Thursday, 22 December 2016
Budapest: people and places
One full day in November didn't give me time to get to know many more places in this lively city than I've explored on two previous visits (also short), but I was pleased to be able to accommodate two familiar faces in the afternoon and evening: pictured above, our dear friend Ildikó Takács, whom we got to know while she was the superb Hungarian cultural counsellor here, and young Eszter Bránya, befriended when the Lambtons of Broughton and (for one year) of Kecskemét asked if we'd put her up while she auditioned for the Guildhall and the Royal College of Music. She got a place, but not the money to support it, so now she's playing and studying from 7am to 11am at the ferociously demanding Liszt Academy. Between them are new acquaintances at Müpa, the 2016 acronym for what was formerly known as the Palace of Arts, Marcell Németh and Müpa's CEO Csaba Káel in Csaba's splendid office.
Most of my time was devoted to Müpa, my host, though the fact that I spent so much time there on the morning following the big Eötvös event I've written up on The Arts Desk and went to a second wonderful concert there was entirely of my choosing, and I was delighted that I did. Essentially it was a case of up and down the Danube from near my quiet and comfortable hotel room above Kálvin tér (so called because of the Reformed Church and the statue of Calvin outside) to Müpa and back, plus a fascinating excursion to the Liszt Academy. Autumn still hung in air, and the cold weather was only to start as I left the following day.
Budapesters have the idea in their minds that Müpa is out on a limb. Certainly it's not ideal to come out from a concert and have to take the No. 2 tram back into town for a decent choice of bars or restaurants. But even if you don't hop on that very regular tram service, it's only 20 minutes' pleasant walk along the embankment. I discovered it more or less by accident because I hadn't realised that the tram stop nearest the hotel is underground and comes up here (tagging is ubiquitous, of course).
The walk takes you from the Szabadság (Liberation) Bridge, looking over to the Gellert Hotel where we stayed on the last trip - yes, the baths were wonderful -
to the ugly but still rather striking Rákóczi Bridge, beyond which nature seems to stake its claim.
Street life was teeming. A roasted chestnut seller was setting up his stall
and tram stops were always heaving, however regular the service.
My interview with Csaba, whose office commands a good view over the Danube with the odd ziggurat built in the 1990s foregrounding,
was followed by a tour of the building with Marcell. We strolled around the empty foyers,
saw the folk setting up the cimbalom exhibition in one of the many public auditoriums,
looked out on the skating rink (still not icy enough) and the three flags - Hungarian, EU and black for the recent death of national musical hero Zoltán Kocsis -
and then bumped into his old friend, another 'Zoli', percussionist Zoltán Rácz who was conducting that evening's performance. I've written a little about him and the splendid evening programme over on TAD, and hope he'll give us some lines on his memories of Kocsis, but here he is conjuring up the big tune of Rhapsody in Blue, played like the Ravel G major Concerto's slow movement from memory (bear in mind that the soloist was Louis Lortie, not Rácz).
Zoli 2 told me about his first engagement by the senior Kocsis in Bartok's Sonata for two pianos and percussion, and about Kocsis' completion of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, which I didn't know he'd done. A photocopied page of the score was sitting on the box office table as we made to leave.
Nature was doing its stuff along the Danube as I returned to the centre - a cormorant skimming for fish
and batches of gulls on landing stages.
As you can see, the sun was trying to break through the mist, and the few leaves still on the trees indicated autumn rather than winter (which, given average temperatures, it would already have been).
I stopped for pulled pork and a fine accompanying salad at a riverside cafe with a colourful array of schnapps
and - although it might have just been possible to sit outside - a good view from within over the Danube.
Not difficult to imagine what a lively place this must be in warmer weather, with its merry rows of bottle lights.
Back to the open spaces around the Liberation Bridge
and a telling juxtaposition of relaxed young and impoverished old outside the City Hall.
I know from a previous visit that the Great Covered Market is a major tourist destination, but once you get beyond the stalls nearer the entrance, it becomes more localised and anyway it looked very splendid with its Christmas lights.
Vegetables inevitably include the strings of peppers
and my, do the Hungarians love every bit of meat they can get their teeth into.
A market of another sort met me at every turn as I wove through a zigzag of streets to meet Eszter outside the Liszt Academy. Each district has one day a year on which its residents can dump anything they like on the streets for collection, and this was the turn of the Terézváros.
For some reason windows and their frames seemed the most popular jettisoning. And there were rich pickings for anyone who wanted some free furnishings.
Eszter managed to escape her tyrannical alma mater, the inside of which I still haven't seen - there was a concert that night with Jordi Savall -
to take me to the hugely characterful Darjeeling Teahouse, after which I hopped on a tram down to the river and headed back to Müpa for an hour in the Ludwig Museum - chronicle to come in a separate entry - and the evening's concert with Ildikó, who remains staunchly independent of governmental ties in her film work. The plan for the next morning was to rise early and head for the Széchenyi Baths. But of course I didn't leave myself enough time so instead I took a big walk around the block, admiring the local baroque and the Nereid fountain in front of the Franciscan Church
where a service was in full sway with Gregorian chants projected on large screens, and a presepe Italian style stood outside the church.
Then a lively drive to the airport with a taxi driver whose usual customers were hungover Brits. He'd been to London several times and it always rained so he rushed from museum to gallery; one group of his passengers asked why he didn't spend all the time in the pub like they did.
The good news is that it looks as if we'll be going back for the annual Wagner Ring held in Müpa, by which time it will be June and summer should be in full swing.