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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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Coming soon: The mighty Dolomites.

Up on the farm

Agriturismo L’Oasi del Rossese

Way, way up:  A precarious auto journey slowly, cautiously climbing a skinny, twisty road.  We passed a few houses clinging to the hillsides, others hiding below the road down treacherously steep lanes.  Lots of overgrown vegetation all around.  More curves, hairpin turns, and more of each  

This was rough, remote terrain in Italy’s Liguria region above the Mediterranean.  I was driving, and hoping we would not meet a car coming in the opposite direction. I am not skilled at driving in reverse, and this road was barely wide enough for two vehicles.   How much farther?  I was nervous.  Did we miss it?

Alas, a small sign.  “ L’Oasi del Rossese,” our destination, an agriturismo above the town of Dolceacqua.  Agriturismo is a combination of the word for “agriculture” and “tourism” in Italian.  Agriturismi (plural) offer farm stay vacations and are very popular in Italy.  In addition to lodging, most offer meals featuring local specialties, often made with products from the farm.

Bob, Steve and Yoshie.

Farm hostess Marinella greeted us and showed  us to our rooms.  My brother Steve and sister-in-law Yoshie from Colorado were with us. First order of business was a welcome  coffee and cookies on the terrace overlooking deep green valleys, mountains and the Mediterranean in the distance.  Sadly, we had no sun to enhance the views.  Even with overcast clouds, it was splendid.

We heard English at a long table under a wall of balloons.  A group was celebrating a birthday.  I got up to take a photo and one of the gentlemen stopped me.  “I think I know you.  Are you a member of BA (British Association of Menton)”?   Yes.  We sat with Wayne and his wife Veronique, who was celebrating her 60th birthday, at a BA luncheon not long ago.   It was Veronique who told me about this agriturismo.  They have a farm nearby.

Marinella, husband Nino and son Stefano harvest grapes and olives on their 7,000 square meters of terrain.  The main farm product is wine, Rossese, hence the name, Oasis of Rossese, the noted red wine of Dolceacqua which we enjoyed with dinner.

Nino, Jordan (named after Michael Jordan), Stefano and Marinella.

We were hoping to see farm animals.  Their livestock consists of chickens and rabbits.  I did venture down to the chicken coop and rabbit hutch. The bunnies were big and beautiful.  I hated to think of their future.

Rabbit, Coniglio alla Liguria, is a local special and often served here.  Steve announced he would not eat it if it was to be our dinner. Luckily it was not, although I would have indulged.  The French are also fond of rabbit, and I prepare it occasionally. 

Yoshie and Steve hiked to the village of Perinaldo.

Food is a big attraction at agriturismi.  Our dinner was a never-ending, multi course feast.  Italian meals begin with antipasti. One after another, Marinella served us five different antipasti dishes:  Tomatoes with fresh sheep cheese, a slice of bruschetta, a frittata of zucchini and peas, stuffed zucchini flowers, and a tasty a slice of torte made with tiny fish from the Med.  This was followed by the pasta course, ravioli burro e salvia (ravioli stuffed with sage) – all homemade.  Instead of rabbit, for the main course we had both roast pork and goat with fagioli (white beans). The latter was our favorite. Dessert:  a strawberry tarte.  Plus, a bottle of Rossese.

Rossese (red wine) display in Dolceacqua

Marinella cooks, all from scratch. Nino lends a hand, stuffing the ravioli. They have a large vegetable garden, in addition to the chickens and rabbits, to supply the products for her cooking.  Stefano and Nino care for the grapevines and olive trees.  Stefano also makes the wine. Their production of both olive oil and wine is limited.  They only sell to guests and a few local clients.  

“People are happy here,” said Marinella.  She did admit that the first time is difficult due to the seemingly endless, challenging trek up the mountain. It is only seven kilometers, but they are long and very slow.  Many French come for the day from Nice just to eat, she said.   In August they have guests from Sweden, Denmark and Germany.

Dolceacqua, photo by Yoshie.

Agriturismo began in Italy in the 1960s when small farmers were struggling to make a profit.  Some abandoned their farms and went off to work in cities.  However, agricultural traditions are sacred in Italy.  In 1973 an official agriturismo farmhouse designation was created to help prevent farmers from abandoning their farms, and to offer tourists a farm stay so they could learn about rural life.

