Behind the Scenes in Budapest

Heroes’ Square in Budapest

During our recent visit to Budapest, like most I was dazzled by the city’s grandeur.  But I wanted to dig a bit deeper. Hungary’s autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been accused of stifling press freedom, of undermining democracy.  The European Union accuses him of “electoral autocracy.”  He has rewritten the constitution to consolidate his power.  Election laws have been changed to favor his party. He has undermined the independence of the courts He has sealed the country’s borders with Serbia and Croatia with fences which are being made taller and taller to keep immigrants out. 

“We move, we work elsewhere, we mix within Europe, but we don’t want to be a mixed race, a multi ethnic people who would mix with non-Europeans,” Orbán said at a conference in Romania in July.

The racist comment was denounced by many world leaders.  He later tried to walk it back. (During my four  days in Budapest, I saw only four black people.)

 It is no surprise that Orbán is a darling of American MAGA Republicans. He spoke at the August Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas. Trump entertained him at his New Jersey club, and Orbán is rooting for Trump’s return in 2024.

Vaci Utca is a popular pedestrian shopping street in Budapest.

Tourists enjoy Budapest unaware of political turmoil.  Life seems good.  Restaurants are full.  Merchandise is plentiful.  But, since there are too many dangerous similarities to the current political climate in the US, I was curious. What does the “man on the street” have to say about Orbán. I asked a few folks, as well as a journalist colleague.  The following is not meant to be a definitive treatise on Hungarian politics, just a brief glimpse behind the scenes.

“It’s shame what is going on in my country because of Orbán, journalist friend Agnes told me. “Hungary is not Hungary anymore. It is Orbánia. Democracy does not exist in my country.” She explained that only one newspaper and one television station report real news, the truth. Others spew government propaganda.

“We are not as bad as Russia yet, but we are going in that direction.  Slowly the government is trying to kill a free way of thinking.”   The education system, she said, is in a “critical state.”  Teacher’s salaries are very low.  Young people no longer want to be teachers.  There was a major demonstration on October 6 with 10,000 students, teachers and parents blocking a bridge to support teachers’ fight for higher salaries.

Among the people I spoke with,  some share Agnes’ opinions on Orbán.  Others love their leader. 

A 74-year-old woman at a bus stop who is “very proud of Hungary”  had this to say:  “Believe me there are no problems in Hungary. It is not by chance that Orbán won for the fourth time.”

Edith, another elderly woman, is also an Orbán, fan. I asked about democracy and freedom.

“Everything is free here, Look around. What is not free?” Edith asked.

A young man hawking souvenirs agreed.  ‘I do what I want to do.  If we had no democracy that would not be possible.”

At a paprika stand in the Great Market Hall, I spoke to a young vendor with an opposing view. “People in the countryside are brainwashed,” he said.  “They only have three TV stations all controlled by the government.  People in cities see the reality, but these are hard times… the economy, the war in Ukraine.  What can we do?”

Indeed, the country is not in great shape. The economy is heading into a recession.  The currency, the florint, has plunged to new lows.  Inflation has risen to double digits.

Daniel;, a 24-year-old waiter, left his home in a country village to find work in Budapest, but he is now looking for work outside of Hungary. “I want to leave Hungary. Things are getting worse.” According to Agnes, Daniel is not alone. “Many young people are leaving the country,” she said.

Daniel considers the political situation “very bad…almost as bad as Russia…there is no democracy.”  He said he does not vote because there is no one better than Orbán. “That’s our problem.  Our politics are very amateur.”

“The opposition is impotent,” Agnes said.  “They do nothing.  There are no strong characters.”

The war in Ukraine is another divisive topic.  According to “fake” Hungarian news, Ukraine invaded Russia.  I spoke to a young souvenir salesman who echoed Orbán’s rhetoric on the war. “If the West stopped supplying Ukraine with weapons,  the war would be over in two months,” he said.  “You went to war in Syria and many other countries.  No one cared.  Why do you care about Ukraine now?”

Elena, a Ukrainian who fled war in her country and is now working in Budapest, finds that many she meets live in a vacuum, watching and listening only to state news.  She explains reality and shows pictures from Ukraine.  She has changed many minds, she says.  “This country still has a post-Soviet footprint.  It needs to change.”

Orbán has been prime minister in Hungary since 2010, steering the country farther and farther to the right.  Poland has followed his example.  Far Right Democrats in Sweden did so well in recent elections, they pushed the center-left from power. Giorgia Meloni, a far right candidate, was the winner in Italy’s recent election. Trump and MAGA Republicans are hoping to be on the same track in the US.

The scenario is precarious.

