Every now and then, I drag poor Tin Dog and any other fools I can find to foreign lands such as Chernobyl for a bit of "Boys Own" and an explore, this one was all a bit last minute.
Well, over again to the ever wordy guest writer Tin Dog....
Well, over again to the ever wordy guest writer Tin Dog....
The journey is half the trip, so they say. They have never had to endure
airport. A connecting flight is just in the way of a destination. Brussels airport is an airy
warehouse, populated by display model citizens. It should be twinned with any
corporate mall anywhere and includes the identikit orifices (offices?) that
have spattered every city in the world. Brussels ’
airport was horrific, in an IKEA manner. Brussels
There are endless escalators with directions to hither and thither in Flemish - it’s designed just for fun.
Not yours or mine, of course.
At the tail end of the waiting hordes a pilot and his crew sashayed their way past us, gate bound and expecting speedy boarding and access all areas.
The windows of the passport control booths were only twenty metres away when they saw the whites of the pilot’s eyes. A border guard somehow raised himself above a custom’s desk booth to look down from on high, casting his petulant eye over the unwashed mob from a raised vantage.
Shouts and demands were made from both sides, in languages unfathomable. It soon descended into the language of swearing and threats, English. The stand off was revealed.
The self aggrandising flight captain of Michelle De Souris Airways had made a vainglorious entrance, to jump the enormous passport control queue.
A small man in black slacks, white shirt with packet creases and a giant, gold braided, peaked captain’s hat had demanded preferential treatment. We could all tell that he was frightfully important because of his fabulously giant hat and the phalanx of cheaply glamorous flight crew. Undaunted, our border guard proceeded to calmly and firmly stand his ground.
“You all have to queue.” stated our new hero, with the emphasis on all.
“We are crew and have dispensation.” The Captain made his stand. He was indignant and assertive, like a child denied his toy.
“You have no special dispensation if you are not piloting a flight. You are passengers.”
“We are flight crew and demand our right to board.”
“It’s not your flight. You are passengers. You must join the queue.”
This went on for a while. I’ve never enjoyed bureaucratic tennis so much in my life.
border man would have none of it. The banana republic captain was outraged. In
front of an already disgruntled audience this was a fine diversion. The Brussels ’ border held
firm and Captain Big Hat was held back and embarrassed in front of his overly fragrant
They wiggled on arrival and turned on him as they stomped away, to the outer reaches of the airport where the queue was rumoured, by this time, to be at.
He slunk away, his wheeled suitcase between his legs. The pouting crew stamped in high dudgeon after him – the babbling of complaints by humiliated women grew louder as they moved away. They were so annoyed that they were not obeying the laws of physics.
Hundreds of us cattle in transit cheered and applauded, quietly, internally, in silence. Standards must e’er be maintained. We still had our dignity after all, for now.
After checking into our digs opposite The Tesla Museum in the Jewish quarter, we needed a night out. Tesla was closed for renovation but the bars weren’t. Aimlessly wandering the labyrinthine streets, past shuttered shops and seedy bars with huge, intimidating door staff, we happened on a place Frag had read about back in Blighty.
Szimpla ruin pub.
The ‘ruin pub’ is a peculiarly Hungarian idea and all the more brilliant for it.
is stacked with huge, magnificent, ornate buildings so majestic that only an
empire could have built them. The city at its height must have been
spectacular; full of boulevards and leafy squares, no corner is without an
enormous bronze statue of a composer, king or warrior - Budapest ’s
Recent times are not so grand and many of these fantastic buildings are elegantly wasting away and unused. Enterprising and imaginative entrepreneurs have decked out the interiors with art collective decorations; bars, bands, films, food and DJ’s, all laid on to entertain and turn a coin.
Szimpla is the first, biggest and best of these ruin pubs. Situated in a seedy side street, it occupies the middle of a large tenement building. The door is a gaping hole in brick, leading to heavy, plastic meat curtains found in factories and warehouses. Everything is cracked, crumbling and graffiti covered. The walls are slashed with leprous scars. If you can keep your nerve and enter, you have done yourself a favour.
