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One street over

Budapest is blossoming. Local neighbourhoods are being revamped. Buildings are getting facelifts. Previously drab and uninspiring places are now teeming with life and energy. And in times many find it hard to think of something positive to say about this country, it’s nice to see something good happening.

I freelance. My time is my own. When there’s work, I work. And while I’ve never been a slave to routine, I occasionally fall foul of habit.

For years I’ve been taking the No. 9 bus from Harminckettesek tere to Kolosy tér once a month or so. Yes, there are quicker ways to get from one to the other, but the No. 9 is direct, no changes. It’s familiar territory.

Last week, himself had an appointment in Óbuda and I went with him. He likes his apps and had figured out the quickest, if not the most direct route to take. Some battles aren’t worth fighting. His plan involved the 4/6 tram to Margit Híd and then changing to the No. 17 tram. Same direction, same part of town, but a slightly different route. The 17 tram runs up Bécsi út cutting right through Kolosy tér, parallel to the No. 9 which takes Lajos utca. It had been a few years since I’d actually been in Kolosy tér itself and I was surprised.

Its namesake, György Kolosy, was alive and well and practicing law when during the revolution of 1848 he got himself into a spot of bother and fled to Transylvania. Like Jókai, he, too, escaped dressed as a woman. He hid out for a couple of years before surrendering to the Austrians and being executed. Some 50 years later, Kolosy tér took his name.

At this end of the square, too, at the intersection of Lajos utca and Nagyszombat utca, you can find the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre. Back in the day, its arena was bigger than the one in the Colosseum in Rome. The things you learn, eh?

IMG_4753 (800x600)IMG_4735 (800x600)IMG_4746 (800x600)There’s a sculpture of Ferenc Puskás kicking a ball around with some kids across from the aptly names Puskás Pancho Sports Pub, which is just up the street from the old stalwart, Symbol. There’s also quite a strange sculpture that looks for all the world like a bunch of very, very large boobs. Am not quite sure what to make of it.

From high-end boutiques to the Bookr bookstore, from fine china to quality leather goods, there’s plenty to spend your money on. And if you’d rather eat, you’ll be spoiled for choice. The neighbourhood has it all, including three sushi restaurants.

Some of the ones I used to frequent have gone, closed down, their spaces taken by newer, shinier models. The Taste of India is the dreamchild of Kunal Verma who hails from Delhi. He’s doing his bit to bring the real taste of India to Budapest rather than the westernised fare we have become used to. And he’s doing it very well indeed. It’s worth going out of your way to see for yourself.

Pódium is at the heart of Kolosy tér. This garden bar is bike friendly, dog friendly, and people friendly. It has a great range of drinks, good barbeque, and live music. In short, everything a garden bar needs.

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Closer to Szépvölgyi út, there’s the Buda Gourmet bistro and market. This stylish restaurant, next door to an upmarket Prima, is set to offer strong competition for the downtown Sunday buffet lunches featured at the likes of the Kempinksi and the Gellert. I hear tell that Saturday and Sunday brunch at the Buda Gourmet has featured crocodile and rib eye. And that’s a rumour I intend investigating in person. Soon.

First published in the Budapest Times 27 May 2016

Books in Óbuda

There’s nothing quite like the smell of old books. Stepping into one of the many antikvárium (shops selling old books) in Budapest is like stepping back in time. Shelf after shelf groans under the weight of millions of words, miles of paper, and litres of ink. To find one that has an English book section, however small, tucked away in a corner is a find indeed.

I have been taking the bus to Buda [thank you, BKV, for extending the route of the No. 9 (the mutant child of the former 109 and 206 routes) to my neighbourhood] for about a year now over to Kolosy tér in Óbuda. I was early one day and had time to kill before my appointment. Looking though the window of a bookshop, I saw some English titles and, heart beating a little faster, stepped inside.

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Up until 1993, the National Book Distribution Company ran the secondhand-book shops in Budapest. Óbuda Anitkvárium was the one that served the III district. It began a new chapter as a private business under the guiding hand Gábor Pécsi and is now run by his son, Balázs.

Balázs took his apprenticeship seriously, initially spending time in the ‘company of the broomstick more often than the books’. The shop is designed to suit all tastes, whether you’re a bibliophile or a leisure reader. And if you can’t find what you’re looking for, you can order it and Balázs will do his utmost to find it for you. He buys a lot of personal libraries which makes for an interesting collection. And it’s nice to think that books go to a good home once their owners have passed on. The wall space that can’t hold shelves is given over to myriad prints and photographs which are also for sale.

