Archive for the ‘Hungary’ Category

Szentendre by Day, Budapest by Night

Wednesday, May 18th, 2005
windmill

Old Windmill at Szentendre’s Open Air Museum

Sunday was my final full day in Hungary, and it began with a steady drizzle. I’d made plans with Mátyás and his wife Marika to meet them by the Great Synagogue at 10:30am for a day-trip to Szentendre. The only problem was that if the rain persisted, we might have to call off the excursion, as Szentendre was the kind of place where you’d want to spend most of your time outside. So I crossed my fingers after finishing breakfast at the hotel, hailed a taxi, and left the Buda hills for the heart of Pest.
The drizzle came and went as we drove through the city; by the time I stepped out of the taxi, the drizzle picked up somewhat. It didn’t bode well for a day trip. But as I stood in front of the Great Synagogue with a sizable crowd of American, Israeli and Italian tourists, the rain let up. I folded up my umbrella just as the security guard unlocked the gate and started checking people’s bags before entry.
Inside the gate, I joined a second queue, this time to buy a ticket. A group of elderly women with New York accents were at the ticket booth, debating whether they wanted to spend the five dollars to enter the synagogue. “We’ve seen it from the outside; we’re going back to the car,” one of them said, leaving just one of them to buy an entry ticket.
With my ticket in hand, I went to the door of the main hall. A Hungarian man wearing a yarmulke handed me one and said, “The sign says no pictures, but it’s no problem; just leave a small donation when you leave and all will be fine.” I thanked him for the advice, then went inside.

synagogue interior

Interior of Budapest’s Great Synagogue

The interior of the synagogue was as stunning and awe-inspiring as any cathedral I’d ever visited. The ceiling appeared to be 100 feet up, and was decorated with ornate wooden paneling in the form of geometric shapes. Similar to a cathedral, there was a long, central corridor, flanked by columns and adjacent corridors on each side. The central corridor was open all the way to the ceiling, while the side corridors each had two additional levels, their railings and columns made of a much darker, but equally gorgeous wood. Arches along the ceiling of the central aisle gave the illusion of the space getting smaller and smaller, but in reality, the arches didn’t shrink until they were nearly on top of the altar, producing a cascading effect. Two enormous chandeliers hung along the center aisle, its decorated with globe-like white lights.
I walked slowly down the aisle, marveling at the space around me. I’d sometimes mused on trips to cathedrals that we Jews must not be very ambitious architects, because even the remaining historical synagogues of Europe tend to be rather modest. But the Great Synagogues dashed away that idea from my head. Here was a grand, inspiring space that must have been the pearl of Central Europe when it opened in the mid-1800s. Thankfully, actor Tony Curtis and others worked very hard to raise money to restore it after the fall of communism.
Approaching the altar, I found myself among a group of a dozen or so tourists who were sitting in the pews, contemplating the synagogue. I sat for a few minutes but was restless; I wanted to explore every nook and cranny of this glorious space. I walked the length of the synagogue several times until I’d had a chance to traverse each aisle. I would pause and stare at the sides of the synagogue, every inch decorated as meticulously as the rest. How extraordinary it would have been to go to services here. Unfortunately, the timing of my telecottage tours made that impossible; I’d simply have to come back another time, which I promised I would do at some point again.
Eventually, it was time to rendezvous with Mátyás and Marika. Their car was waiting across the street from the synagogue; Mátyás was standing outside, the wireless earpiece for his mobile phone firmly planted in his ear.
“If you would like I can offer you the front seat,” he joked, recalling my queasy trip through the Hungarian countryside.
“I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” I replied while opening the door to the back seat. “No palinka yesterday – only good Hungarian wine.”
With Marika driving, we drove over the Szechenyi chain bridge and through Buda, turning north towards Szentendre. Mátyás pointed out various sites along the way, including the largest apartment block in Central Europe — the pride and joy of Soviet-era architects, I’m sure — and the Roman ruins of Aquincum, which included the foundations of many buildings and remnants of an ancient aqueduct.

Hungarian man

Man in traditional costume, Szentenre

The drive to Szentendre didn’t take long; we probably reached the town in 30 minutes. Located north of Budapest in the Danube Bend, just south of the Slovak border, Szentendre was famous for its world-class collection of Orthodox churches, built by the local Serbian population that had called the village home for much of the last six centuries. It was also home to Hungary’s open air ethnographic museum, featuring acre upon acre of historic buildings from around the country. Mátyás suggested we go to the open air museum first, then the town itself, so we could be back in Budapest by late afternoon. That would also give me time to explore the capital one last time before going home to Boston.
We arrived at the museum just after 11am; we were forced to park in a secondary lot because the main lot was already full. That had me worried that the museum would be crawling with tourists. Amazingly, when we got inside it felt like it was just sparsely populated: the museum covered so many acres of space – approximately 100 acres in all -you could spread out thousands of visitors and scantly notice their presence.
With a couple of museum maps in hand, we went clockwise around the park. The first building we reached was actually a restaurant disguised as a historic building; Mátyás bought two large slices of strudel, one apple and the other sour cherry, for us to split on a park bench. We bought it from a baker who had conscripted his three granddaughters to handle the customers.
“This is a good place for eating,” Mátyás said. “A little here, a little there and soon it will be lunch.”

socialists

Our new friends from the Socialist party pose with Mátyás

Wiping the crumbs from my face, we left the benches and entered a building used for dyeing cloth. The long, L-shaped building had a sizable courtyard, with a series of rooms used for various parts of the dyeing process. While the docent explained the process to us, a group of elderly men came over and joined in, each of them offering comments. They spoke Hungarian with Mátyás, and after a while they struck up a conversation with him, during which I could make out my name as well as the Hungarian word for blog: Naplo.
“They’re members of the socialist party, the current ruling party in Hungary,” Mátyás said. “They’re out of a social outing, and wanted to know why you were visiting, so I told them about your telecottage visits and your blog.” Simultaneously, the men handed Mátyás business cards so he could write www.andycarvin.com on them so they could check out my impressions of Hungary. When Mátyás spelled it out loud, he said my name as “Andi Tsarvin,” which would have been the Magyar way of pronouncing the letters. In return, the men gave me a Socialist Party pin and a pen from the Netherlands as souvenirs of our encounter.
Next, we wandered over to the tannery. The gentlemen from the socialist party were there as well, now talking to Marika. “It turns out they know of each other,” Mátyás said. “Their families were in the tanning business many years ago.” With the group chatted, I explored the rooms of the tannery, trying to stay shaded whenever possible. The temperature was well over 70 degrees now, and I’d neglected to dress in shorts or a t-shirt. I worried I’d be a sweaty mess by the time I left; fortunately I had a bottle of mineral water to help me get through the heat.
Mátyás and I struck up a conversation about getting a cup of coffee. He said we may have to walk around a bit before we found some, though. “Americans are lucky because they live in a country where they can find whatever it is they want very, very quickly,” Mátyás observed.
“It’s all about convenience; we’re masters of convenience,” I said. “But the flip side to that is that Americans often make cranky travelers. They go to a place that doesn’t have exactly what they need or the fastest customer service, and they act like it’s the end of the world. It’s the classic Ugly American stereotype, and it’s all about suffering from a lack of convenience in an unfamiliar place.”

