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Day trips from Budapest

Occasionally, when friends or friends of friends are planning to come to Budapest for more than the usual weekend break, I’m asked for recommendations on where they should go, once they’ve ‘seen the city’. This amuses me; after 10 or more years, I’m still finding places in the city that I’ve not seen. But anyway, they’re usually interested in places that are easy to get to from the city and have something ‘worth seeing’. Worth seeing…mmm. That very much depends on what you’re interested in, but rather than get involved in a litany of likes and dislikes, I’ve chosen three of my top picks, accessible by the HÉV (commuter rail) from Budapest.

Ráckeve

The train journey from Budapest to Ráckeve takes about 75 minutes on the H6 HÉV from Közvágóhíd (the last stop on the No. 2 tram heading out of Budapest). Wednesdays and Saturdays are market days and so are good times to go. The market runs along the side of the Danube and sells everything from ducklings to rosary beads. It’s a walkable town, with lots to see and do. My favourites are the cemetery and the church. Odd choices perhaps, but there’s a story. One of the first books I read when coming to Hungary was Petőfi Sándor‘s János Vitéz (John the Valiant)…written in poem form, all 370 verses make for a fast-paced story of love and intrigue. He based this character on a real person, one Hórvath János (1774-1848), who is buried in the cemetery in Ráckeve. Each year, in June, on János Viték Napok, the locals come together and act out the poem. Both the book and the grave are worth a visit.

Back in 1994, when artist Patay László (1932-2002) was preparing to paint a fresco-secco in the Catholic church of St John the Baptist in Ráckeve, he used 170 kg of tehén túró cheese when mixing his paints. The results are spectacular. About 600 square meters of walls space is now home to a glorious feast of colour, blending beautifully with the baroque paintings and the glitter and gold that are features of Catholic church decor worldwide. This rivals the best of what Budapest has to offer. Try to refrain from licking the walls just to see if you can taste the cheese.

To wet your whistle while you’re wandering around, stop off at the Old Buttons Museum and English Tea Room on Szent István tér, 12. Say hello to the lovely Sylvia Llewelyn, author of Old Buttons and Hungary’s resident expert on all things button-related. Her collection of retro Hungarian folk art is worth checking out and she makes a mean pancake.

Gödöllő

Getting to Gödöllő is easy – take a regional bus from Puskás Ferenc Stadion (M2 line) or take the H8 HÉV from Örs vezér tere (end of the M2 metro line).  The town’s biggest attraction is undoubtedly the Royal Palace, once a favourite of Sisi, the inimitable Elisabeth of Bavaria and wife of Franz Joseph I. The Baroque palace was built between 1694 and 1771 and its theatre, in particular, is something to behold. Check the programme when you’re visiting and you might be lucky enough to catch a performance. The Palace is open 10 to 6 at weekends and 9 to 5 on weekdays. The Castle Church is open to the public on Sundays for a church ceremony, a great opportunity to the see the fabulous Rococo altar.

The local town council really has its act together when it comes to making things easy for visitors. Its website maps out four walks you can do from the town centre to take in the 70+ sights that have been identified as worth seeing, ranging from the  Castle Park with its Tree of Life to the statue of a boy scout marking the 4th World Scout Jamboree that took place here in 1933. More than 25 000 scouts from 46 countries camped out on Sisi’s lawn. The town also hosts the world second-largest collection of agricultural machinery and the only one of the five World Peace Gongs (a present from Indonesia)  to reside in Europe.

If you want to get away from it all, take a restorative walk through the Royal Forest. And if you’re in need of sustenance, and have become a Sisi fan, try Erzsébet Királyné Étterem és Kávézó on Dózsa György út 2.

Szentendre

Catch the H5 HÉV from Batthyány tér or  Margit híd, Budai hídfő to Szentendre, which is perhaps the most popular destination as a day trip from Budapest. The journey takes about 40 minutes, compared to the boat trip departing from Vigadó tér which can eat up 90 minutes on the way down and an hour or so on the way back. Once there, wander the cobblestone streets and spent time browsing the art galleries, museums, and craft shops. Pay a visit to the eighteenth-century Greek Orthodox church with its ornate interior. If you’re into cars and know your Warburg from your Zhighuli, or fancy a look at some motorbikes from the old Eastern bloc, pop into the Retro Design Center on Rev utca 4. While some of you might have little problem remembering the 1970s, your kids might get a kick out of seeing LPs and tape recorders.

