Tag Archives: Hungary

The good, the bad and the vomity.

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FOOD

Since we sauntered into the Czech Republic all those months ago, we’ve got very used to being offered a choice of pizza or schnitzel pretty much everywhere we’ve been. The schnitzel wins hands down; beaten to the thickness of an atom, coated in the crispiest of crumbs, and fried in less than a nano-second, it is delicious. But as we approached the coast of Croatia, the food suddenly changed. Now it was cheese with everything, and that ‘everything’ quite often turned out to be honey. Seriously? I’m not big on cheese, anyway.

In Zadar we had a burger that was honestly a bit grim, but the wifi password there was ‘David Bowie is alive’, which kinda made up for it. At our campsite near Split, the lovely girl at the onsite restaurant recommended a Croatian speciality called Cevapcici. I said ok as I always like to try the regional food. Apart from anything else, it gives me a clue as to what I can cook with the local (and usually only) produce in the shops. The cafe had sea-views and black squirrels jumping in the trees overheard, so I felt that compensation was plentiful if the meal was shite.

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But Cevapcici is brilliant – little spiced sausages, a bit like kofta. At the supermarket I found sachets of Cevapcici spice mix for about 60 cents, so I bought six packets. Used the last one a week ago and wish I’d bought more.

So I was pretty optimistic when we went into Split, armed with the name of a good restaurant from my friend’s website, Unravel Travel. The restaurant had a queue outside (as expected) – but it was raining. Consequently, the owner said that he wasn’t gonna serve any more people after the couple in front of us, and would close for the day. Oh, ok. Never mind. There are other places, such as Marta’s Fusion, a vegetarian restaurant that we’d passed, just around the corner. It looked nice, and it was raining, and we were hungry. You get the picture.

For those of you who are my age, you’ll remember a time when vegetarian food had a bad rap. It was considered to be dry and tasteless and mostly lentils. Worthy is the word that sprung to mind. But then times changed and things moved on wonderfully in the veggie world. However, someone forgot to tell Marta.

We both ordered the black-bean burger, which was our first mistake. If we’d chosen different things, then we’d have increased our chances of having something edible. The lukewarm burger arrived – with no bun, and covered in cold ketchup of the vividly scarlet sort that usually squirts out of a plastic tomato. It was tasteless, had no seasoning, and a dry, suck-all-the-moisture-out-of-your-mouth texture. It wasn’t even worthy: it was miserable. I felt sorry for the beans. I got the giggles and then I felt sick. Steve tried to give them some feedback, but I had to excuse myself and rush outside in case I marched into the kitchen, grabbed a pan and said, ‘look, it’s not that hard, here’s how to make falafel. And use some effing salt!’

SPLIT, IN SIX LINES

But Split itself was great. Apart from the Diocletian Palace (which I’ve mentioned before) there was a rather fabulous statue of the Croatian hero, Gregory of Nin. Local folklore states that Gregory will grant your wish if you rub his big toe. Consequently, said toe is now massively shiny. I rubbed it, course I did.

But it’s quite possible that some tourists only know of the superstition, and not the actual whereabouts of the statue, because I noticed a lot of other statues in Split had shiny toes too.

VRANA

Wanting a day in the countryside, Steve read about a place called Vrana. To be honest I wasn’t really listening when he told me the history of the place: something about two famous sculptors, or authors, or something. Plus the usual – a medieval town, a place of great political and religious significance, monasteries, and Knight’s Templars, yah dee yah dee yah. Sometimes I just like to go with the flow cos that’s how I roll.

Anyway, we set off and although I didn’t have a clear idea on what to expect, I certainly envisioned something more than the crappily run-down little village we drove into and, moments later, out the other side. Was that it? Apparently so. Where were the plaques and history and interesting stuff? I personally don’t think that locals staring at the two puzzled-looking idiots driving backwards and forwards in their Smart car count as ‘stuff’.

