Looking for a Different Destination? Think About Hungary.

I’ve made two trips to Hungary and both were fascinating, although in a couple of very different ways. The first time was in the mid-1980s when Hungary was still in the Russian sphere. We were traveling there by train, and had our first taste of a repressive society at the Austro-Hungarian border. Armed soldiers entered the train and methodically searched for anyone who might have been hiding in the space under the seat cushions or in the crawl space above the ceiling. Outside, more soldiers with dogs checked to make sure no one was clinging to the underside of the rail car. (That experience begged the question, Why would someone want to sneak INTO a country like that?)

 The second visit was after the Russians had left. The first clue that things were very different was when the train stopped at the border and a smiling uniformed and unarmed young man came through asking if passengers had anything to declare . . . and taking our word for it. In all, we were delayed perhaps 15 minutes.
Budapest was pretty much the same as we remembered it from ten years earlier, and that means it was wonderful. The Danube flows through the middle of the magnificent city, the hills of Buda on one side, the flatlands of Pest on the other.
 One noteworthy change: a week before we arrived, the very first McDonalds in all of Hungary opened in the heart of central Budapest. We passed it on the way to our hotel and there was a long line of people waiting to get in. Later that evening, at dinner with Hungarian friends, we asked if they had been to the new McDonalds. Indeed they had, and the obvious follow-up was what did they think of it? “Well,” said the husband, “the food was wonderful, of course, but so expensive!
We rented a car and spent the next ten days visiting several cities, including Eger, Szeged (where most of the world famous paprika comes from) and Pecs, in the southern part of the country. In Pecs (pronounced paytch) we learned that there was going to be a large swap meet that afternoon, with an almost limitless variety of objects and food being sold.
We set out on foot for the place and on the way I spotted a battered old Škoda, the eastern bloc equivalent to a Volkswagen. To my delight and astonishment, the real window was nearly filled with a large decal:
1985 American League Champions

I hung around that car for 10-15 minutes hoping the owner would show up, but he never did. Ever since, I’ve regretted not giving it another quarter hour.