Friday 12 June 2020

1994 the Danube: Neuburg, Vienna, Budapest

23.5.94 Neuburg an der Donau

Weird.  City of the dead – no one around, shops closed – rainy.  But: below us the Danube – young and powerful.  Neuburg schizophrenic: picture postcard old town, spanking new town.  Arrived here Saturday, driving through the Brennero for the first time.  Pretty but rarely exhilarating as, for example, the Southern Alps in New Zealand were.  Too tamed.  Perhaps more beautiful nearer Italy, the castles hanging from the cliffs above the scattered houses of their villages.  The countryside around here, and the villages all look so neat and tidy.

Here the old city is beautiful – like Prague re-painted and tidied up – and rather sad for that, in a sense.  The great and wonderful Magris finds the set pieces Italian, but I can't agree: the butterscotch colours, the greys, the trompe l'oeil – nothing to do with Italy.  Also, the verticality of architecture is very un-Italian.  We're staying in the clean, modern Hotel Garni – the other side of the river, which means we cross the Danube at least once each day – good to see.  Makes me think of Linz, Vienna…

The first night we went to Venus Restaurant, which hangs over the Danube.  Extraordinary effect: to the left, bucketing down with rain – to the right, a few spots – which continued thus for a minute or so.  Although Greek, the food served to German quantities.  We ordered a dish for two, and were unable to finish it in three.  Fresh pasta – hot and greasy like nan, fresh taramasalata.  The waiters dark and Greek, and very simpatici.  Also most of a bottle of retsina.

Outside the window of the hall in which I now sit, at the top of the Jesuits' school, the windows that gave on to the river and the grey green landscape were assaulted by huge flies (Mayflies?).  The frescoes here are exceptionally awful.  Here in the Jesuit school, reminds me of Urbino, that smell of wood and wax.  Here is older and more elegant, the door handles rococo whorls, the main door bolted like a fortress.  Rolling clouds behind me (I remember the view from Urbino – very similar, but so much more beautiful; in general, the whole of Neuburg is a kind of cold reflection of Urbino.)  Rain, then sun, wind, heat, cold.  Very strange.

Walked out to the station – a tall building this too – closed.  But there are trains to Vienna and Budapest.  Back through the Friedhof – lots of massive black marble.  The trompe l'oeil everywhere is particularly striking – especially of architectural features.

24.5.94 Neuburg an der Donau

Germans jolly excited by their new President, Herr Herzog, a man with a fine bayrisch accent.  Plenty of traffic this morning: strange how the place shut down for Pfingstwoche.

25.5.94 Neuburg an der Donau

The efficiency of Germans – or at least their obsessions.  Bicycle lanes everywhere – often on the path with pedestrians.  Also a candle holder with spring-loaded candle that gradually emerges as the end melts and burns.

Went to the station again, obtained prices for Budapest…  Also looked for maps – but very few here.  And nobody bloody takes Visa – cash only.  One thing the Germans do well is marrying the past with contemporary architecture.  By the Danube.  Yestere'en a tremendous storm – huge electric flashes – reminds me of when I stayed in Munich – the storms we had.  Now, a huge black cloud is, alas, zooming towards me.  Bought some microcomputer magazines (30 DM) and sent them to myself (30 DM).  Bikes zoom behind me – they really are used here…

The question: Vienna or Budapest?  

Strange weather still: either too hot or too cold.  To the castle courtyard – impressive.  Odd grisaille frescoes – they look like etchings.  The exterior all-too gemütlich.  The chapel has the smell of history.  Sitting in the square by the church: gnarled elms – waiting for the mist.  Bells in the town.  A fine, demure fountain, short pillar, pert dolphins.  Inside the church – a gorgeous riot of white plaster and gilt.  Very light and cheerful.  Reminds me of Mexico (Oaxaca) – but utterly controlled and damped down, whether the Mexican one was wild and out of control.

27.5.94 Neuburg an der Donau

Not much yesterday.  Now in the Hofkirche – high and squarish, with typical trompe l'oeil around the walls.  The Danube: interesting that it goes through progressively less "green" countries: Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria.  Hungary – the unification of two crowns.  Budapest – the unification of two capitals.

Boy, what a morning.  Seems that Pfingstwoche means all the Germans go to Vienna, Salzburg etc., so all the hotels are full.  Actually ringing direct I got a place – but it cost £50 more.  Hotel Fürst Metternich in Vienna, Grand Hotel Hungaria in Budapest, near Keleti Station.  I realise that Hungary is a completely undiscovered country for me – even more so than the Czech Republic was – at least there I had Dvořák, Janáček, Prague. Just the names of Hungary are mysteries.

