A Measure For Their Dreams – Budapest By The Danube: Heart Of Optimism (Travels In Eastern Europe #27)

There is only one thing to do after arriving in Budapest for the very first time. It is to make your way over to see the Hungarian Parliament Building. I know this from experience as it was late in the afternoon on a sunny day in mid-March when I rushed over to see the structure. As such there was no time to try and take a tour of the interior. That was fine with me because truth be told all I really wanted to do was feast on the ultimate piece of architectural eye candy, a building that brings to mind a confection of the most fantastical kind. No amount of superlatives can aptly describe the Hungarian Parliament building. It is much larger than photos of it are able to capture. Just to walk around the building at a rather brisk pace takes a good twenty minutes. The sheer glamour of this neo-Gothic masterpiece is overwhelming. The beauty and grandeur of the building is one thing, but consider that the Parliament serves a country of only ten million people. It looks like something one would expect to find as the seat of government for a world power. Hungary is only a mid-sized country in east-central Europe, but it obviously has much greater designs.

Hungarian Parliament Building

Hungarian Parliament Building (Credit: Ivanhoe)

Historic Convergence – Pulling A City Together
The Parliament is a reflection of how the Hungarians see themselves and their place in Europe. These are people of outsize ambition, who take creativity to its ultimate extreme. This is how they ended up with such a fantastical confection astride the Danube. It is also how they ended up creating a city along both sides of the river front of unsurpassed majesty. The area where Budapest is strung along the Danube brings to mind an old phrase, “the hits just keep coming.” From where I stood in the shadow of the Parliament on the river’s embankment I took in a scene of architectural enchantment that was as much the product of a fairy tale, as it was the work of man. Gazing upriver, across the placid, slate gray surface of the Danube I spotted the unique three-part Margaret Bridge connecting both sides of the city with an island of the same name. Then I looked downriver where the Chain Bridge, that inaugural link between the two sides of what became the same city, stretched across the watery expanse.

The bridge is a historic link, it allowed the lifeblood of Buda and Pest to flow unimpeded into one another. Its centrality to the city’s convergence is without equal in annals of European history, magnetically pulling the two sides together to create Europe’s fastest growing metropolis in the latter half of the 19th century. The Buda Hills across the river from where I stood that day, displayed a series of treasured buildings that any city would be pleased to call its own. I counted at least six church spires, the most prominent of which soared above all, that of the Matthias Church on Castle Hill. There was another set of spires recognizable just below the church. These were part of the Fisherman’s Bastion. Further on was a dome that signaled the top of Buda Castle which spread royal wings beneath it. This panorama of Buda as seen from Pest was so wondrous that I could hardly believe my eyes.

Looking towards Castle Hill from the Danube in Budapest

Looking towards Castle Hill from the Danube in Budapest

Rising From Ruins – The Building Of Buda
To think that all this is not the product of prior planning, but many centuries worth of organic growth is mind boggling. Here is a scene of stunning urban perfection that has scarcely been repeated. Descriptions will not do it justice. Taken as a whole, this part of the city as it stands astride the Danube is one of the great wonders of the world, a setting that has no peer, even in the annals of old Europe. The sheer scale of grandiosity on offer along the Danube in Budapest is overwhelming. That makes it hard to imagine that the beautiful scene standing on the Buda Hills has been reduced to a smoldering ruin on multiple occasions in the past. When the Habsburgs took it back from the Ottoman Turks in 1686 and the Red Army stormed it during the winter of 1945, they left a residue of rubble that paradoxically became a foundation for regrowth, rebirth and reconstruction.

Following World War II, what was left of both the Margaret and Chain Bridges lay submerged in the river. Revolutions in 1848, 1919 and 1956 left bullet scared buildings and rising plumes of smoke in their wake, signals of the resistance that lay at the heart of all good Magyars. The embankment I stood upon has been inundated by the Danube too many times to recount, sending parts of Pest to a watery grave. Good men and women laid low by the pessimism of the Magyar mentality have leapt into the dark waters of the Danube in alarming numbers over the past two centuries. Jews had been marched to these river banks and shot by the hundreds in acts of genocidal indifference. Historical fate had subdued this city and its citizens repeatedly. Yet through it all the city rises again and again.

Chain Bridge looking up at Buda Castle at night

Chain Bridge looking up at Buda Castle at night (Credit: Noval Goya)

The Will To Splendor – In The Minds Of Magyars
Budapest by the Danube is a sparkling example of triumph over tragedy, the will to splendor, an astounding adherence to national destiny. For all their reputed gloomy cynicism, the heart of every Hungarian must be filled with an abiding optimism to overcome the many misfortunes of history inflicted upon their nation. How else to explain the creation of a capital that is such a showcase of scintillating beauty? Optimism is the eternal answer. Optimism took the grey Danube, spun it into a silvery thread and wove it into a fantasy cityscape of the most furtive imagination. Optimism built a series of unforgettable bridges that transcended nature to connect a city and nation into a greater whole. Optimism touched the sky with steeples that soared from a wellspring of faith. And optimism created a city that is a stunning exposition of the majesty that lives in the heart and mind of every Magyar.

Long Shadows – The Greatest Ill-Fated: Hungarians & The Budapest Metro (Travels In Eastern Europe #26)

Everything I had heard about Budapest, its elegance, style and grandeur would turn out to be true, but my first impression of the city came at the Budapest-Deli (Budapest-South) Train Station. Budapest-Deli is one of those functionalist styled, communist era concrete constructions that give modernity a bad name. It is an architectural step toward oblivion. There are plenty of darkened windows. While the structure’s exterior is mainly in an off white color that suffers from discoloration by grime. The cavernous interior swallows those who traverse its mildew scented corridors. The station’s inner bowels feel like the setting for one of the Death Wish movies. There is nothing remotely pleasant about the place other than the fact that it is safe. To be fair, the station is a byproduct of the horrific destruction caused by the Second World War. During the siege of Budapest, the station and its surrounding area was the setting for a cataclysmic struggle. By mid-February 1945, the Red Army held what was left of the station, which amounted to little more than a giant pile of rubble. It took years to rebuild and it was not fully finished until 1975, during a period that is well known for its architectural low points.

