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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

Making memories

When you work as freelancer, weekends and national holidays mean nothing. There are no set summer holidays, no half-terms, no winter breaks. There are no set long weekends, three-day weeks, or working Saturdays. It’s all in the hands of the workflow gods. Some weeks are quieter than others. The rhythm that most lives have is something I have long-since forgotten. Were my life a musical score, it would be a cacophonous tune running parallel with a sublime melody. I’d not have it any other way.

August is my between-term vacation. Most of my clients are on holiday too, so the work slows to a trickle and my choices are two: I can stay in Budapest and bake, or get out of dodge and travel.

One of the many joys of living in this city is how accessible it is. Planes, trains, or automobiles ‒ whatever your chosen mode of transport, there is so much to do, so much to see, and all within easy reach.

I spent a lovely Saturday afternoon in the forest at Gödöllő. Monday took me to Siófok, to the Balaton. Thursday found me in Dublin. That’s the beauty of being able to work from wherever you can find an Internet connection.

IMG_7845 (800x600)

IMG_7847 (800x600)A day-trip to Szentendre on the Hév or by river is a well-known escape from the oppressive heat of the city. But what about Ráckeve? It’s a lovely little town on the banks of the Danube down on Csepel Island also accessible by Hév. Get there for the Saturday market and enjoy a potter around, making sure to visit the incredibly gorgeous fresco-secco in the Catholic church of St John the Baptist. There’s a wonderful story about the wooden bridge that was built across the river, a story worth repeating:

‘You have got a nice occupation’ said the little child to the old bridge builder. ‘It might be difficult to build bridges, but if someone learnt it, it is easy’ said the old bridge builder. ‘It is easy to build a bridge of concrete and steel. Building other bridges is more difficult…’ ‘What other bridges?’ asked the little child. ‘Building bridges from one person to another, from darkness to light, from sadness to joy. I would like to build bridges to the happy future.’ The little child said: ‘It’s a special thing you do.’

IMG_3289 (600x800)Further afield, heading towards Austria by car to another bridge, is an amazing open air sculpture exhibition that lines the narrow road leading to the Bridge at Andau, the escape route taken by thousands fleeing Hungary in 1956. It is a chilling (and timely) reminder about the lengths people will go to, to make a better life for them and theirs.  The artwork is what remains of a 1996 exhibition along what’s known as the Road to Freedom and originally featured 90 pieces of work entitled The Road of Woes. Just a few miles outside the village of Andau along the Austrian/Hungarian border, it’s well worth the drive.

In the opposite direction, my favourite train destination is an Art Nouveau Serbian town known to Hungarians as Szabadka and to Serbs as Subotica. The birthplace of Hungarian writer and poet Kosztolányi Deszo, it’s not far from Palić Lake, home to the European Film Festival and the best apple ice-cream you will ever taste. This gem of a place has lured me back time and time again. In fact, I think I’m overdue a trip, where dinner at the delectable Boss restaurant will be my reward at the end of the three-hour train journey. That’s me sorted.

Whatever you do this summer, enjoy yourself. And take the time to make some memories. We know not what the future has in store.

First published in the Budapest Times 31 July 2015

 

Johnny Valiant

Three hundred and seventy verses, 1480 lines, make for one hell of a long poem. But I read them all, cover to cover, the first time I picked up a copy of Petőfi Sándor’s book János Vitéz (John the Valiant) or, as I’ve christened him, Johnny Valiant. I did the same the second time, and the third time, and the fourth time. What’s more, remembering back to 2007, I think everyone on my Christmas list got a copy of John Ridland’s 2004 translation.

It’s a marvellous tale of love and loss, of bravery and courage, of tenacity and faith, of loyalty and belief. A tale where the shepherd boy turns down a French throne and instead returns to his sweetheart. ‘Tis the stuff that magic is made of. And it simply goes on and on and on. In his foreword to this particular edition, George Szirtes says:

As  children, we raced through Petőfi’s poem, exhilarated by its pace, enraptured by its heroism, sharing its jokes, scarcely believing its tragedies.

Although nature’s current depiction of me is hardly childlike, once I picked up this poem, I was twelve again. Catapulted back in time, I was just beginning to notice boys and lose myself in the innocent romance between Laura and Almonzo (Manley) on the Little House of the Prairie.

