Bowled by Budapest
‘Bowled by Budapest’ is an enchanting travelogue that takes the reader on an armchair sojourn to the hot spring baths of Budapest, the Franz Listz Academy of Music named after the 19th Century Hungarian composer and Piano virtuosos Franz Liszt and the lively indoor market of Market Hall. It ends with Gita Viswanath partaking of the Hungarian dish of goulash which becomes an apt metaphor for this city of syncretism.
Who doesn’t love a love story? Especially, when it is told to you by your Airbnb host in her 100 plus year-old apartment at Terez krt 1, when you have met her for all of thirty minutes. What was so illuminating was that the love story she narrated turned out to be a starting point for my wanderings around the city of Budapest that oozes syncretism.
Zsuzsi’s great grandfather was admitted to a hospital in Russia after he was injured in World War II. While there, he fell in love with the Russian nurse who cared for him. When it was time for his discharge, he asked her to go with him to Hungary. As she did not wish to leave Russia, she refused. He returned home alone and heartbroken. A year later, he decided to try his luck and travelled to Russia, met her and proposed again. And this time, she agreed. Love triumphs always! Zsuszi’s family today is a mix of Russians, Hungarians, and Slovakians. What better way to begin a city tour?
As I had arrived in Budapest on a clear but cold morning, after travelling through three countries, I decided to head first to the Baths. Baths have been in existence in Hungary from the time of the Romans. Today, they are a major draw for travellers from all over the world. I picked one close to the apartment. I got off Tram No 6 from Oktogon and walked half a kilometre down Franklin Leo Utca to reach Kiraly Bath which is one of the oldest in Budapest. Baths are known for their unique architecture. The city sits on some 125 hot springs rich in minerals that cure joint aches, neuralgia and a host of other ailments. Despite being a veteran traveller, the mixed gender changing areas proved unpalatable for me! Looking a bit lost, I crossed men and women in various stages of undress to luckily discover an enclosed cabin. The steaming pools, though crowded, looked so inviting. I found a quiet corner for myself and sat in the warm water which in a few minutes seemed to penetrate the pores and induce a calm, soporific effect. The conversation of the two middle aged men with big paunches opposite me, which I didn’t understand, receded into the background. When I opened my eyes after I don’t know how long, I felt hungry, yet energised to take on this ancient city that goes back to the Stone Age.
Budapest by night is a fairy tale locale. Sailing in a boat on a beer and pizza ride down the Danube is like a dream. The illuminated Parliament building, also known as House of the Nation, on the banks of the river is a sight to behold. Marked by the tragedy of the architect Imre Steindl, going blind before completion of the building, this imposing structure was built in the Gothic Revival style with 40 million bricks, half a million precious stones and 40 kilograms of gold.
Even if Budapest has an excellent public transport system with its metro, trams and buses, it is still a delight to walk around the city. Aimless walking can result in the discovery of several delights. I stumbled upon the exquisite Music Academy on one of my walks. The Art Nouveau building is called Franz Liszt Academy of Music after its founder Franz Liszt, 19th-century Hungarian composer, virtuoso pianist, conductor, music teacher, arranger, organist, philanthropist, and author. Along the way, as I looked at a board outside a canine grooming parlour, I discovered a stunning similarity between Hindi and Hungarian. Dog is Kutya!
On Day 3 of my stay in the Hungarian capital, I visited Hospital in the Rock, a humbling experience indeed. Built into a cave under the Buda Castle in the 1930s to prepare for the hospitalization of injured soldiers during World War II, the hospital has been converted into a museum with wax figures to represent doctors, nurses and patients. The caverns with surgical units and emergency treatment rooms had provided a safe haven from bombardments. The stone walls tell stories of valour and grit when the Red Cross nurses had to manage patients in times of acute shortage of supplies during the siege of Budapest.
Strolling down the pedestrian street called Vaci Utca, I ended up at a grand building near Liberty Bridge, which is Budapest’s oldest Market Hall, completed in 1896 after being initiated by the first Mayor, Karoly Kamermayer. The multi-storeyed building has numerous small shops that overflow with wine, palinka, sausages, paprika, lace and embroidered purses and dresses. A total sensory delight! Filled with people from different parts of the world trying to haggle as much as they can using gestures and calculators, the indoor market is one of the liveliest places I have ever seen.
I wanted to eat where the locals eat. I found my way to a crowded two-storeyed eatery near a synagogue, the name of which eludes me. As I was relishing the goulash, Hungary’s signature dish, especially made for me in a vegetarian form, I could not help but make the connection with Zsuzi’s family. The goulash is a soup traditionally made by mixing different kinds of meat and vegetables. An ideal metaphor for syncretism, the story I began my tour with, presented itself at the end in a soup bowl.