There are at least two things that I have learned since I started my life as a diplomat 35 years ago.
First, that time flies. Even if three or four years may seem as an eternity when you arrive to your new posting, there are so many things in your work that will absorb you and if you don’t make a determined effort, you risk reaching the end of your mission with a feeling of a missed opportunity – a belated realization that there’s so much in your host country that you didn’t see and that you never will see.
Second, that the capital is often much different from the rest of the country. So if you stayed in the capital for your whole tenure, you can’t really claim that you know and understand the country you have been posted to.
Then, there can, of course, be various obstacles for travelling around. My first posting was in the Soviet Union – St. Petersburg and Moscow – and Soviet authorities requested an application 48 hours in advance for a permit to travel outside the city. Sometimes, this was denied for all kinds of reasons and, of course, the cumbersome bureaucratic procedure as such discouraged you from going around – which most probably was the intention. In other big cities, massive traffic congestion or the sheer distance to any place of interest may be a bit prohibitive.
Always learning something new
Hungary has none of those limitations. It is easy to get out of Budapest, the roads are usually excellent and there is not a single corner of the country that you can’t visit over a day if you don’t want to stay a night in a hotel. And the country is abundant of beautiful and interesting places for outdoor visits, important in these times of the pandemic and need for social distancing. So, there is no good excuse for not getting started.
It goes without saying that business trips to other cities are also genuinely interesting and rewarding here in Hungary like in most countries because you get another perspective and new insights.
Regardless if for business or for pleasure, I always return from a visit to the countryside or to other cities with the inspiration and energy that one gets from learning and experiencing something new. In a country so abundant of history like Hungary after a millennium at the crossroads of the European drama, one can always learn something new. You have added something to remember. You are richer as a person.
Collecting good memories
For a diplomat or any expat in Hungary, it is actually an easy task to use one’s weekends to collect good memories. If you like nature to hike in, sceneries to view or history to uncover or all of it – it is there. And loads of nice places to have lunch in.
There is hardly any need to write about the most famous and almost unavoidable places like Lake Balaton (my favorite time of visit is on a sunny day in October and November when the colors are beautiful and the place is not crowded), Szentendre, Visegrád and Esztergom.
The hilly landscape north of Budapest offers great hiking and nice views with places like Dobogókő and Piliscsaba less than an hour away from the capital. On the northern side of the Danube, there is Nagymaros with hiking paths up on to the hill overlooking the Danube, there is the Diósjenő park and nearby the Nógrád fortress ruins, well worth a stop. Further to the east, just north of Eger, Szilvásvárad is a clear favorite with loads of hiking tracks.
Towns like Vác, just a short drive north along the Danube, Eger, Veszprém and Székesfehérvár are perfect for a Saturday or Sunday outing with lots of interesting buildings and historic sites to see. Martonvásár, with its castle and park, is a short jump southwest of Budapest as well as Tata to the west with its castle and lake to walk around are excellent outdoor-indoor goals. The picturesque culture village Vászoly, just north of Balatonudvari, often offers interesting exhibitions and a nice coffee with a massive dessert. Even the bigger cities like Debrecen and Szeged will work for one-day trips if one doesn’t wish to stay overnight. A very special place to go, albeit not necessarily for its beauty, is Dunaújváros, the greenfield heavy industrial town from the early 1950s. And for anyone with an interest in airplanes. a visit to the excellent interactive and outdoor-indoor air museum in Szolnok is a must do.
For an expat it is always interesting to visit monuments, memorial plaques and other pieces that connect to one’s own country. In Budapest, there are, of course, a number of memorials related to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews in 1944-45: in the Szent István Park, on Szilágyi Erzsébet fasor, on Erzsébet tér, on Raoul Wallenberg utca, and, of course, in front of the former Swedish Legation on Minerva utca – all of them worth a visit.
Somewhat less known memorials with a Swedish connection are the ones on Széchenyi utca in Debrecen and on Váci utca in Budapest related to the remarkable journey of King Charles XII in the autumn of 1714 from Piteşti, north-west of Bucharest, to Stralsund on the Baltic Sea. The King was hurrying back to the homeland, he was travelling under cover as captain Peter Frisk, and he managed to reach the Baltic Sea coast in just 14 days, mostly on horseback, with overnight stops inter alia in Debrecen and Pest. His journey was probably not very comfortable but it was at least an early version of green and sustainable transportation.
When I compiled this rhapsodic list of places that I visited during the last twelve months, I came to realize how short it actually is and how much more there is to see in Hungary, a realization that will serve as an energy boost for the rest of the autumn.
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