Travelogue from a Danube river cruise. Monday June 19th.
Budapest in Hungary
The tour in Budapest starts at nine. The local guide Anna speaks excellent Danish, and the bus obediently passes by all the 'official' sights like palaces, opera, museums, universities, parliament etc. etc. I see the heads in front of me turn left, right, left, right - as if they were watching a tennis match. When you spot what the guide is talking about, we have already passed it. I am bored. However I do notice the many beautiful roofs with tiles in coloured patterns.
I guess some like this kind of glimpse sightseeing, but Helle and I would rather hear something about how life is today and how the locals make ends meet. Can you imagine anything duller than The Heroes' Square in Budapest? It is a huge open space with monumental sculptures of ancient Hungarian heroes. Only the column in the middle casts a slim shadow. Here we exit the bus and there is nothing to watch but the monuments, scores of other tourists, tourist buses and con-gypsies. The 'minutes on our own' are spent in the shade close to the spot where the bus will pick us up. At least the bus has a working air-condition.
It gets much more interesting when we cross the river and drive up to The Fishermen's Bastion in the old Buda. Tourists crowd the area around the church and the bastion. I tell Søren that we would rather explore the neighbourhood behind and then meet them later at the agreed hour. "That's what I thought you would" Søren says with a smile and gives us some good advice about which way to go.
In the neighbourhood behind the must-sees are beautiful old houses in a more modest style and you can peek into cosy backyards. There isn't much grandeur or pomp, but it is idyllic and almost free of tourists. I wish we had more time. It is very hot, and unfortunately there isn't time to visit a local waterhole.
The tour continues to a point with a spectacular view over the city. While I play with my new camera, Helle plays the sustainable tourist and buys a cookbook with Hungarian recipes. The guide had recommended a picture book in Danish about Budapest, but food is more exiting than palace pictures.
Lunch and a Trip to the Market Hall
Back on the ship we try to cope with the heat. The thermometer says 33° C in the sundeck's shade and it is muggy. What we left of the Vranac yesterday is on the lunch table, but with fish as main course we order a Chardonnay. The fish is good and boneless.
Those who wish can follow Søren to the market hall after lunch. Helle has trouble coping with the heat and renounces. We walk in the sun, and even though it is not far I am drenched when we arrive.
In the market hall are many shops with food: vegetables, meat, poultry and delicacies. The quality looks excellent, and I wish we had a place like this back home. There are also spice shops with garlic and dried paprika. On the first floor they sell souvenirs and lots of tourist junk. "How about a cheap fur hat, Sir?"
At the far end of the basement are the fishmongers. In a small aquarium live carps struggle for space and some from the upper layer enjoy a moment in freedom by jumping into the air.
A bit closer to the main entrance is a powerful smell of pickled vegetables: sauerkraut, cucumbers, peppers, filled and not filled, by weight or in huge glass jars. The entrance to the supermarket is below the market's main entrance. It seems to have a wide selection, but I do not see much because I head straight for the section with wines and liquor. Here I find a bottle of Tokay of the best quality for almost 2400 Forint, which is cheap. Tokay is the famous Hungarian dessert wine. There are no visible plastic bags, and I forgot to bring the shopping bag. Maybe the lady at the register has some in a secret drawer, but I am in no mood to use sign language and put the bottle under my arm, conscious that I must look foolish with my pipe bag, camera and a bottle of Tokay.
With perspiration quietly trickling I choose the shadowy street that runs parallel to the Danube. It is a sad neighbourhood with dirty and worn houses. It is my birthday and with dinner in mind I look for a restaurant with a nice Hungarian menu. But that is naive - all I see is a dark and dirty bar in a cellar. Luckily it is not far to the ship and a refreshing shower.
Wearing dry clothes I settle on the deck. Helle prefers the slightly cooler cabin, so I have invited a cold pint of lager to join me. The other passengers return in various stages of dissolution. By our dock there is a small park, and sun worshippers have been there all day. They glisten and from time to time they pour water over their heads. It is at least 45° C in the sun, and it is beyond me how they can stand it for so long.
Dinner is Hungarian, and we appreciate how the cook lets the menu follow the ship's route. The first course is grated celery in a mild dressing followed by goulash soup and a paprika steak with vegetables. Ice for dessert.