But I’d spotted a place on the outskirts that had a menu up outside. Yay, coffee time. Coffee sweetens many an abortive trip out, and if there are cakes, then it’s a spree! So we parked up, walked in and got slapped in the face with history. In 1644, the commander of the Turkish Fleet started building his summer palace here, and the ruins of it have been newly restored and renovated.The Maskovic Han, as it is called, is now a lovely hotel with very nice coffee.

 

As we left, the waitress asked if we’d seen the ninth century ruin over the road? Oh, so there‘s more stuff here? Great. We pootled over the road to what, at first glance, appeared to be a field with a lot of fallen down stone walls. But then, after climbing up and down some dips and navigating gaps in the overgrowth, we found ourselves inside the remains of what were once impressive buildings.

It was totally silent, apart from the occasional chirps of birdsong. The sun was beaming down, the air trembling with butterflies and it felt completely peaceful. Like a secret garden that had been carefully avoiding Monty Don.

I heard some rustling in the bushes (which I hoped wasn’t a snake), then I got distracted into pursuing a big, bright-yellow butterfly with black spots, that I’d never seen before. Which is why I almost trod on this little sweetie as it wandered onto the path in front of me.

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A tortoise! A genuine wild tortoise! My ignorance again, but I had no idea that they lived here. That pretty much made my week, let alone my day.

MORE FOOD

We’ve had some surprisingly wonderful meals in shopping malls, of all places, including a terrific curry and some great Chinese food (I worry what tourists in Britain think when they rock up and are faced with a choice of Burger King or KFC). So I was happily encouraged by the sight of Soparnik under the counter of the cafe we ended up at a few days later. Soparnik is a Croatian speciality, and is basically a flat pie made from flaky filo-like pastry with a filling of chard and a white cheese. I like chard. We’d often been served chard and potatoes, the spuds being boiled, but golden and the chard, rich and iron-y. So a chard pie, with some cheese – how wrong can you go with that?

Now, perhaps I should have been worried when I heard the microwave ping. Hands up who’s over-microwaved pastry before now, and turned it into an un-chewable, rock-hard slice of sweaty brown stuff? I think you know what I’m saying.

But it was the cheese. The cheese! I don’t know what animal’s milk that had been made from, but I’m guessing a really pissed-off Tasmanian Devil or a dead Yak. It left a taste in my mouth that was beyond-words-awful, really rank. And then I realised what it reminded me of. You know that taste that is left in your mouth just after you’ve just thrown up? Bingo. Now, I discovered Parmesan when I was in my late teens and remember being surprised that it smelt of vomit but tasted of cheese. This one smelt of cheese but tasted of vomit. Steve was hungry and chomping it down so I thought it best not to expand on this theory at the time.

ON TO DUBROVNIK

Driving down through Croatia is certainly an experience. For a start, my knowledge of geography is so poor, that I genuinely had no idea that to get to Dubrovnik from Split you pass through a bit of Bosnia. I just hadn’t zoomed in that much on Google maps. So it was a bit of a shock when we fetched up at a checkpoint. I imagined that Deirdre the sat-nav slut had taken us down a wrong road again, and just followed Steve into Bosnia assuming he’d sort it out.

After a while we approached another checkpoint and I got my passport ready to show. But, to my surprise, Steve just drove straight on to the last kiosk and was then waved through by a chap standing outside it. Strange, I thought, but oh well – I’ll just do the same. I couldn’t see anyone in the first kiosk anyway. And so it was that I drove mindlessly past the lady with the out-stretched hand in kiosk number two, didn’t show my passport to anybody, and just sailed past the confused-looking man standing outside. When I realised what I’d done I frantically called Steve on the walkie-talkie. Don’t worry, he said, if there’s a problem they’ll just send the police after you. Thanks mate.

The Croatians like simple campsite names, such as Camp Martin, Susie, Petar or Antonio – which to choose? Not Camp Bozo, I think, or (given that a ‘j’ is pronounced as a ‘y’) the untrustworthy sounding Camp Dunja. We settled for Camping Kate. On arrival we were told that it was due to close in a couple of days, but if we wanted to stay longer, then they’d stay open longer too. Fantastic. We suggested a week, and they said that was fine.

