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Style and Travel

Coming in from the cold

Christian House extols the virtues of Budapest

20 February 2008

12:00 AM

20 February 2008

12:00 AM

If there were a premier league for flea markets, the Ecseri site on the hem of Budapest would rank as the coolest. By that I mean that at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning in the cut of winter it is blanketed in a numbing sub-zero frost. We stand kicking the circulation back into our feet. I’m visiting with Patrick (an atypically droll Australian) and his girlfriend Emma (a typically poised Parisian) as guests of our friend Kata Gereben, one of Hungary’s leading art investment advisers. She has offered us a whistle-stop tour of the more unusual elements of the city’s art world.

Named after the original site in the city centre, Ecseri is one of Europe’s oldest antique and bric-à-brac markets. It’s a sprawling beast: a huge rabbit warren of indoor alleyways and outdoor quads. The quality of merchandise is wildly diverse, ranging from rubbish to rarities. Paintings, snake skins, lace and shotguns can all be found within an arm’s reach of each other, alongside a hefty amount of Soviet and Wehrmacht memorabilia. It’s soon apparent that Kata is more than a match for even the burliest traders. Pipe-slim, astute, and with armour-piercing eyes, she scythes down their sales patter while we gawp and shiver.

She introduces us to György, an affable ex-stage director who trawls the market every week for potential additions to his cabinets of ceramic and silver. He’s a strangely nebulous character, simultaneously distant and engaging, a little like Bruce Chatwin’s Utz. After informing us that we’ve arrived too late for the best finds (5 a.m. is the optimum time), he explains how this teeming bazaar has been forged by conflict. Over the years the shifting sands of royal, political and military power saw the Habsburgs, Nazis and Stasi all leaving town in a hurry. And they left their booty up for grabs. ‘All the palaces and castles were looted during the 20th century,’ says György, ‘and these gypsies are the inheritors of those thieves. Most of them can’t even read but they have a good eye. They know what they have. But,’ he smiles with suitable flamboyance, ‘it’s the dealers who are the most ruthless.’

He takes us on a tour of the fringe elements, from the car-boot sale beyond the perimeter walls to the manuscript stores hidden indoors. Here, stacks of mildewy papers offer the promise of finding a Prussian epic or an autographed Bartók score. We rummage and poke among the linen, erotica, rugs and firearms until the cold takes its toll. Patrick points out that ‘her Emma-nence’ is suffering in her icy boots.

Ignoring the heavy-set girls with their trays of extra-thick socks, we stumble to the market café for lángos — a savoury doughnut straight from the vat, salted, sprinkled with cheese and brushed with garlic butter — helped down with lemon tea. Pongy but warm, we call it a day and retreat to the car. To further emphasise our Western failings a DDR-era Trabant chugs along ahead, hampering our return to the boulevards of Pest. ‘Basically they’re made of paper,’ sighs Kata as she shifts down a gear.

The following morning we zip up the funicular (lovely wooden carriages, ridiculously short ride) to Castle Hill on the Buda-side bank of the Danube. The National Gallery sits proudly at the top, announcing a major Modernist show, while opposite the Prime Minister’s residence stands sedately among mediaeval buildings, many pockmarked by the shelling during the 1956 uprising.

However, it’s a new plot along the perimeter of the hill that Kata wants to show us. The villa originally owned by the Jewish Baron Ferenc Hatvany, one of Hungary’s most famous art collectors, is being rebuilt to its original spec. It’s a building with a sorry tale at its foundations — its predecessor was obliterated towards the end of the second world war. Both German troops and Russian authorities pillaged Hatvany’s art collection, including works by Cézanne, Ingres and Renoir, from bank vaults. For the most part the extraordinary group of paintings remains unrestituted to his heirs (one exception, Courbet’s ‘Femme Nue Couchée’, is currently on loan to the Grand Palais in Paris). Hungarians, Kata asserts, have a stunted attitude to restitution. Many of Hatvany’s paintings now hang on the walls of Budapest’s state galleries and in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. Taking them out of public view and returning them to private ownership flies in the face of the communist teaching that still persists in all but the youngest generation.

In the pre-war years, Hatvany, a sugar baron, would stroll over to enjoy the Biedermeier atmosphere of the Ruszwurm Confectionary which nestles into a terrace a few streets from his villa. Its sweet trade continues to this day and the four of us happily consume coffees, hazelnut mousse and apple pastries under its vaulted ceilings. Emerging into the glacial air, we face another mainstay of the city — one of the myriad statues to Magyar dignitaries. Jobbing sculptors must have enjoyed a secure career choice in 19th-century Budapest. The bronze statue of Count András Hadik on horseback has a unique feature — his steed’s testicles are as shiny as a newly minted forint. Legend has it that a touch of buffing brings luck to exam-stressed students — probably not the legacy Hadik envisaged when he led his Austro-Hungarian Hussars successfully into Berlin during the Seven Years’ War.