farmer's cottage

Farmer’s cottage, Szentendre

Just beyond the tannery, we found a farmhouse that sold traditional handicrafts. As I looked at some of the pottery on display outside, I heard Mátyás call my name. He was pointing to a small sign outside the craft shop; the sign had an arrow pointing inside with the Hungarian word for coffee, kave, above it.
“Andy, look,” he said, smiling broadly. “Convenience!”
Inside the shop, we found a fine collection of crafts from all over Hungary, particularly wooden toys and ceramics. Mátyás ordered us coffees while playing with a wooden door knocker. He handed two of them to the cashier as we waited for the coffee.
“A gift to Susanne,” he said, “in case she ever needs to get your attention.”
Soon, the cashier procured three cups of coffees, in thin plastic cups not much larger than a shot glass. They were filled to the brim with thick Hungarian coffee — I’d be tempted to describe it as Turkish coffee but that might be frowned upon here — and I worried I would scorch my hand carrying it outside. I walked to a bench gingerly and joined Mátyás, sipping away and enjoying the sunshine, as Marika continued to chat with the cashier.
Adjacent to the crafts shop we found the bakery. I spent a while shooting photos and video of bakers shoving huge pans into a wood oven, each pan containing half a dozen loaves of dough waiting to bake into gloriously fresh bread. When I turned around, Mátyás and Marika were standing there with the largest pretzels I’d ever since. Mátyás handed me one of them: “Here is your lunch,” he said.
We walked a little while and found a shady bench near an old chapel. The pretzel was soft and flaky, not the chewy, thick pretzel that I was used to at home. And rather than being coated with course salt, it was drizzled with heavily salted cheese. The combination gave the illusion of eating a pretzel-shaped pizza, sans the tomato sauce.
For the next hour or so, we wandered throughout the park, visiting a series of historic buildings from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. There were peasant houses that fit several generations of family members under one small roof, while across the way we would find relatively sprawling villas own by wealthy merchants. Each one was decorated with period furniture and implements, including books, chairs, wood stoves, ceramics, cutlery and religious art.
“Andy, come see this,” Mátyás said. “I have a friend who has a very old house; it is decorated exactly like this, all the furniture and pieces in the exact same places. Marvelous, marvelous….”
Outside one of the houses I spotted a large wooden pole, with another pole connected to it on a hinge, like a medieval crane. I’d actually seen many of them as we drove through rural Hungary, each one of them close to a well.
“Is this for lifting water out of the well?” I asked.
“Yes, they’re still in use,” Mátyás replied. Meanwhile, an airplane flew high overhead, leaving a contrail at roughly the same angle as the spar connected to the well pole.
“That makes a good picture,” Mátyás replied, laughing to himself. “Old technology, new technology: perfect for your book.”
One of the last buildings we visited was an old school house. In one room, we found the teacher’s residence, complete with a collection of 19th century newspapers and magazines; in the other room we found the classroom itself, where several benches were set up with hand-sized writing tablets. “Look at those,” Mátyás exclaimed. “Marvelous, marvelous.”
“They were the laptops of their time,” I quipped, smirking.
We’d reached the far end of the park at this point. The three of us cut through some farm houses and headed downhill, towards a massive stone windmill. First, we passed through what I think must have been the only working farmhouse at the museum. There were stables of horses, as well as a series of large pens, each housing cows, goats, sheep and other farm fauna. Children and adults alike were crouched along the edges of the pen, happily feeding clumps of hay and fresh grass to even happier groups of goats, while lambs frolicked playfully in the background.
We now reached the windmill. It was even bigger up close, a giant stone monolith with wings the size of sails. Mátyás suggested we go inside, which sounded like a great idea since I’d never actually been in a windmill before. It was hard to appreciate much, though, as it was packed rather claustrophobically with tourists, and I couldn’t really make out what the docent was saying. Meanwhile, Mátyás pointed to a row of wooden shoes along the wall. “Wood shoes, windmills — they’re not just Dutch, you know,” he said.
Outside, Mátyás pointed to a series of large ropes and poles that reached up to the wings of the windmill. “Do you know what those are for?” he asked me.
“No, I can’t venture a guess.”
“They’re for steering the wind. Since you can’t move the windmill itself when the wind blows from a new direction, you can rotate the wings like sails to catch the air.”
Heading towards the far end of the park, we cut through an employee parking lot where we found a convenient bathroom – perhaps the only one in the park that didn’t charge 100 forints for privilege to go to the privy. We then hiked through the park’s amphitheatre and past the ruined foundation of a Roman villa to the museum’s crafts bazaar. By this point I wanted to strip off my clothes; hiking along the open plain with the sun bearing down on us, it felt much hotter than it probably was.
The crafts bazaar was crowded with shoppers exploring several dozen kiosks of handicraft vendors and food stalls. We made a loop through bazaar, checking out fine collections of woodworking, ceramics, wool goods, leather and Hungarian chotchkes of all imaginable styles. There was also a lot of traditional village clothing for sale.
“You could buy this for yourself, and maybe that for Susanne,” Mátyás said, pointing to costumes decorated with male and female villager costumes. “But today the clothing is political,” he continued. “If you wear it, you are making a statement, that you are traditional, a nationalist.”

girl

A girl rides the carousel

After making a complete circle around the bazaar, Mátyás plopped himself in the grass while Marika continued to browse. I was getting thirsty, so I wandered off to buy a drink and take some pictures. Before getting in line for a bottle of water, I discovered small village carousel; a wooden contraption powered by a hand crank, the carousel spun around a small group of young children sitting on planks suspended by ropes. Just to the right, not far from the food tents, enormous cauldrons simmered under wood fires. I leaned over to see what was cooking and found gallons of gulyas (goulash) in one and fisherman’s stew in the other. The aromas brought me back to the villages we’d visited just a couple of days ago and the friendly people we’d met along the way.
With my new bottle of water in hand, we regrouped and headed back to the car, weaving through groups of tourists streaming into the park. We then drove into town, parking in a lot about a block away from the Danube. The three of us strolled towards the center of Szentendre, past a variety of shops, many of which seemed to sell either antiques or ice cream. Mátyás then reached a doorway and motioned that we should go in.
“Do you know marcipan?” he asked.
“Oh, marzipan, sure,” I replied.
“This is a marcipan museum,” he continued. “Come and see.” Meanwhile, Marika rolled her eyes and stayed outside, getting in line for an ice cream across the street.
“She does not like the place,” Mátyás said as we paid the entrance fee. “But I think you will like this.”
On the first floor, we found a marzipan chef making a series of animal characters behind a glass window; several young girls pressed their faces against the glass, watching the chef put together rows of sheep, owls, cats and other sugery creatures.

marzipan sculptures

Michael Jackson in Marzipan

Matyas then directed me to go upstairs, which I thought would be about the history and gastronomy of marzipan. Instead, we entered a surreal universe — a marzipan art museum. First, we were treated to a fine collection of marzipan creatures shaped like the entire cast of the Muppet Show.
“This is crazy,” I said, laughing at what I was seeing.
“Oh, it gets even better,” Mátyás replied, a big smile on his face.
Indeed, the museum got better — better in the kitschiest way imaginable. In one room, we marveled at a marzipan portrait of Princess Diana. Further along, in the Hungarian heritage room, were life-sized busts of famous Hungarian kings and national heroes. There was even a full-sized standing marzipan statue of King Mátyás Corvinus. The best of all, though, was a life-sized statue of none other than Michael Jackson. Like the Lady Di portrait, the Wacko Jacko statue felt as if it had been entered into a junior high school art contest — and received only an honorable mention. I couldn’t stop laughing; I snapped a picture on my camera phone and immediately emailed it to Susanne and my brother.

