The New Year’s Eve ritual for many Hungarians involves set dinners that go all night and run to hundreds of courses. But I didn’t want to start 2017 with chronic indigestion. I wanted to find an atmospheric bar in which to greet the New Year.
The chic but cozy bar of the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest proved to be the perfect choice. My partner and I had an excellent view of the fireworks and a quiet corner in which to write down our New Year’s resolutions.
Hungary has a number of New Year’s traditions that all seem to involve eating a certain kind of food. On my way back from the Gresham, I made sure that the first thing I ate in 2017 was pork. In my case this was a sausage purchased from one of the stalls in the middle of Vörösmarty tér (square). According to one account I read, the reason for eating pork is that pigs symbolize progress because they push themselves forwards by rooting in the ground.
I’m not sure if the tradition of setting New Year’s resolutions is common in Hungary. One of the things I’ve grown to like enormously about the people of this country is their cheerful, bluntly realistic, fatalism. Maybe there’s no reason to make resolutions if you’re convinced things only ever stay the same or get worse.
Perhaps this is better than the English and American practice of making absurdly ambitious resolutions like “I will write a bestselling novel this year”, or “I’ll be the first person to swim the length of the Danube”, or “This year I will become absolutely fluent in Hungarian”.
So, in the spirit of Hungarian pragmatism, I have made some achievable New Year’s resolutions I hope might also inspire readers of the Budapest Business Journal.
I live in Szeged, a reasonably sedate, cultured city on the banks of the river Tisza. Since I arrived in Hungary, I’ve come to know the countryside around the city a little. The landscape is flat, gently rolling at the most, and dotted with sleepy villages, usually centered on the sharp spire of a church.
Apart from regular trips to Budapest, I feel like I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of Hungary. But I have visited the remarkable town of Eger after a wonderful few days at the Residence Ózon in the Mátra Mountains, not far from Hungary’s highest point.
Eger is one of those strangely atmospheric towns you find all over the world, usually in areas of great beauty with a rich history. Unfortunately for the locals, the impressive, well-preserved set of fortifications that looms over the town ultimately fell into the hands of the Turks in 1596, leading to 91 years of Turkish rule.
The 17th century minaret in the center of Eger is one of only three surviving in Hungary. It’s the northernmost Turkish minaret in Europe and 40 meters high. If you visit Eger, and I hope you do, be sure to climb the minaret for a fantastic view of the town.
Apart from Eger, I would recommend the 13th century Visegrád castle, which sits high above the winding Danube only about an hour’s drive from Budapest. While the views from the castle are truly impressive, I was most fascinated by the tableau vivant depicting scenes from the castle’s history.
My resolution for this year is to really explore Hungary. I’m also determined to make it to Transylvania.
Like so many tourists, I came to Hungary knowing almost zero about the country, including its cultural history. I knew that Zsa Zsa Gabor – God rest her sparkling soul – was Hungarian but that was about it. This year, I intend to continue my education in Hungarian culture.
This will start with checking out some of Budapest’s more off-the-beaten-track art galleries. As soon as I can, I plan to take the metro out to Óbuda to visit the Kassák and Vasarely galleries, both conveniently located in the 17th century baroque Zichy Palace, a charming little oasis of tranquility on the banks of the Danube.
If you don’t already know, Lajos Kassák (1887-1967) was a Hungarian painter, novelist and poet regarded as the father of the Hungarian avant-garde. Today, his influence extends far beyond Hungary. Victor Vasarely (1906-1997) was born in Pécs and is acknowledged as the first practitioner of op art, which uses optical illusion to achieve an often dazzling effect.
Before I came to Hungary, I had no idea either Kassák or Vasarely existed. Expect a full report on these pioneering artists and the galleries devoted to their work later this year.
I’ll also be visiting Budapest’s Mai Manó House in Nagymező utca, a photographic gallery that calls itself The Hungarian House of Photographers. It was built especially for Mai Manó (1855-1917), an Imperial and Court photographer, and contains a daylight photographic studio that may well be the last remaining one of its kind in the world.
And this is only the beginning.
I don’t think Hungarians realize how lucky they are to be able visit a spa pretty much whenever they feel like it and to pay so little for the pleasure. As any British or American spa-aficionado will tell you, those in our home countries are usually eye-wateringly expensive and utterly lacking in atmosphere.
Apparently, sitting in the sauna increases your heart rate and blood flow, reducing the risks of heart disease and stroke and possibly protects against dementia. This is one reason why, for the past two years, I’ve schlepped down to the Anna, our local spa in Szeged, two or three times a week. The other reason is that I’m fascinated by spa culture.
Whenever and wherever possible, I visit a new spa, especially since I discovered the weird and wonderful world of the Sauna Séance, a subject I wrote about for this column in September of last year.
The day before New Year’s Eve, we spent six hours at the Lukács Baths on the Buda side of the Danube and managed five 15-minute Sauna Séances. While it lacks the fairytale beauty of the Széchenyi Baths, the Lukács is far less crowded.
A succession of Sauna Séance Masters flung aromatized water – and occasionally ice – onto the hot rocks while they waved a towel or sheet on a pole to move the hot air around. We were given a selection of preparations to smear on our skin, or in one case eat, while we sat and perspired. Each Sauna Master has their own performance. One guy even played the soundtrack to the spaghetti western “Once Upon a Time in the West” while he threw lemon-scented balls of ice up at the ceiling.
I recommend you try a Sauna Séance. They’re hugely good fun. The performances are the perfect blend of the impressive and the slightly silly. You’re never bored in a Sauna Séance.
This year I resolve to visit the art deco Gellért Baths in Budapest. They look incredible too.
I’ve resigned myself to the fact that it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever learn Hungarian or swim the length of the Danube. But I can certainly discover more and more of this remarkable country.
The Gresham Palace Budapest is in front of the Széchenyi lánchíd (Chain Bridge) on the Pest side. Go to www.kassakmuseum.hu, www.vassarely.hu and www.maimanu.hu to find out more about these fascinating galleries. Opening hours of the Lukács are at www.lukacsbaths.com. Details of Residence Ózon at www.ozon.hotel-residence.hu.