For our final evening, Kata takes us to the square housing the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music for hearty fare at Menza. This slick restaurant with a young, friendly crowd has contemporary art on the walls and a taupe and chocolate colour scheme. It looks like The Lives of Others set-designed by Damien Hirst. We are here to enjoy one masterpiece that remains firmly in the city’s sights: velos csont. This potent dish of marrow, roasted in the bone and tapped out in a rich dollop, was immortalised by the Hungarian fin-de-siècle author, Gyula Krúdy. A bon viveur, ladies’ man and duellist, Krúdy certainly sucked the marrow out of life. He wrote over 50 novels, enjoyed the uptown girls and extolled the pleasures of his national cuisine at a time when Budapest was the financial capital of Mitteleurope. A century of war and occupation later and here we are, four nationalities enjoying it as the city shines once more in the glow of rosier times. It seems, just for a moment, as if Budapest might be coming in from the cold.

Lending something one really minds about is an interesting test of character. Every time I wave a friend away bearing a favourite dress or a rare book I have to suppress the piece of me that wants to shout, ‘Stop! Sorry to be mean-spirited but the deal’s off. I know that you are going to break or lose or stretch or muddy or in some inexpressible way besmirch whatever precious item it is you are borrowing from me and I will never value and enjoy it quite as much ever again as a result.’

I then get a grip and remind myself that it is good friends, and not possessions, that are the irreplaceable commodity. But I’m clearly not someone temperamentally suited to letting others use my home — which makes it the more surprising that I now rent out my cottage in Wales to over 40 customers a year and get much more out of it than the rental income.

I saved and sweated and searched for over a decade before I bought my place in Talybont-on-Usk. The pain was well worth it, though. It still gives me a warm glow to think that I own — I own! — the little white cottage beside the river in one of the most lively and popular villages in the Brecon Beacons. A brilliant local Post Office and no fewer than four pubs are in staggering distance from my doorstep and you can walk, ride, bike or canoe, or take the canal through the hill
s to the coast, and scarcely encounter a car the whole way.

After renovating and decorating the cottage (I knew I’d got the nesting bug in a bad way when I bought the sofa of my dreams instead of going on holiday), the last thing I felt like doing was sharing it. I used to think back to the lectures I endured at school when someone had done something particularly antisocial to the fabric of the boarding house. ‘Would you do something like this at home?’ we used to be asked — a tactic which I thought missed the key point that we’d graffitied the walls, wrecked the garden and set fire to the curtains precisely because we weren’t at home.

Even when a new job took me further from home for longer periods of time, the thought of strangers with the behavioural standards of my 14-year-old self lying in my lovely linen sheets and eating from my Cornish blue china held me back from renting it out. Until, that is, the summer I was seconded to Australia. The thought of the cottage standing empty and my garden wilting, untended and unwatered for months on end, made me tentatively take out a website listing and homepage.

The first reply to demolished all my preconceptions about the holiday rental market. Far from trying to squeeze as many people as possible into my three bedrooms, the couple who emailed me from Bristol wanted a comfortable bolthole while their own house was overhauled. They liked the fact that the cottage was my home and were prepared to pay a premium for the comfortable bed, large-screen telly, lovely kitchen and internet connection that came as part of it. They paid £1,000 to spend two weeks there and when they left I found that they had not only watered the garden, but they had planted sweet peas and cleared a proper path down to the nearby trout pool to swim.

Apart from one deceptively mouse-like couple, who my neighbour and housekeeper Alaine discovered had been sick and spilt hot chocolate (at least we tell ourselves that’s what it was) all over their sheets, I have had only positive experiences with my guests. But the best and most unexpected part of letting the cottage out is that hearing my guests’ reports of their visits makes me feel much closer to Wales, and the thing I really hanker for — the Welsh.

The thing I love most about Wales is people’s refusal to do things by halves. The Welsh have such gusto that there is always something worth singing about, or fighting about, or at the very least, making a good story from. There seems to be a national knack for injecting drama and humour into the most workaday situations that Thomas himself and the characters of Under Milk Wood would approve of. And scarcely a week goes by without one of my guests relaying a titbit on to me.

My favourite report came from an Australian couple who rented the cottage during the Rugby World Cup. They wrote to tell me that the only thing that cheered them up after their own nation’s defeat was watching the final in a pub full of Welshmen dressed in Springbok shirts. When South Africa beat England, the celebrations were so joyful that one local went outside into the street, lay down in the pose of a sleeping policeman, and was duly run over.

The comments in my visitors’ book advise would-be joggers to avoid running around the lanes near the village because of the frequency with which passing drivers of all ages pull over to initiate elaborate role-plays, normally started by the offer of a lift or a query about where the fire is, which are designed to highlight the futility and absurdity of exercise.

Anthropomorphism is another tool put to good theatrical effect in Wales. When one guest had problems with her car and took it into a local garage, the mechanic took his time in deciding how to play the scene. He paced around the engine in silence, studied the oil gauge and eventually turned to her in the manner of a surgeon acknowledging that a particular battle for life on the operating table has been lost. Resting a hand on the bonnet, he shook his head and declared, ‘It’s over. You’ve cooked him.’

I now listen to the Welsh weather forecast each morning from London, and instead of feeling homesick I’m comforted by the knowledge that before long I will have a comic instalment of the climatic conditions and human dramas being played out in the hills a few hundred miles to the west. My favourite introduction to Wales was relayed to me by a family who took a taxi from Abergavenny station to the cottage during last spring’s heatwave. ‘God alive it’s hot, boys,’ their driver remarked as they lurched onto the road. ‘I’m bastard blistering in here all day. If I could take my skin off just to get some breeze over my guts I would.’ Hearing that, even second-hand, strikes me as not so much a waste as a jewel.

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