Deli Palyaudvar - another architectural low point

Deli Palyaudvar – another architectural low point (Credit: Attilanagy)

Looming In The Distance – Putting A Name On History
Budapest-Deli connects to Metro 2, also known as the Red Line, which would whisk me from the Buda side of the city, west of the Danube, over to Pest on the river’s eastern side. I only had to go four stops down the line, but each of the names on these stops offered a clue to the tumultuous history of Hungary during the 19th and 20th centuries. The first stop was at Szell Kalman ter, named for a politician that most Hungarians do not even remember. During the Cold War this station had a different name, more indicative of the recent past, Moszkva ter. I later learned that most of Budapest’s citizens still called the station by this name. The long shadow of the Soviet era still hung over some parts of the city. Whether it was in the architecture of Budapest-Deli, a previous name of a metro station or the many tower apartment blocks that framed the city’s outer districts, the looming gray shadow cast by years of communism was never far away.

The next station on Metro 2 was Batthyany ter, named after another Hungarian politician, Lajos Batthyany. Batthyany is much better known than Kalman Szell (the station name is reversed because Hungarian put surnames first), sadly for tragic reasons.  He was Hungary’s first Prime Minister, unfortunately his tenure coincided with the failed 1848-49 Hungarian Revolution. He was sentenced to death by the Austrians for his role in events. Prior to his execution, Bathhyany tried to commit suicide with a small sword that had been smuggled into him by his wife. His attempt resulted in a large loss of blood after he tried to sever jugular veins in his neck. The execution method planned for him was changed from hanging to firing squad. The sentence was carried out in Pest on October 6, 1849. Batthyany is memorialized by, among other things, a mausoleum in the city’s most famous cemetery, an eternal flame at the spot of his execution and having the metro station I passed through named for him. That is all well and good, but his execution is a somber reminder of Hungarian subservience to a foreign occupier.

Széll Kálmán tér station - Metro 2 in Budapest

Széll Kálmán tér station – Metro 2 in Budapest (Credit: Christo)

The Cusp Of Greatness – Kossuth & Deak
From the Bathhyany ter stop, Line 2 rumbles beneath the Danube’s depths before arriving at Kossuth ter, yet another name fraught with historical resonance. Any visitor who spends time in Hungary is confronted by the legacy of Lajos Kossuth. Every city, every town and every village has a street named for Kossuth. Nearly every one of them has a statue of him. It is little surprise that Kossuth’s name was given to the same metro stop as that for the Hungarian Parliament. He is a giant of Hungarian history due to his role in fomenting and then leading the Hungarian Revolution. A brilliant orator, lawyer and journalist, he was the Governor-President of the incipient nation in 1848-1849. Unlike Batthyany, who paid for his support of the revolution with his life, Kossuth escaped abroad. He then spent the last four and a half decades of his life promoting the cause of Hungarian independence abroad. Kossuth’s legacy is in many ways a mirror image of Hungarian history, a meteoric ascent to the edge of greatness followed by a dramatic defeat. Perhaps that is why he has achieved such an exalted status in the pantheon of Hungarian heroes. All Hungarians can see part of themselves in his life.

Deák Ferenc tér - Metro 2 in Budapest

Deák Ferenc tér – Metro 2 in Budapest (Credit: Christo)

My final stop on Metro 2 was Deak ter, named for Ferenc Deak, a famous Hungarian who actually met with great success in his lifetime. He is best known for helping negotiate the compromise which created Austria-Hungary in 1867 and set off a Hungarian golden age of peace, dramatic growth and cultural renown.  It is at the Deak ter stop that the city’s metro lines all converge. This is where the web of Budapest becomes most tightly woven. I navigated this multilevel interchange while dragging a piece of luggage through a crowd of human commotion and energy.  Before long I was taking Metro 3 (Blue Line) a couple of stops to Nyugati Palyudvar (Western Railway Station). It was here that I surfaced in the city.

Nyugati Palyudvar (Credit Bill Dillard)

Nyugati Palyudvar (Credit: Bill Dillard)

A Golden Age – Gilded With Dreams
Nyugati is an unforgettable picture of lost elegance. The Gustav Eiffel designed station still retains the look and feel of its time. Laying my eyes on the station for the first time acted as a wild stimulant to my imagination. If every person in the station had suddenly disappeared and I had been left there all alone, I would have thought time had spun backwards to the turn of the 20th century. Back to that age when Hungary was part of an empire and Budapest was the capital of a Kingdom that stretched from the jagged peaks of Transylvania to the craggy coastline of Croatia. A golden age gilded with the dreams of Magyars reaching for their potential. This station, like the city that surrounded it, aspired to greatness and in that imaginary moment, realized its attainment.

 

A Place They Once Called Home – The Cure For Loneliness: Pecs To Budapest By Train (Travels In Eastern Europe #25)

A lonely feeling descended upon me during departure at the Pecs Train station. I boarded the train for Budapest, found a seat and stored my belongings. I then looked out the compartment window at those still waiting to board the train. There was a middle aged woman being seen off by her parents.  Hugs, tears and last goodbyes were exchanged. She got on board and took a seat across from me. As the train began to pull away she looked out the window with tears cascading down her face. She tried to smile, but this led to more tears. This scene made me realize just how far from home I actually was at the moment. No one was going to say goodbye to me or be waiting for my arrival on the other end of the line. Traveling solo is great until it’s not. If you ever want to really know how much home and family means to you, go off to a distant land where you cannot speak the language and do not know a single soul in the country. Then watch a last goodbye or a first hello between family members and friends. An unforgettable sensation of loneliness will overcome you. At least that is what I felt as the train pulled out of Pecs.

Point of Departure - Pecs Train Station

Point of Departure – Pecs Train Station (Credit: Váradi Zsolt)

Home Is Where The Hurt Is– A Life Abroad
For me, travel is as much about the people you meet, as the sights you see. Some of my most vivid recollections of trips concern the strangers I have met. They have sometimes confirmed, sometimes denied what I have spent years learning about the region. This happened on the train trip from Pecs to Budapest. The woman who had been crying earlier struck up a conversation with me. She spoke decent English, but had trouble understanding some of the things I said. We were soon joined by an older man who sat beside her. His English was excellent, so much so that he could act as a translator. The woman told me she was traveling back to Germany where her husband was from. They lived in Munich, but she was originally from Pecs and her parents still lived in the city. Germany was a fine place, salaries were high, but it would never be home. Her experience was not rare.

Ever since Hungary and several other Eastern European nations joined the European Union in 2004, their citizens have been heading west where jobs are more plentiful and opportunity abundant. Romantic ties have also lured many Hungarians, the majority of which are women, to the west. By one estimate there are a couple of hundred thousand Hungarians living in France and Germany, while over 50,000 now call Great Britain home. The money may be good and the living standards higher, but nothing can replace home. The tears in this woman’s eyes expressed that. She could always go back home, but only for a while.

