A Day Trip To Felcsút

The Hungarian village of Felcsút is located 50km outside of Budapest and a 1 hour bus ride from the capital. It isn’t featured in any guide books and besides, with the abundance of things that Hungary’s seductive capital has to offer, why would anyone want to sacrifice a day in some one horse village in the middle of nowhere? But Felcsút isn’t just any other village. It is where the current Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán grew up. Since he became prime minister in 2010, a lot of money has been pumped into this sleepy settlement, mainly in the shape of a football stadium and a 6km long railway line.

Orbán is a controversial figure both at home and abroad. Opinion in Hungary on him is intensely polarized where people either love him or hate him. The latter accuse him of being a dangerous demagogue and a threat to the country’s democracy and free speech. Even though Hungary is a member of the European Union he has been very critical of it and has often come to blows with Brussels for not abiding by the rules as a member country. One example is his refusal to take in more migrants during the 2015 Refugee Crisis. Instead he constructed a razor fence around parts of the country’s borders much to the ire of Brussels. His supporters though see Orbán as a no-nonsense leader who isn’t afraid to speak his mind regardless of the consequences and also as someone who isn’t a pushover and is willing to put their country first. He is viewed by some as Europe’s answer to Donald Trump.

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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán 

From Nepligot bus station in Budapest, I board a knackered white bus destined for this village. As the bus leaves behind the final surrounding districts of the city we are in rural Hungary proper. Lots of open fields and not much else. Nobody on the bus or even at the ticket desk of the bus station in the capital spoke any English. Without the internet data on my phone and the Google Maps app, I would have most likely missed my destination and probably would have resorted to scrambling for a way to desperately return back to Budapest. Once out of Hungary’s cosmopolitan capital or any of the country’s major towns, the chances of finding someone who speaks English drops dramatically. For the record I don’t know a word of Hungarian. Its an impenetrable language which doesn’t stick easily to my poor little brain. I even find it a challenge to remember the word for ‘thank you’. This is not a country you would want to get arrested in.

I know we are approaching Felcsut the minute I see the blue dot on Google Maps edge closer to the name of the village on the digital map. We stop at a small roadside bus stop, but in my ignorance I assume this is not THE bus stop for my destination. The bus carries on and turns onto a road moving away from the location of the village on my map. Its going now at some speed and the blue dot on the map is moving away from Felcsut at an alarming rate. I have no choice but to interrupt the driver. I walk down the bus ailse and as I approach the driver I blurt out the name of my destination. He slams the brakes and the bus screeches to a halt. Thankfully I latch myself to a nearby railing to avoid being catapulted towards the driver’s window. With haste I grab my bag and jump out of the bus.

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Arriving in Felcsút 

As I walk closer to the village I see a sign indicating the infamous Pancho Arena football stadium being only a kilometre away. The stadium is big with a seating capacity of 3,500. That is more than double the population of the village itself which has a population of just 1,200. For this reason it is seen by many Hungarians as a sensitive subject often dismissing the stadium as an Orbán vanity project. Many argue that the money should have been allocated instead towards the healthcare or education system of the country and not a football stadium. Orbán is a football fanatic and often tries to watch as many important matches as he can in between his busy schedule. In fact it is not an uncommon sight to see him at some games at the local stadium during weekend matches.

When I approach the stadium it is empty with the next game scheduled until the weekend. Yet the entrance to the stadium is open and so I enter. In the enclosure of the stadium there are photographs, trophies and other assorted bits of football related memorabilia. As I walk into the seating area the most striking feature of the stadium is not the football pitch but the wooden beams around the stadium. They are truly a work of art and give the arena the air of a religious place of worship and not solely a place to watch football. The beams and general design of the stadium were taken from designs by the noted local Hungarian architect Imre Makovecz.

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Pancho Arena football stadium 

 

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The unique wooden beams of the stadium 

A long path by the stadium leads all the way to small railway station, Puskas Akademia, named after the local football team. This station is part of the 6km long Val-Valley railway line. This project is more controversial than the football stadium since it has been stated that 80% of the investment towards it came from EU funds. I am the only person on the platform. There is no ticket office at this station just a small wooden hut with a time table of the daily train times on the side of the hut. All the information is in Hungarian yet I soon make out via a combination of Google Translate and raw guesswork that the next train should arrive in half an hour.