It was nestled on a hilltop amongst olive, orange and persimmon trees. There was a tiny chapel overlooking the sea, and stairs that took you down the hill to the beach at a sweet little place called Mlini. Bit of a climb back up, but so worth it.

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AND YET MORE FOOD

The nice lady at Camping Kate suggested that we go over the road to a restaurant called Flamingo’s if we wanted a decent meal. It was fairly unpretentious and a little bit basic looking inside, but we’ve learnt never to judge by appearances. We ordered The Flamingo Platter, which was a sharing plate for two, and stopped us having to spend ages thinking about what we wanted and get down to the wine.

In the corner, three guys started playing an Argentine tango on a guitar, a double bass, and an accordion. When they sang, their voices were rich, melodic and harmonious; they had clearly been performing together for a long time. They finished their set and then moved over to the first table.

‘Where do you come from?’

‘Hungary.’

No problem. They launched into several songs that the chaps at the table could sing along to, and so on around the room. Then they reached us.

‘Where do you come from?’

‘The UK.’

‘Where?’

‘Er, England?

Britain?

You’ve heard of London, maybe?’

‘Ah, ok.’

Then they got in a huddle, had a little chat, smiled, and launched into What shall we do with the drunken sailor, followed by a Scottish reel, and Fly me to the moon.

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Bit surreal, but then the food arrived and it was humungous. The plate (which was larger than my bathroom sink) had roast chicken, steaks, two sorts of kebabs, chips and potatoes and a vegetable rice, roast Mediterranean vegetables, chard mixed with some other veg, and fried breaded cheese. Plus eight homemade bread rolls, and a soup bowl full of mushroom and cream sauce. We took a lot of it home in a doggy bag and it lasted us for three days.

NEXT TIME

We were now within reach of Dubrovnik, aka, Kings Landing from Game of Thrones. That’s a whole blog on its own, so until next time, thanks for reading. Ciao xx

 

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Filling out, filling in.

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There’s good toothache and there’s bad toothache, right? The good kind is just a dull ache – enough to induce the weirdly enjoyable need to constantly press on it, whilst not exactly being a throbbing pain. The bad kind makes one want to commit murder.

Luckily, it was the good kind that started up for me as we drove across Hungary to a campsite at the south end of Lake Balaton. I had a good feel around with my tongue, concluded that a tiny bit of tooth had chipped off (a sucky sweet may have been involved – I couldn’t possibly say), and seriously considered asking Steve to get his Dremel out once we stopped. Then I forgot about it.

The next day we went into Hevis to check out the market. Steve had an urge to buy proper Hungarian paprika, and spent a long time with a little old lady testing the samples on one of the stalls. Steve is pretty nifty at working around language barriers and only resorts to the joy that is Google Translate as a last resort. In fact he has an absolute gift for finding words that can be understood across a fair whack of the board.

So, ‘piquant?’ he asked the lady, pointing at one of the samples. ‘Yes,’ she agreed, ‘piquant’. He indicated another sample and asked again. ‘Brutal piquant,’ said the lady,  offering to bag some up. Er, no thanks, we’ll stick with the piquant – my mouth is sore enough.

In fact, the toothache was now ratcheting up and this meant I’d have to do something about it. Bollocks. My entire knowledge of Hungarian consisted of the word for thank you and now I had brutal to add to the mix. Didn’t bode well.

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The next day was a Sunday so I just had to bide my time. By the end of the day another chunk of my tooth had fallen out. On Monday morning I went to see Janos in reception. He was a nice young man – big smile, bald head, had a nice Rhodesian Ridgeback and a good command of English. He explained the problem to the dentist next door (cos that was handy) and made an appointment.

By 10.30 I had a brand new filling, and had honed my negotiation-through-mime skills as to the price. Sorted. Went back to the van, waited for the pain to kick in, ate soft stuff, and watched The Handmaid’s Tale.