A Transylvanian Tale – From Stranger To Confidant
I was thousands of miles from home on a train in southern Hungary. None of my family or friends had any idea exactly where I was at that moment. I was surrounded by strangers, but suddenly did not feel so alone. The company of this woman, in addition to the man who was translating for us, made me feel as though I belonged. We were no longer strangers, more like confidants for a handful of hours. Life means so much more in moments like these. My attention soon turned to the impromptu translator whose English was impeccable. He looked to be in his late 50’s, thoughtful and well-spoken. He began to tell me a little bit about himself. He was not from Hungary, but Transylvania, a region still home to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Hungarians. The mythical land of Dracula was much more than its popular image allowed. It was filled with people who made the best out of their situation.

This man was the first Transylvanian I had ever laid eyes on in real life. He did not have fangs, wear a cape or inspire terror. He was not a vampire, but a professor. I never did learn exactly why he was traveling through southern Hungary or onto Budapest. That was because we spent most of the trip discussing what it had been like to live as an ethnic Hungarian in Transylvania before the Iron Curtain collapsed. He said the situation had been extremely difficult. The regime of Nicolae Ceausescu persecuted Hungarians as well as Romanians. He said that Ceausescu wanted “to kill all of us.” Whether this was true or not, who was I to argue with a man who had lived through that period. The historical evidence shows that Ceausescu used ethnic Hungarians as a convenient scapegoat. The man did not tell me anything that I had not already read, but it was still fascinating to meet a Hungarian who had lived through the Ceausescu years. I wanted to reach out and touch him just to see if he was real. When he talked about persecution it was done in a matter of fact manner, as though this was something to be expected during that time. He was living proof that stoic vigilance is one of the best antidotes to repression.

Convergence on the way into Budapest

Convergence on the way into Budapest (Credit: Joliet Jake)

A Handful Of Hours, A Lifetime of Memories  – The Memory Makers
It comes so soon, the moment when there is nothing left to wait for.  The train slowly rolled into Budapest-Deli Station (Budapest South Station). The two people I had shared the journey and a bit of their life’s stories with would soon become little more than a memory, albeit a vivid one. The fleetingness of travel can be jarring. People appear and disappear for no discernible reason. In this instance, there was only a quick good-bye, what more could there be. I would never see either of them again, but the short time we spent together stayed with me. Why is that? Scientists who study memory say that we remember what was most relevant to us. Those who appear in our memories years later, for no apparent reason, must have somehow seemed relevant to us at the time. The woman from Pecs and the man from Transylvania were relevant to my loneliness. The few hours I spent with them had cured it.

 

The Things That Cannot Be Explained – Love & Humanity In The Debrecen Train Station

I have been asked many times what was the most impressive thing I have seen while traveling in Eastern Europe? Depending on the person questioning me I almost always give one of two answers. If I feel like the person has little knowledge of the region, I usually answer that the section of Budapest astride the Danube is a stunning sight. If I know the person has traveled in the region I will usually say the Old Town of Lviv. If I answer the former, my inquisitor usually says something to the effect that they will be sure to visit Budapest in the near future. If I answer the latter, it usually elicits a look of befuddlement. The conversation will then turn to more familiar subjects. My answers have always avoided what I really wanted to say. I keep the truth to myself for reasons of intimacy and vulnerability.

The most impressive sight I ever witnessed in Eastern Europe did not come in Budapest or Lviv. It did not come at any of the most heavily trafficked tourist sites or famous places. It cannot be found by using a guidebook or any other piece of tourist literature. No one has written a word about it, until now. I actually saw it in the eastern Hungarian city of Debrecen. And it had nothing do with that city’s Great Church, the Deri Museum’s famous collections or any of the sights along that most famous of streets, Piac Utca. The most impressive thing I ever saw in Eastern Europe took place on a random weekday in late October, inside the waiting area of the Debrecen Train Station, that old cavernous, concrete pile. If you go there, I seriously doubt you will get to see what I did. That is because the actual location can only be discovered in one place, the heart.

Just another ordinary day - the waiting hall at Debrecen Train Station

Just another ordinary day – the waiting hall at Debrecen Train Station

Just Another Ordinary Day – Watching People Watch The Clock
When a person feels vulnerable they become receptive to emotions they keep hidden away inside themselves. Suddenly something they see, hear or sense can trigger a wave of emotion unlike anything they have ever felt before. Some psychologists call this a significant emotional moment. This is not what I was expecting when I walked into the Debrecen train station on a mid-autumn day. The sun was out, the leaves were turning and the station was slumbering. The morning traffic had left long ago. Voices were barely above a murmur. I was half an hour early for the train to Lviv. I had arrived much too early as has so often been my habit. My logic was that only one train was headed for western Ukraine and I did not want to miss it. This left me time to hang out, perhaps grab something to eat and watch people watching the clock.

The atmosphere in the station was emotionless. One of those places where it seems like time has stopped. I began to wander around, first going from the ticket purchase counter to the magazine shop with countless Hungarian language titles for sale that I would unfathomable. Then it was on to look at the food, which from the meager selection on offer, looked as though communism had never left the building.  I did not find the idea of a soggy sandwich, lukewarm cup of coffee or day old pastry appetizing. By this time, I had made my way over to the waiting hall, a large high ceilinged room that smelled of mildew and disinfectant. The most notable feature of this area was a large communist era mural. It showed workers, both agrarian and industrial in a unity that never existed, except in the mind of state propagandists.

The Moment That Comes To Mean Everything – Life & Love
It was also in the waiting hall where I noticed the usual selection of popular novels and hard backed picture books for sale, cheap and easy reads that usually garner mild interest. One of those picture books caught my eye, but it was not located on the for sale table. Instead, it was in the hands of a father sitting with what I assumed to be his son. The two sat side by side on a hard backed bench while the father read aloud, the boy looked to be in his later teenage years. The boy looked at the photos attentively, studying each one closely as the father read to him slowly and carefully.

The boy was fascinated by each photo, staring at them with the curiosity of a small child. I noticed that he had Down’s Syndrome. How much he understood was open to question. From time to time, he would rear his head from one side to the other, than his father’s soft voice would call his curiosity back to the page. I wondered what he might have been thinking as he looked at all those majestic photos of Erdelyi Varak (Transylvania Castles), the book his father read to him with such loving care.  To see a father patiently and quietly taking the time to sit with his son and explain these photos made me want to explode into tears. There was magnificent beauty on those pages, but no castle could compare to what I witnessed in that moment. This was a reminder to me of what it means to be human.

