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Budapest in Sixteen Sketches.

1.  If Budapest strikes you as a strange place to take a retreat, think again. First, there are the curative thermal baths all over town that have been there since the Ottomans. That was my first aim. Then there’s the fabulous art culture, there’s the opera, the theatre, the music, there’s the rich architecture and the grand Viennese-styled coffee shops. Lastly, I wanted to go to a place that I didn’t know and where no-one knew me or cared, a place in which I could lose myself. Of course, it helped that in the trashier French costume dramas I used to watch, the femme fatale was always an exotic ‘ Hungarian Countess’. Perhaps I’d spot one as I did a geisha in Kyoto? Yes, Budapest. You don’t expect me, a person of fragile urban sensibilities, to take a retreat in some natural backwater with some guru presiding over some 12 stage programme or other, do you? How do you know me?

Chain Bridge Budapest

Budapest – Chain Bridge

Budapest parliament at night

Hungarian Parliament Buildings at Night

2.  I go for a bath treatment to the Radas baths dating from the 16th century. I stupidly forget my costume in my flat so have to hire one, Calvin Klein briefs not quite allowed or squaring with the Turkish feel of the place. The architecture of the old section is pure Ottoman, you can feel the Turks as you lurk about in the octagonal central bath and look up at the pierced dome. This is deep repair, something for the soul. At some stage I taste the water coming out of a pipe. It is warm and slightly sulphorous. There are both regulars and tourists out today. I amble from pool to pool and immerse myself in the different waters, absorbing not only the warmth but the magical powers they seem to impart. When I’m done I go to an old fashioned shower and pull on a rope which empties a large wooden tub of cold water over me alla turca. The flood washes away most of the gunk I’ve come to wash away in Budapest, which I shake off in shivers.

Buda castle

– Budapest Castle from my Danube Bench

3.  In the novel thrill of being in Budapest I start thinking that Hungary is a great country, having great art, architecture, culture, all – perhaps even the greatest country in the world – a taxi driver brings me down to earth. He wryly says that nothing is produced in Hungary anymore. After communism the best businesses were sold and now everything is produced elsewhere, only sold in Hungary. There are no great brands in Hungary. Do I know of any? Franz Liszt and goulash come to mind, but these are not really brands. However the Germans, he says, the Germans produce everything. That is the country that matters. Germany. There, they make things. Indeed. I cast my mind over the German items I possess. My car, my pianos, my fridge, my washing machine, my dishwasher, my… Practically every big ticket item I possess is German.   I reconsider: No, Hungary is not quite the greatest country in the world.

1 Political poster, Budapest
– Political Poster – and protesting graffito

4.  I catch a Cage aux Folles type show in which only Hungarian is spoken. Not a word sticks. Hungarian is not an Indo-European language despite being entirely surrounded by them. Which means that according to linguists, ancient Sanskrit, Gothic and Macedonian are closer to English than is Hungarian. Hungarian is an agglutinative language of the Uralic family of languages. At least the alphabet is Roman but is menacingly full of diacritical marks. There is the odd word of Greek or Latin origin one discerns: Január, óra, múzeum, galéria, McDonalds, Viagra. Apart from that nothing of Magyar sticks, to the extent that if I were to hear it anywhere again I would not recognise it as such. Luckily the younger generation all speak some English as they seem to be doing everywhere. The more I travel the more I realise that there are increasingly only two languages in the world: Bad English, and Foreign.

Cage Aux Folles Huingarian style

Cage aux Folles, Hungarian style


5.  My flat is quite close to the Carpe Diem nightclub at the top of Váci utca, the trendy street in the centre of Budapest. Every time I walk past it the nightclub tout tries to get me to go in, which I of course decline, remembering that I’m here on a retreat after all. On the third night he’s at it again. “Nightclub sir, nice girls!” “No thank you.” “I can see you’re suffering Sir and I can help you. I have the solution. Nice girls!” “Man is born to suffer” I dismiss, walking on.” “And you know what, you’re suffering more than yesterday. I can solve your problem. Really nice girls!” he offers.
Carpe Diem Bar

6. The Budapest Opera house is truly magnificent, so is their Opera culture. I could have watched four operas the week I was there, two of which I take in, viz. Cosi van Tutti and Falstaff. And what a programme they have, and what a venue. In Cape Town we probably mount six grand operas a year. I think they put on that many in a month. The opera culture seems to be widespread too. A portly art dealer spots my opera ticket while I’m paying for a work of art. “Which opera are you going to see?” “Falstaff”. “Falstaff? A good opera. I am in fact Falstaff, you must have noticed”, he says, patting his tummy. “My friends all call me Falstaff!”