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Puskas Akademia station stop as part of the Val-Valley 6km long light railway line

Twenty minutes later I am joined by two elderly ladies. I timidly ask them whether they speak English? To my amazement one of the ladies, Zsuzsi, speaks perfect English. She lived in London for one year in 1976 and reminisces fondly about her time in the city. A vintage style train soon approaches. When we board the train we are the only people in the carriage. I do wonder sometimes, unlike the football stadium, what really is the point of this railway line especially if so few people on average use it? Yet the hot potato aspect of this project aside, I am reminded of the countryside tourist railway train I once took last year in the breath-taking region of Mokra Gora in the neighbouring country of Serbia. That was a truly unforgettable memory.

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One of the trains

Once inside the deserted carriage we all pose for photos. There is also a stove-like heater inside. A lady conductor enters our carriage to issue our tickets. I soon learn that there are about four stops in total on this line. However since my time is limited I buy a ticket for just until the next stop. I stay on the train for 25 minutes as it slowly chugs until the next stop. During this time we pass through the wild autumnal fields of the surrounding countryside. It is a beautiful sight with a rich kaleidoscope of colours. These are the kind of fields Vincent Van Gogh would have painted in all their glory.

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Inside the train carriage with its own stove heater

 

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Yours truly inside the train

 

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The surrounding countryside

At the next stop, Felscut station, I disembark and say goodbye to the ladies. I have 40 minutes until the next bus to Budapest leaves from the northern end of the village. I briskly walk the few kilometres on the side of the main village road. Most of the places I pass along the way, save for the football stadium, are private residences and the odd church, school and grocery shop. Thankfully I make it to the bus stop on time. The bus arrives five minutes later to take me back to Nepligot bus station.

 

By Nicholas Peart

(c)All Rights Reserved

Contemporary Art From The Uralic World At The Ludwig Museum In Budapest

The Ludwig Museum is one of Budapest’s primary cultural institutions. When I visited the museum during my time in Budapest, there were three different art exhibitions on display. Two of those were purely focused on contemporary art from the Uralic world. The language, Hungarian, is part of the Uralic family of languages.  The three primary languages from that family are Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian.

 

SALLA TYKKA : Short Titles

The first exhibition was a display of short films by the Finnish video artist Salla Tykka. Her films focus on the inner core of existence. The first of her short films I encounter, Giant, is set in the gym of a Romanian all girls school. Here the girls undergo strict, stultifying and repressed exercise routines with faultless precision; as if they are robots or algorithms and not human beings. Watching the film makes me nauseous. The gym is also like one great soulless and sterile modern day concentration camp. Its an intensely depressing video and I only watch a few minutes of it before moving on yet out of all Tykka’s short films, it is also one of her most memorable.

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Still from the short film Giant by the Finnish artist Salla Tykka

Another film by Tykka, Lasso, is set in suburban Finland. It features a young man in his home gyrating in a dynamic and primal way with a lasso. During this moment, a young girl outside watches him transfixed through the slits of the closed blinds. She develops strong feelings towards him, difficult to articulate in words. But when the ritual with the lasso ends, so do those feelings and she is brought back down to earth. The film beautifully encapsulates this moment so many of us experience yet struggle to verbally convey.

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Still from the short film Lasso by the Finnish artist Salla Tykka

My Hate Is Useless is an early short film by Salla Tykka from 1996 documenting her struggle with anorexia. It is a raw and visceral film further documenting the pain and suffering she experiences. At one intervals she violently screams in Finnish ‘I hate myself’. Elsewhere in the film we see various bits of paraphernalia such as the medication she is taking.

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Still from the short film My Hate Is Useless by the Finnish artist Salla Tykka

 

RELATED BY SISTER LANGUAGES : Estonian-Hungarian Contemporary Art Exhibition

The second exhibition in another part of the museum is an exhibition of Estonian and Hungarian contemporary art curated by Krisztina Szipocs, the chief curator of the museum.