“I feel ashamed that I am Hungarian,” Agnes said.  I hope I will not have to say that I am ashamed to be an American

Architectural gem in Budapest. There are many.

More on Hungary coming: FOOD.

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Picture Budapest

Dynamic, bustling, beautiful.  Old architectural wonders.  Luxurious thermal baths.  Trendy boutiques. Innovative eateries.  A lively after-dark scene.  Friendly, helpful folk -many speaking English.

Budapest’s Parliament is one of the largest parliament buildings in the world. It was inaugurated in 1902.

Budapest, the “Paris of the East,” is a fun and interesting place to visit.  Husband Bob and I recently joined a group of eight from the British Association in Menton, France (near where we live) for  a cheap Whiz Air flight from Nice to Budapest.  All was grand until our return flight was canceled due to the air traffic controller’s strike in France. Getting home was complicated – a day waiting at the airport, an evening flight to Milan where we spent the night, then train and taxi. Nonetheless, we all survived and are happy we experienced this exciting city. 

Overlooking the city on the Danube

Following are photos of our visit.  I will be writing more soon:  A post featuring the views of Hungarians on their far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban,  and another on food.  As an American journalist, I was curious to learn why Orban, a buddy of Donald Trump and chummy with Vladimir Putin, is so popular at home. As a passionate foodie, I was intrigued with the history of Hungarian cuisine and its specials (more than goulash).  Stay tuned.

More on Hungary coming: FOOD.

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The Parliament – encore.
The Great Market Hall, a major attraction, was built in 1897. It has three floors of goodies, from fruits and veggies to souvenirs, pickles and paprika.
We enjoyed an evening dinner cruise on the Danube with serenading musicians.
Budapest is a wonder of treasures from important eras of European architectural history. The Parigi Palace, above, is from the early 20th century.
The Dohany Street Synagogue (1854-’59), Europe’s largest synagogue, is a blend of Neo-Morrish, folkloristic Hungarian and Jewish styles.
Classy Old World cafes are a Budapest delight.
Many in our group spent a day at Szechenyi Baths, just one of many in the city often called “The City of Spas.” BudapestBand/Bartha Dorka
We attended a fabulous organ concert at St. Stephen’s Basilica, named after Hungary’s first king.
The Neo-Renaissance Hungarian State Opera House (1884) has recently been renovated.
interesting building decor.
Our group in Budapest

More coming soon, including – at long last recipes.

More on Hungary coming: FOOD.

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The Dolomites for Seniors

It  was hot  – too hot – in southern France, and much of the world this summer. Day after day.  Week after week.  I had to escape.  The mountains called.  I chose Italy’s Dolomites, about 650 kilometers (400 miles) from our abode in Roquebrune Cap Martin, France.  We made the drive in two days, less stress for seniors, with an overnight stop in Brescia. 

Brescia for an overnight stop and beer break. City cathedral in background,

As a passionate skier (sadly those days are over), I knew some of the Dolomite’s famous slopes, including the renowned Sella Ronda, a 500 -kilometer ski circuit.  It stretches through four valleys around the Sella mountain which are also connected by road passes.   And, I remembered a challenging ascent to the Adamello, a 11,000-foot peak, many, many years ago.  I was eager to return to these mighty mountains – even without the challenges and excitement of bygone days.

This would be a Dolomites for Seniors trip. I am not as fit as I was in younger days, and husband Bob is struggling with Alzheimer. No overnights in mountain huts for us. No all-day killer hikes. Not even strenuous 1/2 day treks. Been there. Done that. We would take leisurely walks and drive – not hike -through the heights. Thanks to tips from friend Noel and his Italian buddy Fabio, we stayed in a lovely, if not luxurious, apartment in the town of La Villa.  My  friend Karen was with us.

Unlike us, Karen is a very fit senior and dedicated walker.  She set off every morning for two-hour hikes.  Bob does not move too quickly in the morning.  While Karen hiked, I got Bob up, dressed and breakfasted.  When she came back,  we were ready for adventure at a slow, senior pace.

My trusty new Suzuki Swift, Poppy, was the perfect mountain car.  Agile, responsive and fun.  She took those curves like a champ, and they were endless. Not quite like my beloved Porsche, but that too was a different era.

We drove the Sella Ronda route, up and down, switchback after switchback. Fortunately, there are places to pull off for photos.  During our week in these rugged mountains, I went photo crazy.   I could not resist.  Every view was a postcard.

While Bob and I are not up to strenuous treks, we figured we could try a gentle mountain walk.  We followed the advice of a local and set off on a trail  to  the hut/rifugio, Munt Pasciantado. The jaunt was not exactly senior flat as we had been led to believe. There is no such thing in the Dolomites.  Yet, it was pleasant and the goulash lunch at the rifugio was delicious. Goulash, not pasta, in Italy?

