Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Hungary 3: When Buda Met Pest

This week's guest blogger is fantasy novelist Narrelle M Harris, author of the acclaimed vampire novel The Opposite of Life. Aptly, she's currently just a stone's throw from Transylvania...

Visiting Budapest? Yep. Taking a cruise down the wide, fast-flowing (though definitely not blue) Danube? You bet. A commentary echoing the elegance of the Blue Danube waltz? Not quite. Let me explain.

Boarding the Legenda cruise boat, my friend Celia and I settle in at the prow, don our headphones, select “English” on the chunky speaker box attached to the seats, and settle in for what we expect will be the customary droning commentary.

“On the left bank you can see the medieval church in which King So and So was crowned in 14-whatever, and on the right is the Town Hall, built in 18-blah-de-blah from a design by the famous local architect You’ve-Never-Heard-Of, yadda yadda yadda...” That sort of thing.

But Hungarian ferry cruises spurn such unimaginative fare. Instead, we are treated to a mini radio play, complete with eccentric phrasing, a dash of cheek, dashes of inappropriate content and just enough cheese to keep it flavoursome. And animated cities as our presenters.

Our audio hosts, you see, are Buda, the city’s hilly western half, played by a man who sounds disconcertingly like Simon’s Irish dad in the TV series Beautiful People; and Pest (pronounced pesht) on the east bank, voiced by a charming and vivacious English lady.

Buda and Pest banter in an affectionate way about their marriage and the bridges that were finally built to link the two sides of the great river. A little like Australia’s Albury-Wodonga, only with European class. They chaff each other like equals, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Benedick and Beatrice. She teases him about how all the girls love his castle; he tweaks her nose about her lavish cafes.

Some of the information is a little surprising. For example, Liberty Bridge is a popular suicide spot, according to Pest.

Buda also informs us that the sunbathing terrace at the art nouveau Gellért Baths has been refurbished, and once more people can watch the ladies in their swimsuits from the Citadella lookout far above. And that’s not the slightest bit creepy or inappropriate, is it?

Buda and Pest are full of mutual admiration. They comment on how they enjoy looking at each other across the Danube, though there is some squabbling over who should claim the upriver Margaret Island. The dispute is resolved by Pest firmly claiming the garden island for her own, on the basis that Buda has plenty of greenery already.

A jarring note is struck, however, whenever Pest names hotels on her side of the river. As hotel chains have inevitably changed over the years, her bold British tones are suddenly replaced by a heavily accented Hungarian voice for a word or two, somewhat shattering the illusion.

Overall, the commentary is reminiscent of the output of an enthusiastic community theatre group, with sometimes awkward and clunky dialogue offset by the home-made charm and enthusiasm of the ensemble.

And it’s actually a clever way to present entertaining information about the city’s history and architecture. For whenever Pest is speaking, we know to look east for sights like the extravagant riverside Parliament. When Buda speaks, we look toward his castle on the hills to the west. It’s a much more engaging device than the usual drone of information about buildings and dates.

In short, I find a little cheese with my ham quite delightful, while navigating the Danube. And I’m glad these two crazy Hungarian kids finally got together as the celebrity couple that is Budapest.

Narrelle M Harris stayed in Budapest courtesy of short stay apartment booking service

You can find details of Narrelle's vampire novel The Opposite of Life at her website, along with details of her other published work.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Hungary 2: Quite Continental

"That's not a continental breakfast..."

As I was growing up in rural Western Australia, occasionally travelling with my family and staying in motels, I became accustomed to the idea that a "continental breakfast" was inherently disappointing.

To the average Australian motelier, the continental breakfast consisted of a tiny cardboard box of corn flakes with some milk, along with two thin slices of toasted white bread with jam from a little sachet. If you were lucky, there might be a sachet of Vegemite as well.

Which is why it came as a pleasant surprise to finally travel in Europe and discover what a true continental breakfast was about.

To illustrate, let me take you on a tour of the breakfast board at the Hotel Korona in the city of Szeged in southern Hungary, where we recently stayed (and heartily breakfasted)...

1. An overview of the main table. As you can see, a visually pleasing spread of foodstuffs, with some nice colour variation.

2. What's this? Crisp vegetables for brekkie? Yes, it's a plate of the nicely crunchy zöldpaprika, a milder version of its spicy cousin.

3. Salami, of course, as Szeged is famous as the home of Pick Salami. If you look closely, you'll see there are two types, of slightly different colour.

4. Little warmed-up white rolls to go with the meal, with a couple of other bread varieties just off-camera.

5. Sausages and mustard. Well, it is Central Europe.

6. A tray of fried eggs with ham embedded in them.

7. Wait, what's this? Two varieties of scrambled eggs!

8. And a little parmesan cheese and a shaker of ground paprika to pep them up.

9. Crikey! There's a second table with cereals and juice!

10. Here's a bowl of some sort of berry compote to ladle on the cereal.

11. And percolated coffee. Oh well, there had to be a flaw somewhere.

12. Finally, a little shaker of powdered chocolate. Not sure what it's for, nor what you should add it to, but here it is in case you need it. Thoughtful.

"... this is a continental breakfast!" (with apologies to Crocodile Dundee)

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Hungary 1: Balaton Out of Season

There's nothing so fascinating as a holiday town out of season. For one reason or another I usually arrive in Central Europe in May; early enough for the weather to be warm, but way before high season kicks in.