main square

Szentendre’s main square

Leaving the museum, we walked towards the heart of the town. To the left, I could see the St. Peter and Paul Church, used by the local Croatian Catholic community. Beyond that, we reached Fo Ter, the main town square. It was teaming with tourists crowding into every shop, along the public fountain, in line to visit the beautiful Serbian Blagovestenska Church. In some ways it was a bit of a turn-off, but the village’s charm still shined through the masses of people.
We hiked a few short blocks from the main square; the crowd thinned out to a trickle. Matyas pointed to a Star of David in front of one building; he said it was a memorial to the town’s former Jewish community.
We entered the memorial; a modest courtyard hosted a series of marble plaques listing the names of Szentendre Jews killed during the holocaust. Across the courtyard was a triangular shaped room, no larger than a dining room. Several rows of wood pews pointed to an altar, behind which a gated enclosure housed a Torah. Approximately 250 Jews lived in Szentendre before the war; by the time it was over, they had all died or left. Since then, the city decided to build this memorial, which was consecrated by the Chief Rabbi of Hungary as a synagogue, making it both the first synagogue built in Hungary after the Holocaust as well as the smallest synagogue in the world. Currently, there are no Jews in Szentendre, but the city has promised it would donate a house to a rabbi if he would move to Szentendre and bring at least one Jewish family with him. It was a very somber experience.
With much to contemplate, we wandered the back streets of Szentendre, soaking up the atmosphere while avoiding most of the tourists. But much of the action was nearer to the center of town, so we braved the crowds to explore various shops and art galleries. In one gallery, we saw a fine collection of Salvador Dali prints; in a shop down the street, I bought two bags of crushed paprika, one sweet and one hot, and a bottle of soda. We also sat along a stone wall by the Danube, enjoying the view of the river as it flowed gracefully towards Budapest.
The three of us walked through the central square on our way back to the car, window shopping along the way. At one point I opened my bottle of soda to take another sip, and it exploded all over me. To my horror, I saw streams of carbonated liquid pour into my newly purchased bag of paprika. I scrambled to save my private spice horde, but one of the bags had already gotten wet. To make matters worse, it was the one bag that wasn’t waterproof; I could see the light beige sack cloth turn dark red as the soda soaked up some of the spice. We did our best to pad it down with Kleenexes; meanwhile, I had to pour what was left of my old water bottle all over my hands to get rid of the stickiness. It was an unfortunate wrinkle at the end of what was otherwise a great day trip.
Mátyás, Marika and I drove back to Budapest, where they offered to drop me off at the end of the chain bridge, near the funicular that went to the top of Castle Hill. I said my goodbyes to both Marika and Mátyás, who had been extraordinarily gracious and generous hosts. As they drove off, I got in line for the funicular, which cost 600 forints to go up, but only 450 to go down. Still, at three bucks for a ride up several hundred feet of cliff, it was well worth the minor expense. The ride up the funicular afforded me with a wonderful view of the chain bridge, at the end of which sat a palace now used as the Four Seasons Hotel.
Exiting the funicular, I found myself by the palace, just a stone’s throw from Corvinus Gate, the Habsburg Steps and the giant raven statue. From there, I walked past the presidential palace towards Mátyás Church. I planned to visit it before it closed at 5pm, but to my surprise, I discovered that the church had closed earlier than usual, at 4pm. So I decided to explore the neighborhoods around Castle Hill, weaving in and out of the small side streets that most tourists neglected. There were very few people around except locals going about their business, so the walk was quite relaxing.

singer

A singer performs at the Lutheran church

Near Vienna Gate, I passed an old Lutheran church. Inside, I heard a pipe organ and people singing. I went inside and discovered a choir rehearsing a concert they would give that night. They were high above the pews, in the balcony where the pipe organ was located. About half a dozen people were sitting in the pews towards the altar, watching the rehearsal. I walked down the aisle and found a spot with a good view, then spent the next 30 minutes watching them practice. As a conductor stood immediately in front of the organ, around a dozen singers belted out a Hungarian hallelujah chorus, with several instruments backing them up, including a double bass, violins, woodwinds and the organ.
By the time I left the rehearsal, most of the small museums in the neighborhood were closed for the day. So I decided to go back one more time to the wine tasting museum for a round of tastings. It appeared to be a different set of wines for tasting today, which was what I was hoping for. Unfortunately, there were lots of very dry wines that irritated my throat, which was sore from all the talking I’d been doing all week. Fortunately, there were several sweet Tokaj wines that were quite soothing, so my tasting ended on a nice note.

chain bridge

A view of the Szechenyi Chain Bridge and Pest

Leaving the wine museum, I walked back to the Habsburg steps and followed them down a path that went all the way down the hillside towards the Danube. I snaked back and forth along the paths, overtaken by a group of mountain bikers who were whizzing down the hillside, including its many marble steps. At the bottom of the hill, I found myself at the roundabout in front of the Szechenyi chain bridge. I strolled across the bridge, stopping every minute or so to take another picture from another angle. The view from the bridge was spectacular, with Castle Hill to my left, the Danube straight ahead, and parliament to my right. I’d have to come back after dark tonight and take more pictures.
After crossing into Pest, I made a brief pit stop at the Four Seasons hotel. It was a gorgeous hotel located at the foot of the chain bridge — talk about premium real estate. I then walked over towards St. Stephen’s Basilica, a gorgeous, imposing church that dominates a wide square a few blocks east of the Danube. The church itself was closed by now, but that was okay; sitting on a bench and soaking up the atmosphere was perfectly fine by me.
By now it was approaching 8pm; I walked a few blocks and found a hip Hungarian restaurant called Mocha. I wasn’t extraordinarily hungry, so I ordered a bowl of gulyas and a salmon salad. The guylas was the hottest dish I’d tasted in Hungary, which is saying a hell of a lot. The salmon salad was really nice — a balsamic dressing with small chunks of grilled salmon, drizzled with scoops of salmon roe. The waiter seemed disappointed when I ordered a ginger ale, though, given their enormous wine menu. But I figured I’d had my allotment of Hungarian wine for the day at the tasting that afternoon, so ginger ale seemed quite reasonable.

Castle Hill

A nightime view of Castle Hill

By 9:30 or so, I was getting a little tired and my feet were killing me, but nonetheless I made myself walk across the chain bridge again. It was well worth it: the bridge, palace and surrounding buildings were awash in floodlights, truly a magnificent spectacle. Though my camera batteries were dying, I took out my tripod and set up my camera in at least half a dozen locations, taking pictures at a variety of settings. I managed to get several dozen shots before the camera finally gave out on me, signaling that it was time to hail a taxi, return to the hotel and pack up for my return to Boston the next morning. -andy