We were in South Tyrol, known as Sud Tyrol in German and Alto Adige in Italian.  The region borders Austria to the north, and was part of Austria-Hungary until it was annexed by Italy after World War I. There are three official languages:  Italian, German and Ladin. The latter is an ancient Rhaeto-Romance dialect derived from popular Latin and spoken by just four percent of the population. Ladin is also spoken in the Engadine Valley in Switzerland.

Most everyone in Sud Tyrol is  bilingual, and most Ladins are tri-lingual. We were in the southern part where more Italian than German is spoken, yet there is much that is Germanic, such as the  architecture and food.  

We had another fun and tasty rifugio interlude at Rifugio Valparola at the top of a mountain pass where  more German specials were on the menu: Bratwurst, potato salad and apple strudel. The cozy ambience was 100 % gemütlich, almost like being back in Germany. Hikers, bicyclists and motorcyclists savoured their accomplishments and replenished themselves after strenuous activity. We had not earned those calories, but we still enjoyed. I even went for the Italian finale:  Grappa.  The rifugio has 10 different flavors of this fiery brew, all homemade.  I followed the owner’s suggestion and went for Cirolo Zirm, delicious, although I have no idea what the flavor was.

The rifugio was on our route to Cortina d’Ampezzo, a ski resort that is part  of Dolomiti Superski, the largest ski area in the world.  We were disappointed. in the town, but the drive was spectacular.

We could not hike to the peaks, but we could ride.  From Corvara, just a few kilometers from our apartment in La Villa, we rode a gondola then a chairlift to a windblown, barren area with super views of surrounding mountains and endless photo opps. Getting off a moving chairlift with no boards attached to your feet and no snow on the ground can be tricky — at least for some seniors. We conquered, but with senior angst.

The part of Sud Tryol around the Sella Massif is Ladinia, the heart of the Dolomites where 30,000 Ladins live. In addition to their language,  they have their own culture, traditions and culinary specials.  Since food is a travel highlight for me,  I was eager to try  Ladin cuisine.

Claudine Saltuari, a manager at our apartment complex (www.dolomit.it), suggested an agriturismo, Maso Runch. We have been to many agriturismi over the years, usually rustic farms which offer simple local food and lodging.  This one was especially popular, and only with Claudine’s assistance could we get a reservation.

It was like no other agriturismo – china, crystal and fine wines – and more popular with seniors than the younger set. The food was copious, course after course.  Following a hearty barley soup, we tasted three different kinds of tutres, pastry filled with spinach, sauerkraut or potatoes. Both are popular in the Ladin kitchen.


Next came a pasta course, ravioli filled with spinach.  And more — multiple platters with goulash, pork shank, polenta, sauerkraut, fried potatoes.   We were stuffed, but could not pass on the dessert: Apple fritters with ice cream.  After all that, a digestif Grappa was in order.    

For more about the Ladins, we visited the Museum Ladin Ciastel de Tor in the town of Badia – good senior activity. The informative and well-presented displays are housed in an ancient, restored castle.    For centuries Ladins lived somewhat isolated in this terrain of steep, rocky slopes.  They were poor, living off the harsh land.  Things began to change with more skiers and hikers discovering the attractions and beauty of the Dolomites.  Tourism brought opportunity for an easier life.  As they began to intermarry and intermingle, preserving the language became challenging. In Ladinia, children learn both German and Italian in school, and Ladin three times per week.

We found cool and delightful temperatures in the Dolomites – and much more.  No need to be a hardcore athlete to appreciate the Dolomites. Even old folks can enjoy this awesome region.

Scroll down for more photos.

When the sun is shining, sunset in the Dolomites is magnificent.
Same mountain as above. Dolomite clouds can also be spectacular.
I had a fun chat in German with this gentleman at a local products market in the nearby town of San Cassiano, a cute and classy village.
Church in San Cassiano
Apple Strudel. We could not get enough of this favorite which the French have not mastered. Several afternoons we did the German ritual, Kaffe und Kuchen (strudel). But, Italians not forgotten. Sometimes we opted for the Italian custom: Late afternoon apero with savoury snacks.

More on Hungary coming: FOOD.

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My Kind of Hotel

It was the perfect place for R&R.  A small hotel (11 rooms). Splendid  views of mountains and a lake. A pool amidst greenery and blossoms. A comfortable room, nice staff, good breakfast – and a menagerie of sorts.  Plus, and most important, tranquility.

