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Hungary anyone?

a travel blog by rickandsuejohnson


My first boss in 1968 was a research chemist by the name of Ferenc Farkas. Frank was a delightful man and extremely charming, he had left Hungary in 1957 and still missed his beloved Budapest. He told me that it was in fact 2 cities, Buda & Pest, separated by the Danube and his stories fascinated me. It may have taken me 40 or so years to get round to it but here we go!
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Arrival

Budapest, Hungary


And today's lesson is.................when you change your pin, don't forget to change the note you made of it. Embarrassment at Manchester Airport when the card I had got for this trip back in October didn't respond to the pin I thought it had. When able to think in the cool light of a pint of Guinness, I realised that I had probably changed it to something more memorable and forgotten to note it. A slight hiatus with crossed fingers at a restaurant in Buda having tried the alternative showed this to be accurate.

Although leaving 15 minutes late because some nonce had checked their baggage in but not arrived at the departure gate until 15 minutes after we were due to leave, we actually landed ahead of time some 20 minutes early. Well done Jet2.com! Mind you while seat pitch was quite generous, I got the feeling that travelling light is Jet2's watchword, we had to walk across the tarmac to (in the rain) and from the plane and every opportunity was taken to relieve passengers of the weight of their cash during the flight. I didn't use the toilet as I suspected there may be a charge for that. During the flight we were overtaken by a 4 engined jet; it is the first time I have seen this and it was fascinating.

Arrival at Ferengy was trouble free, a tiny airport everything was compact – about 20 metres from the tarmac to passport control, 5 metres to the baggage reclaim and another 10 to the exit!

Our taxi driver was waiting and he escorted us to the taxi in the pleasantly warm 23 degree temperature. He made purposefully towards the car park and then towards an isolated Lada that had seen better days. I breathed a sigh of relief as he went past. The 25 km trip to the hotel would be relatively quiet being a Sunday our driver told us. Leaving the airport, there were all the signs I had expected of a former eastern bloc nation becoming part of Europe. Areas of timewarped, charming if tired 30's & 40's building with some derelict factories gave way to a huge modern business, hotel and shopping complex.

I wondered how long the huge grey tenement blocks in the background would stay before someone realised that they spoiled the impression. The road was lined with trees on either side and I was struck by the sheer quantity of greenery around.

At the hotel we checked in and went for a wander in the immediate vicinity. Being in the old castle district of Buda we were high up over the Danube and had a fabulous view over the ramparts to Pest and the Parliament below in the evening sunshine. We found a nice place for our evening meal (11,500 HUFs!!!) and as we walked back saw the Matthias Church opposite the hotel all lit up – very spectacular.

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on May 29, 2011 from Budapest, Hungary
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Hop on - hop off

