Bigger must be better

Budapest, Hungary Today the highlight of our walk was the highlight of Budapest – its Parliament. Built in order to add glory to the 1896 millennium year, it is the most massive such building you will ever see, unless your travels take you to Romania or Buenos Aires.

A big point is made of this, as representative democracy in Hungary (and perhaps in those two competitors) seems to be measured by the size of its place of governance, rather than by the principles which it enforces. Oh well, you work with what you have.

After some effort, we were able to secure a spot on an English-speaking tour. We had a lovely young lady as our guide, though it took a few minutes at the beginning to realize she was speaking English. (There is less fluency here than in the other former Eastern Bloc countries we have just visited.) The parts of this massive building that we were able to see are stately, to say the least, and designed to impress.

The building dates from a time when Budapest ruled most of Eastern Europe as part of the Dual Monarchy that was the Austro-Hungarian empire. Hungary is now a third of the size it was at that time. The current legislature occupies only one-eight of the space once filled by people busily running an empire. And what an impressive work place they had! We toured hall after hall and room after room of wonderful paintings, carvings and stained glass, with an incredible grand staircase. Anything that could be gilded was, and every corner that could use some painting, carving or stained glass got it.

The central rotunda under the dome holds the Hungarian crown, supposedly sent to crown King Stephen in the year 1000. No photography allowed here, where the crown is guarded by two armed soldiers. We were honored to witness the “changing of the guard,” where they were replaced by two others, marched in by a much more decorated officer. It was almost a routine out of a Marx brothers comedy, but I’m sure it is a great honor to guard the crown.

One of the most amusing adornments was the placement of numbered cigar holders on the windowsills in the hallways of the main chamber. Cuban cigars were considered to outlast any addresses to the parliament, so they could be retrieved and enjoyed without too much waste.

The surrounding square is filled with a vast plaza and neighboring government administrative buildings that make the Parliament appear even more imposing and bold.

In nearby Liberty Square, it is amusing to see a crowd of foreigners gathered around a statue of Ronald Reagan, listening attentively to their guide. It was put up by the current leader as a bit of a political stunt to take attention away from an internal scandal. Not a favorite of Hungarians who don’t view Ronnie as more worthy of attention than many Hungarian freedom fighters during the Cold War. Nearby is an equally contentious monument, the Soviet War Memorial, commemorating the liberation of Hungary from the Nazis. Understandably, many resent anything that serves to aggrandize the Soviets.

And then, perhaps ironically, facing the park is the U.S. Embassy, the only one you will see in any capital city that looks like an armed fortress. Amazing security, of which one dare not take photographs.

One other monument deserves mention — Monument to the Hungarian Victims of the Nazis. It clearly says that the German invasion of Hungary was a horror wreaked upon a peaceful country. While the horror part may be true, the peaceful part contradicts the reality of Hungary as a German ally, and many Hungarians as enthusiastic collaborators with the new regime. Locals have created a makeshift counter-memorial to the war’s victims. It may disappear soon, but it is very moving in its personalization of the human tragedies.

We stopped in St. Stephen’s plaza to admire the basilica and the lively pedestrian area surrounding it. We met two lovely Indian ladies and then admired the police officer statue and his shiny belly.

So many buildings have been reclaimed, green spaces enlivened and lots of things happening here — just a few examples of how Hungary’s people rebounded from Soviet rule. There is even a now-obligatory Ferris wheel. New York is lagging behind on that metric!

Don’s Food Corner

We were actually able to find our way to a recommended restaurant instead of collapsing into one most convenient. All looked promising. But the results were mixed.

Jo ordered a Greek salad to start. It had a nodding reference to a real Greek salad except for the addition strips of bell pepper (Jo’s gastronomic enemy) and an absence of good tomatoes. But, OK, it was all fresh.

I started with a special of the day: asparagus with Hollandaise sauce. Since this is the beginning of asparagus season, my expectations were high. Unfortunately, the asparagus, although beautifully green, were as thick as rolled newspapers — and they weren’t peeled. The sauce was rich without being flavorful. The acidic part of the sauce was missing. Time to send the chef to France for a few lessons.

For our main course, I ordered what was billed as breaded pork chop with parsley potatoes. I expected one of those pork chops with the bone still in it. I got a pork schnitzel. (Guess who was jealous.) The potatoes were parsleyed all right, but they too lacked any flavor — like some butter.) The waiter suggested a cucumber salad to go with it. I agreed that it sounded good. It was a dish of cold pickled cucumbers with a dollop of sour cream on top.

Jo went with a beef stroganoff with croquettes. It arrived loaded with slivers of bell pepper. We swapped dishes rather quickly. The schnitzel was average. Jo had to beg for a lemon to add some zip to the dish.

The beef in the stroganoff was tough, but I liked the sauce, which was loaded with paprika and sour cream. (They can’t help themselves when it comes to any excuse for paprika and sour cream.) The croquettes were more like deep-fried dumplings, but not made of potatoes, rather some type of bread concoction.

Not one of our better meals. However, the beer was great and it’s served ice cold here, which is welcome.

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