The view from Suites du Lac, Lake Bourget and mountains.

I loved it all. For my recent “cure” at Aix les Bains in eastern France,  I booked two weeks at Suites du Lac, a hotel outside of the town. I traveled to Aix by train. On the down side, the hotel was not convenient to the spa center without a car.   I took a taxi then bus to reach the spa for my treatments each day.

Never mind.  I had time, enjoyed conversing with my regular taxi driver Eric, as well as bus passengers.

During my second day at the hotel, I heard peculiar sounds while lounging on my balcony.  Maa… Maa  A goat?  Clucking. Crackling.  Chickens? No way. I was not on a farm nor in the country.  Perhaps too much spa water had seeped into my brain.    Later I noticed guests looking over a railing on the terrace at the end of the property.  I must investigate.

Aha. Below at a lower level there they were:  The creatures responsible for the sounds.  Two goats and a bevy of chickens.  I was fascinated. The chickens were beauties, all different and exotic.  The goats were small and cute. I took photos.

The Suites du Lac was built in 2007 by partners Jose and Emanuel.  They share responsibilities for the hotel management.  Emanuel is in charge of administration and everything indoors. Jose takes care  of the animals and the grounds.

Jose knows his chickens and they know him.

I learned lots about chickens from Jose who is an animal lover and passionate about poultry.  He had chickens as a child, he explained, and now likes different races.  His flock consists of 20 different breeds.  He knows the characteristics of each.  “This one is South American.  That one lays white eggs like American chickens…” European chickens lay marron-colored eggs.

The life span of commercial chickens is just 1 ½ years due to their diet, he told me.  But his special fowl can reach the age of 10, unless they fall victim to a fox.  Several years ago, he lost 20 birds to a fox.  “A fox kills anything that moves,” he said.  The fox ate only one of the chickens it had killed.  Jose’s chicken/goat pen is fenced, but a fox can jump the fence.  He has constructed an enclosure under the terrace with an automatic door that closes at 10 pm.  Every evening he goes out to rescue the chickens which have chosen a tree instead of the enclosed hen house  for safety. They fly up and nestle into the branches to hide out.  

I was surprised  to see how easily he captured the chickens – no resistance.  “They know me,” he said.

He has only hens which lay about 20 eggs per day.  He did have a rooster, but neighbors complained about the too early wake-up call.

Two 16-year-old miniature Pinschers and a cat also live at Suites du Lac.  And, for a brief period  of time during my stay, a young injured  pigeon.  Jose rescued it from a bakery where it cowered in a corner.  After a few days of TLC, he released it.

Since I too am an animal lover, the animals were a bonus for me.  

Unfortunately, it was hot, very hot during my June stay in Aix-les-Bains.  Temperatures were in the upper 90s F every day.  The town tourist office offers a variety of interesting walking tours, but there was no way I could  enjoy a walking tour in that heat.  I hung out at the hotel pool every afternoon after my treatments.  Even that was hot, but I swam my laps and took shelter under an umbrella.  I read.  I napped. I relaxed.  I was alone. No responsibilities. It was bliss. 

When I needed a stretch, I walked over to look down at the critters.  The chickens huddled under oleander branches to escape the sun.  The goats found shade along the periphery of the enclosure.

Relaxation at Suites du Lac is very therapeutic.

The ambience at dusk when everyone had left the pool was especially soothing. I watched the sky change colors and mountain silhouettes grow darker.  It was all so quiet, peaceful and beautiful.

Suites du Lac does not have a regular restaurant offering full meals.  After my treatments I usually stopped in town and had lunch at a restaurant.  I tried many and savored some delicious meals.  In the evening I often joined other guests on the terrace and ordered one of the hotel’s offerings: Omelets, pizza, salads.

I had some tasty lunches in Aix les Bains, including above, a French version of Surf and Turf: Salmon and Chicken smothered in a lobster sauce

Unfortunately my spa treatments did not do much for my bodily ailments. However, Suites du Lac therapy was the best for the spirit.

Les Suites du Lac: www.lessuitesdulac.fr

More on Hungary coming: FOOD.

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Coming soon: The mighty Dolomites.

Testing spa waters – and strange treatments

Spa treatment Berthollaix.

“What is going on with those … white coffins? Iron lungs? Strange toilets?” friend Betty asked on Facebook.

I had similar thoughts and wondered what I had gotten myself into when, on day one of my two week “cure” program, I followed an aide to the “Berthollaix”  room.  There it was – not a coffin, nor an iron lung, not even a strange toilet, but bizarre Berthollaix.   Even the name was foreboding.