Budapest, Hungary


A walk round the old town taking in the Vienna Gate and views of the surrounding Buda Hills before catching the Hop on Hop Off Bus from the Palace about 300 metres from our hotel. A great way to get our bearings and have an idea of what we might want to return to to explore in more depth later in the week. The bus dropped (well it felt like it though it followed the road) down to the embankment and then climbed to the Citadel, past the striking Liberty statue that dominates the sky line before descending to cross the Elizabeth Bridge from Buda to Pest. Turning left along the embankment up to the beautiful Parliament Building before doubling back and taking Andressy Ut we passed the Opera and Liszt's house. Everywhere little squares with statues of famous Hungarians and impressive buildings with late 19th century facades, ornate iron worked grilling to windows and balconies. Our first 'hop off' was at 'Heroes Square' at the western end of Andrassy Ut in Pest and the entrance to the City Park complete with its own castle, zoo and thermal baths. We stopped for lunch in the park and then took the next bus to reach the Pest embankment for a boat trip to Margaret Island. Once underway the guide told us that they couldn't go to the Island due to extensive bridge work there but they would drop us off at the nearest point Bathyanay Ter. We eventually discovered the pick up point for the next Hop On (they aren't marked you just have to hope that other people are waiting too or someone selling tickets for the Tours spots you and points you to the exact pick up point!). One stop later we Hopped Off into the middle of the Bridge Works. And how did the chickens cross the four lanes of traffic plus 2 tram lines? Well they tried the sensible way first but couldn't find the right exit in the underpass and then they negotiated several pedestrian crossings before reaching the other side. A short walk along the Margaret Bridge and then on to the island. Halfway along the island Rick's pedometer gave out just after gasping '14,000 steps' – he said it was the batteries; I think it died of exhaustion!! It's a beautiful park with ruins of Fransiscan and Dominican churches (one the final resting place of Margaret the daughter of King Bela IV); a huge water park with slides, pools and trick fountains; two thermal spas and a Japanese and a Rose Garden. An hour or so and one gorgeous and very reasonable ice cream later we retraced our steps to the entrance at Margaret Bridge. You can hire bikes, or beach buggies on the island, there are several cafes and stands; 2 Wcs (100HUF entrance – standard in Budapest) and along the main path lots of drinking fountains – very handy in temperatures in the high 20s. Despite much time with TomTom, Rick's homing pigeon senses have not grown weak and with map in hand we negotiated the back streets to find our way back to the Castle district and home. The route took up us a stone staircase to the Vienna Gate – a fairly long climb of about 300 feet from top to bottom. Doesn't sound much but the backs of my legs are telling me it was! A long drink, rest and shower before heading out for our evening meal. Hungarian Beef Strips with Peppers for Rick and Pork Tenderloin Strips with Blue cheese and Vegetables for me all washed down with local draught beer – great. Looks like another hot day tomorrow. Maybe a trip to the Buda Hills on the cog railway followed by a dip in the thermal baths at Gellart.

permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on May 30, 2011 from Budapest, Hungary
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Let's try some public transport

