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Stories from Hungary

Budapest, Hungary

Walking

timWith 2 million citizens, Budapest's size compares to other major cities in eastern Europe. But it seemed much larger to me, with so much to see and do that I spent half my days walking, metroing, and bussing from place to place. Transportation issues rarely seemed a drag, but rather opportunities to see more of the city besides its high points.

After spending the afternoon visiting Castle Hill's gardens, avenues, stately buildings, art galleries, and historic churches, I headed to the Fisherman's Bastion for an excellent view of the city across the Danube - admiring the river boats gliding between the solid historic buildings that line the waterfront.

I found street performers every 20 feet in some areas of Castle Hill, but they were not your garden variety chainsaw jugglers. True to Budapest's love of the arts, they all played classical music. I passed two giggly young women playing a fast-paced classical duet on matching violins. Nearby the pair, a lone flutist blew a morose tune to himself.

In the mid-day heat I ducked underground to Castle Hill's spooky Labyrinth, a cold damp collection of caves and cellars converted into a cross between an art experiment and a haunted house. Strange noises such as heartbeats, drumbeats, whimsical music, and supernatural sounds echoed from the cave walls, which were under-lit by weak bulbs strategically placed to make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. The exhibition started with reproductions from the Lascaux cave paintings in France. It then got progressively unreal, eventually highlighting archeological "finds" from Homo Consumus - an exhibit poking fun of modern humans by looking at us through the eyes of people 40 million years in the future.

Watching the visitors react to their unreal surroundings provided the most fun, especially when I inadvertently walked behind a young couple with my squeaky sandals and made them jump with fright. I laughed and said hello when I bumbled by, but they didn't shake off their look of fear. I didn't know I was that scary. top

Nighttime falls over Budapest and the Danube River, with the Erzsebet Bridge in the foreground and the Chain Bridge in the background. Nighttime in Budapest with the Chain Bridge crossing the Danube River. Nighttime in Budapest with the Chain Bridge crossing the Danube River. A view of Budapest's neo-Gothic Matthias Church on Castle Hill (Varhegy). To the left a statue of Hungar'Ys first king, St. Stephen (977-1038). A view of Budapest's neo-Gothic Matthias Church on Castle Hill (Varhegy) at night.

Szentendre, Hungary

Size Doesn't Matter

timFriends and travel guides raved about Szentendre, espousing the town's narrow winding streets and perfectly preserved atmosphere. But after I took their advice and went, I found that every other tourist in Hungary had the same idea. The narrow winding streets walled me in with crushing Japanese and American name-tag wearing tour groups playing follow the leader with an umbrella waving fast talker, and the atmosphere preserved scores of shops selling t-shirts, crafts, pottery, and knickknacks.

But I'm not being entirely fair, as the town did have a certain bit of charm. The view on Castle Hill floated me above a sea of red tile roofs and church spires. The haunting chants of a priest from the orthodox Belgrade Cathedral echoed in my consciousness all day. But of all things I saw in Szentendre today, the Microart Gallery won the award for coolness.

At just one room, the museum's small size was fitting for the type of art that they exhibited. You don't come here to see wall-stretching Guernica-sized paintings, but rather to peer through microscopes at bizarre works of art that could, and frequently did, fit on the head of a pin.

The first one I spotted featured a human hair cut lengthwise and used as a canvas, on which the word "peace" was inscribed in five languages. I might add that the handwriting on the hair looked far better than mine on a regular sheet of paper.

In another work, the artist placed four camels, a palm tree, and a pyramid in the eye of a needle. (I guess he proved in his play on words that a rich man could enter the kingdom of God.)

Sixteen perfectly formed chess pieces rested on a chessboard and modeled the real life match between two masters. The board was actually sitting on the head of a pin.

The artist drilled one human hair lengthwise, forming a tube in which he inserted a miniature rose.

In my rounds of the exhibit, the miniature gold padlock and key impressed me the most. The work was perched on the end of a human hair, which when viewed in the microscope looked the size of a large dinner plate. Not to be outdone, the artist included copies of the five moving parts inside to show you the finer details and to prove that it was indeed a working lock. top

A colorful street in Szentendre, a small Hungarian town on the Danube Bend.

Budapest, Hungary

Hot Night

timLike most of my days in Budapest, I walked all over town and felt in need of a little treat. What better place to go than the Szechenyi Medicinal Baths for a little dip in the city's famous thermal pools?

A short walk later, a cashier handed me a token and I entered through a turnstile. A gruff staffer in white pointed the way toward the men's locker room. I changed, an assistant secured my locker with a key, and I entered the maze of rooms.

The first room in the spa gave me an instant feel of what an ancient Roman bath looked like, with columns holding archways, carved marble ornamentation, and three pools of thermal hot water inviting me for a swim. I try two of them, one which was warmer than the other at a nice 100 degrees (38 C). The jet behind my back did a great job of knocking the accrued pains of travel from my sore back, but my curiosity grew after 15 minutes and I left the pool to have a look around.

The center of the large facility opened into an outside courtyard, surrounded by ochre walls and white archways. A semi-circular thermal pool sat adjacent to a square lap pool. Fountains sprayed bathers with hot water. A few pairs of half submerged men played chess on boards built into the poolside, while a much larger group watched on with unbreakable attention. Their deep tans suggested that they played here everyday. I wondered if their tans stopped at the water's level.

I walked back inside, dipping in and out of pools of various temperatures. Each room held a new surprise. The sauna opened into two rooms separated by a door. After a few minutes in the cooler room getting used to the temperature, I walked into the inner room and got hit with a blast of heat, like I had just stuck my face into a hot oven . I braved the whoosh of hot air in my face and read the thermometer on the wall, which read a blazing 150 degrees (65 C). Sweat poured from my body like someone was holding a garden hose above my head. After I couldn't take anymore, I jumped back into the 100 degree pool - to cool off.

I returned back to my hostel feeling great and ready to walk some more, which I did, photographing the magic of Budapest at night until 2 AM. top

Nighttime falls over Budapest and the Danube River, with the Erzsebet Bridge in the foreground and the Chain Bridge in the background. Nighttime in Budapest with the Chain Bridge crossing the Danube River. Nighttime in Budapest with the Chain Bridge crossing the Danube River. A view of Budapest's neo-Gothic Matthias Church on Castle Hill (Varhegy). To the left a statue of Hungar'Ys first king, St. Stephen (977-1038). A view of Budapest's neo-Gothic Matthias Church on Castle Hill (Varhegy) at night.