The aide closed the door, told me to shed my robe and flip flops, and sit in this strange, hard plastic chair with protrusions  digging into my back.  Was this some kind of electric chair about to bombard me with painful shocks?   It did not appear too friendly. She then placed a large plastic shield over my entire body.  I was trapped, locked in.  She closed the door and left. I do not scare easily, but this made me nervous.  How could I escape if, whatever was about to happen, was too painful? What if she forgot me?

Suddenly warm air engulfed my body. The air changed to tepid water, thermal water rich in minerals for which the spa is known. Had the chair been comfortable and minus those nasty things piercing my back, it would have been pleasant.  I endured, about 10, 12 minutes.   The aide returned to release me. Unscathed, I moved on to the next treatment. 

Spa Thermal Chevalley and spa pool

I have serious arthritis and a serious limp. Since I had a two-week break from my duties as Alzheimer care giver – Bob’s daughter and son were minding him – I decided to focus on my decaying body. Off I went to the Spa Thermal
Chevalley at Aix-les-Bains, France, a health spa known for rheumatology treatments.

It all begins with a quick visit to a spa doctor who decides which  treatments are best for you. He asked me to bend over and touch my toes.  No sweat.  I had to show off, went a step further, and put my hands flat on the floor.  He was impressed. Maybe I am not in such bad shape after all?  He specified three different treatments one day, followed by two different ones the next.  Only one hour per day total.  

After Berthollaix, I dutifully marched off with many others, all clad in white spa robes and clutching their blue treatment bag, to the next station. Under the obligatory white robe, all wear a bathing suit, and keep it on, except for the mud treatment, day two for me. 

Douche penetrante  (penetrating shower) was my favorite.  No ominous machines, but  a massage table under jets of warm spa water.  I lay under the delightful shower  while a therapist massaged my aging body.  It was heavenly.  “Don’t stop.”  But he did.  

The next treatment was “Pedidaix” – another weird contraption to sit in, several rows of these monsters in a large room. This time alternating jets of warm and cold water hosed the lower legs. Good for circulation, I was told.

Pedidaix is said to help circulation. Cool spring water quenches thirst.

I could have skipped Pedidaix and replaced it with more of the mud wrap, a treatment  on day two of my program. I lay on a slab of warm, milk chocolate brown earth which had been mixed with thermal water.  An aide lathered my arms and the tops of my legs with more of the viscous matter, then wrapped me in plastic.   I felt the warmth penetrating my pores, visualized it soothing my pain.  If anything could cure, this must be it.

The thermal water at Aix-les-Bains (Aix the baths) has been revered for centuries.   It was first discovered by Celtic knights.  In 120 BC the Romans built baths there.  The sulphurated waters come from a kilometer deep in the earth emerging at 38 degrees Celsius ( 71 degrees Fahrenheit). Analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties  are attributed to the cherished water. 

I spoke to a woman from Paris on her fifth visit to the Spa.  “I would not be this good if I did not come every year,” she told me.  “It helps for six months.  I can forget my medications.”   Another Parisian who is a regular said it does not cure but soothes. 

Most “curists” were on a three-week program paid for by the national French health insurance if one had a doctor’s prescription. I could have had the prescription,  but I did not have the three weeks required for insurance payment.  I paid about $600 for my program.

These gizmos treat arthritic hands. I was spared this treatment.

The Spa is run with assembly-line efficiency:  Lists, checkmarks, numbers.  Sign in here, get your towel  and robe there, move on to another desk and take a number.  Every day some 1,000 treatments are administered.   About 200 caregivers  are employed to administer the treatments,  each catering to 22 clients per day.   There are many more female than male clients, and most are of a “certain age.” 

Every post needs a cat. “Le Dent du Chat,” (cat ‘s tooth), a bronze by Michael Bassompierre in central Aix-les-Bains, is named after a mountain peak seen from the town.

Aix-les-Bains is a pleasant town in eastern France, population 31,000,  on the shores of  Lake Bourget, the country’s largest natural lake of glacial origin.  Thermal waters were the main attraction for many years. The rich and noble, many who came to take the waters, popularized the town during the Belle Epoque (1871-1914).  These days water sports on the lake and hikes in the nearby mountains are major drawing cards.

My two weeks away were very therapeutic.  Most of the treatments were soothing.  Unfortunately I have no lasting physical benefit.  But, I did profit from my break, mostly, I think, thanks to blissful relaxation at my beautiful, small, tranquil and unusual hotel.  More about that in my next post.

The best therapy: Relaxation at Les Suites du Lac

Will you return next year to the spa? – a question I heard often.  No.  One encounter with Bertholliax and Pedidaix was enough for me.

More on Hungary coming: FOOD.

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