The first works are encounter are a small series of canvases by the Estonian artist Kaido Ole. Yet close by the canvases are two large painted mural like installations by the same artist depicting both the beginning and end of Estonia. The installation showing the beginning theme contains a sepia image of a coastline and the sea encased within a square sequence of different hues of blue. The end theme of the installation is more abstract featuring fading brown hues and the letters ‘Eeeeehhhh’ in the middle. It is difficult enough to envisage when the beginning may have been even if one where to use such primordial elements such as the sea and the colour blue. The end however is unwritten.

 

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Kaido Ole : The Beginning Of Estonia (2016/18)

 

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Kaido Ole : The End Of Estonia (2016)

Close by, a video by the Estonian artist Tanja Muravskaja, Three Sisters, featuring two girls who are both cousins reflecting on the war in Ukraine from their own personal experiences. One of the girls in the video lives in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev and the other in the small Russian town of Belgorad, located 40kms from the Ukrainian border. The two videos play simultaneously as the girls talk at the same time. What is immediately clear is that both have very different views and experiences. From what I can decipher the girl from Belgorad comes across as if she got the rougher end of the deal. You can just see it in her stern facial expressions never mind what she is saying. The brief blurb states she is 27. In body maybe, but spiritually she has the weight of a babushka at the fag end of her seventh decade. The girl from Kiev, on the other hand, appears more open and lighter in spirit without any of the heaviness of her cousin from Belgorad. I’ve never been to Belgorad (yet I’ve been to the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv just down the road), but I can’t imagine it’s a place bursting with outliers. The third sister is the artist herself who acts as the mediator; the sister who attempts to heal the rift. Her invisible role is the trickiest.

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Tanja Muravskaja : Three Sisters (2015)

The Hungarian artist Hajnal Nemeth has a video work entitled Crash – Passive Interview (2011) an experimental operatic video in 12 acts. I witness two acts of this video. The first features a clip in a BMW factory featuring two men in workers clothes in a kind of comic operatic dialogue, whilst the second shows one of the two men again this time dressed like some playboy from Milan in an open top white BMW in another operatic dialogue with a woman. The dialogues are police reports made after a series of non fatal car crashes. How something so ordinarily prosaic, anxiety ridden and traumatic is turned into some kind of absurd Eurotrash Aldi like visual opera has me in fits of laughter. Its a tragic-comedy masterpiece and one of the highlights of the show.

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Hajnal Nemeth : Crash – Passive Interview (2011) – still one

 

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Hajnal Nemeth : Crash – Passive Interview (2011) – still two

The Estonian art duo Johnson and Johnson, who’s name is taken from the global big pharma behemoth of the same name, has a work in the form of an illustrative chart on display entitled Top 5 State Employees. I can’t read a word of any Uralic language but visually the chart metaphorically echoes how this world at large defines ‘progress’ or ‘success’. What today’s measure of success of progress may be won’t be the same 100 years from now. What does it matter? What does it mean? Employees work for someone else and do what they are told and do their best to please to be rewarded. They have no skin in the game despite their best and most conscientious efforts. On the other hand, the Steve Jobs and Elon Musks of this world would make the Bottom 5 State Employees. They are too disruptive and visionary.

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Johnson and Johnson : Top 5 State Employees (2009/18)

 

A Selection From The Museum’s Permanent Collection Of Hungarian Contemporary Art 

The final exhibition in the museum featured a selection from the museum’s permanent collection. The work on display was global with works by big names such as Picasso, Andy Warhol, Chuck Close and Georg Basalitz. However, with the limited time I had left in the museum before the departure of my train to the Hungarian town of Szeged later in the day, I purposefully decided to focus on works by Hungarian artists in the collection. Below I am featuring some these…

 

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Emese Benczur : Not All Is Gold That Glitters (2016)

 

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Laszlo Lakner : Danae (1968)

 

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Laszlo Haris: Confrontation-Action: Double Portrait (1973-2012)

 

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Gabor Koos : Budapest Diary XIII (2015)