Once inside, we were confronted by a twisted wonderland. A long bar selling every kind of ruin on one side faced a decrepit staircase leading to more bars on the second floor. The front of the building is roofed, the back is not. A screen the size of a removal’s van showed black and white Soviet era information films. Punters sat in an old roofless Trabant, smoking, opposite a hookah bar. A room walled in flat screens shuddered and swirled like a kaleidoscope in time to the music. Posters for gigs long gone papered the walls and sculptures hung in between. Neon tube lighting snaked through the collaged walls. It looked like all the skips in
had been emptied
and the contents given to second year art students. The atmosphere was
surprisingly unthreatening. We found a table and kept the drinks flowing,
whilst shouting over the ninja tunes music. The rest is quite blurry. The crowd
swayed and frooged and generally got down with their bad selves. Settling in,
we had a night as big as the monuments in Budapest
The morning after the night before. It’s never clever is it? Never again until the next time, or Tuesday, as we became forced to call it. To say we’d gone for it is an understatement. At home I would have made it no further than my kitchen the day after a night like that. I wasn’t at home, I was in eastern Europe with Frag. He is intrepid and nothing can stop him.
Put your boots on and walk.
We wandered the empty Sunday city seeing the sights and felt ill. After eating in a Lebanese café for no other reason than it was called Titiz, we made for
Avenue. More of a boulevard than an avenue, it is
the grandest street in the city. It’s broad enough to march a glorious,
imperial army down, should you feel the urge.
Café’s straight out of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy have polished, dark wainscoting and leather sofas with cake stands and doilies - next to shops selling weapons banned in most Western European countries. Need a sword, a suit of armour, a throwing star, nunchuks, an enormous military knife, vintage Luger, crossbow, long bow, assault rifle, sniper sights, infra-red night goggles, garrotte with moulded, plastic handles? Now you know where to go.
You bloody lunatic.
We meandered our way up Andrassy towards the centre. Shops became grand houses with stone balconies behind large, black steel security gates. These are the foreign embassies, existing in a reduced, shabby grandeur. Eventually, we arrived at
Like an exclamation mark at the end of Andrassy, it is expansive and grey stone paved. If you need to hold a sinister rally, this is the place. A gigantic empty square backed by an imposing semi-circle plinth of heroic proportions, raising up the kings and rulers of what is now
Giants in bronze, they brandish swords whilst mounted on rearing war steeds.
Get a thesaurus and look up big and heroic. This place is all the words you’ll
find there. Hungary
A timetable of tour groups marched behind guides with ‘follow me’ umbrellas held aloft, lest they lose American’s Bud and Martha and they are lost and rendered homeless.
doesn’t need any more homeless.
Piles of sleeping rags with greasy fronds peeping out are not uncommon in the
streets. The poor bastards that fell through the cracks in life occasionally
attempt to beg. They are not very vigorous about it. They need lessons from a
child in Marrakech. Budapest
This show city square backs onto a vast, ornate, open air spa. Packed with flesh in the summer it is drained and cleaned in the winter. It’s best that we were there in October, lest we would have had to endure the sight of Frag in his budgie smugglers.
The Horror, the horror.
Behind the spa stands a fairy tale castle. Now a museum that does not open on a Sunday, it was never the less, hugely impressive. The largest windows I think I’ve ever seen allowed nobles and knaves to look out over their magnificent, wooded hunting park, stretching into the distance at the back. It has spires and turrets and arches and conical roofed towers for damsels in distress to toss their golden locks from. All it needed was a dragon. Instead it was guarded by a beautiful, elegant, old woman collecting for an animal charity. I slipped her a Forint note. She spoke English.
“You have a wonderful city here. It is majestic.”
“Oh, it used to be, when I was young. Now the only thing majestic is our politicians’ bank accounts.”
“Are they thieves?”
In cut glass English, “Yes…just look around. They don’t care. Our beauty is fading.”
She smiled a thin, frail smile and looked way off, over the grand park, towards high rise flats in the distance.
Her life and
It was perfect melancholy to accompany the slanting autumn sunlight through the leafless trees reaching out into the royal park.
We made our way back towards the Jewish quarter, passed the monolithic synagogue, into the maze of streets behind. I still felt like dying. We really must have drunk the
dry last night. It was agreed that we needed food before giving up for the day.