On The Inside – A Sense Of Humanity
Amid that musty waiting hall, in an ugly old train station that looked to be several decades past its prime, I felt an incredible sense of love and humanity. It materialized before my very eyes. I suddenly realized how unexpectedly beautiful life can be. I understood what it really meant to love a child, to do everything you can for them no matter the situation. It took everything I had to hold back tears. Finally, after many minutes I pulled myself away from this scene. On the inside I was shaking, what I had seen disturbed and enlightened me in the most profound way possible. Since then it has never left my mind. It was the most impressive thing I have seen in Eastern Europe. Why was that? I really have no idea. There are certain things in life that cannot be explained, love is one of them.

A Load Of Crap – Incidental Conflicts: Calamity & Chaos On Bus #68 In Kispest (Part Two)

Public transport at night in a major city is normally something I try to avoid. Growing up in America I learned pretty quickly that public transportation in urban areas can be a haven for criminals especially as night closes in. There are a few notable exceptions such as New York City, parts of Chicago and Washington D.C., but by and large buses and subways are best avoided, especially if you do not know your way around. Thus I was quite shocked to discover on my first visit to Eastern Europe that inner cities are among the safest areas. I still recall walking down Unter den Linden in Berlin late one night marveling at happy, blissful people strolling down the street in perfect safety. Such a scene is the rule rather than the exception for almost all major cities in Eastern Europe.

The worst thing I saw in Riga and Prague were the entrances to strip clubs, in Warsaw it was a few drunks stumbling through a city park, while in Kiev and Lviv a bit of loud laughter and yelling. In Budapest – the city I have spent the most time visiting in the region – I can scarcely conjure an area I would not feel safe in late at night. Beggars and random drunks are a menace mostly to themselves. One would have to seek out violent criminal activity in the city to actually find it. Sure there are scams, pick pockets and small scale theft, but nothing to cause major worries. That certainly does not mean Budapest is free of depravity or bizarre behavior. I experienced such on a foggy, winter night while riding a city bus in Kispest, the city’s 19th district.

Bus 68 in Kispest - anything can happen

Bus 68 in Kispest – anything can happen (Credit Aron_son)

In The Mood – Breaking The Impenetrable Silence
On a particular gloomy, December evening I got on Bus #68 with my wife at the Koki terminal, the Kobanya-Kispest shopping mall. We were going home on the final portion of the bus route that ends at Vas Gereben utca. The ride would take about 15 minutes. We had covered this route many times before with nary a problem. Kispest is a working class area of the city. The inhabitants are best characterized by their reserve. Most bus rides are done in impenetrable silence. The passengers practice stoicism with frozen, unsmiling faces. They do not look happy nor sad, just alive, well sort of. The drivers usually offer the most excitement. Driving styles can vary widely or should I say wildly. Sometimes the trip turns into an amusement park ride, with the passenger’s swaying to and fro. A bad driver will slam on the brakes constantly, floor the gas pedal and cut corners at every opportunity. While few ever have an accident, they do plenty of damage to their passengers who are jerked in all manner of unnatural positions. The ability to stay upright is a necessary skill. Perhaps stoicism is the only way to deal with such a calamitous situation.

While boarding bus #68 that night we saw that it was only about a quarter full. We sat towards the back where few seats were taken. As the journey got underway we noticed only two other pairs of passengers in this part of the bus. The first was a father and son sitting in the very back row together. They were clean cut and dressed quite nicely. There was also a man and woman slumped in their seats. We were a couple of rows up from them. It took less than a minute to figure out they were going to be a problem. The man mumbled endlessly, while the woman was not even capable of that much. She would let out a whimpering moan from time to time. Their most notable trait was a body odor that soon overtook the entire back of the bus.The smell actually had a physical aspect, as it did not so much penetrate the nostrils as fill them. It was a force that literally pushed us from our seats and to the front of the bus. Soon, everyone on the bus was complaining about the foul smelling couple. The offending man decided to yell at no one in particular. The passengers were so repulsed that many began to openly voice their disgust.

“Who The Fuck Do You Think You Are? – From Raging To Revolting
The situation worsened when an even fouler odor came wafting through the bus. A noxious smell of human feces soon penetrated the entire bus. This sent the passengers from irritation to near rage. I have never witnessed a riot before, but the passengers suddenly seemed to be in the mood for one. I could feel anger rising. Passengers, both men and women, started yelling at the couple. When this did little good, their anger turned toward the bus driver. My wife translated the cacophony for me. The bus driver pleaded helplessness. He said that the people were homeless and mentally ill, there was nothing he could do except to call the police. They could meet the bus at the end of the route. This did little to assuage the passenger’s anger. They demanded something more be done immediately.

A man had been talking to the driver during the journey, they seemed to be acquaintances. He took it upon himself to go tell the offending couple to get off the bus. This began an argument that went nowhere. The man went back up to the front of the bus where he started talking with the driver again. About this time another man, who looked to be in his mid-20’s, began arguing with the man who had tried to tell the couple to leave the bus. The argument grew fiercer. My wife translated. It seemed that the younger man was upset that this guy had tried to throw the couple off the bus. He said to him, “who the fuck do you think you are?” He berated the man until the bus came to the next stop. Just then he turned to get out, but before exiting turned around and punched the guy just below the shoulder, knocking him backward.  That ended one sideshow. Meanwhile, the main drama continued in the back of the bus.

City Buses & Any Buses – Arriving At A Conclusion
Soon almost all the passengers had exited, but not before telling the driver a few choice words. Looking back, I noticed that the father and son who had boarded with us were still sitting in the same place as earlier. They were the only ones to somehow weather this storm. They sat expressionless, looking forward without a hint of emotion. The bus made it to the final stop. We got off as fast as we could. The police were just pulling up. The couple was still on the bus. That was the last we ever saw of them. Later that evening I began to ask myself if it had really happened. Of course it had. It was not dangerous or violent, just bizarre, depraved and sad, not so much frightening as it was disturbing. It definitely had an effect. Every time we rode bus #68 after that, we took a seat right at the front and tried never to look back. That memorable journey did not change my opinion of Budapest, but it did of city buses and for that matter, any buses.

Taken For A Ride – Incidental Conflicts: Experiences In Eastern European Bus Travel (Part One)

Of all the different modes of travel that can be used to get across Eastern Europe I have found that the bus is by far the most exhausting. On multiple occasions I have stumbled off a bus, half-crazed, vowing never to take another one again. Then a year later, I find myself wanting to visit some remote village or historic site with no train station anywhere nearby. I do not have access to a car. Thus, the bus is the only reasonable alternative. Within ten minutes of departure I am filled with regret and silently declare that this will be my last bus ride. Despite such misgivings, I must admit that a bus can give the traveler a unique perspective on a nation, its people and what life is like for those who rely on public transport. I am still not sure if that perspective is worth the pain and bother of riding the bus.

