Tour Diary – Budapest (August 14, 2011)

It’s a long travel day to get from Toronto to Budapest, especially for one gig, but when we got the offer from the Sziget Festival and we did the math and realised that it was economically feasible, we jumped at the opportunity. Budapest is one of those cities that is not on the beaten path of the cities that we regularly travel through and its one of those places that has always had a certain exotic allure. When you start saying “no” to opportunities to experience new places, just because of the hassle of travel, then you know you are officially “old”….and we’re not old, just a bit gnarled.

Margo, Pete and I decided to go a few days early so that we could pound as much pavement, eat as much goulash and sit in as many outdoor cafes as possible. It’s exciting sitting in a city for more than just a couple of days: one slowly figures out the geography and accidently discovers little pockets that one might otherwise miss. Another fantastically obvious thing about travelling is that, whether by osmosis or by sticking your nose in a guide book, one learns just a little bit more about another culture, another land, another history, another people. Oddly enough, in today’s world, which is so connected by economics, electronics and air travel, we all seem to be trying to crawl back into our own little shells (especially in North America), trying to create a false comfort, desperately clinging to a misguided belief that,  “if I keep my head buried inside my shell then nothing on the outside can do me harm”. Travel makes you stick your neck out of that shell….it should be mandatory….raise taxes and give everyone a travel voucher to a foreign land….now there’s a platform I could get behind.

So, what did I learn on my summer vacation? Hungarians have had a tough time of it and they are a very resilient and independent people. Sitting smack dab in the middle of Europe between; the Romans and the Huns; the Mongols and everything else; the Austrians and the Turks; the Germans and the Russians; the Russians and the West, has made this land a bit of a stomping ground, but it seems that each time these people get stomped, they get back up and fight, once again, for their independence. The most recent example was in 1989, when it was the Hungarians who poked that first big hole in the Iron Curtain, which eventually lead to the whole structure tumbling down. So it is a blood soaked city. You can still see pock marks from large calibre weapons on many of the buildings in the core of the city. Castle Hill, which sits picturesquely above the Danube and looks out on the rest of the city, is a beautiful spot to spend a day, but it also happens to be the most strategic place to fall back to when under attack: it has been the site of 31 sieges in its recorded history. There have been some heroic moments; such as the Revolution of 1956 which saw the people rise up and overthrow the Soviet run government, only to be brutally crushed 12 days later by the Red Army; and there have been some very dark moments, such as the Nazi inspired (but Hungarian run) Arrow Cross Party that very efficiently rounded up over 450,000 Hungarian Jews and Romas in less than two months and sent them to their deaths. But there is more to its history than just struggle. There is also a very proud and rich history of the Intelligentsia (yes, I know, we’re suppose to hate the Intelligentsia these days, aren’t we?  Socialist loving, latte sipping, book reading, music listening, high-brow thinking loafers…give me a narrow minded, power hungry troglodyte to lead us…that’s the way forward). In any case, as deluded as it may seem to some sections of the population out there, Hungarians revere their artists and thinkers and there are many of international renown. The streets and squares of this city are not only named for its political heroes but also its intellectual heroes.

So we wandered over top of the barricades, gazed up at the cast bronze faces of past Hungarian heroes, stumbled along the many pedestrian friendly streets, visited a few galleries, museums, synagogues and churches and recuperated at the outdoor cafes that line most of the streets in the cities core. That’s what I did on my summer vacation.

There was a bit of work as well…if you can call it that. The Sziget Festival is one of Europe’s largest festivals and that is saying something…European summer festivals are notoriously monstrous in size. This one is set over a five day period on an island in the Danube with over 20 stages; 60,000 campers; 400,000 paid attendance. As well as a side show of craft kiosks, zip-lines, bungee jumps, wellness centers, hundreds of food vendors and lots of beer and wine. It is basically a very large village that is set created for a week of festivities. It’s quite amazing, youth culture at its best, with a slightly buzzed but basically mellow and good natured vibe. We were on what was called the World Music Stage, which was kind of puzzling…listening to the bands before us, it seems that congas or timbales (or some other calf-skinned percussion instrument that emits a loud “thwock”) was part of the necessary instrumentation for this stage and we forgot ours back in Toronto. We didn’t quite fit in and unfortunately we didn’t play very well either. Maybe it was the full moon or maybe it was the vengeful spirit of Amy Winehouse (who was scheduled to be at this festival), or maybe it was the previous two days spent tripping over cobblestones, but for whatever reason, we kind of sucked. Not a great way to finish off a terrific few days. Now we have to wait for November to redeem ourselves. Home again, home again.