A hundred yards from our digs was a café bar we’d already used. Run by two, young, hardworking local lads, it was just right for me, right then. I saw a sign promising goulash. This hit a sweet spot in my brain. I’ve not eaten goulash in years. I’m in
. I needed a reviving tonic.
An elixir. A panacea. Hungary
“I’m having goulash.” I announced to Frag.
“You dirty bastard.” He replied.
The boys could see we were in a bit of a state and welcomed us with knowing grins. Frag sat fingering a menu, all indecisive. I meant what I said and demanded goulash. It arrived in a small cauldron on a curved, iron stand. I beamed so wide I had a flip top head. It smelled like life itself and it tasted like heavenly faire. At that moment, at just the right time and by pure serendipity, I had struck gold. Each spoonful made me feel better. Not good, let’s face it we’d battered our aging systems, just many times better. I actually began to feel like I might not die, just yet.
Frag, witnessing the transformation and my mood lifting from cantankerous for the first time that day, became intrigued. Then he ordered the goulash. As we left for our digs we smiled for the first time since we rolled out of Szimpla the night before.
The Blue Horse
We ordered local beer and sat down, the only customers. We were early.
After Saturday’s hi-jinks we were still a little subdued. Self admonishing, we swore we would be sensible from now on.
Sat at the bar, we chatted idly to the owner about the day’s news. An anti-government demonstration had been held in
on Sunday night,
drawing thousands. The owner’s husband, arriving fresh in from work, filled in
the details. Budapest
The government were planning to tax the internet.
would be the only country in the world to do this. Hungary and all its political
parties, left and right united in opposition, had called for mass
We’d already seen ten thousand on our hotel TV sets, protesting through the streets, into squares and down towards the
Danube’s bridges. It looked very impressive on the TV
reports beamed all over the world. A repeat demonstration was planned every two
days until the foolishness was dropped.
“The next demonstration will be bigger. It is in
Josef Naider Square
tomorrow at 6.30pm. There will be speeches…many people there.”
The man was insistent, eloquent and very persuasive, as was the Hungarian bitter honey beer. I’d never been to an anti-government demonstration in any country. How could we not attend?
No matter how old you are, you never remember to know better.
A sharp evening, October chill seeped from the
Danube as we made our way to Josef Naider Square.
It was season change cold. The streets we’d wound through, easily exploring,
now seemed threatening. People were making their way home from work; queuing
for buses, waving at taxis and streaming away from the action on bicycles and
the police started to appear, in numbers. Night fell, as if to order.
In the side streets off each thoroughfare, leading to the squares and main streets, police were beginning to glut and block exits and rat run routes. Mad Max armoured hordes of police with batons and thick, matt black guns began to gather. Staring through blank riot shields and visors, they looked more of a problem than a solution.
Black, armoured police vans with meshed windows waiting at every intersection helped the intimidation. There was an atmosphere brewing. Frag bought cigarettes from a government licensed tobacconist shop to calm us. I watched as people joined the crowd until I had never seen so many people in one place. In every direction the crowds made their way in from the surrounding main streets. It was remarkable.
Josef Naider Square to the sound of Pink
Floyd’s Money shouting from a giant P.A., we wormed through the bubbling crowd.
I’d expected a raggle taggle rent a mob but couldn’t have been more wrong.
Okay, there was the odd anarchist flag and Guido Fawkes Anonymous mask, lightly
punctuating the faces in the crowd but they were a tiny minority.
The ordinary people of Budapest had turned out, every man jack of ‘em; the young grinning and giggling in excitement, the old shuffling and puffing in the icy air, the middle aged remembering tightly controlled Soviet childhoods and young families with the future in push chairs.
The square was full, yet still they wriggled through the thickening block of humanity into any available space. Steam from Impromptu hot drink stalls rolled over the massing crowd, lit from above by the ornamental lights adorning the eaves of the imposing stone buildings hemming the square.
The speechifying began. We didn’t need to understand the language, the anger was clear. The crowd chanted and cheered each speaker. Frag and I cheered along. The entire mass held their phones aloft, we waved our phones too. Applause broke out and we clapped along.