The next day we went to Keszthely to visit the Festetics Palace. This baroque beauty housed a fabulous library, several museums and exhibitions, a bird park, tropical gardens, and more besides.IMG_5129

The nerdily brilliant model railway took up an entire hangar, and featured trains through the ages hurtling through lots of well known Hungarian towns and landmarks. It had so much detail that I went round twice, happily spotting a couple snogging on a park bench, a lady with carrier bags trudging up a hill just past the bus stop, and – my personal favourite – an army tank that had sneaked in to the drive-in movie.

Outside the Palace was a vintage car rally. These were all old Russian cars – Volgas – and many of them were clearly still in use. One had a microwave perched on its passenger seat.

We saw exotic birds, some stunning cacti and amaryllis, and an interesting ‘Travelling Aristocrats’ exhibition, before discovering a building that housed over fifty old coaches, carriages and sleighs. They were lush.

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And then it was off for coffee and cake at a cute little tunnel of a cafe, almost a corridor, really, but covered – absolutely plastered – in antique clocks.

And then my brand new filling fell out.

The next day I went back to the dentist, where she did a terrifying mime to show me that my tooth now needed to be extracted. We agreed, and she injected the living daylights out of me. I thought my throat was going to close over, and I certainly couldn’t swallow. I imagined saliva filling my mouth and dribbling out of my nose.

She got to work but what the poor woman didn’t know was that one of my main personality traits is tenacity, and it seems that that applies to my teeth as well. At one point I genuinely thought she was going to put her foot on my chest in order to provide the necessary leverage, and she was actually sweating. She managed eventually, and it was Dentist:1, tooth:nil.

An hour or two later, and it was the pain that made me want to murder someone. Steve had raced to the shops and come back with broccoli to make into soup, so it wasn’t going to be him. Then Georgie gave an almighty lurch and there was a horrible crunching sound. We’d been hit!

We both raced outside to see a rather large caravan stuck on our back ladder and a red-faced Latvian woman shouting furiously at her husband. Some careful backing-up of their van revealed a whacking great tear in their side, and on Georgie? Not a scratch.

The woman told us that she’d thought we’d been sticking out too far, but then she’d had a walk around and seen that we were, in fact, touching the fence at the front. So deffo her husband’s fault. Damn. Couldn’t vent my pain at him, either, because his wife had got that sewn up already.

On our last day we saw her again and Steve invited her in to see the walkie-talkies. She looked so relieved at the idea that I thought she might cry. I was so heavily medicated that I felt perfectly benign towards them both and besides, it was time to discover another country.

And then one of Steve’s fillings fell out…….!

 

 

Down by the Danube 3 – Ruined Romans, and a Renaissance night.

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I lived in Bath for ten years, so I know a bit about what the Romans did for us and, better still, I know what they buggered off and left behind them. The Roman Baths are one of my favourite places and – as is usual with any of our national heritage – they are meticulously maintained, thoughtfully laid out, and cost a pretty penny to visit.

So when we read about all the Roman ruins in Budapest, we were quite excited – a town at Aquincum, and an Amphitheatre in Buda. Well, alrighty.

And the first place we discovered was the Roman baths. Notice I have not used a capital letter on baths this time. That is because they are not given quite the same level of reverence in these parts.

Well, when I say, not given quite the same level, what I mean is they are treated like old bus stops. Open to the public. Totally unmanaged. And under a flyover.

I’m not even joking.

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But to be fair, they took out the good stuff – you know, plaques to the Emperor Claudius, and interesting tombstones, etc. – and put them on display elsewhere.

Well, when I say elsewhere, I mean they stuck them on the walls of the underpass.

And I’m still not kidding.

 

Slightly appalled, we went in search of the Amphitheatre.

And found it – fenced off, used as a roundabout, and overlooked by crappy flats. Sigh.

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BUT TO BE FAIR…

A few weeks later we visited Croatia, where they also have some Roman ruins; a massive complex at Solin, comprising baths, theatre, forum, amphitheatre, the lot. But, unlike the Hungarians (who I suspect they consider rank amateurs), their disregard for ancient monuments was at a whole new level. How? Oh, they build houses on it.

I am utterly serious, look – a natty little semi-detached perched neatly on the West Gate.

