wondered why it was going to cost them half as much again to come back down the hill on the funicular as to go up; I had figured it out but didn't feel like explaining to them that the "return" ticket they were so worried about included a trip up and back down. Lame! Let 'em sweat.

Inside the funicular. We shared our car with another couple, who were far too blase for my taste. Come on! How often do you get to take a funicular ride? Stand up! Take a couple of pictures! Have a little fun, guys.

More than halfway to the top. There's the other car in action.

At the top of Castle Hill there's a castle, a labyrinth, a church, a bunch of restaurants and shops, and a lot of other things I can't remember. One of the things offered as a tourist attraction was the chance to shoot arrows at targets. The girl in the black tank top, who sounded American, was a pretty bad shot. The bow recoiled against her shoulder after one shot and she yelled, "Jesus Christ, that's going to leave a bruise." At least two of her shots flew far beyond the targets.

Sean took archery in college so I thought he should give it a try. He didn't hit the center of his target, but each shot got progressively better as he quickly figured out that the bow pulled to the left and he needed to compensate to the right a bit. He put that tank top girl to shame.

Here's a fountain that seems to be under repair. I say "seems to be" because there's a ladder, some tools and a bunch of electrical gear lying around, but there's no one in sight who seems to be doing any work.

A raven with a gold ring in its mouth atop a cool gate.

Did I mention that the raven is part of the gate's design? Something tells me this gate is trying to tell a story or myth I'm not familiar with. Ha! That reminds me: When I was a kid I had wonderful, fat book of Native American folktales that had been translated in English from Hungarian.

This sign was so adamant that I thought it was telling me the fence was electrified, which seemed unfortunate since I had already touched it. But no, it was just telling me to keep off private property. OK, Mr. Sign Poster, I will not wander through yet another pile of rubble. There are plenty of others available throughout the city.

I really liked this giant, medieval-style mural.

Here's a street atop Castle Hill. Again, it has this almost undefinable European feel to it.

Maybe it's the cobblestones in the road.

Or the shop signs, like this hand-forged beauty outside an antique shop.

A cathedral atop Castle Hill. I can't remember who it's named for -- perhaps St. Matyas? The yellowish part of the roof is a colorful mosaic of tiles.

Um, some religious figures. They are atop a steeple near the cathedral. I didn't catch their names.

I asked the lady who ran this antique shop to write down the name of this fellow for me (which of course I don't have on me right now -- sorry). These masks are worn in a festival in a southern area of Hungary every year to commemorate a medieval battle in which the Turks were driven from the area. Hungary, incidentally, seems have been a favorite place for invaders: the Turks, the Mongols, and the Habsburgs all have claimed Budapest for themselves. The Castle district was viewed as a particularly desirable stronghold, as it is near but several dozen meters above the Danube.

A bit of the view from atop Castle Hill.

Could this be what it sounds like? A marzipan museum?

Sure enough. Here is their prime exhibit in a front window. The Marzipan Museum, however, is primarily an ice cream parlor, and by this point Sean and I were looking for something more substantial for lunch.

The Fisherman's Bastion, another monument to the seven tribes who founded Hungary. It offers a panoramic view of the city and its construction was completed in 1905. It has a soft, puffy, fairy-tale look to it. It has been described as "kitsch but beautiful."

Finally, lunch time! Sean and I wandered down a little street lined with small cafes and picked this one at random. It was a good choice.

The remains of my carbonara pizza. It had ham, bacon, mozzarella, mushrooms and sour cream on it. It was a little salty but very tasty. Sean had beef goulash stew served atop gnocchi, which was far more like the goulash I remember my mom making than the soup I had the other night.

Here's some sort of weapon sitting outside the Citadel on Castle Hill. The Citadel was built as a stronghold and lookout tower. You can see, around the edges of the picture, that it was badly damaged in WWII. It did better than the castle, which was destroyed (for something like the third or fourth time in history) and had to be completely rebuilt, starting in the 1950s. Today the castle is an art museum. We did not visit.

This is a terrible shot of the back of Szabadsag Szobor, or Liberty Statue, the Hungarian equivalent of the Statue of Liberty. It was erected in 1947 to commemorate the Soviet liberation of Hungary from the Nazis. Talk about leaping out of the frying pan into the fire!