The protest had been going for around half an hour when the crowd turned towards the back of the square and began to move as one. I thought trouble had broken out, supposing that thousands of armed police and tens of thousands of angry protesters were a volatile mix. I’d underestimated the civility of the people of
. They were beginning a march around
the city. Budapest
Not having the courage of their convictions, we realised it was bloody freezing and this makes an Englishman hungry and thirsty. We’d done our bit, now it was time for food and alcohol to thaw us out.
Threading against the crowd, we moved in the opposite direction towards our evening. Then we came to crossing the road. It was on the march route. It was so packed that moving crossways through them was not an option. We waited for the politely pissed off mass of humanity to pass. We waited and waited. We waited some more. Then we decided it was best to keep waiting. We began to realise how big this event was. They chanted slogans as they pushed on down the road and it seemed like there was no end to them.
I mentioned the civility of the people of
for a reason.
Later, in my hotel room, I put on the TV to see English language news. The
protest swelled to one hundred thousand people and yet there was not a single arrest.
Not one. Budapest
Forty eight hours after we departed
backed down and scrapped their crazy plan. Frag and I like to think that we
tipped the balance. Budapest
You are welcome,
. No problem. Hungary
The Secret Number
Frag had been given a phone number back in Blighty. We amused ourselves with references to the secret number. I knew it would not be a gentle mono-rail to a gift shop and how we laughed.
Now, at a loose end in
, we had the hotel reception phone
the number for us and we waited for the taxi with no idea as to what we’d
inadvertently started. No change there then. We sped out of the civilised city. Budapest
In the taxi, storied blocks of concrete flashed by; domino stacked, impersonal, anonymous, flecked with the occasional floral door marker, an attempt to personalise concrete conformity. Not a tourist
- reality, away from the boulevards and coffee shops and bronze statues of
heroes and composers and kings. Budapest
The taxi raced the rusty brown train line, with utility wiring strung loosely between concrete posts rushing parallel to us. Nobody spoke and I wondered where the bloody Hell we were being ferried to.
Pulling up under a concrete overpass, the silent driver pointed to an anonymous white wooden door in the side of a low factory building. We paid the man and followed his directions. It was a very grim location. Through the grubby door was a grubby corridor that abruptly turned left into another grubby corridor. No windows, no signs, just follow. Finally, we were faced by a cheerful young woman sat behind glass like a bank teller.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen.”
She pushed laminated menus into the tray under the glass screen. We heard sharp, mechanical cracks and thuds from nearby. The menus were for an assortment of guns.
There was the beginner package, the gamer package, the I’ve seen too many films package, the hero in his own mind package, the you’ll get yours, you bastards package, the potentially going postal package, the I shouldn’t be allowed out ever again package and finally, the somebody stop me, I’m not safe package.
It was insane. Sheer madness. You could, for a nominal fee, hire an arsenal and fire live ammunition, with no training beyond a video lasting 90 seconds, in a low corridor of a room.
I don’t like guns. In everyday life in
are never needed. I signed up for the ‘If you get killed, don’t blame us
package’ and we were led to a square, wooden waiting room. A large coffee table
contained back copies of some Hungarian gun nut magazine and a monster sized
man introduced himself. England
Laszlo must be one of the largest, most imposing human beings you could wish to not meet on a dark night in an alley or anywhere else. It was a big room and this man filled it, an eclipse of a chap. He was a good foot taller than is necessary, square of shoulder and jaw and efficiently amiable in a military manner.
I had the feeling of being tolerated by a man who could feed me to his children, on a whim. He was helpful like a farmer is to livestock. Shaking hands with this enormous individual, I asked him if he was ex-forces.
“Ex Hungarian Para-commando, ex Hungarian military police.”
Think of Arnold Schwarzenegger smiling and saying that and being slightly annoyed. Now you have the picture, let’s move on.
He was quite friendly and he frightened me to death. He bade us follow him to the firing range and we were not in a position to ask any questions.
I’d always, naively, imagined a gun range firing live ammunition to be out in the countryside. The shooting would take place across a field of knee length grass, towards the man shaped targets by the trees in the distance, just like the films.
We were led into a black room less than a hundred metres long, with a low ceiling. To the left, wall racked and stacked, was a library of weapons. Hand guns and rifles, shotguns and machine guns. Sniper rifles attached to stands hung from the wall. The other wall and the ceiling were covered in black silencing foam, like a recording studio. A woodwork bench of guns and spent shells divided the room at our end, which was itself divided in the middle by a framed, woodchip screen to separate the shooters.