Budapest Opera House

Budapest Opera House

7. Coming out of my flat I spot Dorothea on the opposite balcony, who is out smoking. Dorothea’s from Serbia. “Good tennis players in Serbia” I say across the quad. She’s here to study law, and is then going back. “Is the law in Hungary the same as in Serbia?” I ask. “No, it is not, it is different”, she says, giving me one of those shrugs that signals the redundancy that we all entertain at stages in our lives. At this, she takes a deep drag from her cigarette, tilts her head backwards and blows away that-in-her-life-which-can’t-be-helped on a fine jet of smoke.

Smoking Socks

Debonair Smoker with Socks matching Jersey

8.  To the Hungarian National Art Gallery in the Buda Castle. This houses the famous Secessionist paintings such as ‘Jealousy’ but what grabs me are the more modern art pieces like ‘Red Spot’, in which a red spot blots out the landscape. For, you see, we all have a blind spot in our lives. And the blindest spots we have are those we refuse to see.  I also attend a fascinating ‘Sound Art’ exhibition where the art is essentially room-sized installations that produce art as sound. The first exhibition consists of a room with hundreds of speakers hanging from the ceiling each emitting buzzing clicks. It’s like being in the midst of an army of deranged insects. The next room has an engaging installation but no sound. The note on the table says “We apologise for the technical problem’. Yes, it’s as in life. The machinery sometimes breaks. There’s always some technical problem or other.



Blind Red Spot

Blind Red Spot

Alex at sound art Exhibition Budapest

In the Sound Art Exhibition

1 Sound Technical Problem

Broken Machine, Sound Art

9.  Of course there’s the food and the goulash and the deer sausage and the mangalica hams and the goose livers and the foie gras… You must buy some paprika to take home, in which the country specialises. One must take a champagne breakfast at the New York café which justifiably touts itself as the most beautiful coffee house in the world. The Gerbeaud coffee house is worth a peek. It’s all very grand. Watch how you pay. There are 2000 and 20000 forint notes, easily confused in wad of notes in a dark taxi.

1 Goulash

Goulash anyone?

10.  There are certain laws I just have to break. At the Museum of Music History I’m told not to touch the piano on which the great Franz Liszt himself played. Now there is no way I was born to ever obey that rule. The moment the guide turns her head, my hands, as if guided by forces beyond my volition, dash straight for the keys. I swear I had nothing to do with it. There, right under my fingertips, are the keys the great man himself touched. An indescribable buzz cuts through me.

Franz Liszt piano

Franz Liszt’s Piano

11. On my way back from the folk dancing I pass a dark little square and am approached by a woman. I quicken my pace. She ups hers. “Good evening Sir, where are you going, what are you doing in Budapest?” “Retreat. And you?” “I’m working. Please slow down sir.” “Well if you want to chat you’d better match my pace” I say, already slowing down. “What is your name?” “Alex. And yours?” “Carmen.”   “Oh, like the opera!” I reply, it being Budapest. “Well sir, as I said, I am working”, she says in a soft voice. I look at her face. It is young, smooth and attractive. Dimples break across her cheeks when she smiles and her dark hair sways in the breeze. It’s getting cold. We keep walking. “It’s a cold night”, she says, “and I have a warm supple body. Where are you staying? I could come with you. We could do anything. We’ll take a shower and warm up and have a drink and I can give you a massage, you can just lie back relax, you don’t have to do anything, it will be nice, you’ll see, and we can take it from there.” She continues walking with me, bargaining and talking. “Carmen, no thank you, not tonight.”