The view from the Jesuits' school across to the castle: the strange, hyper-geometric stonework, the mortar painted in white.  The stone rough textured.  The magic card gets me into the Staatliches Museum free (3 DM usually).  Seems completely empty – perfect.  Everything very white and clean and modern.  Some rooms dark: you enter and the lights go on.  The history: all these tiny duke and princedoms – so tribal.  A fine "Giraffenflügel".  To see all these detailed family trees – crossing and re-crossing.  So important then, so meaningless now…  Some stunning wardrobes – like church facades.  Also fine "sponge" ceramics.

Second floor – prehistoric stuff.  Geological maps that look like works of art.  To the Roman room – fine map of the roads – a thick net to just above the Danube: beyond lay barbarism.  80,000 kilometres of roads in the Roman Empire.  Amazing how many German names of cities go back to Roman times: Regensburg (Reginium); Augsburg (Augusta Vindelium); Windisch (Vindonissa).  The Danube very much the last defining line.  The aerial pictures show the dim outlines of long-lost villas and settlements.  Very fine trompe l'oeil at the end of the second floor on the ceiling.  Next to it, very delicate room in scagliola.  Third floor: wooden St Heinrich and Kunigunde – amazingly weathered, shattering vertically.  Looks terribly modern – and vulnerable.  Droll triple picture: one flat and two on slats viewed from the side.

28.5.94 Neuburg an der Donau

As I sit by the side of the Danube…

The teutonic gods were kind to Neuburg's Fischergassler festival.  At about 1pm, opposing teams jousted – on the river.  Looked dangerous to me, but the people enjoyed it.  Trumpets sounded, with lads and lassies dressed up à la Meistersingers.  A procession past our cafe (a fine tuna salad).  Now (about 3.45pm), we walked past most of the population with their mass of bier, listening to, well, something connected with the festival.

Neuburg, like most of Germany, shuts down at 12.30pm on Saturday.  Probably why I find the country grundsätzlich rather dull.  Except for the great surging curve of the river in front of me.  And the bikes.  Reminds me of seeing somewhere recently a huge conceptual leap: to stop thieves bikes may use really thick chains; but the chain normally only connects the wheel to something.  And the wheel is attached to the bike by very thin spokes.  Therefore cut through the spokes, and you have an almost completely bike.  Cunning.

The drums thrum distantly.  4pm strikes.  Yesterday night to another Greek restaurant, again on the banks of the Danube, but in the old town.  Not really so pleasant as "our" place – but good value still.  Nice parting gift of ouzo/some liqueur with a fig in it… alas, the latter for ladies, the former for blokes.

Around me the smell of young grass – a very germanic smell, and indeed the landscape here is very English – a kind of supercharged Cam.  Extraordinary turbulences that rise out of the river like dragons.  Makes me think of "Old Glory".  So much British belles-lettres is about the US because you don't need any other language…

Old houses under the Schloss with bent-backed roofs like those in Sumatra (ah – writing the word immediately makes me want to go there.)  A golden retriever fetching sticks from the river – no mean feat with this current.  

That fact again: I have seen three women with bandaged hands…

Now in St. Peter's church, beyond the square.  Inside, white and light (ish), but a lower, darker ceiling.  Nicely over-the-top pulpit, and stucco with inset roundels.  Everything just so.  Incredibly quiet here (the scratching of this pen plainly audible).  Just the odd twitter of birds, a bell, a passing car over the cobbles – and now a monoprop plane overhead – but apart from that, very quiet.  Over the main exit: "19+C+M+B+94" – imagine these signs throughout the world...some mystery.

Outside, a very sober facade.

29.5.94 Vienna

In a restaurant near where Mozart first performed in public.  A complete fire trap – a cellar deep in a building with only one exit.  Real gothic arches – accordion player ("Blue Danube" etc.) - but decent food, fine wooden seating.  Very atmospheric, if kitschy.  The accordion full of melancholy of the vanished Jewish peoples.  Festival here today, debris of wurst, candy floss, etc.  The area around Stephansplatz as beautiful as ever.  

Trześniewski closed – but with a rather fine ad nearby: "Trześ...Trześ...Trześ...Trześniewski - bless you".

Our hotel -  Fürst Metternich – in Esterhazy Gasse – coincidence? - I think not… Fine, efficient train ride from Regensburg to here.  Green, green countryside, with the Donau alongside until Austria, then alas we parted ways.  This place makes me think of Kafka, for some reason.  "Am Hof 13" – Mozart.