Looks can deceive - especially when traveling from Riga to Vilnius

Looks can deceive – especially when traveling from Riga to Vilnius (Credit: Bronislava69)

Ready For Rage – The Road To Vilnius
My problems with bus travel began on a trip between Riga, Latvia and Vilnius, Lithuania. The bus was run by the Eurolines Company that covers the continent. The bus was clean, relatively new and professionally operated. Unfortunately, the seats were small, leaving very limited space for passengers to maneuver. Dealing with an extremely tight space for three hours was difficult enough, but when I got up to use the bathroom I found out just how bad it could get. I had troubled keeping my balance as I lurched to the back of the bus while bumping into one passenger after another. The tiny bathroom provided an even worse dilemma. Urinating took an incredible amount of dexterity. I was wedged inside what could have passed for an oddly shaped crawl space. When I got back to my seat, the situation worsened, two “gentleman” (I use that term loosely) a couple of rows behind me decided they would converse in something akin to a loud roar. It was impossible to concentrate on reading or sleeping, this bus ride became a test of tolerance.

At least we were on a main highway that was in optimal condition. Even so, the nature of bus travel means that every crack or crevice in the road can be felt. Because there were no seatbelts I was constantly trying to steady myself. Otherwise I would have bounced right into the lap of the woman sitting beside me.  By the time the bus pulled into the main station at Vilnius I was in a near rage. My mood was worsened by the free for all that ensued when the luggage compartment was opened. I was nearly knocked over by aggressive passengers lunging for their suitcases. I only procured my own after a nasty struggle that ended with me in a fit of temper. With pleasurable disdain I knocked another man’s suitcase, to which he was attached, out of the way. To my surprise he did not seem fazed, must happen to him all the time. I was exhausted, enraged and ready to trade blows as I stomped off to my hostel. Welcome to Vilnius!

Here comes trouble - Marshrutka in Lviv

Here comes trouble – Marshrutka in Lviv (Credit: Buka)

Special Services – Roadside Pullouts & Ukrainian Frights
One thing bus travel is certainly good for is creating memorable experiences. A sterling example of this occurred on a trip I took through Transylvania. The bus from Brasov to Sibiu was down at the heel, with an overwhelming smell of smoke permeating the interior though there was no smoking. Of course everyone chain smoked before they got onboard. A flame orange interior and half dirty seat cushions only added to the charm. The driver made up for the aesthetics by providing a special service. When an old man tapped on his shoulder, the driver immediately pulled over to the side of the road. The old man climbed out of the bus and proceeded to urinate in a meadow as cars roared past on the highway. He then re-entered the bus, thanked the driver and we set off again. I sure was glad he did not need to do more than that.

The further east one goes the crazier bus travel seems to get. Everyone should experience a marshrutka once in their life. Marshrutkas are a famous type of minibus found throughout Ukraine and the former Soviet Union. A cross between a minivan and a bus, they can take the traveler almost anywhere, but only if the traveler survives the experience. I will never forget my first sighting of a marshrutka. I was walking down Svobody Prospekt in Lviv. Suddenly a yellow marshrutka, jam packed with people, their faces pressed up against the windows, rolled slowly by. They looked incredibly uncomfortable. Out of necessity I was unlucky enough to experience a marshutka on my second trip to western Ukraine

I had the distinct displeasure of being on an overcrowded marshrutka returning from the Polish border to Lviv on St. Nicholas’ Day when Ukrainians exchange Christmas gifts with one another. The bus was packed with passengers, their arms filled to bursting with purchases. They were standing against one another in the main aisle. A man leaned on me to the point where at times he was sitting on my shoulder. There was only one seat that did not have a person in it. This was because a woman had paid for two seats, one for herself and the other for two comforters she had purchased. The offending items, as well as the woman were eyed angrily, by those standing in the aisle.

Bus 68 in Kispest - anything can happen

Bus 68 in Kispest – anything can happen (Credit: Aron_son)

Memories That Last Forever – Bringing It All Back Home
The bus is bad enough, but sometimes the people on board lower expectations even further. In southern Hungary a bus ride from Pecs to the wine village of Villany turned into a one man show, when an inebriated Gypsy got on board and proceeded to serenade the passengers. Half laughed nervously, the other half ignored him. The bus driver finally grew so fed up with his behavior that he let him off between villages in the middle of nowhere. The last I saw of him, he was tottering beside an empty field. That incident pales in comparison to a ride I took one gloomy December night on bus #68 in Kispest, the 19th district in Budapest. A traumatic experience that was so utterly unforgettable that still today I shudder at the mere thought of it.

Coming soon: A Load Of Crap – Incidental Conflicts: Calamity & Chaos On Bus #68 In Kispest (Part Two)

 

Weird, But Not Menacing – Against Fear: Crime & Safety in Eastern Europe

It has happened so many times that by now I should be used to it. Someone finds out I have traveled to Europe and asks me where I went. When I mention Hungary or Slovakia or Ukraine or some other country in Eastern Europe they look at me surprised, then follows an awkward silence. They wait for me to say something, it becomes obvious that they know next to nothing about the nation I have mentioned, except that it used to be communist and therefore must be dangerous. An example of this occurred not long ago when I was discussing a European trip with someone whose only overseas travel had been to England and France. They would soon be headed to Greece and eventually hoped to visit Croatia. They asked me places that I might recommend. I said if you get to Croatia, check out Bosnia because it is beautiful, highly affordable and a place where east and west collide sometimes right before your eyes. A third person listening to this conversation turned a bit pale and said, “Bosnia sounds dangerous.” I tried to set their mind at ease, saying “it is fine, one of the safest places I have been.” Their expression belied a willful disbelief. Our conversation ended not long after that, but it reminded me of so many I have had since I first traveled to Eastern Europe.

Beliefs About Bosnia – Safety In Sarajevo
The long shadow cast by four and half decades of the Cold War and communism, the Iron Curtain and Soviet occupation, has left an impression in American minds that Eastern Europe is a land of totalitarian backwardness. The post-Cold War era has transformed that image for westerners into a region that is at best incomprehensible, at worst beset by lawlessness, with governments captured by Mafioso and business riven with bandit capitalism. Like any stereotype, such a reputation contains elements of the truth. For instance, Bosnia is not dangerous today, but was deadly during the 1990’s Yugoslav Wars. Ukraine has an ongoing war in its southeastern part, but the rest of the country – a land mass larger than France – is largely peaceful. Such facts do little to dissuade prejudice and keep many Americans away from the region.