She tries to convince me again. She says she’ll be worth it, I’d see. She continues in a persuasive yet unaggressive tone. For 30000 forints (120 US dollars 1350 ZAR) she will come with me. “Take me, I am good and have a good body… You will enjoy it… You will have a good time. If you say no you will regret not having gone with Carmen. You will later think about me and be sorry you had not taken me.” She looks at me pleadingly (one felt more for my sake than for hers). I wobble but find the composure to say no. She looks at me in the street lights. “No? Are you sure?” “Life has taught me never to be sure of anything” I limply retort. I have to fight to resist her charms, her beautiful young face, the cold, her soft voice, her cheeks, white teeth, dark hair and red red lips… “But I don’t think tonight, thank you Carmen.” “Sure?” “Sure.” At that she slowly turns around and walks back.

I watch her for a long time and then drop my eyes onto the cold Budapest flagstones glimmering in the drizzle and onto the sharp, silver curb. It is six degrees in Budapest and falling, colder with the wind-chill. I’m in Budapest on a retreat. The wind chill is bad. It is six degrees, six degrees Celsius, six cold degrees on every thermometer in Budapest, all dropping fast.

Water Glockenspiel Budapest

Water Glockenspiel Budapest

12. I visit the Jewish synagogue, the largest in Europe, as well as the Jewish museum next door. I take the tour. Hungary had a large Jewish population which suffered badly in the Second World War. There were the deportments, the terror of the Budapest ghetto, the forcing of Jews to identify themselves by emblazoning yellow stars on their chests, like branded cattle; the safe houses run by kindly souls at great risk, and other unspeakable things. I get heavily downcast. I manfully stand up to the reality of the tour but want out, it’s too cloying, I want to get out into the streets. I can’t handle much of this. I’m here to restore myself after all.

Budapest Jewish synagogue

Budapest Synagogue

13. Breakfast at the Budapest Bistro. Gábor is my waiter. I spot Tokaji aszú wines on a shelf and I ask him whether he can arrange for a wine tasting this early in the morning. He checks with his manager and reports that I’m lucky because, owing to a celebratory event the previous night, they have a wider range of Tokaji than usual. Gábor knows his wines and I sense enjoys my appreciation of them. The sweet Tokaji wines, the great wines of Hungary – in much the same vein as the German Rieslings – all have to do with the natural sweetness that can be extracted from the grapes. The grape varietals used are Furmint, Harslevelu and Sárga Muskotály (Muscat Blanc) and the wines are botrytised. The sweetness of Tokaji aszú (botrytised) wines is indicated in ‘puttonyos’, a puttonyo being a large basket used for harvesting grapes. Wines range from 3 to 6 puttonyos, three puttonyos indicating 25g/l of residual sugar. The last wine I taste is a special Eszencia wine, one of the rarest wines on earth. With around 800 g/l of residual sugar, it is so sweet and so low in alcohol that it hardly qualifies as wine at all. It is, in essence, the undiluted, barely fermented juice of botrytised berries (See e.g http://www.wine-searcher.com/regions-tokaj). Gábor tells me the bottle I’m tasting costs well over 100 Euros a bottle. I have never tasted anything like it. It’s an ambrosial liquor that arrests my being in a glowing quiet. Gábor suggests that if I take anything home from Hungary, it should be this.

Tokaji Aszu

Tokaji Aszu and Eszencia

New York Coffee House Budapest

New York Cafe House, Budapest


14. To the Art Gallery where among the masters I once again see is my friend Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes. To you he is the great Spanish artist Goya (1746 – 1828) whom I had last seen in Buenos Aires. And here he is again, protesting against the ravages of Napoleon, depicting gruesome war in all its suffocating terror. Now someone like Napoleon can go pigging around the continent, pillaging and plundering, spreading misery and killing millions in the process, but there’ll be people who will hold up a mirror to the horror and say no, stop, look, LOOK! People with a conscience and a silent scream, like my friend Goya. But I don’t dwell too long on Goya’s protest pieces, they aren’t doing me much good today, so I move on quickly to his portraits and to the bucolic paintings of the Dutch masters in the next hall. After all, I’m in Budapest on a retreat.