Szentendre, though, is probably best known for its skanzen (open-air museum). The first of its kind, and the one which lent its name to all subsequent museums, opened in 1891 in Skansen, near Stockholm.  The one in Szentendre is on Sztaravodai ut. This historic village setting is home to many original buildings from various parts of Hungary, transplanted along with other interesting stuff representative of architecture and culture from the mid-1700s to the mid-1900s. It’s quite the trip back in time

And if you fancy eating some of that history, check out the Szamos Museum Confectioners on Dumtsa Jeno utca 12.

Enjoy your stay.

First published in the Budapest Times 13 July 2018

Escaping the city

Summer is coming. Short of moving to the Southern Hemisphere, there’s little I can do to avoid it. I’m not a hot weather person. There’s a limit to the clothes I can take off, but there’s no limit to what I can put on. Give me subzero temperatures over 40 degrees any day.

The occasional hot day we’ve had so far has attuned my delicate sense of smell to the onslaught of odours to come. I have already packed my perfumed cotton handkerchief in its sealed plastic bag in preparation for the day I get trapped on the tram under a malodorous armpit. It will come. It always comes. Like death and taxes, it is unavoidable.

But this year, I have a Plan B. I’m quite taken with the idea that a lot of families living in Budapest have a holiday cottage somewhere outside. I, too, plan on escaping the city on its hottest days and taking myself off to the countryside. I’ve written before about the calming delights of the forest in Gödöllő and expect to visit regularly this summer. I’m also keen to go back to Ráckeve and perhaps explore a little more of Csepel Island. And then, of course, there’s Szentendre.

Ask almost any tourist who has been to Budapest what they did while they were in the city, and chances are you’ll get the triad: walked the Castle district, went to the baths, and did the ruin pubs on Kazinczy utca. Those who were here a little longer than a two-day weekend might also add that they managed to fit in a day-trip to the riverside town of Szentendre. And while it’s lovely in its own way, I can’t say that it’s ever really done much for me. But Szentendre Island? Now, that’s a completely different story.

IMG_4776 (800x600)This 56 km2 island in the middle of the Danube, not far from Budapest, is an oasis of lush foliage and green fields, banked by clear, flowing water. Connected to the mainland by a single bridge, it is also accessible using the ferry service from Tahitótfalu, Vác, or Dunakeszi.

The island’s history can be traced as far back as 896 AD. It seems to always have been an agricultural area, supplying the nearby cities of Buda and Pest with produce. As we drove around, I was reminded of the green fields of Ireland and had little trouble imagining rural village life, Magyar-style.

IMG_4777 (800x600)IMG_4787 (600x800)From north to south lie the villages of Kisoroszi, Tahitótfalu, Pócsmegyer, Surány, Horány, and Szigetmonostor. Pócsmegyer is home to the Berczelly Mansion, a one-storey Baroque style mansion built by the Esterházy family in the late seventeen hundreds. The springs of Szigetmonostor supply a lot of Budapest’s potable water. But it was Surány we wanted to see, and in particular, the beach.

The tiny village of Surány, with its gorgeous little church and outdoor pews doesn’t boast much in the way of city-style entertainment. There’s a pub one side and a büfé on the other. Because the pub doesn’t do food, they don’t mind you bringing in a takeaway. How civilised is that?

IMG_4782 (800x600)It does have a couple of beaches, lovely sandy stretches that run alongside the Danube. The water looked cool, clean, and inviting, so different to the same river that runs through Budapest. Some old-style employee summer complexes stand witness to IMG_4778 (800x600)the days of yore and indeed many of the houses are still original … from the small, two-roomed stone cottages to the more palatial riverside family homes. And, of course, if things ever get too quiet, there’s always Szentendre.

By car is simplest, but it’s doable by public transport, too, making it a perfect bolthole for those hot summer days when the air in Budapest stands still and the madding crowd gets too much to handle.

First published in the Budapest Times 20 May 2016