 

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Peter Turk: Treadmill I-II (1975-81)

 

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Peter Gemes : Hourglass (1995)

 

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Zsuzsi Ujj : With Ocsi (1988)

 

 

By Nicholas Peart

(c)All Rights Reserved 

The Pimped Up Bar Mleczny

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Pizza King Express is maybe the best place to eat in Budapest. I will probably get shot down in flames for saying this. At the ‘traditional’ restaurants serving Hungarian cuisine you will likely hear more English than Hungarian and will pay more money. You may also encounter surely staff if the place is popular. But not here. The staff here are a bunch of jokers and the food is ridiculously cheap even with a lousy pound sterling. A slice of pizza is 200 Forints (less than 60p). A tiramisu (enough for two) – yes, you better believe it – is 300 Forints (a little north of 80p).

During Communist times in many Eastern European countries you had these places called bar mlecznys, which in Polish literally translates to ‘milk bars’ – dirt cheap restaurants serving pretty basic food, but perfectly good. They used to be very popular with students or anyone without much money. Most of these places are a thing of the past now. There are a few still kicking around. For me Pizza King Express represents a new kind of ‘pimped up’ bar mleczny. That is, it may not be as threadbare as a traditional bar mleczny. Maybe I am stretching it using the words ‘pimped up’. But you get my drift. It has the same prices as the traditional bar mlecznys of yore filled by the same type of people who used to visit the originals. The only difference is that the menu is more global. Dare I say more ‘Westernised’. You can get pizza, kebabs, baklava (delicious sweat cake), tiramisu and rice pudding and all for just a few coins. Its a fraction of the price of Pizza Hut, which is next door, and a better and more delicious experience.

Hungary is not a rich country and wages are feeble. Budapest can be an expensive city if you are a local in menial employment. For that reason places like Pizza King Express are a godsend for locals. Its funny that most congregate here for a slice of cheap pizza and less at the ‘traditional’ Hungarian establishments no matter how good or tasty the food may be at those places.

The original bar mzlecznys were not only a product of Communism. They were a feature of when that part of the world was a much less connected place and people had limited access to information. In today’s post-communist globalised world with this tool called the internet, that has all changed. Younger generations from former communist countries are more aware, savvy and knowledgeable about the world, other cultures and how other people around the world live and their tastes. Pizza King Express caters for this younger generation as well as others who don’t want to spend too much money. In a paradoxical way, it is more ‘authentic’ to eat here than at the traditional restaurants, which promote themselves as ‘authentic’. It may be a pedantic and trivial observation, but there is a kernel of truth to it.

 

By Nicholas Peart

(c)All Rights Reserved

Architecture Through The Ages In Budapest

The capital city of Hungary is a delightful city to wonder around. As with my wonderings around the capital cities of various Balkan capitals such as Zagreb, Sarajevo and Belgrade last year, in Budapest there are a wealth of buildings of different architectural styles. Most prominent though are the buildings dating back to the times of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Those are grand old buildings with fabulously opulent adornments. It’s even more satisfying to discover some of those buildings in splendid dilapidation. That’s the difference between Budapest and its nearby cousin Vienna. Vienna has an abundance of lovely buildings, but almost all are periodically maintained and saved from slipping into ruin. In Budapest its not an uncommon site to see many buildings from that time period fallen on hard times; like a beautiful woman (or man) succumbing to ferocious ageing and too broke to afford a face lift. What money there used to be squandered long ago.

The buildings featured are magnificent Habsburg Empire era structures sometimes abruptly juxtaposed next to brutal and more austere Communist era buildings. Even some Ottoman/Eastern styled buildings. After all Hungary was ruled for 150 years by the Ottoman Empire. A lot of Neo Classical architecture can also be found. Sometimes these Ancient Greece influences are blended into more severe Art Deco architecture. Most of the time I know nothing about the buildings I come into contact with. I am simply just curious about their aesthetic qualities. Its all a fascinating melting pot of different styles. The pictures below, which I took on my wonderings, are evidence of this.

 

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Photographs and text by Nicholas Peart

(c)All Rights Reserved