1 Goya depicting War

Goya and War

15. I chance upon Nánda’s art gallery just opposite the jazz speakeasy Fat Mo’s. I look through the window and am taken by her art, an assemblage of the grotesque and the sublime (see stosselnanda.hu). I walk in and am met by a slim, smiling woman with an incredible feminine softness and a languor of speech. Her studio has an otherworldly smell about is, and her pieces, essentially beings, are also from other worlds. Unlike Nánda, none of them smile, and her unique creatures are either beautiful and unsmiling or of such grotesqueness that you are engrossed by their ugliness. I am captivated and drawn. In a flight of immoderation I want to take them all home with me but find my restraint. I want to do business with Nánda, asking how many pieces she can organise for me to ship home. She says she can only sell me what I can take home with me on the plane. If I wanted more I myself would have to organise with Fedex or DHL. But she is a gallery owner, could she not perhaps organise this? No, she is an artist and cannot run around town organising such things. She has to sculpt. It’s a mad attitude from a western business perspective. So we wrap up two pieces I choose after much agonising. I pay in Euros and as she has no change, she directs me to a bank. I even have to go to the bank myself! To understand Nánda’s business attitude, I cast my mind back to a series of lectures I once attended on Central Europe. The speaker said that though Central Europeans look like Western Europeans on the face of it, the architecture of everyday life is very different, its having being tainted by a few generations of communism. It’s clear that Nánda still operates in this orbit. She is an artist with a capital A, a sensitive soul. She douses my acquisitive frustration once again by saying I am doing the right thing by only buying two pieces. “Don’t worry, Alexander”, she says softly, “when you come again I will have more nice pieces for you. Please take only two now. It’s better for you.” So I take the bag with my two cherished pieces, giving two others I had to leave behind a longing last look before bidding Nánda adieu.

Nanda Grotesque

Nanda Grotesque

Nanda Creatures

Nanda Creatures

16.  One of my goals, ever since reading about the Széchenyi baths, was to play a game of chess in the hot waters as has been played there for generations. At the baths I spot men playing. There is a free chess board so I ask one of them in slow English for a game. I’m ignored. I sit patiently for them to finish their game, then ask again. I’m waved away. Look, I say, my eagerness to play is not to win, but to give myself the experience. Only a short game, I’m not good at all. No, they gesture in emphatic Hungarian, they are partners, they play together; I if want to play I need to get a partner. They start another game, leaving me to hunt for a partner. I’m careful not to approach just anybody. One of the things to avoid in Budapest, my guidebook says, is men befriending you in the baths. The interest they feign is usually sexual, it says. And now here I was, an innocent of the purest intent as you know me gentle friends, simply looking for a game, having to distinguishing myself from your typical prurient meddler. I approach my potential opponents carefully, wading around the bath. I avoid couples because the last thing a lover wants is the body of their lover removed from their feel in that luscious water. The first man I approach is a big American who in a military tone says thank you for asking but he doesn’t play. But thank you for asking! My next request is aimed at an effete youth languishing navel-up in the water, eyes on the zenith, soaking up what little sun there is. “Excuse me, do you play chess?” He comes out of his daze, blinks, asks me to repeat and when I do, slowly, he grimaces, says noooooooo and slinks back into the water. He had clearly heard the line before. What do I all put myself through to secure my experiences? What indignities do I suffer! Who next? I lose heart and return inside to the plunge pools. But I wasn’t to give up that easily. I go back and I spot a guy watching a chess game intently with his girlfriend. I approach him and he consents. “I don’t really play, I just want the experience” I say. “OK”. We set up the board. The girlfriend’s OK with it too. He is Josh from Ottawa. He is studying French in Lille. I say merci and bonjour Josh. Josh plays chess even more badly than I do. I win the game but he’s such a gentleman I wish I had lost. Most importantly, I got to play.

 Széchenyi baths

Széchenyi Baths, Budapest

Chess Opponent Josh

My Chess opponent at the baths


How many quarries were razed to supply Budapest with stone? Once the capital of a great empire more than twice its current size, as many Hungarians wistfully tell me, Budapest remains grand, the one building more imposing than the next. What all goes into making a great city? It is what one sees? Or is it rather what one feels? I don’t know. But that’s about all I have to relate of my experiences there for now. Oh, I could have given you more, like the bench on the banks of the Danube where I took my daily sundowner, the bustle of the central market, the galleries in Falk Street, the engrossing Secessionist architecture et.seq. For that, however, I leave you to the expert guidance of the Lonely Planet, Fodor’s and Eyewitness guides.

Budapest is a great city. Go there.