In some regions, but not all, farmers need a license to take part in agriturismo. We have visited nearby Dolceacqua many times.  Every time it seems there are more “agriturismo” signs on houses in the village.   What do they have to do with farms and agriculture?

Steve explores the Dolceacqua old town.

According to a spokesperson at the Dolceacqua tourist office, to be considered agriturismo they must show documents to prove they have land and crops.  Of course, many may have such up in the hills. But all of them?

Marinella tells me that today many agriturismo are just Bed and Breakfast accommodations and have nothing to do with agriculture.  I asked Arabella, my Italian friend with whom I study Italian. 

“E una giungla,” (It’s a jungle), she explained.  In Italian the expression refers to situations when laws are not respected, everyone does whatever he/she wishes  … a bit like Italian drivers.

Agriturismo breakfast — Bob, me and Yoshie. No one looks very happy, but we were very happy. The farm and surroundings are a treat.

AZ Agrituristica, L’Oasi del Rossese de Zullo Stefano, Loc Morghe, 18035 Dolceacqua, Italy, Tel. xx 39 347 8821298.

http://www.agriturismo.farm/en/farm-holidays/liguria/loasi-del-rossese-dolceacqua/33419 Double rooms with breakfast, 60 euro per night. Multi course meal with wine, 30 euro per person.

Siesta in Dolceacqua

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Bellissimo Lago di Como

“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.” That is exactly the way I felt during a September visit to Lago di Como (Lake Como) in northern Italy. It is sublime. Glittering waters at the feet of Alpine mountain ranges. Photo-opp villages with cobbled alleys and flowered promenades. Baroque villas and impeccably manicured gardens.

Like me, lots of famous people have been seduced by the lake’s beauty and charm. Artists, writers, opera singers and aristocrats have homes on the lake shores. Not to mention Hollywood stars: George Clooney, Madonna, Richard Branson, Sylvester Stallone…

Varenna

My friend Karen, who knows the lake well, suggested we stop at Lake Como en route to her apartment in Croatia. I had fond memories of previous lake visits and was all in. She chose Varenna, considered one of the prettiest lakeside towns, as our destination for two nights. We enjoyed soaking up the vistas and the captivating ambiance of the lake and town.

The most heavenly time was high above the lakeside town of Tremezzo at the restaurant Al Veluu. Karen has friends who know the restaurant owner. She made a reservation mentioning her friends. We never did meet the owner. The waiter who greeted us was neither impressed nor happy to see us. It was close to 2 p.m.. The restaurant terrace was empty. He, no doubt, wanted to call it a day.

We had the spacious terrace and garden all to ourselves. The divine surroundings and spectacular views made up for the disappointing food. It was calm, peaceful, relaxing. We did not want to leave, but the warm sun was no longer so warm, and we needed to start the trek (taxi then 2 ferry rides) back to Varenna.

Karen chills out at Al Veluu.

Boats are the primary means of transportation for visiting Lake Como. Ferries of all sizes shuttle from town to town. The previous day we took a ferry to Bellagio, the “pearl” of the lake. Years ago husband Bob and I visited this treasure of a town. We visited the park and gardens of the grandiose Villa Serbelloni, hiked in the hills, took boat rides. It was all delightful.

Bellagio

Years later we returned with my mother who was overwhelmed. In addition to the gorgeous views and surroundings, she loved the shops. Bellagio, like most of the towns, has a plethora of boutiques and souvenir shops. On one visit, I purchased a large olive wood basket which I still treasure.

Varenna at night

In Varenna, we stayed at an Airbnb which promised a “bella vista” of the lake. What a joke. From a small bedroom window in a corner, if you twisted your neck you could spot the lake. Never mind. We had plenty of bella vistas as we climbed up and down the steep stairways in Varenna that lead to the lake, and strolled the path, Passegiata degli Innamorati (walk of lovers), along the shore.

Lake Como was the perfect start to my much-needed R&R break.

Thanks again to Karen, adventure in Croatia followed. Read all about it in an upcoming post. Don’t miss out.

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Bellagio

For more on Bellagio, read my report on a previous visit- click here.

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