- Critters of the Roman Ruins
Ancient Rome is one of my favorite historical topics, so I knew that I had to check out the ruins of Aquincum. I love how the culture, infrastructure, and bureaucracy of the Empire plays such a central role in the foundation of so many European countries. Like Britain, the history of Hungary starts with its annexation by the Roman Empire. And like London, so too was Budapest founded by the Romans. I took the HEV (suburban metro) out to Óbuda where the site from which the Budapest metropolitan area can be traced to a humble- but not insubstantial- collection of columns, temples and amphitheaters was to be found a short walk from the station. Turns out the folks that lived in the administrative capital of the Roman province of Pannonia had it pretty darn good. The city boasted central heating, a load of public bathhouses, and a gladiatorial arena that featured beast fights, all the while surrounded by the most beautiful countryside in the world.
Before checking out the ruins however, I took a look inside the museum to buy my ticket and grab some breakfast. The old feller at the ticket counter took ages to acknowledge me so I was just standing there awkwardly for about five minutes (though it felt like fifteen). After pretending my bronchitis was flaring up a few times, I was able to get the guy to say “Szia” in the most disinterested, noncommittal voice ever. I bought a ticket for the museum and the ruins, but he didn’t have any change, so he disappeared for the better part of ten minutes to find some. After he came back, I noticed my stomach was about to riot, and hopped over to the little gift shop where I could buy a substandard donut and a black instant coffee. The woman was very nice and asked me all sorts of questions. I ate quickly though, because I wanted to see the ruins.
The museum, though not very big, was excellent. I was very impressed with the artifacts and the information- which was written in perfect English. What makes the history of Hungary so interesting to me is that it is touched by larger subjects in world history that I’m already interested in. In addition to Romans, I learned about Mongol hordes, Popes getting shanked, and the real life inspiration for Count Dracula.
It was gorgeous weather outside, and as I took photographs of the wildflowers, old stone walls, and the restored painter’s house, I noticed something. Darting across the sun-blasted rocks were little green lizards, not unlike the kind I used to see every day when I lived in Houston, Texas.
- The Football Shop
I’m a sucker for antiques, memorabilia, and anything vintage. I was walking down Váci utca when I noticed a narrow alleyway that led to a clandestine shopping arcade. I passed the dingy stairway that led to the erotic massage parlor and entered a vintage store full of old gypsy outfits and handcrafts. It was cool to look at but I didn’t buy anything. I said goodbye and left. I was then drawn to the place next door- a vintage sports memorabilia shop. I tried the door but it was locked. Before I could walk away, the owner from the antique store came running outside with a set of keys.
“This is my hobby shop!” he grinned, and let me inside. I took note of all the sports pennants hanging from the ceiling, and told the shopkeeper about how I liked to collect American baseball and football pennants. I then asked him to spell the Magyar word for pennant for me, and I wrote it down in my journal. Jelzőzászló. I then asked him if he knew the soccer player László Kubala, whose statue I had seen at the Camp Nou in Barcelona. Being a sports nerd like myself, he obviously knew, and went on to tell me that Kubala’s people, like his own, were of Czechoslovakian stock, and that Kubala was a Czech name. He told me how Kubala played internationally for Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Spain. He rifled through a set of drawers to find me some Kubala swag, eventually producing a fridge magnet with Kubala in his Barca jersey. That is lush, I thought, and I purchased it along with a basketball pin.
- The Cave Church
One of the more quirky things I visited was a Catholic church situated in a cave inside the Gellért Hill. It was really interesting to walk around in, and we were allowed to take photos too. The monks had fixed the place up real nice with shrines and candles and other shiny things, and there was something pure about a rocky cave that I just don’t feel inside a building. If I was gonna find religion, it would be in a place like this, somewhere dark and damp and cool, where you feel connected to the Earth. I checked out all the rooms before turning back. I never know what to do inside a church to be honest. It was visually interesting, but once I’d seen everything I figured I might as well move on. I wasn’t going to say a prayer or light a candle, or sit for a while in the pews waiting to feel something. I had places to go and things to see, so my stay was brief. I felt weird about leaving so soon, but then again I’m not religious, so there wasn’t really anything for me to do.