30.5.94 Vienna

Do & Co – fantastic view of Stephansdom – level with the roof (we are in the corner – perfect).  But 24 öS for an espresso… Bought tickets back from Budapest – a long journey, though we stop off in Venice.  This place is so static: even the ads in the U-bahn are the same.  The tower of Stephansdom very similar to the main temple at Prambanan from here – the massing almost identical.

"Trześniewski – Die unaussprechlich guten Brötchen" – yo!

Back in Hundertwasser's Kunst Haus – the restaurant something of a haven in a Vienna mostly closed (it's Monday) and cold, wet and grey.  Fine romantic piano music in the background.  To see a place for the first time is science: knowing what is there.  To see it again is metaphysics: knowing that things continue to exist in our absence.

On the third floor, John de Andrea – the most extraordinary sculptures, mostly of naked women, but with a neorealism that makes you feel embarrassed to be so close – because everything tells you this is real…  And it's the faces that are too good to bear...the eyelashes, eyebrows, the pores – to say nothing of the naughty bits.  And to have them naked so blatantly.  Very strange to move into the gaze of one of these still beings.  The back of the "The Dying Gaul" – complete with spots.  I wonder how the models feel to see themselves thus…?  Also, the stray hairs move in the circulating air, giving an illusory movement.  Seen from a distance, you think that a visitor has sat down.  Interesting, too, the potential for pornography – this is so real it is erotic.  Yes – La Mira Fuerte – but from an artwork, not from the artist (one is called "Galatea"…)  A couple with hands joined – her flying through the air – gob-smacking.    Rather frightening to see the process of producing the sculptures: embalming the living form in a mould – like some kinky perversion…  The patience required to place every hair singly.

Walking around Kärntner Str.  To Trześniewski – alas, at 6.45pm nearly all gone, but good.  Place now graced with Glen Baxter-type cartoons treating the subject of...Brötchen

31.5.94 Vienna

On the banks of the Danube – looking across to the Donau Insel, where I as last year.  Waiting for the departure of our hydrofoil to Budapest.  Glorious sunny morning, cool air, but warm sun.  The Danube, as ever, flows hard and fast – and widely.

On the boat – front seats.  South of Vienna the views rather bleak – semi-industrial, low landscape.  Now more countrified – fine trees on each side.  Occasionally we pass large barges being pushed by tugs, plus a hydrofoil.  Some mountains begin to appear through the haze.  Our first town, to the right, with onion-domed church, and 18th century villas, gemütlich houses.  To the left, on a low hill, a ruined fort.  Gratifyingly large number of bends – not dead straight as at Vienna.  Strange square nets hang suspended from the banks.  

Judging by the drab architecture, I assume we are nearing Bratislava.  A suspension bridge with a single arch – pulled back like a fist and a raised arm.  Yup – Bratislava… I must return here.  Beyond Bratislava, a wide low plain, with marshy areas.  Reminds me of Srinagar for some reason.  Now very wide, landscape very flat.  Seems Danube formed border of Roman Empire here too…

Passing through area where Danube is channelled between ugly walls, high above the landscape.  Perhaps this is the famous/infamous dam project, guaranteed to murder the Danube?  We seem to be  moving into a huge lock.  Where we have now stopped, pointless for 30 minutes.  And 10 minutes later into the maw of the lock – four or five shops, some huge, having emerged from it.  An impressive descent of some 50 feet – but a shame the Danube has been spoilt thus.  At least we can now see the country.

Relatively little river traffic.  The trees thinner, more steppe-like.  Looks like a Ruisdael painting. But in its isolation, it could also almost be the Amazon.  Every now and then, a Trabant on the bank.  We overtake a low-flying stork.  More industrial now, with low mountains in the distance.  Approaching Esztergom, with the Basilica looming ahead – surrounded by ugly housing blocks, very square and blocky, but dome impressive on its perch.  Reminds me of Helsinki's high cathedral.  Fine wooded hills.

Fine views at Visegrad too.  Vac with many a church.  Under the railway, the towers two spires visible through the haze.  The Parliament building rather more impressive than the House of Parliament – but then the Danube is rather more impressive than the Thames.  

Now in Lukács Cukrászda – fine pastries by appointment etc.  Rather a long walk, alas, to #70, along the broad Andrássy út.  Took metro to Deák – with 3-day card (400F – seems 160F about a £1, but I've seen so many different conversion rates that I'm confused).  Charged 1000F for taxi to hotel – outrageous, but what can you do?  Hotel very large (hundreds of rooms), modern and clean.  Good value at about £80/night.  Lukács – very old regime – greyish-brown everywhere, heavy marble tables, velvet-covered chairs with wicker backs, Art Nouveau chandeliers (downstairs) and upstairs (we sit at the turn) to a gilt and mirrored rococo job of green and gold wallpaper.  The waitresses have dinky sandals that look positively Grecian.