Street sign in Sarajevo - note the bullet holes below the sign

Street sign in Sarajevo – note the bullet holes below the sign

I often get the sense that people believe that as soon as someone arrives in Belgrade or Bratislava they will be set upon by armed thugs, scam artists and corrupt police demanding bribes. The reality is much different. They are much more likely to be left to their own devices. Let’s be honest, a sense of helplessness is likely to cause more travelers to avoid the region than local crime. A city such as Sarajevo stands out for the difference between expectations and reality when it comes to safety. It was ground zero for urban warfare during the Yugoslav Wars. The city was besieged for 1,425 days, as Serbian forces attempted to shell the city into submission. Fifteen years later I visited Sarajevo and have rarely felt safer in a city. Nothing about it felt threatening. Underneath sunny skies, looking up at the hills surrounding the city, it was difficult for me to imagine the horrors that Sarajevo had suffered in the not so distant past. The scenes of Bosnians running for their lives as they struggled to so much as cross a street had been beamed into homes around the world on nightly newscasts during the mid-1990s.

Sarajevo - a city now at peace

Sarajevo – a city now at peace (Credit: Julian Nitzsche)

Now there were young people sitting in outdoor cafes socializing and sipping coffee.  All the main tourist areas were in excellent condition, war could not have been any further from this scene. It was only when I started going down side streets and back alleys that damage from the war became highly visible. Building after building was pockmarked with bullet holes. This had once been a war zone, now it was benign. Since my visit, Sarajevo has continued to exist in a relatively docile state. According to one major crime index Sarajevo is safer than Paris, Brussels, Rome and Dublin. Think about that for a moment, a city that was at the heart of the deadliest conflict in post-World War II Europe a decade and a half ago is now safer for both its citizens and tourists than many wealthy Western European capital cities. When I asked the proprietor at my hotel if the city was safe, he replied “Sarajevo is perfectly safe for tourists.” From what I experienced, he could not have been more correct.

Street in the 8th District (Joszefvaros) of Budapest

Looks safe to me – street in the 8th District (Joszefvaros) of Budapest
(Credit: Czimmy)

Perception & Reality – The Safety Of City Centers
In the 2016 Crime Index, Kharkiv in the far eastern portion of Ukraine was the most unsafe city in Eastern Europe. There were still twelve cities above it though. All of these were in Western Europe or Great Britain. I have never been in Kharkiv, but I have been to Kiev. The most worrisome thing in the capital of Ukraine was a corrupt police force looking to check documents and possibly extract bribes. Even a relatively unsafe Eastern European city has to be put in perspective. Tourists are unlikely to ever go into the most dangerous areas of these cities. The majority of Eastern European cities have very safe city centers. The crime is usually concentrated in outer districts. This is the complete opposite of the United States where inner cities are usually outposts of crime that can sometimes turn deadly, especially after the sun goes down. It is a strange sensation for an American to be wandering around the center of a city such as Budapest late at night not giving much of a thought to personal safety.

One of the supposedly more “unsafe” areas in Budapest is the 8th District, Joszefvaros. In some areas it does look rougher around the edges than other parts of the city, but I have been in the district more than twenty times and have never had a problem there. Rougher in this area of Budapest means the streets are grimier, there are more odd characters begging for cigarettes and sleeping on the streets. It feels weird, but not menacing. The phrase “weird, but not menacing” perhaps sums up the real fear for those Americans who do not visit Eastern Europe. The region is weird for many people because they know next to nothing about it. It is also filled with nationalities speaking strange languages and who have a much different history from the west. Eastern Europe may not have a reputation for refinement and wealth, but it should also not have a reputation for crime. Western Europe is where that problem largely resides.

 

 

“Just Go” – Journey To Herkulesfurdo (Baile Herculane): A Picture Is Worth Thousands Of Miles

Whenever the subject of my travels to Eastern Europe comes up in conversation, the person I am talking with almost always asks me “How did you ever get there?” My answer usually involves explaining my lifelong interest in the region. Every once in a while, I will add by saying, “It is real easy. All you have to do is book everything online and just go.” While they knowingly nod at the first part, I can see fear in their eyes when I say “just go.” In that moment, I am pretty sure that they will never “just go.” Perhaps they do not trust my judgment, though I have survived all of my trips. Sometimes they look at me like I am crazy. I will admit to making the trip sound way too easy. Yet the truth of the matter: it is that easy.

In front of the train station in Herkulesfurdo, 1911

In front of the train station in Herkulesfurdo, 1911

Magic Act – A Woman In Peasant Dress With A Smile On Her Face
I thought of this the other night while sitting in front of my laptop looking through old photos on the website, Fortepan.hu. Fortepan.hu contains almost 80,000 photographs from Hungary between 1900 -1990 that have been uploaded by anyone who would like to share their photos for the sake of posterity. It is a treasure trove of daily life during a time of great change in the country. One of the photos that captured my imagination was taken in the Banat region (Bansag in Hungarian). It shows a woman in peasant dress with a smile on her face. She is leaning on an umbrella while standing outside a train station in the town of Herkulesfurdo. Both the photo and the town’s name lodged in my consciousness. I suddenly wanted to go there. Go to the exact same place 106 years later and snap a photo in the exact same spot. I was seized by a thought, what if someone looking at this photo felt the same inspiration that I did. And what if that person had never been to Eastern Europe before, but now felt an irresistible urge to travel to a place they would otherwise never visit. What if they decided to “just go.” All it would take is some money, a sense of adventure and force of will.

Let us say that our hypothetical traveler has a passport, money and the inclination to make this trip as soon as possible. They would first book a flight out of Denver, switch planes in Washington and Istanbul before landing in Bucharest. Leaving at 3:45 p.m. (15:45) on March 8th they would arrive in the Romanian capital at 8:45 p.m. (20:45) on March 9th, after nineteen and a half hours in transit. Deprived of sleep, weary from watching one too many melodramatic movies and with their stomach rumbling after consuming a pasta dish swimming in an unknown sauce, our traveler would overnight in Bucharest. A taxi would take them at a considerable markup to an accommodation close to the main train station. They would spend the night with the odd sensation that they were still airborne, as their bed seems to be moving.

Bucharest North Railway Station - the largest in Romania

Bucharest North Railway Station – the largest in Romania (Credit: Daniel Caluian)

Points Of No Return – Urchin Urgings
The next morning our traveler makes their way to the train station. They would be shocked by what they saw. Once a stop on the fabled Orient Express line, the Bucharest North Railway Station (Bucuresti Gara de Nord) has now substituted seediness for grandeur. It is filled with strange characters, illegal cab drivers, petty thieves, corrupt and rather harmless hangers on.  What would an adventure be without a bit of mystery, intrigue and danger from these station urchins? Our traveler finds the ticket window and discovers that no one speaks a word of English. Herkulesfurdo elicits puzzled looks from the female ticket seller. That is the Hungarian name for the town. Using it, rather than the town’s Romanian name could result in dirty looks.

