Sunday, October 26, 2008

Hungarian Rhapsody

I went back to Budapest last month for a business trip. My previous visit dated back to a time where I was married with young children and the Soviet Empire was beginning to crumble. At that time Budapest was a neutral zone where East Germans and West Germans gathered to share a week-end and perhaps make escape plans.

A vivid memory of a bus load of Russian tourists loudly invading the most sacred church in Budapest, St Stephen's Basilica, is forever stamped in my memory. The men walked boldly in front of the altar to take pictures of their group, were smoking cigarettes and were oblivious to the local worshipers stunned by the intrusion. It was a disturbing snapshot but it also predicted that a change would come. The languages that were prevalent were Hungarian, Russian and German. I spoke limited German but it did not matter because Hungarian people are helpful and most patient. It was obvious that trade was slow. Shops that were meticulously maintained had few products to sell. Restaurants which had 20 pages of menu, could only serve goulash soup and chicken paprika. The city of Pest was surrounded by a cloud of smug due to leaded gasoline propelling cars made in the Eastern Bloc. It was a beautiful trip because even tarnished the glory of the city could not be denied.

I had no expectations and maybe it explains my delight in discovering what free enterprise had accomplished in a few years. The immaculate VW Passat taxi which picked me up from the airport was driven by a man wearing an immaculate white shirt and accepting credit card payment, nice when you are exhausted and have not exchange your money into the local currency which is Forint not Euro. My hotel was the same Hilton located in the Castle district but there was a definite service improvement, it was upscale and friendly with an executive lounge serving free food and beverages including wine all day, along with the use of computers with free internet access.

I had to attend meetings outside of Budapest for a few days which also gave me the opportunity to visit a wine cellar which was a new business venture that a young couple had started. We were treated to a wine tasting along with specialty dishes. We stayed in a lovely hotel in the country which was haunted but nothing unpleasant happened, a few whispers, shuffling sounds and cold spots were experienced but no one was possessed.

To get to Pest from the historic Castle district of Buda, we walked across the Danube on the historic Chain Bridge built in 1842 and partly destroyed during WWII by the Germans. It is a great place to take pictures and view both cities. The bus system is extensive and I would have liked to try it but my companion wanted to walk and as it is the best way to see a city, we did, for ten hours! It was a full day of exploration and observation and we found that everything was the same but everything had changed.

English was spoken instead of Russian, businesses and shops displayed their wares with pride. Buildings were renovated, restaurants offered variety of dishes and if you chose to sit outside on their terraces, as we did, all offered warm blankets to cut the September chill. It was cozy to eat lunch overlooking the pedestrian traffic going in and out of St Stephen's Basilica which was again treated with reverence and respect. It was a liberating trip, I found myself succumbing to the charm of Hungary all over again as I did many years ago in a previous life, ghosts can be friendly but they are only a pale reflection of what you can experience if you choose to stay in the present.

Gate to the ARTS Museum


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