Wood chip screen. I’m no gun expert but…
After the very brief safety video on a wall mounted TV, we were commanded, that is the correct term here, to step one by one to the bench. Laszlo, ever helpful and intimidating, loaded the weapons and handed them to me; the Magnum, the Glock, the sniper rifle, the AK 47, the machine gun, on it went, culminating with the pump action shotgun.
I enjoyed the shooting and was horrified at my accuracy and enjoyment. The recoil was sharp and sudden with the hand guns. The magnum barrel shoots back as it fires, hold it like this, or lose your thumbs. A pump action shot gun feels like it looks on the films - shockingly violent.
I was glad when it was over. I’m glad I did it but I don’t want another go. I have no need of these abominable machines.
Under the overpass outside, awaiting the taxi, we were eager to leave. “My heart is still pounding.” said a visibly shocked Frag. Not just me then.
Half way along Andrassy, we saw The Torture Museum.
Fading Daguerreotypes, embedded ovals surround the building at head height, interspersed with tea light candles. A roll call of innocents snuffed out by successive regimes, Nazi and Communist.
an appalling, gut wrenching history. From glorious empire to torture chamber,
they’ve endured the extremes. Hungary Hungary
had a Nazi party well before the Austrian lunatic ranted and spewed his bile in
the beer halls of .
The torture chambers under Andrassy are damp, squalid, brick boxes of misery.
Parliament Square Parade
Arriving at the palatial parliament overlooking the
Danube, we walked into the past poking the
present. A contained contingent of soldiers in full fig marched across the
square. Small in number, they marched across the storied square to raise The
Flag. No crowds or ceremony attended, just tourists with camera phones and
Left sided by the pomp with no fanfare, I was almost mown down by marching soldiers.
It was Independence Day in
. They were well drilled, well
dressed and unstoppable. They nearly bowled over the aimless, gawping tourists
that wandered through their mission path; including two chumps from Budapest .
Only a country so invaded and sat on by two totalitarian regimes would take so much pride in independence and then ignore the commemoration; or possibly an unpopular government attempting a nationalist spin to tick boxes. Probably both.
appeared un-interested in the
Memorial Day, I got the impression that the current right wing government had
ordered the solemn display. There were no witnesses or crowds glorying in the
past, save a spattering of tourists taking selfies in the awe inspiring square.
It was an odd occurrence. They were commemorating a major event in Budapest ’s
history, yet nobody seemed interested. Only tourists attended, like us, by accident. Hungary
In 1956 the Soviet authorities had attempted to impose a new constitution on the puppet government. The public had naively massed to their parliament to protest. The Soviets in the Kremlin sent in the tanks. They shelled and tank gunned a crowd of unarmed civilians. Thousands were there, man, woman and child. The numbers murdered are disputed but tanks versus an unarmed populace could only end one way. The massacre in the square was huge and without conscience. The spark was the show of defiance in parliament square. It’s generally agreed that 30,000 died off the back of this rebellion. Tanks finished off the wounded with their guns. Now, it appeared that no-one cared, or was too scared to turn out. It appeared to have been hi-jacked by a very unpopular, right wing government.
We descended incongruous steps in the middle of the square to find the official memorial. An L shaped basement told the story in a corporate museum manner, some original artefacts interspersed with inter-active screens and leaflets of explanation. Frag beckoned me towards one end of the L. There was a coffin covered in fresh flowers; either side stood a motionless soldier in full dress uniform, standing to severe attention with guns in a ceremonial, shoulder leaning fashion with funereal, martial music, haunting out of speakers by each side of the Unknown Soldier. It wasn’t just a memorial, it was a statement of the present government’s projected image.
Later, I asked the lads who produce the magic goulash about the display. They were both very proud of their heritage and traditions but had utter contempt for their government and its ‘theft of the past and our truth’. They were very angry at their government, just like the crowds in
Josef Naider Square.
It was time to leave or, considering what we’d seen, retreat. Back at our hotel we made to leave this exhausting stew of a city.
Budapest to Brussels
A connecting flight is just in the way of a destination. Manchester