In desperation the magical words “Baile Herculane” are uttered. A ticket is forthcoming. The train leaves at 10:45 a.m. It is a rather uneventful and rickety six hour ride across the Wallachian Plain. Fallow fields stretch out in every direction, waiting for spring to begin in earnest. Plumes of dust fill the air, clouding the horizon. Periodically this scene is broken by oil derricks, hinting at the black gold just beneath the fertile soil. The most notable city along the route is Craiova, one of those places that evoke Ceaucescu era Romania. A place that is famous for making cars, corruption and little else.

There is always a point on any impulsive trip when a traveler wonders if they made the right decision, when the self-doubt begins to feel overwhelming. The unfamiliar magnifies loneliness, fear succumbs to depression. Ignorance of language, customs and culture seems all consuming. This is the moment that proves decisive. Our traveler is too far gone, there is no turning back. At this point what else can they do? And as the afternoon goes on they become more comfortable with the thought. Perhaps this has to do with the striking scenery that comes into view. The train snakes its way into the Cerna valley. Lush forests run up the hillsides. Tucked into this inviting landscape is the final destination, Baile Herculane or Herkulesfurdo. The name hardly matters at this point. Our traveler disembarks at a station that makes them believe it is forever 1900 there.

Point of arrival - Băile Herculane (Herkulefurdo) Train Station

Point of arrival – Băile Herculane (Herkulefurdo) Train Station (Credit: stancosty)

The Search That Never Ends
Our traveler makes their way through the station. Just outside the entrance they look at a printed copy of the photo which brought them this far. They try to reimagine that moment. What was that lady smiling at, a comment, a friend or something else? Why was she holding an umbrella? Where was she going? Where had she been? These were among the many mysteries that would never be answered. Perhaps the more interesting question was why did our traveler care so much? Why had they followed this photo thousands of miles to a remote corner of southwestern Romania? They will probably never know any of the answers to those questions. And that is quite wonderful. Because it will keep them searching and keep them traveling to places like Herkulesfurdo. Places they could have scarcely imagined before they decided to “just go.”

 

Villages Peopled By The Imagination – A Train Ride Between Gyor & Sarvar

I have always had a fondness for the obscure. The first time I became aware of this was while reading a twenty-four hundred page history (do not ask why) of the American Civil War. I enjoyed learning about each of the major campaigns, but I became fixated on the battles and skirmishes of the New Mexico campaign, an obscure theater of the war that I had never known about before. Perhaps this fondness for the obscure is what led to my interest in Eastern Europe. I am bored to death by Paris, London or Tuscany, but the idea of Budapest, Krakow and Kiev thrills me to no end. Now that I have been able to make many trips to the region, I find myself gravitating more and more towards the obscure. Mention Hungary to me and I am dreaming of the Nyirseg in the nation’s eastern extremity. Transylvania stimulates thoughts of Szekelyland. For some mysterious reason the next time I visit Ukraine, Volyhnia is at the top of my list, not for any compelling reason other than the fact that few go into this forested northwestern corner of the country. And so it goes on, give me Szekszard instead of Szeged, Kaunas over Vilnius and Novi Sad over Nis.

Rolling into obscurity

Rolling into obscurity

An Unknown Force – A Passion For Obscurity
One of the best ways I have found to fulfill my fetish for the obscure is to take a regional train through the countryside. These trains tend to stop at smaller sidings, offering a window into crumbling towns and tiny villages that dot the landscape. Places that the upwardly mobile escaped from long ago, but are still somehow hanging on despite the effects of urbanization causing long term demographic decline. In Eastern Europe such places are sometimes foreshadowed by an abandoned collective farm that looks like it lost its raison d’etre long before the Iron Curtain fell. It is in Hungary where I have been able to experience these rural settings most evocatively. These are the kind of places that no one other than their inhabitants will ever remember, but for some strange reason I am the only foreigner unlikely to ever forget them either. These proverbial wide spots in the road drift into the consciousness, hide there and then resurface, triggered by an unknown force.

On an uneventful train trip in Hungary during the early spring I was able to spy several of these small villages from a window seat. I was traveling on a rattle trap of a local train from the city of Gyor in western Hungary to Sarvar. The excursion was for one reason only, to visit Sarvar Castle. The castle had been one of the main homes for the dreaded “Blood Countess”, Elizabeth Bathory. The horror which had occurred in the castle during the late 16th and early 17th centuries had kept me reading wide-eyed for many evenings prior to my trip. It occupied my imagination to the point that on the morning I boarded the train in Gyor, I had an ominous sense of dread, a nervous anticipation of what I might discover later that day in Sarvar. This was the product of an overactive imagination searching for drama.

Mihalyhaza Train Station

Mihalyhaza Train Station

The Land Of Just Getting By – A World That Lies Fallow
As the train rolled out of Gyor and into the countryside, the morning fog was slowly burning off. The train was nowhere near even half full. Being an American, I immediately thought of how nice it would be to have trains such as this rolling through obscure regions in the Midwest or Great Plains. The United States once had such trains, seventy years ago. Hungary was not seventy years behind the United States, but this train felt like a throwback to the days of communism. It was a purely mediocre mode of transport replete with cracked leather seats, a bare bones bathroom with a hand soap dispenser parceling out a grainy substance that looked like half bleached sand. Running water was little more than a leaky faucet. The windows on the train looked like they had ossified themselves shut. Other than that, it was a pleasant ride through a Europe few tourists would ever see. The trees were not quite in bloom, the fields still lay fallow, but greenery was starting to show. This was a land on the verge of rebirth, unlike the towns which inhabited it.

The train slowed and made intermittent stops. The first few towns were relatively prosperous due to their proximity to Gyor. The further out from Gyor, the more a village could best be defined as a place “where people live.” There was Szerecseny, Gecse-Gyormat, Vasvar, Mezolak and Mihalyhaza. There were places with unusual, typically incomprehensible Hungarian names such as Kemenesmihalyfa and Ostffyasszonyfa. Here was a world few would ever see except for the local inhabitants. There was no breathtaking beauty, only pleasant pastoralism. Small sized, frayed houses in many of the villages were a reminder that the economy had long since moved elsewhere. A question which I had no way to answer kept coming to mind, “What do people do here?” From the looks of it, they either had the career choice of staying inside or farming, but there were no farmers in the fields. There was land everywhere, but where were the people who worked it. Hidden behind walls, windows and curtains was the answer to that mystery. This was the land of just getting by. There was no dire poverty, only a slow steady decline into obsolescence.