Things I noticed – not just blacks here, but also Sikhs.  Strange, though, to be back in a country where I cannot read a word on the signs – few of which are in anything but Hungarian.  Interesting mix of cars – Ladas, Trabants, and modern Western models.  Taking the metro back – just like New York metro – for the same reason: cut and cover, with the road riding on iron girders.  

Back in the hotel.  I like the feel of Budapest: it is an intriguing hybrid – real West meets East in a way Prague and Vienna are not.  The language helps, of course: going to the Keleti Station I felt I was back in Cairo's station, waiting for the diminished fifth.  The there are the crumbling neo-classical monuments, the odd weird touches like the church we passed coming here.  The echoes of Vienna – its opera house for example, the mad mash of communism and capitalism.  Interesting the women's fashion: many women wearing high mini-skirts, hot pants even – I suppose a kind of relic from the days when this was an act of defiance.  Certainly cheers up the city for me…  Losing sense of time here: the third nation in as many days.  Great – I really could do this for months if I had the money.

Up to the station to catch the #67 bus.  Strange facade: grand and yet shut off, entered only by the underground passage.  The main doors rusted shut almost.  To the restaurant – twice, actually.  Arriving, it seems closed, so we hopped on a tram going back – only to see lights, so we went again.  We are having mushroom soup – with quail's egg, and cold fruit salad; then two goulash: catfish and deer.  A strong red to go with it: Egri Bikaver 92.  Not catfish – a mistranslation - actually veal, but good.

1.6.94 Budapest

Metro to Moszkva tér [today, Széll Kálmán tér], up to the Vienna Gate, and then along through charming baroque streets to the museum of music – Beethoven stayed here, and Bartok too.  Nice big of baroque in the background.  Very fine cimbalom (that we also had last night – very lively quartet with soupy, swoopy glissandi from the lead fiddler, incapable of playing two notes without joining them).  I buy a cimbalom tape.

Along to the over-the-top Matyas church.  The quintessential sounds of Budapest: a pipe organ and a fiddler – pure Ives.  The external roof an orgy of colour – like Vienna's St Stephen gone mad.  Below us, the spiky parliament building and a surprisingly empty Danube.  Inside Matyas – crazy, Art Nouveau meets San Marco.  It's like being inside something – but I'm not sure what.

Down with the funicular after declining the delights of a medal exhibition in the stern-looking castle.  Across the chain bridge – what a wonderful river the Danube is – then along the trendy streets to Cyrano – also very trendy, but food looks quite interesting – and not outrageously expensive.  We're upstairs, there's an outside space too.  Everything cool aqueous blues.  Another good example of the difference between here and Prague – hard to imagine here, there.  Nice – though after 90 minutes, the Beatles-type (early 60s) music wears thin.  In the toilets, the World Dryer Corporation extends is hegemonic tentacles.  

Wandering through the pedestrian area – very strange: like London, Prague, Paris, Vienna – and yet none of these.  Very pleasant, helped by the utterly perfect weather.  Found great music shop (for scores, less good for CDs).  Rózsavölgyi és Társa Zeneműbolt at Szervita tér 5.  Prague seems the place for CDs, still, but this has a great collection of old books – I bought one in Romanian and three in Czech, including ones about 18th century music, and Beethoven in Prague.

After a forlorn attempt to find a Bulgarian restaurant (closed? - the buggers…) - we take a tram #2 along the Danube to here – Dunacorso, not entirely satisfactory, but rather fine view across the tramway to the river.  In the Gents, I find the authentic smell of East European toilets for the first time here…  Food not bad – goulashes OK, tokay nice – and more interesting the dumpling with cottage cheese – quite indescribable.  Great setting.

2.6.94 Budapest

Along to the parliament again – less good weather today: high clouds, but good weather for walking.  Parliament is rather fine – nice balance of dome and high mansard roofs.  Now by Kossuth monument. To the Museum of Ethnography – stunning main hall – Escher-like stairs, columns, galleries.  Small but well balanced - gives you the sense of how diverse the world was 100 years ago – and how much we are on the point of losing.  Fascinating too the Magyar sections – truly another world in the heart of Europe.  Perhaps these ethnographic museums give a clue to their cities.