- The Citadella
When I left the cave I decided to climb the Gellért Hill to the Citadella. I guess I’m in dire need of a new diet and a personal trainer, because I was blowing out my ass by the time I was halfway up. It didn’t help that it was scorching hot. I paused on the ledges and rocky outcroppings to take photos of the Danube below, before willing myself on. It’s funny how something as simple as just walking up a bunch of steps can make you hate yourself. At the top I joined a long line of red-faced tourists and bought a mineral water and a Solero- my favorite European ice cream brand. It’s just so refreshing. I didn’t go inside the Citadella- an imposing Austrian fortress with a Cristo Redentor thing out front- because I was pressed for time.
- The Folk Concert
That evening I attended the only thing I booked before coming to Hungary- a concert at the Duna Palota, showcasing some authentic gypsy folk music and dancing. I was interested because I was getting to see a little sliver of rural, rustic Hungary, and the beauty of one of its enduring, oppressed minorities. The foyer was lavish and all that with its marble columns and red carpets, but the theater itself was a lot more intimate than I expected. There weren’t many seats, but that was cool because it meant we were a lot closer to the action. I ended up really enjoying myself- the music was very good and the dance stuff was interesting too. It kind of reignited my appreciation for classical music. I was especially interested in the clothes of the gypsies. They all wore frilly, puffy white shirts beneath dark waistcoats. The difference, however, was that the men wore long, colored pants that they tucked into boots and the women wore colorful skirts and white stockings. The men had their waistcoats open and the women were buttoned up. The dance moves involved a lot of clapping hands and snapping fingers, as well as tap dancing. It gave me this impression of gypsy culture as being something vibrant, rustic, upbeat, and unpretentious. I imagined these kind of dances taking place in the light of campfires in the countryside. I don’t know if that’s a true image or not, but that’s what I imagined.
- My Brush With Fame
After the concert was over, we were taken to a luxury boat on the Danube for a nighttime buffet. My stomach was fucking screaming because it was 10:30pm and I hadn’t had supper yet. I wondered if perhaps I was the only loner on the boat. They allocated me a seat on a table with couples. It was there that I met two Brazilian women- who we shall refer to as J… and M… for the purposes of privacy. It turned out that J…, who was about my age, was in fact a successful TV producer and journalist back in Brazil, who was traveling around Europe with her feisty mother M… . It was sweet how proud M… was of J…, and she delighted in Europeans having heard of J…’s news station. We drank champagne together, and I was so interested in getting to know them that I didn’t even go back for seconds at the buffet. M… didn’t speak too much English, but she was thoroughly extroverted. I thought she was very graceful and funny. J… reminded me a lot of my friend Elizabeth. J… was very expressive, laughed a lot, and had one of those distinctive, charming smiles that seem to define a person’s spirit. Here are some highlights of my conversation with J… as she and I went out to take selfies together on the deck:
– It turned out we both studied at American universities in the Midwest, her in Michigan and I in Wisconsin. She even knew Eau Claire (the school I went to) because their football team played against her school.
– She started out as a journalist writing reports, and rose through the ranks quickly to become a producer. Now she dictates what the reporters on camera have to say. She covers things like local politics and social issues- such as the poverty of the favelas.
– She advised me that the best beaches in Brazil were to be found on the country’s many islands in the Atlantic. These tropical paradises off the coast were much cleaner and less touristy than the beaches of Rio de Janeiro and the like.
– I asked J… if there were many Michaels running about Brazil, and if I would be called Miguel if I was born there. Turns out the name Michael is actually quite popular. J… said that “Gringo names” enjoyed a surge in popularity during the 80s and 90s because middle class Brazilian families deemed them to be classy.