Rural Hungary - a window into rural decline

Rural Hungary – a window into rural decline (Credit: Marcel Bauer)

Western Hungary In My Heart – A Place For Imagination
These villages for me were the height of obscurity. Places no one really cared about or was even conscious of. Because of that I wanted to know everything about them. I could only imagine what history was hidden inside all those houses, personal rather than national, love affairs and loneliness, homemade feasts of food and alcohol, a slow life and an even slower death. These were places with too much past and hardly any future. At least that is what I wanted to imagine. To know the truth would have been illuminating and enthralling, but then these villages, this train line and that forgotten land would have no longer been obscure to me. I would then almost certainly lose interest, move on to another place down the line. It was best just to know them for a few fleeting minutes. That way they could stay forever obscure and I could keep a small slice of Western Hungary in my heart.

Pleasure Palaces Of Empire – Taking A Bath: Roman, Ottoman & Austro-Hungarian Baths In Budapest

The Roman, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were very different entities. On the surface they seem to have little in common, besides the fact that all three eventually collapsed. It is difficult to find clear connections among the three. They were separated by time, hundreds and even thousands of years apart. They were also largely separated by space. The Roman world was centered largely on the Mediterranean Sea, the Ottomans around the near east, the Austro-Hungarians in east-central Europe.

Each of these empires also radiated outward and at certain points managed to overlap, if not in the same historical time period, than in the same geographic location centuries apart. One of the best places to see this is in Budapest. It was here that the Romans built a city on the western side of the Danube called Aquincum – in today’s Obuda area – to guard their northern frontier. A millennium and a half later the Ottoman Turks occupied and then recreated Buda in their image. Still later, Austria-Hungary oversaw the expansion of the city into a political, industrial and cultural powerhouse. Quite miraculously, there is still one commonality among all these empires to be found in the city today, baths.

The Great Public Bath at Aquincum

The Great Public Bath at Aquincum (Credit : Bjoertvedt)

From Romans To Ottomans – Bathing In Buda
The Romans were great lovers of baths. Much of their social life took place at imperial bath complexes known as thermae. These were constructed in cities throughout the empire. A thermae in Aquincum can still be seen today as part of the excavated ruins. In addition to thermaes there were private bathing facilities called balneum. Aquincum also has one of these, which was part of a villa that belonged to a wealthy citizen. Such ruins offer the first window into baths and bathing culture in the land which would one day become Hungary. The warm springs that simmer beneath the surface of Budapest have been exploited by each empire that occupied the area since antiquity. They are the city’s greatest natural resource, numbering over 120 in Buda alone. Though the Roman baths lost their purpose not long after the empire fell, the ones built by the Ottoman Turks many centuries later have had a much different destiny.

One of the very few sites left over from the Ottoman occupation are the baths which were constructed in the 1560’s and 1570’s. Though bathing culture had come down to them through the Byzantines (Eastern Roman Empire), the Ottoman Turkish bath facilities were unique in that they were also part of religious customs, specifically ablutions. Thus their baths were built adjacent to mosques. The mosques in Buda have long since disappeared, but the baths have managed to survive. On the west side of the Danube, close to Elizabeth Bridge, stands the unique domed structure of the Rudas Baths. It looks like something that might be found tucked away in a quiet corner of Constantinople. Yet these baths were fundamentally different from the ones in the Ottoman capital city. Whereas a traditional Turkish bath, known as a Hamam, consisted of three rooms, one each for hot and cold soaking, plus a large central room that was filled with steam.

Inside the Kiraly Thermal Bath

Inside the Kiraly Thermal Bath (Credit: Báthory Gábor)

In Ottoman Buda, the bath’s central space consisted of several pools. Rather than being filled with steam it was used as a bath. What is today the Kiraly Thermal Bath was completed under the administration of Pasha Sokoli Mustapha, the Ottoman governor who oversaw the construction of several Turkish baths in Buda. Over four hundred years later the architecture is pretty much unchanged. The outer walls of the bath are square, in the large room they enclose an octagonal chamber topped with a dome which allows in shafts of light. The light projects through the glass, adding an exotic element to the splashing and soaking that goes on inside. Modern bathers relax in the same setting that Ottoman officials once did. The Ottomans and almost all of their architecture have disappeared from Hungary, but their presence can be felt inside Kiraly Thermal Bath. Other Ottoman Turkish baths in Budapest include the Rac and Rudas Baths. These marvels of architecture are also places where Hungarians and tourists rub shoulders while soaking in the history.

Drilling Deep – Szechenyi Surfaces
Modern Budapest bathing culture began in the 19th century as scientific innovation brought thermal waters to the surface in places the Romans and Ottomans could only have dreamed about. With the industrial revolution, drilling technology improved at an incredible rate. Drillers were able to plume formerly unfathomable depths beneath the city. One of the first was a Hungarian engineer by the name of Vilmos Zsigmondy who spent ten years drilling a well that was nearly a thousand meters deep in the area that is now a pond in the City Park (Varosliget). This well provided thermal waters to the Artesian Bath or “old Szechenyi Bath” as it is sometimes called. The Artesian Bath has long since disappeared, but its famous replacement is nearby.

From a touristic point of view, bath and spa culture in Budapest is dominated by the splendid neo-Baroque Szechenyi furdo (Szechenyi thermal bath). Completed in 1913, the Szechenyi takes bathing to a whole new level. It is a world away from the quasi-Oriental aesthetic and sultry exoticism of the Ottoman baths. The Szechenyi has a fin de siècle refinement infused with a tasteful modernization that includes state of the art deck pools, whirlpools and even wave pools. As one of the largest bath complexes in Europe its hosts tens of thousands of visitors each year, many of whom snap photos of elderly men enjoying a soak while playing a game of chess. The magnificence that was Austria-Hungary and the golden age of Budapest permeate Szechenyi still today.

The splendor of Szechenyi Thermal Bath in Budapest

The splendor of Szechenyi Thermal Bath in Budapest

Impossible To Resist – Three Empires That Took The Waters
For all the physical architecture that the Romans, Ottomans and Austro-Hungarians imposed on the cityscapes of Aquincum, Buda and Budapest it is doubtful that any of these empires suspected that baths would be among their most lasting contributions. As different as each empire was, they all found the thermal waters of the area impossible to resist. These waters were harnessed to great effect in baths that can still be visited today. Whether in ruins or modernized, they evoke the grandeur and charm of an imperial golden age’s true pleasure palaces of empire.