Saturday in Budapest

Monday, May 16th, 2005

I had a good night sleep at the house we stayed at in Gyorkorny; it was pleasantly cool at night, and I slept soundly knowing that Mátyás was being kept company by the many pictures of pirate-garbed Orlando Bloom and Johnny Depp covering the walls of his room. We had a breakfast of scrambled eggs, fresh bread and strong coffee. Mátyás and Eva chatted with the owners of the house and their daughter, who was also named Eva.
The three of us hit the road at 8:30. I was feeling much better than the day before, but just in case, Eva was kind enough to offer me the front seat. Since the drive went without incident, it must have been good preventative medicine. We drove north through the pretty Hungarian countryside, past hedgerows blooming with lilacs, and blossoming yellow fields of canola — Mátyás said that vegetable oil is a big business here. Just after 10am, I started to recognize the surroundings, particularly the huge Ikea near the highway. We were back in Budaors, which meant we’d be back in Budapest in a matter of minutes. Indeed, by 10:30am, I was at my new hotel, the Charles Hotel, in the southern section of Buda, about a five minute drive southwest of Castle Hill.
While Mátyás had plans for the day, Eva offered to join me for an outing in Budapest. We agreed to meet at noon, which would give each of us a little free time first. I caught up on email and blogging, plus a quick shower, then met Eva at the appointed time. She suggested be begin the day by visiting Castle Hill, followed by City Park. By then, it would be early evening, and we could go to the opera if we were interested. Eva said she called the opera and there were plenty of tickets available for that night’s performance of Leos Janacek’s Jenufa. I was familiar with Janacek (some of pieces shared a CD of Bela Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin, which I had uploaded to my iPod prior to the trip). I didn’t know this particular opera, but it still sounded like a fun way to wrap up the evening.
Eva drove us a little way up the western slope of Castle Hill. A veritable acropolis on the left bank of the Danube, it wasn’t possible for the car to go all the way to the top. So we parked on a shady residential street then hiked up a steep row of stone steps, through the western stone ramparts. Within a few minutes, we reached the top of the hill. Considering the area was a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I was surprised that the area was still residential. But as we walked a couple of blocks east, we soon reached Szentharomsag Ter, perhaps the most touristed spot in Budapest. This triangular square marked the virtual epicenter of Castle Hill. Ahead and to the left soared the spectacular Mátyás Church, a gothic cathedral with a colorful tiled roof. Straight ahead, I spotted the gleaming white turrets of Fisherman’s Bastion, which sports one of the best views of Pest. And not far to the right, beyond the hordes of tour groups, I could just make out the Habsburg royal palace.
I was stunned by the number of tourists. There were thousands of them, just as many as you’d see in St. Mark’s Square in Venice. And this wasn’t even the summer tourist season yet. It was a bit of a turn-off, but the sites themselves were stunning.
There was a long line to get inside the church, we decided to walk over to the bastion. The whitewashed overlook, with its upside-down ice cream cone-like turrets, look like they should date from medieval times, but they were actually built at the turn of the 20th century as part of Hungary’s 1000-year celebration of the founding of the country. (At times I got a little confused when Eva would say, “This was built for the millennium celebration,” because I first assumed she meant 2000 rather than the late 1890s.) The bastion was incredibly crowded, but we did find one opening in which we could squeeze ourselves. Indeed, the view was spectacular: from high above Buda, you could gaze down at the Danube and the many historic monuments of Pest, in particular the stunning parliament building. The building look like the US capital if it had been built in a soaring gothic cathedral. You could also see many of the city’s bridges, including the famous Szechenyi (SHEH-tsen-ye) Chain Bridge. All the bridges had been blown up by the Germans when they were retreating from the Russians, and it took decades to restore them all to their former glory.
Leaving the Fisherman’s Bastion, we walked north a couple of blocks until we reached the Budapest Hilton. Ordinarily I wouldn’t mention a Hilton hotel in my journal – not that I have anything against Hiltons – they’re just not very noteworthy. But this Hilton was quite extraordinary as it was build around the ruins of a 14th century gothic church. In the back you could see the remnants of its outer nave wall jutting over a hundred feet into the air. The windows of the hotel reflected the remains brilliantly.
Backtracking past the bastion and Mátyás Church, we walked south along Uri Utca towards the palace. We were followed by a group of at least 100 German high school students, whose tour guide directed them along by blowing a whistle every 10 seconds. I wanted to turn around and slug the guy, but instead we just walked a little faster so we wouldn’t go deaf from his noisemaking. We past a concert hall with a plaque marking the date of a concert performed by Beethoven in 1800; beyond that, a mansion now used as the presidential palace.
We then reached St George’s Square, the entry point to the royal palace. In front of us you could see the palace itself, now home to the national art gallery and two other museums. There was a giant gate to the right, through which you’d have to descend the so-called Habsburg Steps to reach the plaza in front of the palace. Walking to the steps, our view was dominated by an extraordinary statue of a black raven holding a sword — the symbol of the Hungarian king Mátyás Corvinus.
We descended the steps and walked through the plaza; I felt a spray of water on my face from the giant fountain in the center of the plaza. Eva and I continued through a series of arches into another plaza, where there was a remarkable fountain depicting a hunting scene featuring King Mátyás with a dead stag, his knights and hunting dogs. From there, we walked through the Budapest History Museum to enter the old fortifications on the southern end of the hill. From there we had a fine view of Gellert Hill to the south, with a statue marking the spot where St. Gellert was thrown off a cliff by pagan Hungarians resistant to Christianity. Compared to the chaos of the Fisherman’s Bastion, the fort was a peaceful place. There were no more than five or 10 other people wandering around, so the only sounds you could hear were song birds singing in the trees.
Once we were done exploring the fort, we walked north along the western edge of Castle Hill, which afforded us a beautiful view of the Buda Hills. There were numerous Hungarian families strolling around, but otherwise it was very peaceful. Eva pointed to the direction of my hotel, which was obscured by one of the hills to the southwest.
By now it was approaching 2pm, so we decided to look for some lunch. First we continued walking north through the central part of the hill, towards Vienna Gate and the Hungarian National Archives, which had a tiled roof similar to that of Mátyás Church. Most of the buildings here were marked with historical plaques, generally marking events that occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries. They were painted various shades of orange, yellow, and blue, many of them sporting decorative facades or bas-reliefs. We also passed the ruins of a church that had been destroyed during WWII; all that was left of the building was its tower and the arch of the front door, with nothing left in between.
Soon we settled in at a restaurant with an outdoor patio. We took the last available table, next to a Swedish family who let their children run around like little demons, much to the frustration of patrons and staff alike. I ordered a plate of chicken paprikas, and at Eva’s suggestion, a bowl of “wine cream” soup. I hadn’t heard of wine cream before, so I didn’t know what to expect. The waiter then brought me a large bowl of a chilled cream soup flavored with a shocking amount of sweet Tokaj wine. Eva told me the soup is often served at Passover, but she’s also seen it as a hot soup for Christmas. Even though the soup was chilled, the Tokaj left me with a warm feeling as I moved to the paprikas. The quarter chicken was drenched in a paprika sauce on top of a small pile of egg noodle dumplings, with some sour cream on the side.
After lunch, Eva suggested we visit the wine tasting house, just a few doors away from Mátyás Church. Part wine bar, part museum, the tasting house let you sample several dozen wines from all over Hungary. Since Eva was driving, she didn’t plan to taste, but suggested that I would enjoy it. I bought an entry ticket for about $17; we then went down into the cellar for a viticultural adventure.
The cellar was divided into nooks, each representing a different wine-producing region. Generally the tour was laid out so you would sample wines from drier and lighter to sweeter and heavier, but there were some notable exceptions. I had several good cabernets, as well as local varieties called Kekfranko (Blue Franc) and Kekoporto (Blue Oporto). I wasn’t as keen on the wines; many of them were too dry for me. But I really enjoyed the Tokaj wines, which have a sweet, raisiny character. Some of them were actually too sweet for me; I liked tasting them but couldn’t imagine having more than a few sips. But I did find one that was lightly sweet; I bought two half-liter bottles for about $11 each.
After the wine tasting, we returned to Eva’s car to move to the Pest side of the city. We drove across the chain bridge — as beautiful and as dramatic as crossing the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan — then meandered through Pest’s side streets until getting near the Opera House. We found a place to park and went into the Opera House. Tickets were still available for tonight, and the box seats on the second balcony were just around $25. I’d never been in a box seat before so it sounded like a fun way to enjoy a night at the opera.
Our tickets firmly planted in my shirt pocked, we walked a couple of blocks and found an outdoor café, where we enjoyed a couple of coffees and an afternoon dessert. Eva had a poppy seed cake while I had a type of sponge cake with a chocolate and sour cherry sauce. We were so full afterwards we both agreed we probably wouldn’t require dinner tonight.
Back in the car, we drove down the boulevard to Heroes Square, the entry way into City Park. It turned out there was a foot race that day, so the area around the square was closed of to auto traffic, making parking trickier than usual. We circled the neighborhood three times until we found a space not too far from the square.
We then walked into the square. Two colonnades arced to the left and to the right, in the shape of a semicircle; along them stood larger-than-life statues of Hungarian kings and war heroes. At the center of the square stood a massive marble fountain and a tomb dedicated to all the Hungarians who have died in wartime. Flanking the left and right of the square were two neo-classical museums. Their steps were crowded with people enjoying the sun and warm temperatures. Eva said the square was built for the Millennium; again, it took me a minute to realized she meant the Hungarian national millennium at the end of the 19th century.
We entered the park and strolled around a lake and skating rink towards the spectacular Vajdahunyad Castle. A 19th-century replica of a Transylvanian castle of the same name, the castle was also built for the millennium celebration. It had a massive gate and soaring towers; I almost felt like Dracula himself would be there to greet us.
Eva and I crossed through the gate and into the castle’s courtyard. It was connected to a medieval church and a neo-baroque palace, all of which are now museums. In the center of the courtyard sat a haunting statue of a cloaked figure with a pen in his hand; the word Anonymous was written on the statue’s base.
“All of these buildings are replicas of famous Hungarian buildings that are now outside of Hungary, in territories lost after the first world war,” Eva explained.
“What about the statue?” I asked.
“It is a statue of Hungary’s first true historian,” she said. “For centuries we did not know who he was, but in the last one or two decades they have been able to piece together who he was by examining historical records.”
“It must be very difficult to conduct Hungarian history research,” I replied. “You would have to search the archives of Austria, Turkey, Serbia, Romania — and know lots of languages.”
“Yes,” Eva said. “It is not easy because of our history.”
We strolled through the park, beyond the castle, towards Szechenyi Baths, one of the most famous spas in Budapest. Soon we reached a giant, yellow building, a magnificent 19th century structure that looked like it should be royal palace.
“This is the baths,” Eva said.
“That’s it?” I replied. “I would have guessed it was a former parliament building before guessing it was a bath house.”
We walked around to the side of the building and found the entrance. In the ticket office, you could peer through a window and see the baths. It was a sprawling facility, bright and fancifully decorated, with hundreds and hundreds of bathers. The closest pool featured a row of chess tables in the water; each table was manned by a pair of gentleman in their bathing suits, focusing intensely on their game while by-standers tried offering them advice.
Leaving the baths, we followed the edge of the park, past the national zoo. Eventually we found ourselves back at Heroes Square, which was occupied mostly by skate rats jumping the marble with their skateboards. A small group of kids were gleefully climbing the fountain in the middle.
Back at the car, we drove back towards the opera house, parked, and found a café to kill some time before going to the opera. Eva had a milk shake while I had rose-hip tea to sooth my throat — I was losing my voice from all the talking I’d done during the week. We then went to the opera house. Its interior was spectacular, just what you’d want to see in an Central European opera, with neoclassical paintings on the ceiling, a giant chandelier and gilded box seats. We had a view from our box, and since we were the only occupants, we were able to spread out and get comfortable.
The opera, Jenufa, was very disturbing. While I enjoyed the music, the story was the strangest I’d seen in an opera. Basically, a woman named Jenufa is being fought over by two men, one of whom has gotten her pregnant. One conspires to send the other into the army, with mixed success. The other then declares he would only marry a pretty girl, so the first man slashes Jenufa’s face. In act two, she’s living with her evil mother-in-law and her baby. Neither man will married her – one because she is now damaged goods, the other because she has a baby. The mother decides to murder the baby by drowning it so Jenufa will have a chance to marry; she tells everyone the baby died and was buried.
By act three, Jenufa is about to marry the man who slashed her. There’s an elaborate party and wedding ceremony, with large blocks of ice brought from the river to cool the wedding party’s drinks. When the last block of ice is hauled ashore, they find the dead baby inside. The mother-in-law is arrested, the man refuses to marry Jenufa, and she’s left a pariah in her village, all alone.
“I liked the music, but I understand why Jenufa isn’t one of the classics,” I told Eva as she drove me back to the hotel.

