From Memory in 2017
Kay and I arrived by air in Budapest from Munich in December of 1989. The Malev Airlines flight that brought us served salami-and-pickle sandwiches. Naturally, it was cold, and the hours of daylight were short.
This was quite an exotic trip for us, our first to Eastern Europe that was just then emerging from decades of Communist rule. At the time of our arrival the red star was still standing atop Hungary’s parliament building, and, in Berlin, the wall was coming down.
We settled into a modern, high-rise hotel in Pest and immediately set out to explore the city.
The streets were crowded with what must have been holiday shoppers
One of our first memorable sights was Chain Bridge that connects the flat land of Pest with hilly Buda across the Danube. When built in the 1840s, it was said to have been one of the “wonders of the modern world.”
From the bridge we had a wonderful view of Castle Hill and Matthias Church named for King Matthias the Fair who commissioned the remodeling of an earlier church into the 15th-century Gothic masterpiece that we saw above.
Up close, we saw that the church stands on Trinity Square near a baroque column built in the early 18th century to celebrate the end of a plague epidemic. The building behind the column is the Hungarian Culture Foundation.
The Castle Hill district had what we thought of as a medieval quality.
The Art Nouveau architect Odon Lechner (1845-1914) mixed Indian and Syrian architectural styles with traditional Hungarian designs in his beautiful Museum of applied Arts.
Other architecture reminded us of what we knew from Western European cities.
Then, there was the architecture fostered by Communism.
Our hotel, though newly built and quite modern, featured an old-style night club where we sat at small tables and watched a floor show. The performers were beautifully built young women only partially clothed enacting routines dressed as cowboys and Indians and or with cat masks and tails. We found it hilarious.
Some of our most delicious Hungarian memories are of the restaurants in Budapest. Although on the heavy side, the food was delicious, and the restaurants where we dined in the evenings all had live bands, playing what we thought of as gypsy music.
Although the Communist era had officially ended, its social mores endured. We noticed this most in shops where the staff was slow to wait on us and in museums where it seemed we were viewed with suspicion.
We had heard about the city’s large flea market, and to reach it we thought it would be fun to take public transportation instead of a taxi. Budapest has a subway system, one of the oldest in Europe, and I remember being struck by the complete lack of advertising in the cars.
It took a long time to find our way to the outdoor market. When we finally arrived, the sun was shining and what we found surprised us.
I think we were hoping to find some antique flatware at bargain prices or at least some quaint ornament from the past. Instead, most of what we saw was junk.
The people around us were interesting, though.
Wanting to see something of Hungary outside of the capital, we set out by train for the city of Eger. Some of our classic travel memories are due to the errors we make. The trip to Eger was one of them.
Arriving early in the morning at Pest’s lovely iron-and-glass station designed by Pierre Eiffel, we boarded a train scheduled to leave at the time printed on our ticket. Unable to read anything in the Hungarian language but not seeing any other train leaving at that time, we felt comfortable with our choice
It was only later when the conductor examined our ticket that we learned we were in trouble. The short version is that we were put off at some country station to wait a couple of hours for another train that would take us to Eger.
During the wait, Kay sat bundled up in the small waiting room while I went out to explore the surroundings. I remember the smell of coal people were burning for heat.
Arriving at Eger later than planned in the afternoon, we chose to visit the local castle, joining a group of Russians for the only tour available. The guide spoke only Russian, but at least we got to see the castle’s interior.
That night we stayed in a huge pile of a hotel with very few other guests. The evening was extremely cold, and the snow squeaked underfoot when we went out to find a restaurant for dinner.
Our train back to Budapest the following morning left too early for us to have the hotel breakfast. Instead, we were given a sack breakfast to eat on the train. It consisted of the same kind of salami-and-pickle sandwiches we had eaten on the plane.
Our trip to Hungary was short, but, having experienced a very different society at an important transitional moment in its history, we counted it a great success.