Metro very deep (line 3) – also has projected show on the wall (about the police?).  Few ads, quiet clean.  Trains old and rather tinny.  To  Lukács with tram and bus – nice network.  Suitably empty, lending a faint melancholy air.  To the music shop by Oktogon – where disaster strikes: we find the complete Schubert songs for just £13 a kick – and so buy the six books we don't already have.  A bargain.  Plus £60 of CDs – Haydn string quartets etc.  Well, I mean, saves money, dunnnit?  Now, in the main park – we take line 1 of the metro directly.  Amazing variety of people here: from hyper-elegant young women to large ex-tractor-driving ladies.  Surprising number of flash cars: be interesting to see what happens with the new socialist government.  Sitting in the café with the metro rumbling beneath us very palpably.

Back in Cyrano for dinner – al fresco – nice, except that it means I have a swarm of flies dancing over me.  Fine tokay – rather better than last night.  Two men chased two others in the street, using kicks as if they knew what they were doing.  Police? Mafia?  Who knows what dynamics in that mini drama…?

Back to the Big D, in front of the Vigadó Concert Hall, rather striking as dusk falls, and its light turn amber.  Two trams pass, a man strums a zither tunelessly, people stroll, the sun has gone down in the high haze.  The castle before us, the church in the hill to our right.  The lights are coming on: the Chain Bridge, the palace, all the street sodiums.  Magic.  Now that the rasping of the zither meets gypsy violin – time to go…

3.6.94 Budapest

Our last day in Budapest – this time.  Even hotter and sunnier than before.  To the Museum of Fine Arts by the park – rather impressive classical facade – and modernised well within.  Quite a good collection of Italian primitives – I feel really at home among them.  Clever coding system: given that there are so many pix to see, the major ones have ! on the label.  Strange to see guards with guns...

Good Girolamo Romanino. Sebastiano del Piombo – dark Christ with cross.  Boccaccio Boccaccino.  Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio – two very Leonardesque compositions, one very like the "Virgin of the Rocks", another a fine child and Madonna.  And a real Da Vinci – model of a rider on rearing horse.  Very dramatic.  Strange Filippino Lippi – a huge Madonna.  Esterhazy Madonna by Raphael, unfinished.  Giorgione – a fine sneer – the disdain looks authentic.  Bronzino – Venus and Cupid, very like the National Gallery's in London – even the slight strange twist of the limbs.  Cupids female hips.  

Three fine Bellotto's – two of Florence, one of the Kaunitz palace in Vienna, with weir, church and French gardens.  A man to the left carries a glass of water, further right a man with a document talking to some lord with a spaniel.  Very strange, and very beautiful.  The lord stands framed by two lines of hedges – the whole a perfectly balanced classical composition.

A quartet of tiny Guardis.  Two fine Breughels – Christ preaching particularly fine – the fabrics, the faces, the hazy distant landscape.  Through the Dutch collection – fine de Hooch, lovely view through a window, like Vermeer's view of Delft.  Very unusual Jacob van Ruisdael – view of Amsterdam with boats, houses, trees… Willem Kalf with a  quintessential lemon rind.

Fine late Rembrandt of the angel talking to Joseph in the stable – all the colours and elements shattered.  Huge diagonal.  An almost cheery Mary Magdalena by El Greco.  Surprisingly good Brit stuff too.  A Messerschmidt head (#8); this one calm, though – another, more grotesque (#16)  And compare the works of John de Andrea in the Kunst Haus.  Returning to the Bellotto, I find another room with two good Crivellis, complete with apples, but no gherkins… Really a very fine collection overall – well worth returning to.  

Back to "our" tea/coffee shop. In the corner table at the turn – the best view.  Busier today.  The to the shops at Oktogon, then to the hotel where I forget the clock when I empty the safe deposit.  Which I realise at the station – and so run back to get it.  I am now sweating like a pig, but I have the clock.

Looking at the other trains provokes that wanderlust – still: Beograd, Istanbul, Bucarest – all those mysterious places where the east begins.  Budapest is obviously a key jumping-off point for Europe east and west.  It has been a wonderful three days here, Budapest living up to all my expectations and more.  I hope I'll be able to return soon.  This autumn, perhaps…

4.6.94 Venice

Somewhere in Veneto.  Muggy, sunny day outside.  Strange the dynamics of sleeping in couchettes.  At Wien, such chaos as everyone rushes around, handing in passports, customs declarations, tickets etc. to the guard in his little room.  Then for an hour or two snatches of sleeps as others are still restless.  Then towards morning all is quiet, with just the occasional moments of waking.  Now, around 7.30am, fine landscape – familiar in its Italianness. 

Ah, breakfast in Venice – what could be more civilised?  In the corner cafe towards Teatro Goldoni.  Lovely fresh air, not too many people around.  In my wanderings to get here (via Piazza San Marco) we pass Calle del Paradiso – the one with the bookshop...but I resist.

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