Leaving Hungary – But Not My Final Hungary Post

Monday, May 16th, 2005

It’s 9:30am here in Budapest; I’m heading to the airport in just about an hour. The last two days have been a lot of fun – once I finished my work at the telecottages, I had some free time to explore Budapest and the historic town of Szentendre with Eva, Matyas and his wife Marika.
Though I’m leaving soon, this won’t be my last post about Hungary. I’ve been so busy I haven’t had time to write up my experiences this weekend; also my power cord for my laptop doesn’t like plugging into the outlet adapter, so my juice is running low. So in the next few days, I’ll post more about the weekend, and hopefully more photos and even some video as well.
It’s been a marvelous trip to Hungary; the people I’ve met at the telecentres were gracious, generous and supportive of my work. And I am in debt to Matyas, Eva and Marika for being extraordinary hosts. I hope I can return the favor if they ever have the chance to visit Boston. Until then, szia! -andy

Telecottage Tour, Day Two

Saturday, May 14th, 2005
young boy

A boy uses a computer at the Sárszentlorinc telecottage

“Andy, we are leaving now,” Mátyás said, opening the door to my room. I looked at my watch; it was 6:30am. My head felt like it had been hit by a rubber mallet, as did my stomach. I stood up and felt the world had shifted 15 degrees to the left. I then remembered the mayor. The palinka. What on earth had I done to myself?
I quickly got dressed — apparently I hadn’t taken off that much clothes the night before — and joined Mátyás and Eva in the car. Eva hadn’t me a bottle of vegetable juice and a bag of chocolate wafers. “This is your breakfast,” she said.
We drove the short distance back to the telecentre, where we met the mayor and the town architect. The mayor looked like he’d spent the previous day relaxing at a spa. He gave me a devious smile then slammed a handful of shotglasses on the table, the bottle of palinka not far behind.
“No, no, no,” the three of us replied, laughing. He shrugged his shoulders and poured himself a shot before serving the rest of us coffee. Then another bottle of palinka appeared; this time, though, it was wrapped with a bow. The mayor and his staff offered it to me as a token for my visit. I promised him I would drink some later – but not for breakfast.
With a dose of caffeine to get the day started, we went downhill to the church, which was ensconced in scaffolding. The mayor and the architect walked over to the door and checked the lock. Then the mayor then reached upwards and unlatched a metal ladder that led up to the first level of the scaffolding. He darted up to the first level like a spider monkey and looked around for a moment.
“I’m glad we’re not going to have to go up that way,” I joked.
“What do you mean?” Mátyás asked, looking at me quizzically.
For a moment I didn’t understand his question; then I saw the architect follow the mayor up the ladder. To my horror, Mátyás and Eva followed. The truth hit me like a ton of bricks collapsing from the top of an old church. We were going to climb 15 stories, but not from the inside. We’d do it from the outside. And I suddenly could taste the palinka from last night.