That doesn't make much difference in an always popular inland city like Kraków, or a busy working city like Budapest - but boy, do you you notice the off-season lull in beach towns.

Poland's Pomeranian coastal towns are a fine example, and this week I discovered another - the Hungarian town of Keszthely, located on the shores of Lake Balaton.

At the western end of Central Europe's largest freshwater lake, Keszthely is a gracious collection of buildings left over from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including the marvellous 18th century Festetics Palace, and a pleasant waterfront along the lake.

To be frank, I savour the melancholy tone of the off season holiday town - there's something intensely bittersweet about the way it seems awkwardly poised somewhere between party and coma. And this characteristic was on full display in Keszthely's attractions...

1. Festetics Palace. This marvellous stately home, set in curving gardens, seemed grandly out of scale compared to the relatively small town about it. But when we chanced a visit on a Monday, usually the closing day for European museums, we found it open but unprepared.

It was only possible to see the interior on a tour, but no English speaking guides were available. So a rag-tag group of Australian, Italian and French visitors tagged along with a Hungarian guide, chancing our schoolday German, relying very much on context to understand what we were looking at.

We all enjoyed ourselves nonetheless, and any amount of linguistic muddle was worth the chance to see the palace's 100,000 volume library and its magnificent handcrafted shelves.

2. Torture Museum. Like many resort towns, Keszthely contains a number of small attractions designed to relieve holidaymakers of their cash in exchange for briefly enlivening their day. Kezthely's museums are, however... a little unusual. Chief among them is the Torture Museum off the main street, full of lively displays of wax figures being tormented in historically accurate ways.

And because there was only old lady minding both this and the nearby doll museum on a quiet day, we were left to our own devices within this building. All very entertaining... until a timer turned all the lights out just as I was examining the life-size depiction of the first execution by electric chair. Feeling just a bit creeped out there in the dark, the tortured souls and I.

3. Balaton Cruise. Lake Balaton is a remarkable body of water, a vast rectangular lake providing numerous seaside towns and beaches to this landlocked country. That doesn't mean, however, that it's very interesting to look at. At 3pm one afternoon we boarded an attractive old timber-decked boat, to partake of the most boring pleasure cruise I've ever been on.

The boat headed out for half an hour, giving us views of the green-grey water and the distant low greenery on the lake shore, then turned around and spent the next 30 minutes returning to the pier. Not much to look at; but we did get into an interesting conversation with a fellow passenger who had grown up in the former East Germany, from which tourists used to visit Lake Balaton and rub shoulders with their more cashed-up cousins from the West.

So that was Keszthely in the off season. A charming town in many ways, and with unexpectedly interesting museums, but still shaking off the long sleep over winter. Give it a month and it'll be jumping... but we'll be elsewhere then.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Ten Fragments of Ljubljana

I’m in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, once the northernmost part of Yugoslavia but nowadays a delightful little nation in the European Union.

It’s the first stop on a journey through Slovenia and Hungary to Poland, where I’ll be updating Lonely Planet’s Eastern Europe guidebook. My other half Narrelle Harris is accompanying me on the journey, and we’ve both been quite smitten by this pint-sized capital of a postage-stamp country.

Here are ten random fragments of Ljubljana that have taken our fancy...

1. Sleeper Cell. The below painting is part of the decoration in our cell... er, room... well, cell in the Hostel Celica. The hostel was once a military prison, built by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and used by the Yugoslav army until Slovenia’s independence in 1991. The building was saved from demolition by protesters occupying the site, then turned into a hostel with each former cell decorated by different artists.

2. Heavy Metal. The hostel is located in Metelkova, a former military garrison. After independence it became a hub of alternative culture, with nightclubs, bars and galleries dotted through the crumbling old army quarters. It’s a fascinating place to visit, and enjoys a measure of semi-official tolerance by the city authorities.

3. Quake Remake. After a devastating earthquake in 1895 levelled a fair amount of downtown Ljubljana, the city gained a number of good looking art nouveau buildings. This is the lively former bank building at Miklošičeva cesta 8.

4. Just Musing. This bust of Julija Primic gazes across a square to the statue of Slovenia’s celebrated poet France Prešeren, whose writing was inspired by Primic’s beauty.

5. Sausage Sizzle. Yes, this is a wooden model of a sausage. Don’t ask. Any resemblance to South Park’s Mr Hankey is entirely coincidental.

6. Lounging Lizards. One of four dragon statues on the aptly-named Dragon Bridge across the Ljubljanica River. The dragon is an emblem of the city, which seems a bit of a copyright infringement as Kraków, Poland, also claims it. Presumably there are enough dragons to go around.

7. Skull! Skull! A skeleton in a gibbet hanging outside the delightful Caffè del Moro, which has a charming skeletal motif. 

8. Imperial Edict. A bust of the French Emperor Napoleon, fondly remembered in Slovenia as he set Ljubljana up as the capital of his Illyrian Provinces in 1809, thus allowing a short period of Slovene independence from Austrian rule and the freedom to teach and publish in their own language.

9. Irish Passage. This piece of street art encountered unexpectedly at the train station is a monument to Irish writer James Joyce, who passed through Ljubljana in 1904.

10. Alternative Universe. Finally, here’s Metelkova again around midnight on a Friday night, when the courtyards, bars and clubs were packed with locals. It was a chilly night but a distinctly warm social scene, with people milling around drinking beer, chatting, and trying to live up to the outrageous public art above them.

Next stop: Hungary!