Second Day in Budapest
Tuesday June 2oth
The tour today goes to Szentendre, a village 25 km to the north.
On the way we pass through a suburb with many concrete apartment blocks. The local guide Anna tells about living conditions in Budapest and Hungary. This is much more interesting than yesterday's array of monuments.
The average monthly wage is 465 € after tax. One third of the population is officially poor and the standard of living has not improved much since the fall of communism 16 years ago. Therefore many emigrate or work in another country - if they can. Anna herself is a pensioner and supplements her pension by working as a freelance tourist guide.
The concrete houses we pass are badly constructed. Insulation is poor and heating is terribly expensive, and you can hear everything that goes on next door. Often several generations live in one apartment. After the fall of communism most apartments were sold, and when it happened people were delighted to get their own. However because the quality is bad, the cost of maintenance is so high that most houses are dilapidated.
We arrive to Szentendre. Serbian immigrants founded the village in the 18th century and it is picturesque and charming - or once was. Today it is more like one big souvenir shop, and shortly after we arrive it is teeming with tourists of all nationalities. We escape Souvenir Street and find some of the original charm. We say hello to Igor, who is a kind and handsome guy with bronze fur, white socks and eyes the colour of amber.
At half past ten it is so hot that we have undoubtedly seen enough. We restore the liquid balance at a shadowy spot on Souvenir Street where they for some reason sell the Australian beer, Fosters. When we get to the parking lot it is crammed with tourist buses.
To the Market Hall and the Pedestrian Street
After lunch we enjoy our siesta and then walk to the market hall. I am short of matches, but cannot find any in the supermarket, so we settle for some water and snacks. A tobacco store in the pedestrian street has got matches, but the boxes are ridiculously small bar-versions not suited for a pipe smoker. I ask if he has got bigger boxes. He is pure service and calls for his assistant. She is a well-designed eye catcher in a tight red blouse and leads me down a staircase to the basement. Here she shows me other matchboxes with printed pictures of Budapest sights. They are just as small as the ones upstairs, so with resignation I grab a plastic lighter, pay and say goodbye.
We do not walk far before we turn back - it is too hot. Outside a restaurant there are tables and a big TV, and a gang of young Germans with war paint watches a soccer match from the world championships. One of the teams is German and the youngsters shout and have a great time.
We go through the market hall, but by another route this time. A vendor sells dark truffles the size of golf balls. The price has been reduced from 365 to 350 € for a kilo, but I do not think he has a kilo. We follow the sad but shadowy street back to the ship. The car park is international, and as a whole the cars are in better shape than the houses, but we also see a few old East German Trabants that refuse to give up.
On the Deck
There is a mild breeze on the deck now, and if you do not move it is bearable. Crewmembers arrive with lots of fresh supplies from the market hall, and others go ashore to help carry. For some reason they do not have a trolley.
Tonight's menu is ham and melon, soup, chicken in curry with an orange sauce and for dessert fresh strawberries.
Some have signed up for an operetta show as an extra tour. When they leave they are worried that President Bush's visit will cause traffic jams. Those of us who stay behind settle on the deck, where the temperature falls to 28° C at nine. Helle and I play two games of chess on the deck's big board. That triggers some curiosity, which of course was our intention.
Later the games trigger a conversation with an American by the bar. When the first chess questions have been answered, he asks me if there are any lawyers in the Danish company. Well, I really don't know, but offhand I don't think so. Does he want to sue somebody? Oh no, he is just a pensioned lawyer himself and it would be funny if... Now they live on a ranch in Texas. He has got a private lake where he goes fishing. In fact he has brought a rod on this trip. The conversation turns to books and here we share a fascination for the Harry Potter books. The beer I came to get evaporates and I buy a new one, excuse myself and go up on the deck where the temperature is more pleasant. As I leave, the pensioned lawyer loses himself in his book once again.
Budapest by Night
The concert guests return at 23:15, fifteen minutes late. From 22:55 skipper has been waiting impatiently by the jetty. As soon as they are onboard skipper let the moorings go. At first we sail to the north and then turn south so we can admire the beautifully illuminated city. Budapest by night is spectacular.
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