Hungary - February 2002
The Reverend Doctor James Wiberg
Luray and I just returned from Budapest, Hungary where we celebrated our 38th Anniversary in this old city on the Danube.
We stayed at the Charles Hotel not far from the Gellert Hill site of the murder of one of the first Christian Bishops of the City. At the foot of the hill stands the famous Gellert Hotel and the health spa founded many years ago by two famous rheumatologists. People come here from all over the world to soak in the tubs, take treatments from physiatrists and rheumatologists and, of course, they try to have the hospitalization plan pay for it. No such luck for us.
We first toured the city and its famous Danube bridges by auto and then proceeded to buy metro passes for the subways, trams and buses from the Hotel clerk.
For us westerners the most amazing thing about this city is that most of the international tourist service people speak an American dialect of English. I guess it also illustrates the close ties we have had with this country over the years. Perhaps it also reflects the fact that more than 600,000 Hungarians live in the U.S., the outcome of the many wars here. Our Hotel Clerk is a student majoring in International Relations so he was a treasure trove of information. We asked him about the Freedom Bridge which spans the Danube in Budapest. We wanted to know which historic event it memorialized. He responded jokingly by saying: "You Americans have only one freedom rebellion to remember, but here we we have many. This bridge commemorates the 1848 war when we gained some measure of freedom from the Austrians."
Hungarians speak a language that is similar to Finnish and distinct from all other Europeans; thus it is a unique culture and a unique group of people. They have not been a free people for many of their years as a distinct linguistic group having been subjected by Romans, Yugoslavians, Austrians, and Russians. When I tried to engage a stranger in a store in conversation about the Russian era, she just clammed up and wouldn't even talk about it. I could see no evidence of the Russian language anywhere in the city and we were told that the offices of Aeroflot were even boarded up for awhile. However, the offices were now open and I suspect that commerce and industry may have won the day here. The city is thriving----of course, there is still much to repair and to rebuild, but I sense that the young people were especially energetic, enthusiastic and hopeful about their future as a country. We join with others in wishing them success in surmounting the many hurdles that still lie before them as they seek entrance into the Europea Union.
We spent most of our time touring the castle and the main walking street of downtown Budapest. The Internationals retailers are ubiquitous here as elsewhere in Europe----Burger King, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, The Hilton, Carlson Wagonlit, the ubiquitous electronics, etc., but there are also many local stores and shops where you can buy folklore items, antiques, and especially crystal, china and ceramics. The transportation system works fine and trams and buses run frequently to the main areas of the city. Most people seem to know a few words of English and could give us directions.
The real surprise for us this trip was the First Class Restaurant in our 3-star hotel, The Charles. It was a new Restaurant, separately owned but directly attached to the Hotel Lobby. Courtesy drinks were a part of the plan. We had fully intended to go to one of Dave and Jenn's favorite Restaurants in Budapest, the Marquis de Salade, down near the Opera House for our Anniversary Meal. While we were having our courtesy drinks, we watched the staff prepare the dining room, lighting candles, playing "easy-listening" music. Well trained and courteous, fluent in English, friendly, the waiter was told by our friends that we were celebrating our Anniversary. Immediately the waiter offered us a special "house drink"---a very unusual "schnapps" ---a plum Brandy complete with Prune on a colorful plastic toothpick. It slowly dawned on us that it might be smart to look at a menu and we then realized that we did not need to go any farther. We settled down to a wonderful dinner of three different types of Hungarian Cuisine--beef, chicken and veal, an exquisitely presented salad, with a fine dry red wine from the Danubian hills. I think their new Chef had learned it well-----"it's all in the presentation." The Hotel provided secured parking in their courtyard, an internet lounge and every room was equipped like an apartment with small kitchen and full bath.
On Saturday, we toured the main shopping street in the Old City and then started a motor trip along the Danube. We drove by the ancient Roman ruins of Acquinum---a treasure trove for any archaeologist and noted the excavations of the waterworks and steam baths of these ancient, clever engineers. We had heard about a colony of Serbs who had settled along the Danube during one of their battles with the Turks. Szentendre, as it is called having been named after Saint Andrew, is now an artist's village with many old and narrow streets, filled with all kinds of shops, restaurants and churches. For lunch we ordered Hungarian Gulasch with soft white bread, at a local Restaurant, shopped for unique gifts and enjoyed the the camaraderie with our friends, the Voths, who are fellow travelers with us in the Vienna scene. I won't tell you what we bought so that some of you can just continue to be curious and hopefully surprised when we finally show up on your doorstep sometime.
Continuing our journey along the Danube we stopped next at Ezstergom, site of a Basilica of the Roman Catholic Church of Hungary and seat of the Archbishop. The Basilica is a huge fortress like structure on a hilltop along the Danube in the old part of the City. The country is about 60% Roman Catholic, about 20% Evangelical Protestant with the usual smattering of other religions. From Eztergom we drove through several little towns and villages and then entered the Autobahn for the short trip back to Vienna.
[Editor's Note: This 19th-century Chain Bridge links the ancient Buda and the modern Pest.]
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