Ráckeve Cemetery Johnny Valiant

To discover as I walked the cemetery of Ráckeve last weekend, that Petőfi had based my Johnny Valiant on a real person, came as quite a surprise.  If Hórvath János (1774-1848) was even half the man that my Johnny was, he’d win a place on the list of dead people I’d invite to dinner. Judging by the medals and honors cited on his gravestone, Hórvath was no coward. I wonder though if he had a sweetheart …

Ráckeve Cemetery Johnny ValiantBeautifully in keeping with Petőfi’s folksy style, the sign pointing the way to Hórvath’s grave deserves a place in the Tate Modern. A broom handle, topped with a radiator cap, holds tight to a simple board with a strip of metal edging held together with four nails, each painted in white, tied off with the requisite red, white and green ribbon. A lovely touch.

Each year, in the town of Ráckeve, on János Viték Napok,  locals commemorate this great work by acting out selected parts. This year, I just missed it (2/3 June). Next year, it’s already fixed in my calendar.

This poem begs to be read aloud. If you have kids, so much the better. But if not, while sitting at home one evening with a postprandial digestif of your choice, I challenge you to pick it up and keep silent. It’s impossible.

Live ducklings and rosary beads

I’m a great fan of markets. I love sorting through other people’s junk in search of a piece of history or something that I can convince myself I simply cannot live without. I like to see other people’s creativity and inventiveness. And I’m fascinated by fresh fruit and veg. (On reflection, perhaps I need to get a life…my own life!) Down in Ráckeve this weekend, the town was buzzing around the riverside market that happens twice a week – Wednesday and Saturdays. Most markets this side of the world have a certain sameness – fruit, veg, preserves, Chinese or Turkish tat, second-hand clothes from the UK and the occasional original painting or handicraft. I’d never come across baby ducks or live chicks before.

Ráckeve ducklings

Ráckeve marketPerhaps though, being on the banks of the Danube makes this market seem a little less tat-like and a little more real. It’s a working market. I was the only tourist in sight – if I don’t count the five German lads who had come to look at the watermill. The regulars had their baskets out and were doing their bi-weekly shop. Everyone seemed to know everyone (not surprising perhaps in a town of 9000 people). The feel of the place was unlike the busier markets I’ve been to in Budapest (probably the one that comes closest is the one in Hyunadi tér).

Ráckeve market

Within the shadow of the Calvinist church, and nestled between a cheese stall and one selling ham hocks, was this one selling rosary beads. Not the old-fashioned beads that the old man in Ecseri sells – the ones that come with a story, a price, and a hook that had once clipped on to the belt of a brown-robed monk. These were new. New plastic for new Catholics? I’ve seen similar in pilgrimage sites – and that’s expected. Somehow, though, the sight of them here, in Ráckeve’s Saturday market, was a little surreal.

Ráckeve StorkRáckeve riversideRáckeve waterside

 

RáckeveRáckeve - butcher's house

But then, much about the town has that other-worldly quality. The sheer abundance of kerbside flowers makes it different and gives it a parochial feel. The detail in the town is interesting. The flower bed that on closer inspection shows a map of pre-Trianon Hungary. The red-and-white striped flag that is not that flown by Jobbik but just happens to be the colours of the town.The house that used to belong to the village butcher, the one with a pig’s head above each window. The statue of the dancing Huszar and his lady. The stork guarding its chicks, reigning over the town in princely fashion. The myriad community notice boards shaped like the prow of a boat. It’s a fisherman’s paradise. A word of warning though – their interpretation of pizza is a little unusual. Best opt for the fish soup unless you’re feeling particularly adventurous.

An oasis of learning in the heart of the community

Living in Budapest, it’s easy sometimes to forget that there’s a whole other world out there, one that lies beyond the city limits. A world of smaller cities, towns, villages, and settlements. A world where people know their neighbours and recognise each other in passing on the street. A world where the words ‘neighbourhood’ and ‘neighbourliness’ are still active descriptors.