mayor climbs the church

The mayor enjoys the view from the church’s scaffolding

Even though my heart and mind told me that this was the worst of all possible ideas, I somehow found my hands grasping the cold, dusty metal of the ladder, slowly inching upwards as mouthfuls of whitewash fell from the floors above me. I climbed up to the first level and looked around. To my left was the outer church wall. To my right was a thin plastic mesh that gave the illusion of enclosure. Wood planks served as the floor, and rickety metal pipes pretended to be handrails. And yet I climbed upward.
“This is stupid, ridiculous,” I muttered to myself, feeling like I was digging myself into a hole that I’d never get out of. The higher I climbed, the more I wanted to turn around. But I kept concentrating on the metal rungs of the ladder above me and the wood planks below me, so it got to the point that I wasn’t really paying attention to the progress I’d been making. Then I looked at the church and saw its clock — at eye level.
Fortunately, Mátyás and Eva were only another level above me. Even though I was now actually scared out of my wits, I felt I had to make it up to their level or I’d never forgive myself. Now at steeple height, I watched the mayor darting around, still like a spider monkey, ready to keep going upwards. Finally, I said the word I’d been chanting as a mantra for at least 10 floors: “No.”
To my great relieve, neither Mátyás nor Eva had a desire to go any higher, so they began to go down the ladders. This part was actually the worst for me, since I could see where I was going. For the first several floors down I kept thinking, “Falling is certain death,” which I thought would go away when I got down a little further. But then, the thoughts just changed to “Falling is quadriplegia.” Eventually, though, I reached the “Falling is a broken leg” stage, and I then reached the ground. I couldn’t wait to get back in the car.
Hitting the road again, we drove to the town of Sásd, which hosted a telecottage in the local library. The librarian gave us a tour and talked about the mobile library services they offered to surrounding communities; I noshed on some croissants hoping the bread would settle my stomach.
Back in the car, we began the 90-minute drive to Kajdacs. The further we drove, the sicker I felt. I started having visions of forcing Mátyás off the road so I could wretch in a hedgerow. Fearing the worse, I had no choice but to come clean. “I don’t feel well — could we stop in the next village?”

telecottage roadsign

Hungarian roadsign directing people to the local telecottage

Mátyás and Eva took pity on me and drove slower to the next town, so the curves wouldn’t make my situation worse. Soon, we reached the town, where we found a local pub. I went inside and found the bathroom, which wreaked of last night’s — or worse, this morning’s — drunks. I sat there and prayed for a while, hoping for some kind of guidance or mercy. But instead I received my punishment: Thou Shall Not Get Sick. Instead, I’d have to spend the day with a twisted stomach and a lump in my throat that felt like it was going to rupture like football player with a bad case of appendicitis.
Returning outside, Eva offered me the front seat of the car. Amazingly this made a huge difference, as did the vegetable juice. I still didn’t feel well, but I was composed enough to avoid making an ass of myself. We then arrived in Kajdacs, where the mayor and the telecottage manager greeted us. The computer lab was empty — there’d be a teacher training in a little while — so we met in a conference room, sitting with a group of local users representing different constituencies, including students, teachers, cultural activists and social workers. The telecottage was described again and again as the soul of the community – the place where everyone came to spend time with their neighbors, plan events, participate in community activities and develop new programs. In some ways, Internet access was incidental — it was the real sense of community that brought people together.

farmhouse

A farmhouse in Kajdacs

After our meeting, I went outside to take some pictures. I soon got carried away, finding a picturesque water well and a small farm just a few doors away. I felt so far away from Budapest, particular watching pairs of chickens chase after each other. Soon, I saw the telecottage manager waving at me – it was time to come inside and have lunch. I was worried they were going to serve something heavy and spicy, which wouldn’t react well with my stomach; instead, I enjoyed bowl after bowl of fisherman’s soup, a fish stew seasoned with sweet paprika, served with fresh egg noodles and bread. It was very comforting.
Once lunch was done, I took the opportunity to check email. Because the lab would soon be occupied by local teachers, they sat me at the receptionist’s desk instead. As luck would have it, the teachers started to stream in a few minutes later. For a moment I didn’t understand why everyone was saying “Jo Napot” (hello) to me, but then I realized where I was sitting. Though I’ve tried to learn a few words of Hungarian, my pronunciation is an abomination, so I’ve been somewhat shy about using it. So I used the easiest word I could pronounce — Szia, which sounds exactly like “see ya” but means hello or goodbye. This, in turn, caused some of the teachers to want to say more than “Jo Napot” to me, which eventually made them wonder why on earth the telecottage would employ an non-Hungarian speaker as their receptionist. I just didn’t stand to reason.
Before leaving Kajdacs, I got permission to observe the training session for a few minutes. I took some pictures, but many of the teachers were a little self-aware and shy. I got a couple of decent pictures from what I could tell, though.

children at the telecottage

Hungarian and Roma kids use the telecottage’s computers

From Kajdacs, we continued to Sárszentlorinc, a town with a large Roma (Gypsie) population and high unemployment. There, we visited a telecottage run by the local Lutheran church. The manager invited us to spend time with a group of local kids, both Roma and Hungarian, who were using the telecottage on the one day a week they could play games. This meant it was a popular day at the lab, so I had plenty of opportunities to take pictures. We also got to see a collection of handicrafts made by villagers. The manager said the community is very low-skilled, so handicrafts is one of the few ways they can make a living. I offered to buy an ornament he had on display, but he generously insisted I keep it as a gift, along with some other souvenirs.
Next, we visit the village of Pusztahensce, whose telecentre was in a library by the local school. It was busy with students doing homework and chatting; I got to interview the mayor, half a dozen high school students and a local German teacher, who talked about how he used the telecentre while pursuing a graduate degree.
Our last stop of the day was Gyorkony, a village settled by ethnic Germans. The telecottage was located at the library, which offered many services to the disabled and senior citizens. Because many citizens worked for the local power company, there was a high proportion of at-home Internet access. So this allowed the telecottage to concentrate on underserved groups. Soon, they’re going to open video conferencing with the county employment office, so people can come and receive online counseling without having to travel to the county seat.

wine cellars

Traditional wine cellars in Gyorkony

Soon we were met by our colleagues from Kajdacs; we then got back in our cars and drove a short distance to a wine cellar owned by the telecottage manager. Even though there are barely 1000 people in the village, nearly 300 of them own private wine cellars. They were beautiful old buildings, sometimes covered with thatched roofs, sloping into hillsides. It was simply beautiful getting to walk along the cellars near sunset; they reminded me of the Skansen open-air museum in Stockholm, but in a real community.
Before returning to the cellar, we walked uphill to a local dairy farm. The woman running the milking process invited us inside; she poured several gallons of fresh milk she’d just taken from the cows into a large vat, then ladled a fresh glass for me. It was the most refreshing thing I’d had in long time, the perfect way to finally settle my stomach. Outside, we walked further along so Mátyás could show me the “birds” they raised there. I started looking for chickens but nearly wet my pants when I saw a full-grown ostrich staring at me. The ostrich paced back and forth, watching to see what I would do next. Soon, the husband of the woman we’d met invited me to enter the gate towards the ostrich pen. Amazingly, the male ostrich dropped to the ground and started flaring its feathers, swaying its head back and forth.
“That’s the way the bird tells us he’s the best,” Mátyás said. The farmer then found an ostrich egg, which he let me hold. I’d never held a full ostrich egg before so I was quite impressed by the weight.