Budapest, Hungary


Dodge the guards at Fisherman's Bastion! When we arrived on Sunday, we trotted across the square to what we thought was the ramparts and were able to walk along a part which gave excellent views over Pest. The following morning we thought it would be nice to see this in early morning light; oh no – there were a couple of burly individuals (one male the other probably not) in uniform ensuring that anyone who wanted a good view would pay for it. When we went back later that evening, they were busy counting their money and preparing for bed so we were able to have another look then. We had discovered that these ramparts are called Fisherman's Bastion. They were built between 1895 and 1902 and restored in 1947–48, after its near destruction during World War II. Its seven towers represent the seven Magyar tribes that settled in the Carpathian Basin in 896. The Bastion takes its name from the guild of fishermen that was responsible for defending this stretch of the city walls in the Middle Ages. Most fishermen I know are fairly peaceful folk, I don't know who thought it was a good idea to give them a section to defend but I confess they wouldn't have been my first choice. Anyway, to get the good view go at or after about 8pm.
Today was a day for brave acts – using public transport! Sue liked the idea in the rough guide to get on a bus to the cog railway, walk a short way to what is known at the Children's railway, then take a trip along to the end and halfway back for a short walk up to a splendid viewing tower with a chair lift back down to civilisation. To enable this and other such activities, we would purchase a travel card which would give us free transport for the duration. We duly walked down to the place where the tickets are sold and using her best pigeon Hungarian with associated signing, Sue was able to extract the requisite items – I restricted myself to saying sagely in my best Hungarian 'kurssurnurm' which is supposed to be thankyou – it got a smile anyway.
Theory was fine but the practise had a small hiccough initially in working out from where the bus actually ran to get to the cog railway. No problem for Sue who deployed a stream of her best pigeon Hungarian and gesticulation at a couple of official looking blokes in uniform who duly delivered the required information. We managed to get on the bus but now had the problem of where to get off. The book said 2 stops but hadn't mentioned anything about request stops or whether we should counts stops where we didn't. Anyway when we disembarked Sue nailed a couple of old ladies who couldn't run and deployed her language skills to good effect. We were told we had missed our stop (surprise) and would have to walk back. About 200 metres back we found where we should have alighted and crossed the road to the cog railway. A word about Budapest bus drivers; I am not aware of a Hungarian F1 driver but I am quite certain that there are a huge number of potential candidates from the bus drivers we had today. As some readers may be aware I am not averse to being a bit heavy with my right foot occasionally but I have never before heard wheelspin from a bus; I am sure I did today, frequently. And I am quite sure that there is a competition to see who can turn the bus over first from the way they corner.
Anyway as we waited on the tram, our ideas ran out of steam as a lovely couple deploying similar language skills to Sue indicated that the line was under repair from the third stop, so we wouldn't be able to go to the end and would need to get off and catch bus No. 22. While we had got the message, they were a little puzzled that we didn't alight. They would have been even more puzzled by the crazy English who went up to the third stop – and then just travelled back down again. Well we had promised ourselves a trip on the wretched train and we were jolly well going to have it. As it happens the bit we did was pretty uninspiring. Anyway, we managed to find bus No. 22 and a nice bloke who suggested that we don't try to get to the first station but aim for the second as the bus could drop us very close to that at Normafa. In fact we found the penultimate stop was right by the station.
The Children's Railway is a narrow gauge line and most of the station staff are filled by Scouts and Guides who have an interest in Railways – hence the name. I did find it a little other worldly watching a 10 year old saluting the train as he had been taught as it left the station. It was a pleasant trip on the railway climbing steadily through woodland and we left it at the second station, Janos-hegy. We had a steady uphill walk of just over 1km to get to Erzsbet look out tower. However, if our trip to lake Agnes last year rated a 9/10 for difficulty, this only managed about 3; it made us puff a bit but we didn't have to stop often.
We got some fabulous views over the city from (not quite) the top and were able to note the parliament building, the military museum, Mattyas Church and thereby our hotel. Childish but fun! We had some more fun at the cafe by the chair lift. There were a small range of foodstuffs on offer but the main ones were hotdog, hamburger, which I vaguely recognised and melegszendvics. The last sounded like some kind of sandwich, confirmed by our phrase book as toasted sandwich. I duly (and worriedly) ordered these and the surprised looking lass taking the order confirmed one each; I was pleased that she correctly interpreted the single raised digit. The word meleg, it turned out may be better translated as 'hot' because it was not a toastie as we may expect but a huge torpedo which has a minced beef sauce on it and cheese melted over it. Sue confirmed between rather unnecessarily full mouthfuls that it was very good indeed.
On the chair lift back, there was a note not to rock the chair while in motion. Given the height above ground and the lack of a safety net I felt this admonishment was rather unnecessary. Arrival at the bottom terminus left us with a short walk to a waiting bus. Sue, feeling confident and fluent by now asked how we could get to one of the cave systems and was told very precisely that we should stay on the bus until a stop called Budegyozgye, then take a No 61 tram going in the opposite direction for 2 stops before finding a No 29 bus and getting off at Outilan; once Sue had elicited the information, I did my bit and smugly said 'kurssurnurm'. Sure that we had now got the complexities of Budapest travel understood, we never even blanched – perhaps we should. Getting off at the right place was no problem, nor was finding the tram going in the right direction or indeed, after some discussion, getting on the right bus going in the right direction. No our problem was the old one of knowing the right stop! We duly alighted several stops after we should have done near to the cave system that is in fact closed today. We had a 1.25 km walk to the other one, the first half km retracing our steps or rather wheels.
The Palvolgi Stalactite caves were originally carved from the rock by rising thermal waters that subsequently powered the Budapest hot springs rather than the more common rain drainage. We only toured a small part of the huge complex but what we did was extensive and I'm tempted to say 'fantastic', Dad. In the course of a half hour tour we went up and down through some vivid underground landscapes at one point having to climb a 7 metre ladder. The temperature in the caves is a steady 10 degrees which was a welcome relief from the 30 degrees outside, but we were glad to have brought some warm clothing.
When we got out we noticed there was a bus nearby and undaunted or perhaps enboldened by our earlier efforts jumped on the first going in roughly the right direction. This took us to a square we had never heard of so we jumped on another that was going somewhere we had. From here we felt we should have a go at a form of transport we hadn't tried before so jumped on a metro which took us to Moscow Square from where we were able to get a bus right back to the front door of the hotel. Public transport here is absolutely excellent; relatively cheap, incredibly frequent (usually today we had a maximum 10 minute wait even well out of the centre) very reliable and rather unnecessarily quick. It operates largely on a trust system so nobody checks you have a ticket as you board saving a huge amount of time over the course of a journey. UK take note.
For our evening meal tonight we thought we should try a little restaurant hidden away behind the main drag not far from the hotel. As we looked at the menu it looked pretty good and noticed a violinist playing (rather well to my untutored ear) some classical and classic music. We duly ordered and when the only other diner (!) vanished, we found ourselves treated to the undivided attentions of aforesaid violinist. Now I don't mind a bit of music as I eat but I found his attemps to get eye contact somewhat unnerving and the final straw came when he appeared with a 2000 forint bill stuck in the neck of his strad. This was taking unsubtlety to a new level but I was up to the job and looked him in the eye – not difficult as he was only a foot away at this point. I told him he played well and asked how long he had been playing. Misinterpreting my interest he told me that he was a gypsy violinist – my 'oh really?' was greeted with a virtuoso performance of recognisable and very nice hungarian folk music. I duly applauded and thanked him afterwards but he was confused but the lack of cash forthcoming so retreated to the interior of the restaurant. We paid our bill and left. You can't lever cash out of a Johnson by trying to embarrass them into it, we have too much experience of the state.


permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on May 31, 2011 from Budapest, Hungary
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A good day out

Budapest, Hungary


We've been keeping a close eye on the weather forecast with the idea of saving the places we want to visit that will mean being inside for a rainy day. Day by day the prediction of rain and thunder storms has moved back towards Thursday, which will be our last full day, so we decided to take another day out of town, this time to Szentendre 20 kms North of Budapest on the banks of the Danube. It is mentioned as the most easy place to visit outside Budapest in the Rough Guide and 40 mins later we arrived via the HEV suburban railway at this pretty little town. The plan was to combine the trip with a visit to the Hungarian Open Air Museum 4 kms out of town. The buses don't run there between 10am and 1 pm so we spent a couple of hours wandering the back streets and walking down to the river. There is major construction work going on in the village square and we felt sorry for one particular restaurant right in front of the fenced off area with diggers and drills working away – surprise, surprise they had no customers! Back to the bus station and thank goodness for our guide book which has place names also written in Hungarian so we are able to point out where we want to go and everyone, without fail, has tried to help us or called someone else over to see if they can understand what it is we want. Tickets purchased we boarded the bus and found that our stop was ¾ of the way round a circular route only operating in one direction. We arrived at the Museum just before 2 pm and downed 2 large beers (well one each!) and some lovely scone like bread before wandering round. The park is set out with buildings typical of the different regions that comprised old Hungary.
Before the Treaty of Trianon at the end of the First World War Hungary's territory included some of what is now within Bosnia, Serbia, Transylvania and Romania. Most of the buildings that we decided to concentrate on dated from 1800s onwards. It was surprising to note that in the early 20th century many villages had typically thatched houses , with fairly spartan furnishing.
Temperatures around 30º again and not a black cloud in sight, we made our way back. All the transport is right on time and really reasonable – thumbs up to Hungary. Our 7 day pass cost 4,600 ft (£13 approx) and we only had to pay a slight supplement to make the journey beyond the city district today. The pass covers buses, trams, metro and HEV to the city limits; most of the little buses that operate in the city centre are not in the first flush of youth - indeed most of the transport has been well used and worked hard so has a rather care worn look about it. As we exited the metro station to catch the bus back to our hotel it started to rain and as I type the last rolls of thunder are fading away. It's certainly cleared the air. After a glass of Tokay courtesy of the manager (we had had to change rooms – a faulty air conditioning unit) we headed out towards the Palace Buildings at the opposite end of Varhegy for our evening meal – possibly the best yet. A platter for 2 to share with assorted meats, rice, vegetables and french fries.
The Palace (now the National Museum) and the President's official residence are floodlit at night and we wandered into the inner courtyard, which has been set up for a Lipizzana Horse Show. With very few other people there it almost felt like stepping back in time to the grandeur of the 18th and 19th centuries. This is such a beautiful city!
Rain or not we are planning to visit the Parliament Building, St Stephen's Basilica and the State Opera House tomorrow!


permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on June 1, 2011 from Budapest, Hungary
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Pest