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And if they can’t build on it, they build into it. The centre of nearby Split uses the leftovers of the Diocletian Palace as its foundation. Whole houses have odd windows, arches and decorative stonework sticking out their sides. Shops, restaurants, churches and public buildings – all half Roman and half every age since, with no clear lines in-between. I have to say, I think it works in Split but, to a Brit, it is still very strange; a bit like using Stonehenge as the base for a new roller-disco.

 

BUT BACK TO HUNGARY

Thankfully, at Aquincum – the Roman town just to the north of Budapest – they have got it right. We spent a happy afternoon just wandering around, watching lithe, green, lizards darting under the cobbles, and studying the artistry of the stonework. Yes, it’s right next to the main road, but that means everyone gets a free look as they drive into town.

 

MOVING FORWARD

Our actual campsite was at Domos, to the north of Budapest, and somewhere between Esztergom and Visegrad. We both needed to get our hair cut, so we pottered into Esztergom looking for someone with scissors and a modicum of skill.

Now, Esztergom has been inhabited for 20,000 years, and there is evidence of a very early Celt settlement. It was also the capital of Hungary until that upstart Buda got all above itself in the middle ages. And our old friend King St. Stephen was crowned there.

So although we couldn’t find a barbershop or hairdresser’s (they all shut at noon, apparently), we did find a rather nice castle and a basilica.

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The next day, we left a little earlier, and tried Visegrad. You could say we struck lucky, in that we found one that was open. However, she did cut our hair as if she had a train to catch, and Steve ended up still fairly shaggy, whilst I was lop-sided. Ah well, at least my hair was short enough to stop bitch-slapping me in the face every time I drove along with the windows open. And she did have a rather interesting tiled sink/channel thing.

I’d spotted a nice looking restaurant there, so we popped back later for dinner and found out that, although the Hungarians are a bit blasé about the Romans, they take the Renaissance very seriously indeed. Visegrad had once been the royal seat of King Matthias, and Visegrad wasn’t about to let you forget it.

We walked into the restaurant expecting the usual incomprehensible menu, plastic flowers, and a TV screen What we found was this – a full medieval banqueting hall!

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The waiters were in full costume, but so were the diners! Steve took one look at the thrones and said, ‘I want to sit there.’ We ordered some medieval platter – we’d no idea what to expect – and then went with the waiter to get kitted out in full medieval clobber. We both had crowns, and Steve had a choice of swords and other weaponry.

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The food was fab. Goose liver, and roast goose, and braised red cabbage, and a nice chestnut puree thing for pud. Plenty of leftovers to take home. Happy me.

And that was the end of our time in Budapest, and we were ready to move on down to Lake Balaton. Next time, I’ll tell you about vintage cars, coaches and sleighs, how to mime to a dentist, and what happened when someone backed their caravan into Georgie.

Down by the Danube 1 – Festivals, fireworks, and the Hand of the King

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WHEN THE SUMMER COMES TO AN END

Campsites have a difficult time out of season. Most close altogether, becoming strange little glamping-pod ghost towns. Others diversify, letting out the space to groups and organisations. Several times during this trip we’ve been told we can only stay until Thursday morning, because then somebody is moving in to set up an event for the weekend.

At Jasov, in Slovakia, it was the turn of the annual Pit Bull and Staffi Weight-pulling contest. So that week some pretty impressive canine specimens pitched up, along with their proud (and equally scary looking) owners. We used to have a beautiful Staffi called Gizmo, so we weren’t phased, but the campsite cleared incredibly fast, I must say.

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One chap came over to borrow a wrench from Steve in order to fix some tracking that was to be used in the contest. The dogs were going to pull a loaded cart along it for several metres. Here’s the cart, on the left – ready to be stacked with that enormous pile of concrete blocks on the right. I’m not even joking.

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So we left, because we had to, and took a jaunt down towards Budapest, in Hungary. This meant meeting up again with the River Danube. It’s a flighty little stretch of water – it gets about a bit. So far, we’ve run into it in Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia.  I’ve noticed that khaki is it’s hue of choice, although it will don shades of silver, slate, greige, black, brown or olive if the mood takes it. But not once, not once have I seen it blue.