Livia and wine barrel

Livia the telecottage manager sucks red wine from a barrel using a glass pipet

We then left the farm and returned to the cellar; there, we’d have a dinner of stuffed cabbage, which smelled delicious in the kitchen. First, though, I was invited to go down to the underground cellar, where I watched the Livia the telecottage manager suck a liter of white wine with a long, elegant glass pipet. She then repeated the process for the red wine.
Soon, dinner was served. The stuffed cabbage was a tasty as it smelled, and it was even better with sour cream and pepper sauce. The wines were excellent, too; the white was delicately sweet while the red was smoky and full-bodied — though we had a hard time finding an appropriate Hungarian term for “smoky” without making it sound like I was saying “it tastes like smoke.” It was a wonderful way to wrap up the day. As I told Mátyás, today was a day of firsts. I got to taste wine directly from the barrel, plus I got to drink milk directly from the cow. It would be difficult to top that.

Telecottage Tour, Day One

Saturday, May 14th, 2005
using a mouse

A retiree checks email at the Budaörs telecottage

After a quick breakfast of toast, smoked cheese and hard boiled eggs, I checked out of the hotel and walked several blocks west to an intersection where I was going to meet Mátyás and his colleague, Bernát Evá from the European Union of Telecottage Associations. The three of us would spend the next two days visiting nine Hungarian telecottages — community centers that offered free or low-cost Internet access. Our first stop would be in Budaörs, a suburb just to the west of Budapest. From there, we would drive southwest to the village of Zámoly, where a community activist ran a telecentre and community radio station in his house. After that, we would visit Csákberény, home to an 11-year-old telecottage — Hungary’s oldest — founded by Mátyás. Our final stop would be the hamlet of Alsomócsolád, in the far south of the country. We’d spend the night there before continuing to five other telecottages the following day.
We drove through heavy traffic, crossing the Danube and driving up the hillside, with a marvelous view of the palace to the right. Eventually, the traffic thinned out; we passed numerous car dealerships and signs for an Ikea, several kilometers ahead. Arriving in Budaörs (BOO-dah-ersh), we parked in the center of town, not far from its central church. The telecottage was located in an office complex; inside, the receptionist invited us to look around, have some coffee and wait for patrons to arrive.

senior citizens

Senior citizens take advantage of the Budaörs telecottage

Mátyás then introduced me to a series of people. First, we met a local woman who was disabled in an accident; as she slowly recovered through many surgeries, she became a disability rights advocate. She told me about a variety of training programs they offered to the local disabled community. Then, a group of senior citizens joined us. They had first come to the telecottage to take an introductory Internet course; they became so enthusiastic that they are now regulars at the facility. One of them, an 84-year-old man, described how he enjoyed using computers to read his grandchildren’s blogs. We then visited with the mother of the disability activist. A psychiatrist, she talked about how the telecottage has offered training to residents suffering from chronic depression.
Leaving the telecottage, we crossed town to meet with the mayor and one of his advisors. The mayor was very enthusiastic about the initiative. The city is planning to open a new town hall that will feature free municipal wi-fi, which they recently started offering at the telecottage. They also plan to roll-out half a dozen other telecottages so that every resident would be within a 15-minute walk to a local access point. The mayor then gave me a gift bag full of souvenirs from Budaörs, including a CD of the local orchestra, a t-shirt, and a small bottle of sweet Tokaj wine. From there, we went to a local restaurant for lunch with the city manager; it was a cozy place with delicious asparagus soup and a paprika turkey breast accompanied by roasted fruit.
After lunch, we left the suburbs and went further afield, to the village of Zámoly (ZAH-moy). Known for its wine and a famous WWII tank battle, Zámoly is also home to Istvan, an extraordinary community activist. In his sprawling home, Istvan runs a telecentre and community radio station that provides six hours of programming a day. The telecentre was quiet today, but the radio station was in the middle of a folk music broadcast. In a back room, he runs a one-watt transmitter suitable for low-power FM broadcasting to the surrounding community. Istvan and a team of volunteers also provide public affairs programming to the village. To bring additional financial support to their efforts, he’s now planning to open a small hostel upstairs and host cultural heritage tours for Hungarian Americans and others around the world.

Czakbereny telecottage

Csákberény telecottage, Hungary’s first telecentre

Next, we traveled to Csákberény (CHAK-ber-ay-nye), Mátyás’ former home. His old telecottage is now run by a pair of brothers in town. The telecottage was absolutely charming — an old house that had been meticulously restored. The brothers also ran a PC repair shop and a community wireless service. Over 40 households were now subscribing to a wireless local area network that could provide at-home broadband access. We also got to meet the mayor, who happened to be passing by and stopped to chat for a while. After the telecottage, we were invited to visit two households receiving wireless services. Down the road, we met a local carpenter and his loving pet rottweiler, who followed me around faithfully to donate some drool stains on my new black jeans. The other household was home to a college student who relied on the wireless access to do his classwork. Across the street, two enormous trees stood in front of a pair of houses, ribbons streaming from their tops and looking oddly out of place.
“Do you know what those are?” Mátyás asked.
“No, I don’t,” I replied.
“Every May 1, young men secretly go to the local forest and dig up a tree to plant in the yard of their sweetheart. The girl then wakes up the next morning and is surprised to see the tree. It stays there for the whole month.”
Back in the car, we drove two hours south through rolling hill country towards the small village of Alsomócsolád (ALL-soh-moh-cho-lad), population 300. Unfortunately, I hadn’t spent much time in the back seat of a car careening down country roads at 120 kilometers an hour, so I began to feel rather car sick. I managed not to cause an international incident, though.

Alsomócsolád telecottage

Alsomócsolád’s telecottage

Just before sunset we arrived in Alsomócsolád, a charming hamlet with a lakeside view from atop a hillside. The telecottage, which also serves as town hall, post office and community center, was stunningly gorgeous, built of natural wood that shined like gold as the sun went down. There, we met the center manager, staff, a student user of the facility and the mayor. They gave us a tour of its many services, from hosting cultural events to offering office space for local civic organizations.
After the tour, the mayor invited us in his office for a drink. He brought out a bottle of palinka (PAH-leen-kah), the local apricot brandy. The bottle was unlabeled.
“Is this home-made?”
“Yes, of course,” the mayor said.
“In the US we’d call this moonshine. It’s not exactly legal for private citizens to make liquor.”
“Here it’s not legal either,” Mátyás said. “But a mayor can grant distilling licenses so it’s okay for him.”
I sipped at the palinka; not the smoothest drink I’ve ever had but certainly far from rot-gut.