Here's an even more distant shot of the statue as we bused back to the Pest side of the Danube. (Betcha didn't know that Budapest is actually made up of two cities, Buda and Pest, separated by the ugly brown Danube.)

Shortly after I took the above picture, something happened to our bus. I say "something," because neither the driver nor the guide conveyed any information to us. All I know is, we were driving along to our next destination when the bus stopped in a lane of traffic behind a white van. I don't know if we broke down (I don't think so, because the driver left the engine running) or if we had rear-ended the van. All I know is that we stayed there for about fifteen minutes while the guide and driver kept getting off the bus, conversing with a guy in a white t-shirt who was on a cell phone (whom I assumed to be the van driver), then getting back on the bus. Sean and I were sitting upstairs on the double-decker bus and were mystified, as were all the passengers around us. Eventually the guide came on the intercom and told us all that there had been an accident and another bus was arriving to pick us up. We never learned what happened.

The new bus was slooooow and kept making layovers along the way. At one point something seemed to be wrong with the intercom system so our guide got off the bus and disappeared (we later saw her walking blithely down the other side of the street), while a young guy with a computer keyboard got on, plugged into the bus's system and . . . did something. Then the driver shared some homemade cookies with him, the guide returned, and we once again resumed our journey. None of these delays was terrible, but it was all annoying because no one ever bothered to explain what was going on. Sean and I (especially I) were fuming when we got off at the other stop we'd planned on, the infamous Terror House.

I wasn't allowed to take pictures inside the building except on the ground floor, where there's nothing going on, so I'll do my best to describe it. Terror House is a large, otherwise ordinary looking building on a pleasant, busy thoroughfare. Only the fact that it was been painted a dull gray and a huge metal overhand placed atop the building, featuring the word TERROR and a giant arrow cross, makes it obvious that this is a museum and not, say, some more mundane business. Oh, yeah, and the tiles that look like mugshots but are actually photos of the building's victims that run along the outside of the building at about eye level.

The Nazis and later the Arrow Cross Party (a Hungarian fascist organization) used this building from 1944 until some later debated date -- 1956? 1961? -- to imprison, interrogate, torture, and execute political prisoners. The museum acknowledges this, albeit in a highly stylized way. None of the exhibits is realistic (except the prison cells in the basement level, which have presumably been cleaned out but are otherwise starkly nauseating). For instance, one of the first rooms you enter has a large wall down the center, with a bank of four big TV screens on each side. One side of the wall shows images from the Nazi invasion of Hungary, while the other shows images from the Soviet regime. While all this is going on, loud, pulsating electronic music is playing -- the juxtaposition of the violent, frightening images with music associated with dance and abandon is jarring. At a later point Sean and I had to wander though a short maze made of walls of 1 kg blocks of soap. I don't know what the soap signifies, but it was eerie nonetheless. A lot of the exhibit was lost on me as it was primarily in Hungarian, German and Russian, but I was struck with a sense of unease nonetheless. I would find it very difficult to work in such a place, yet there were two young women giggling behind the ticket counter as we paid our admission. Photos of victims and their torturers are everywhere, and most of the building's interior is painted in muted colors like gray and black. Sean's mom is sensitive to negative energy in buildings, and I have a feeling she wouldn't be able to go anywhere near this place, even if she didn't know what had happened here. I picked up English language flyers in almost every room so I can read up on the building's history. It's both fascinating and mysterious.

After that little jaunt, Sean and I were ready for a bit of lightness. We joined Curtis and Veronika for dinner at our favorite new Budapest joint, Fanyuvo.

My dinner, the Transylvanian mixed grill on a wooden plate. It was a steak, a battered and fried chicken cutlet, and a battered and fried pork cutlet, served atop French fries. Meat!

For some reason I can't find this dish on the restaurant's website menu. This is what Sean ate, and I swear if was called the "meat mound" or "meat mountain." It's chicken and cheese baked in a casserole, served with a slightly sweet honey dipping sauce. That's a heap of mushroom rice on the left.

Amazingly, after all that food and couple of desserts that we split, I didn't suffer massive indigestion last night, although I did dream that I was peripherally involved in a massive outbreak of lice. The less said about that, the better.


Howard said...

More raven and Terror, please.

Mr Maskrado said...

Wow, I never wanted to go there...

And now I REALLY don't.

Welcome back!