BUT BUDAPEST THO

Sometimes we are clever but mostly we are just lucky, which is how we managed to arrive in time to see the start of the St. Stephen’s Day Festival. I’m not going to give you a history lesson about King St. Stephen (Google him if you’re interested) but he was a really big deal. The first king of Hungary as we know it today, and their version of King Arthur and the Pope, all mixed together. They’ve got his right hand in the Basilica, and it gets paraded through the streets to much fanfare and celebration, followed by fireworks.

I was concerned that parking would be an issue as thousands of people flock to the city for the event, but when we got there a helpful traffic cop said, ‘Park where you like – it’s free’. Seriously? We found a spot alongside the river, opposite parliament (here it is beautifully un-reflected in the khaki green Danube).

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We took a very short walk to ‘The Street of Hungarian Flavours’. Here you could taste everything from the soup, to goulash, to langos (a sort-of pizza dough that is stretched, and flash fried, and then covered in garlic sauce and grated cheese), to spit-roast pork, and beer, and ice-cream, and cakes, and more beer – really, lots more beer.

Our UK Health and Safety would have gone nuts. There were open fires with massive bubbling cauldrons, right on the street with no barrier between them and the crowds. I bloody loved it.

CRAFTS AND PERFORMANCES

The ‘street’ led up to the castle on the hill, where the ‘Festival of Folk Art’ was in full swing. There was a hell of a lot of beautiful embroidery, as well as traditional crafts from visiting nations such as Tibet, China, and Nepal. The costumes were amazing.

Of course, there were crafts there that nobody should either make, show, or try to sell…

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…and this strange, hairy, masked guy in bloomers kept showing up. But that was part of the fun.

We also got to see the Changing of the Guard. They have two types here: one is a dainty quick-swap two-step; the other is the full turn-turn-step-turn-kick-turn version, with drums. We saw both.

Then we heard music, and a handsome Australian chap shoved a paper into my hand. He was part of a group that sang mainly Bartok, and they were just finishing their rehearsal.   The paper had the words to the folk songs they were going to sing (with audience participation), so we thought we’d give it a go. Apart from the obvious (we couldn’t understand how to pronounce any of the words, and didn’t know the tunes) it all went swimmingly, until the guy with the bagpipes came to the front of the stage.

Here’s a picture of the soften-you-up-with-some-merry-tunes-before-unleashing-the horror bastards, in their hideous shirts.

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Now, I assume that these were traditional instruments, because there’s absolutely no excuse for them otherwise. Apart from the bagpipes – which both looked, and sounded, as if he’d trapped a startled pig – he had a tin whistle (sigh), and a long, bamboo, tubey thing he blew down. Well, they all did. It was very impressive – not.

And a recorder – which he hummed into as well as blew into it, which added a weird didgeridoo-type of element. To say it was shrill is to be kind. Within a minute I had the sensation that all the fillings in my teeth were vibrating.

Three weeks later, one of my fillings fell out. I know who I blame.

Then It was time for the finale: fireworks over the Danube. And they were great because even crap fireworks are great, and these were not crap. Went on for a full thirty minutes. They included some that I genuinely hadn’t seen before – they formed gyroscopic shapes, which I thought only Gandalf could do.

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COSTUMES TO DIE FOR

As I said, we are lucky, and on our last day in Budapest we chanced upon another festival, a bit like our Harvest Festival, I think. Lots of dignitaries in regional costumes walked up, two by two, to put baskets of local produce on a huge map, outside the Basilica.

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We’d gone to the Basilica to see the hand of King St. Stephen, having drunk too much beer to catch it on it’s jaunt around town the previous week. And here it is – THE HAND OF THE KING, been around since 1038. That’s a set of knuckles you are looking at there.

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NEXT TIME…

I’ll tell you more about Budapest, from the Vasarely Museum to the Roman ruins at Aquincum. Thanks for reading. Ciao. xxxx