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Travel by public transport and you’ll increasingly see commuters reading from a tablet or a kindle or an iPad. I can’t see me ever crossing that line, although it would be a lot simpler to bring a virtual library on holiday than a real one. Yet for me, reading is as much sensory as it is visual. The touch, the feel, the smell of old parchment. The fleeting wonder at a pencilled note in the margin or why a particular word was underlined. That mystery conjured up by a dedication – To Agatha on her 18th birthday, September 1935 – is Agatha still alive? Where did she live? What did she do? And yes, I know you can annotate and highlight electronic text – but it just ain’t the same.

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Sadly, I see bookshop after bookshop after bookshop closing down in the city. I visit apartments and flat that are devoid of books, though the residents might be avid readers. I worry about the fate of the printed word and the old-fashioned notion of reading for pleasure. We have so much we have to read – reports, textbooks, reference books – that the joy of leaving this world temporarily and travelling to another for a few hours in the company of a set of characters who have things to do is something that is becoming increasingly valuable, not least because it’s more and more difficult to find the time.

Treasures like to Óbuda Antivarium will only survive with custom. Balázs has merged the old with the new with an online market and ordering service. I, for one, hope that the online part never takes over to the point that my armchair disappears and the half-hour I spend there once a month or so is no longer an option.

If you’re in the vicinity, drop by. III district, Lajos utca 49/B

Finally … a decision

BZs came to breakfast. I told myself that if he drove, I’d ask him to take me to get a Christmas tree. One of the first things he said when he arrived was ‘Hey, I took public transport for once!’ The tree gods were telling me something. But still I was hankering. KG offered me hers as they are leaving for the holidays. But along with the hankering was the need for immediate gratification. I couldn’t wait till the weekend. I wanted it now. A quick check on Kika’s website showed me one that would do nicely – only thing was, I couldn’t be sure where it was made. Would I go there only to find it was made in China?

IMG_1281 (768x1024)The tree gods were talking to me again. I went. There was one big one left. On sale. And it was made in Poland. [Tip: If you want the world to look at you, carry a 1.5 metre metal tree on the tram and the metro.]

Going through my boxes of ornaments would have been everything I’d hoped it would be had I not been rushing to get a bus to Belgrade.  With time pressing, it was like a whirlwind tour of my life – with ornaments from all over the USA, from Alaska to Louisiana and beyond: a lobster from Maine, Santa on an alligator from Louisiana, cable cars from San Francisco.  Hungary is well represented too, with quite a collection of hand-painted bells, and cornhusk cribs. I have a miniature violin from Strasbourg, a lemon from Modica, a felt angel from Mongolia, and a gorgeous set of carvings from Bethlehem that I can’t place at all.

IMG_1274 (1024x768)Best of all though, I have been cataloguing these ornaments since 1994 – nearly 20 years! I have a record of where each one came from, where I was, when I was there, who I was with, or who brought it back from somewhere. People I knew (and still know), places I visited, places I have yet to visit , birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, births, deaths, marriages – all represented on my trees (yes, I bought two, little and large).

IMG_1237 (800x588)So what brought about this change of heart and mind? Well, I ‘did the markets’ at the weekend. I tried blood sausage in Obuda and was surprised that what I thought was a cranberry … wasn’t. But I survived. In the company of the lovely BS, we figured the safest course of action was to drown the bugs in mulled wine. It worked. We hit the food fair at Hold utca market where I capped off a wild mushroom soup with a rather expensive macaroon. From there we went for some better cake at the Bedő Ház.  On Sunday, we tried hot beer at WAMP and won’t be doing that again in a hurry.

IMG_1249 (800x600)All this wandering about, and seeing the city dressed for the festivities, put a longing on me. I’ve made a note in my diary to stay in Budapest next December for as long as possible. The weather is great – cold dry days with the occasional blue sky. The type of cold that makes me feel alive. [Easy for me to say, I know, when I’m dressed for it – not so nice for those who are not.] It’s that time of year when goodwill abounds – people give to strangers, do good deeds, and generally are a lot nicer to their fellow-man. Dare I say it … I’m getting in the mood! ‘Tis Christmas!!!!

PS: Today is the 12th day of the 12th month in 2012 so at 12 minutes past 12 noon, make a wish.