Alsomócsolád telecentre manager and student

Alsomócsolád’s telecottage manager hangs out with a student from the village

Leaving the telecottage, we went downhill to a dining hall, where we joined another group of telecottage users for dinner. The mayor, I noticed, lugged the bottle of palinka under his arm, and immediately passed out shots to everyone. At first I planned to say no, but then I realized that even the elderly women in the room were downing it, I gave it another go.
After dinner, the mayor invited us across the street to the local pub. From there, the rest of the evening is rather hazy. According to the pictures I took, we sat around a table eating copious amounts of popcorn, drinking glasses of a dark liqueur that I recall commenting to Mátyás, “It tastes like Jagermeister but not as strong.” I should have taken this as a warning sign but the mayor was persuasive, and I did not want to disrespect local officials.
At some point before we finally retired to a local hostel, I remember the mayor asking us if we would like to get up early tomorrow morning to climb the local church tower. It sounded like a fine way to start the day. Or, at least that’s what I thought at the time. -andy

Introduction to Budapest

Saturday, May 14th, 2005
train station

Budapest’s Eastern Train Station

After a comfortable, but sleepless night flying from Boston via Paris, I arrived in Budapest just after noon on Wednesday. I carried on my bags, and immigration was quick, so within a few minutes I was in a taxi heading towards the center of town.
Just before 1pm, I arrived at the Star Hotel, in Budapest’s seventh district, a couple miles east of the Danube. I jumped in the shower to freshen up, then went for a walk around the neighborhood prior to my meeting with Gáspár Mátyás at 2:30pm. It was a pleasant, leafy neighborhood chock full of late 19th century buildings. At the end of the street I found an old synagogue; the sign out front seemed to suggest it was a working Orthodox synagogue.
I took some pictures in the neighborhood but then turned back to the hotel when my camera battery suddenly died. I thought it was on a full charge; apparently not. Fortunately I bought a second battery just in case, and it was waiting for me, plugged into my charger at the hotel. By this point, though, there wasn’t time to return outside, so I waited for Mátyás in the lobby.

Matyas

Gáspár Mátyás

Mátyás showed up a few minutes later; he greeted me with a warm handshake, like an old friend; I was struck how he looked like Albert Einstein when he was younger, crossed with my cousin Adam. We walked a few blocks down Istvan Utca, then turned north until we reached his courtyard apartment. Upstairs, I met his wife and son; Mátyás and I then settled in for several hours of chatting about telecentres, telecottages and the digital divide.
Later in the afternoon, Mátyás asked if I had any energy to go for a walk. I said I’d be up for it, so we left my laptop back at the apartment, digital camera and Lonely Planet guide in tow. We walked south past the beautiful eastern railway station, then hung a right down Rakoczi Utca, one of the city’s main thoroughfares and prettiest boulevards. Mátyás described various buildings as I snapped lots of pictures.

Great Synagogue

Budapest’s recently restored Great Synagogue

Eventually, we turned north towards the old Jewish ghetto. “Wait until you see this,” Mátyás said, smirking. Around the corner, I saw what could only be described as the most magnificent synagogue in the world. Reminiscent of the grand mosques of Moorish Spain, the sprawling building featured fine horizontal brick work and two onion dome minarets, each green and trimmed with gold leaf. I stood there, utterly stunned. I’d read about the synagogue in my guidebook – it was the biggest synagogue in the world outside of New York City, and had been renovated with funds raised by actor Tony Curtis, whose parents were Hungarian Jews. The synagogue also hosts a Jewish history museum, which I intended to visit on Sunday. Maybe I’d even be able to go to Shabbat services on Saturday; I hadn’t attended a European synagogue service since I lived in Scotland, and that was hardly the Old Europe type of synagogue I’d envisioned in my dreams.
We left the Jewish quarter and worked our way to Vorosmarty Ter, a tree-lined square famous for the Gerbeaud Café and its delicious (but pricy) cakes and sweets. Turning south, we reached Vaci Utca, a splendid pedestrian street with fine shops and gorgeous architecture. Mátyás took me into Pariszi Udvar, the Parsian Court — a late 19th century shopping arcade with splendid, Tiffany-like glass ceilings. Beyond the court, to the right I could see the Danube River, and the hilly crags of Buda on the far side. Mátyás led me to the corniche, where we had a fantastic view of the royal palace and Buda castle. It reminded me of Stockholm in an odd way, with a Prague-like sensibility. It made me somewhat sad that I had work to do for the next few days – how easy it would be to waste away a week playing tourist here.
Veering back towards Vaci Utca, we strolled along the shops, enjoying the warm sun. Ahead of us, we spotted half a dozen security guards in suits, sporting sunglasses and ear pieces. Ahead of them, a tall, brown-haired VIP walked from shop to shop, pausing momentarily to look into each window. The security team looked around with intense vigilance.
“Who is it?” I asked Mátyás. “A government minister?”
“Probably,” he replied, “but I cannot tell whom.”
Suddenly, the VIP turned around and spoke to one of the security men – in American English. I got a good look at his face: long and thin, somewhat bushy eyebrows. I knew I recognized him; I even wanted to call out the name Robert. But the way the security detail was looking around, I didn’t want to push my luck, let alone take a picture of our mystery man.
“When we get back to your place I’ll hit the government websites and figure out who he is,” I said.
A few blocks later, we reached the Pilvax Café. Mátyás explained how the café served as the home base of Hungary’s first push for independence in the 1840s.
“I think it was our FBI director,” I said, still dwelling on our mysterious VIP.
“What?” Mátyás asked.
“That guy we saw.” “I think he was our FBI director. We’ll have to check online.”

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Budapest’s royal palace

Around 7pm, we veered back to the Danube until we reached the Admiral Restaurant. Located right on the river bank, we sat outside and soaked in the setting sun. With a tall pilsner in hand, I ordered a thoroughly Hungarian meal – a bowl of gulyas (goulash) and a plate of catfish paprikas. Both the stew and the paprikas were fiery hot — not the mild, sweet paprika they sell in the USA, but the kind of fire you expect in a good Santa Fe restaurant.
“I’m so glad to be visiting a country that knows how to do spicy,” I said as we finished dinner.
“You will have no shortage of it here,” Mátyás replied.
Leaving the restaurant, we walked to the local metro station to catch a train back to Mátyás’ house. Soon, though, we realized we were at the wrong station – Mátyás rarely ever takes the metro, apparently. So we left the station and caught a bus, which got us back to the eastern railway station in a few minutes.
Back at his house, I checked email for a few minutes and posted a quick note on my blog. I then went to FBI.gov to see if I recognized anyone. A portrait of FBI director Robert Mueller flickered on the screen.
“Recognize anyone?” I asked Mátyás.
“That’s him!” he replied.
I then checked a few news websites to see if there was any mention of FBI director Mueller traveling in Budapest. No dice. Looks like I scooped the story. -andy

Telecottages Galore

Thursday, May 12th, 2005

It’s just after 5:30pm and we’re driving south through central Hungary to the village of Alsomócsolád (AHL-so-moch-o-lahd). We’ve visited three telcottages today. The first, in the prosperous Budapest suburb of Budaörs (BOO-dah-ersh), gave me a chance to meet local senior citizens and a disability rights advocate, as well as the city’s mayor.
We then drove to the village of Zámoly (ZAH-moy), where I met a local activist who runs a telecentre, B&B, and community radio station in his spacious home. The bulk of the afternoon was spent in the charming village of Csákberény (CHAK-beh-rainye), home to Hungary’s oldest telecottage. It’s now providing wi-fi to more than 40 households, including two that I got to visit.
Tonight, we’ll spend the evening just outside of Alsómocsolád. Then, we’ll get up bright and early for another full day of telecottage-hopping…. -andy

Arrival in Budapest

Wednesday, May 11th, 2005

Hi everyone… Its just after 8pm here in Budapest… Ive spent the day with Gaspar Matyas, founder of the Hungarian telecottage movement. We spent the afternoon at his apartment discussing the history of the movement, then we took a three-hour whirlwind tour of the city. It was an amazing walk, the two highlights being a visit to the extraordinary Great Synagogue, perhaps the most beautiful synagogue I have seen anywhere in the world, and a very random encounter with US FBI director Robert Mueller, who was window shopping with half a dozen scary looking secret service agents. We capped off the night with dinner along the Danube at sunset.
On the whole I am exhausted and not yet comfortable typing on a Hungarian keyboard, so I will write more on my laptop and post it later…. -andy