I was in Ráckeve last weekend visiting my mate Csilla. I’d heard about the town a few years ago from an Irish couple who had moored their barge there for the winter. I knew about the watermill and the market. I’d heard vague stories of a stately home and a Serbian Orthodox church. And while I didn’t realise it was on Csepel Island, I knew it was outside the city limits. But I’d never been to visit. Finding myself with nothing to do on Saturday, I made the call, bought the ticket, and hopped on the No. 6 hév.

Picture perfect

The town itself has everything that could endear itself to a weekend tourist – a riverside market, a plethora of old churches, a picturesque setting. And smack in the middle of it is the Repperio Coffee House. I’ll excuse your ignorance if you excuse mine. I, too, had to ask what repperio meant and now know that it’s Latin for ‘to learn’ or ‘to discover’. This coffee house bills itself as Ráckeve’s University of Life and is a wonderful example of co-production. The owner is a native-English speaker on a mission to learn Hungarian. His clientele for the most part would like to learn English. They come together over all sorts of decent coffee and co-produce a mutually beneficial learning environment.

A book-swap shelf has many dictionaries and text books, magazines and novels. Posters on the walls depict typical coffee-centred conversations in both Hungarian and English. They also attempt to humorously expand both sets of vocabularies. I know now that the Hungarian for mouse is egér and if the need arises I will be able to explain to a Hungarian that: Angolul az egér többesszáma ‘mice’ és nem ‘mouses’. I was highly amused (and indeed very impressed with my coffee milkshake).

A bilingual hub

While I was there, a local tiler came in for help with his CV. Another couple who have relatives in the UK called by to practice their English. Steve, the owner, switched seamlessly from English to Hungarian and back again. He admits that his Hungarian needs work and where better to learn it than in a social environment. Way back when, coffee shops in the UK were known as penny universities. Places where people held forth on current affairs, literature, and scandal. Places at the heart of the community where people gathered and conversed. Places that became a hub for trade referrals and commerce.

Reservations not needed

Ráckeve is a town of two halves. Eons ago, it boasted a tri-ethnic population of Serbs, Germans, and Hungarians. Nowadays you can count the Orthodox Serbs in single-digit figures and the Germans are pretty thin on the ground, too. Real estate agents will warn you against purchasing property within the shadow of Pokolhegy which is home to a well-established Roma community. Yet one of the joys of being a foreigner is that you are not bound by local prejudices, your opinion is not coloured by traditional behaviour, and you have the freedom to make up your own mind about what you believe and how you act.

Repperio Coffee House has a mixed clientele. Many young Roma drop by on Thursdays to chat with Steve about working abroad. They role-play social situations in English, like going to the post office, or eating at a restaurant, or asking directions. On market days, the traders mix freely while starting off the day with a non-traditional Ír kave. While some might choose to avoid the place on these days, others are following Steve’s non-partisan example and leaving their reservations outside.

Spending power

Like many other towns around the world, the population of Ráckeve is feeling the pinch. Couple that with the Hungarian notion that going out for a coffee is a treat and not a necessity (as it is for so many addicts I know) and I have to wonder how long this little oasis of learning will survive. It’s all well and good during the summer months when tourist dollars complement the regular spend but what about the winter months when survival depends on local forints?

There should be grants of some sort available to help forward-thinking enterprises like the Repperio Coffee House – enterprises who contribute to the community, provide a service, and do their bit to build bridges. If you’re reading this, and know of some way to keep this enterprise afloat, let know. Or better still, pop down to Ráckeve and talk to the man himself.

First published in the Budapest Times 15 June 2012

Frescos and cheese

I’ve never professed to be an art expert – what I know about art (other than knowing what I like) could be written on the bristles of a paintbrush. I have a very rudimentary, non-technical idea of what a fresco is but had never heard of a fresco-secco. And I’d certainly never heard of mixing lime and cheese (specifically that cheese that is found in a túró rudi) and dye to get paint!

Church in Ráckeve

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. I resisted a childish temptation to lick the walls and see if any of the taste remained. It took one year of dedicated work during which Patay painted 245 faces and his team of volunteers filled in the rest. 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.