– I also asked J… about the Amazon rainforest. She described it as a “magical place” and we ended up having a long conversation (that later continued online) about Amazonian folklore. Her favorite was a popular legend about a pink river dolphin named Boto cor de Rosa, who during the night transforms into a handsome man and rogers all the unmarried women in the nearby villages. Then, when all the seemingly unspoiled maidens started to become preggers, everyone was confused, and ended up blaming it on the were-dolphin. So whenever someone would see a pink dorsal fin, they thought it was a serial rapist.
- The Budapest Eye
It’s not quite as grandiose as its London counterpart, but Budapest has its own giant Ferris wheel. It was a fun little aside to sit in the capsule and take photographs of the cityscape. I came here right after buying my Hungarian hat, so naturally I was curious to see how I looked…
- The Bloody Thursday Memorial
As I was walking around the impressive Parliament building I saw some stairs leading underground. I went down and found myself in a small museum about the horrible massacre that took place outside the Parliament in 1956. At this point I was ignorant of Hungary’s suffering at the hands of the Soviet regime, and I remember being shocked when I watched the educational videos. One of the more poignant features of the museum is a 3D projection of a tank that plays in front of an image of the Parliament. The tank rolls into place, before turning to face you, lining up its gun and firing. It puts you in the shoes of the Hungarians that the Soviets opened fire on, and when the projection of the tank fires, you flinch.
- The Moisturizer Lady
When I was rushing through the Budapest airport to reach my departure gate a woman stopped me. Usually I never stop for anyone, especially someone trying to sell something. I don’t normally have a problem being rude to fundraisers, cold callers, or any kind of salesperson. But for some reason, I stopped, and let her sit me down and show me her wares. She told me that I was looking particularly sweaty, and that she just had to stop me and talk to me about all the oils in my face. I guess I was looking worse than usual, since I was wearing my leather jacket to save space in my carry-on. The woman went through her entire sales pitch, and for some reason I didn’t object, even though I knew I wasn’t going to buy anything and I was going to miss my flight if I stayed any longer. I was slightly interested in the science behind it all, and I know I need to take better care of my face, but at the end of the day I just couldn’t be arsed, so I declined her offer and left.
- The Train Operated by Kids
Wanting to see something a little different to the bustling city, I decided to go on a tour through the Buda Hills. It wasn’t a guided tour or anything like that, just a list of stops to make that I found in my guidebook. I got a streetcar to the western edge of the city and then a train up through the steep, forested hills that overlooked Buda. When I reached the top, I became disorientated and found that the itinerary in my guidebook was super vague. I couldn’t make much sense out of it so I decided to abandon it and follow my nose instead. My first stop was a little mountaintop café where I got myself some deep fried mushrooms and a Coke. I shared a table with an old German couple, since it was busy, and I tried to impress them by throwing what Deutsch I could remember from my school days at them in a random order. They smiled but I don’t think they were too impressed.
I then set off in search of the famed Children’s Railway, a cogwheel train operated exclusively by the owners of undescended testicles. I found it, and hopped aboard. The train snaked through the forest, stopping here and there at touristy towns with little shops and cafés. I figured I ought to get off and see some stuff instead of just staying on the cogwheel the whole time, so I got off at this secluded station in the forest. There was nothing around but trees. It was quiet and green and beautiful. I asked one of the kids if I could get back on the railway on another train with the ticket I had. It turns out that I would have to pay for a new ticket, which I thought was cheeky, so I decided Sod the railway, and went off for a walk in the forest. I had no idea where I was in relation to Budapest or any of the other train stations but I honestly didn’t care. There were plenty of walkers and joggers, and I took photographs of the flowers as I walked. Pretty soon I found signs for the Zugliget Chairlift, which was on my itinerary, and which I now realized I was doing in reverse order. The walk to the chairlift wasn’t bad at all, and I was delighted to get on and be treated to some stunning views of the Carpathian countryside to the west, which unfolded before me as a breathtaking vista of densely wooded valleys and hills. And this lush scenery was about the same as it would have looked when the Romans and the Huns were knocking about, and I thought about this as I took it in, trying to visualize armies marching through forests.