Budapest, Hungary


I was intrigued. How could it stay in place like that? It started from a single point just above and to the rear of the centre point of his left ear and radiated over the whole of his pate. There was a clear demarcation line between the slate grey covering and the white hair at the borders; the slate grey part was immaculately formed with not a hair out of place. This begged the question – is it an elaborate comb over or a poorly designed hairpiece? Whatever the answer led to a whole subsidiary set of questions that had occupied me over breakfast for the last couple of days. Like how did it stay in place, did he have to be careful about the direction of the wind and why didn't he colour all his hair the same colour, inter alia. There were a group of German guests at the hotel and this man was one of their number. I had noticed him (who wouldn't ) at breakfast a couple of days ago and was trying not to look too intrigued while searching for clues.
'So we'd better get to the parliament building quite early' Sue broke into my reveries, reminding me that we were due to spend the day in Pest and the questions never were answered. I'm sure that it was just a vicious and particularly poorly executed, desperate combover.
In the event, we discovered when we arrived at the parliament building that you can only buy tickets for that day and that by about 10, when we got there, they had all gone. It was not clear from the guide book that to stand any chance you had to be in the queue by 8am. Suddenly we had an extra hour to play with; it didn't take us long to re-think our day. The square outside parliament has a number of interesting memorials commemorating several events in the 20th C which are worth a tour before moving on. Next stop was at the touchingly eerie memorial to Jews murdered by the Arrow Cross as the Russians approached Budapest. Lined up by the Danube, they were told to take off their shoes and coats before they were shot and dumped in the river. The coats and shoes were distributed to German citizens. The memorial takes the form of apparently discarded shoes by the riverside, the shoes being made of iron. The memorial is just to the south of the parliament building and requires either a bit of a detour to cross a major road or taking your life in your hands. Perhaps unsurprisingly it didn't seem well visited when we were there.
The next stop was the beautiful, refurbished Gresham Palace. This exquisite art deco place was originally built as an up market building of shops, offices and apartments by Gresham Life, an English life assurance company. Neglected and falling into disrepair from the 40's to the millennium, it has been tastefully and lovingly restored using wherever possible using the original methods and workshops and reopened in 2004 as a Four Seasons Hotel.
Just around the corner is St Stefan's Basilica. The external architecture is impressive with its huge dome. This is the second dome, the first one crashed in while being built because someone got his sums wrong. Apparently, when the King visited for the first time, he was seen to glance nervously at the ceiling. Inside it is highly decorated and quite beautiful if somewhat OTT. Yet again I found myself thinking that the cost of all the decoration could perhaps have been better spent in a truly civilised society. But this is equally true of the cost of our travelling, so who am I to judge?
We stopped for a nice lunch at a cafe outside the Great Synagogue behind which there is a memorial garden to Raoul Wallenberg. The only entrance to the garden is through the synagogue and you had to pay to go in, so we didn't visit the garden. However, from the street we managed to see the steel weeping willow in the garden, each leaf of which is inscribed with the name of a holocaust victim.
Our next stop was the Opera House, which is yet another beautiful piece of architecture. We took the guided tour (only way to get in other than go to a performance). Our tour was for a large party of people who wanted to do it in English. There were 3 Italian women who didn't stop yabbering at the top of their voices to each other all the way round; I don't know what they understood or why they bothered. Try as I might none of Harry Potter's best spells seemed to work on them. Even my best Paddington Bear stare didn't slow them down! The tour was none-the-less very interesting and the guide very informative. At the top of the royal staircase, there is a huge mirror and the reason for it being there is apparently royal protocol meant that a royal personage could only look to their front; the mirror meant that they could observe the scene without turning their heads! The interior decoration is fabulous; apparently they used 3 kilos of gold leaf when restoring it. While it was being built, the Opera House in Vienna burned down killing 400. The lessons were incorporated into this building and it has a steel safety curtain, doors that open outwards and so on.
The final stop in Pest was at the vast under cover Market Hall. The lower level has all the usual fresh produce you could want and upstairs there are lots of boutique outlets and masses of souvenir stalls, most of which are pretty tasteful. It's certainly a good place to go for a wide range of souvenirs in one place. Competition from the many stallholders probably keeps the prices down.
After our shopping, it was a quick dash across Liberty Bridge on a tram to have a quick look at the Gellert Hotel & Baths – some more rather nice Art Deco architecture. The original plan had been to take in one of the baths at some point but we were running out of time. Road works meant that we had quite a walk to the next bus stop and make our way back to the hotel for a quick shower and change to get down to the theatre below Fishermen's Bastion where we had booked seats for an evening of Folk Dance & Song. It was a warm evening and we were sorry for the performers who must have sweated buckets as they stomped, stamped and twirled through an hour and a half of strenuous physical exercise. Think Riverdance meets barndance with a bit of clogdancing and lederhosen thigh slapping thrown in and you'll get the picture. I'm sure all the steps were authentic but I suspect the choreography was for dramatic effect rather than an expression of fun as originally intended; certainly the peasants from whom the culture evolved wouldn't have had the energy to deliver what these professionals managed.
When it finished there was a brief debate about where to go for dinner, it being 10pm. We decided to go to the nearest restaurant and were allowed in, although our waiter was not entirely happy about it. He certainly headed off a party of 6 that tried to get in shortly afterwards and sent them packing. The restaurant was called something like the Fisherman, surprisingly enough specialising in fish dishes which we thought would make a nice change. Our waiter was economically efficient and made no effort to make us feel welcome; our meal when it arrived was pleasant enough but not particularly memorable. If 10% service hadn't already been added to the bill, we wouldn't have added a tip. All that remained was for us to climb up the hill to the base of Fishermen's Bastion and then up the steps to the top. By the time we reached our room on the second floor we were certainly ready for bed.


permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on June 6, 2011 from Budapest, Hungary
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All good things come to an end

Budapest, Hungary


Our final day. Some last minute gifts to buy, having stowed our luggage behind reception, and then off to visit the Labyrinth and the Hospital in the Rock. The Labyrinth is a maze of underground caves, part of a 10km system which was carved out aeons ago by the action of the thermal waters in the limestone escarpment on which Old Buda is built. Currently it has been converted into a tourist circuit of sections of interconnecting chambers reflecting the various uses to which the caves have been put. Strange to think that when we were traipsing round the streets these caves were right beneath us. I guess we had been spoilt by our trip to the Palvolgi caves earlier in the week but a few statues placed here and there to convey the era of the caves and a particularly quirky section with reflections on how we were now homo consumerens didn't really seem worth the trip. However another section of the caves was fascinating – the Hospital in the Rock. It was converted into a hospital during WWII, used again in the Hungarian Uprising (1956-57) and finally kitted out as a nuclear bunker in the early 60s. Our young guide spoke fluent, faultless English and over a 45 minute tour gave a comprehensive account of what conditions would have been like for the patients and the elaborate and secretive plans for sustaining life beneath this part of the city in the event of a nuclear attack. The generators controlling the filtration system use petrol and this was secretly delivered by people posing as gardeners pretending to water flower beds when they were in fact connecting one pipe to the underground fuel reservoir whilst watering with another.
It was about 1.30 pm when we reached the restaurant just round the corner from the hotel where we had been on our second evening meal. It had obviously been a busy shift and our waiter was decidedly grumpy, so we just ate our salads and made our way to the coffee shop and patisserie, Ruzworm, two doors further up the street for our first pudding (we had been so full in the evenings after our main course each evening). We were able to sit outside but I managed to catch a glimpse of the interior when I went in to pay. It apparently is the oldest patisserie in Budapest and has some fine period furniture from the late nineteenth century to match. We both had a chocolate and marzipan shortcake like pastry – yummy! A quick last look at the Fisherman's Bastion and the promenade facing the Buda hills before returning to the hotel for our taxi. Istvan arrived promptly and we were at the airport within half an hour.
How did the 5 days go so quickly? We have seen so much but only really scratched the surface. We both think it is one of the most beautiful capitals we have visited so far. We wouldn't hesitate to recommend it. One thing I don't think we've mentioned, Health and Safety. We found it refreshing to see cobbled streets with uneven cobbles, even some missing and the odd hole in the pavement. There were some sections of the caves at Palvolgi that would definitely have been out of bounds in Western Europe. We wondered how long it would be before the Hungarians got caught up in the consumerism that inevitably led to people expecting compensation for lack of intelligence or judgement on their part. So don't delay your visit to enjoy this beautiful city.


permalink written by  rickandsuejohnson on June 7, 2011 from Budapest, Hungary
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