Frescos in church in RáckeveWith a population of 9000 people, about 70% of those living in Ráckeve are Catholic. The local church made a smart move in its day when it agreed to open a Catholic school on condition that all parents attended mass with their children each Sunday. Of the four regular Sunday masses, two are more than half-full and the other two have standing room only. I doubt many visitors get any prayers said as there is so much to see.

Frescos in church in RáckeveThe fresco moves from Adam and Eve in the garden right through to hell and damnation. The seven deadly sins are featured as are the twelve Apostles, and the three virtues of Catholicism (faith, hope, and charity). Everywhere you turn you see something new, something different. Tilting your head back and looking up towards the ceiling brings a rush of blood that is further exacerbated by the vision of what’s looking down on you.

Frescos in church in RáckeveFrescos in church in Ráckeve

Up till now, the only time I’ve come across the word ‘secco’ is on a bottle of sparkling wine. I knew it meant ‘dry’ but I hadn’t realised that a fresco-secco is one that is painted on a dry wall. Whereas other frescos are painted on freshly plastered wet walls. You learn something new every day.

Of all the scenes depicted by Patay, the one that really hooked me was of the four horses of the apocolypse. Very eerie and yet very beautiful.

Frescos in church in Ráckeve

Frescos in church in Ráckeve

While preparing the walls for the fresco (the whole process, by the way, was overseen by someone from the Vatican who was there to ensure that everything was depicted accurately and in keeping with the teachings of the Catholic church – a project manager with a difference!) they came across evidence that it had been painted on before. I wonder whose decision it was to go ahead and continue painting rather than strip the walls and see what lay underneath. My curiosity would have killed me so I know what I’d have decided.  If you’re in the area, St John the Baptist’s is worth a visit. From Budapest, take the #6 hév from Vágóhíd (at the end trams 2 and 24) and it’s about a 75-minute journey.

Shaken not stirred

‘Wear a good bra’, she said seriously. ‘It’s the hév’, I thought, ‘how bad can it be?’ One hour and fifteen minutes later, I was glad that I’d taken her advice. What a workout – there wasn’t a bone or a muscle in my body that hadn’t be shaken, rattled, or rolled on the journey from Budapest to Ráckeve. The passenger list at 8.35 am on a Saturday morning was an interesting one – many were on their way back out of the city after an early morning visit to one of Budapest’s main markets. Others were drinking beer – on their way home from a Friday night on the town. Once again I marvelled at the Hungarian resilience.  I was barely awake and looking forward to getting out of the city for the day.

Ráckeve sits on the lower end of Csepel Island (one three islands that fall within the city limits: the other two being Margaret Island and Obuda Island). It was once a major commuter town. The first mention of the settlement dates to 1212 but it wasn’t until the fifteenth century when many Serbs fleeing from the Ottoman invasion moved in that its name took root. The refugees had come from Keve (Kovin) – and so the town was named in Hungarian as Kiskeve (or little Keve). The Serbs called it Mali Kovin or lesser Kovin. The current name, Ráckeve, comes from the Hungarian term for Serb – Rác. Mind you, there are those who say that keve means ‘cemetery’ or ‘pebble on a grave’ but that would then give it the rather sombre ‘Serbian Cemetery’.

Calvinism came to call in the sixteenth century and one of the towns three old churches is a very impressive Calivinist building. Hot on their heels came the Ottomans, driving the Serbs on to Győr and Komárom.

In the late seventeenth century, once the Turks were seen to,  Prince Eugene of Savoy set up shop. His stately home is now a three-star hotel complete with wine cellar and wedding garden.  In the 18th century, German settlers arrived and the three ethnicites lived together in relatively harmony.

It wasn’t until the twentieth century that the original wooden bridge was replaced. Today, in June each year, Ráckeve takes part in the Summerfest along with the towns of Százhalombatta and Tököl. The festival’s motto is a lovely tale of bridges.

‘You have got a nice occupation’ said the little child to the old bridge builder.
‘It might be difficult to build bridges, if someone learnt it, it is easy’ said the old bridge builder. ‘It is easy to build a bridge of concrete and steel. Building other bridges are more difficult…’
‘What other bridges?’ asked the little child.
‘Building bridges from one person to another, from darkness to light, from sadness to joy. I would like to build bridges to the happy future.’
The little child said: ‘It’s a special thing you do.’