Tag Archives: Central Europe

Neighborhoods: Exploring Budapest’s gritty 8th District

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — A gritty Budapest neighborhood that’s been compared to parts of New York City is hoping to attract visitors with a new tour about its history and unique ethnic mix.

Known as Jozsefvaros (Joseph Town), Budapest’s central 8th district is not typically featured in guidebooks. The far side of the neighborhood has been called the Bronx or Harlem of Budapest, its ethnic mix dominated by Roma — as Gypsies are often called — but also featuring Turks, Chinese, Arabs, Africans and others in an ever-richer blend.

Gypsy musician Zoltan Farkas plays a violin in his workshop in Budapest’s gritty 8th district on May 18, 2015 in ...
Gypsy musician Zoltan Farkas plays a violin in his workshop in Budapest’s gritty 8th district on May 18, 2015

Aiming to break down prejudices and stereotypes, Roma volunteers from the Uccu Foundation provide tours not just for foreigners but also for Hungarians, especially students who may not know this part of the city.

“We just wanted to show the people how Roma people are living here, the everyday life,” said tour guide Andrea Ignacz, a student at the Central European University who also spoke of how some Hungarians avoid the area because “they are really afraid to come here.”

The 90-minute tour starts at the beginning of Nepszinhaz utca (street) and its stops include a visit with a Gypsy violinist, a pawn shop, an art gallery and the recently restored Matyas Square.

A memorial to Jewish residents killed in the Holocaust is an opportunity to discuss the Roma genocide during World War II and the fact that the European Parliament recently voted to name Aug. 2 as the European Roma Holocaust Day.

Also on the itinerary is the former warehouse of the Dreher beer factory, now a residential building with a magnificent mosaic high on its facade depicting an old-fashioned beer festival.

“The best thing about this tour is that it’s given by Roma to non-Roma,” said Kaity O’Reilly, a student from Richmond, Virginia. “I think it’s very important for a group to own their identity and spread their stories as their stories and not have someone who doesn’t have that history or that background try and show it.”

The neighborhood hopes to benefit from Budapest’s tourism boom. Hungary’s capital city is now regularly featured among top 10 places to visit in the region after years of playing second fiddle to Prague as the key destination in post-communist Central Europe. Budapest’s must-see attractions include the neo-Gothic Parliament, the Castle District, St. Stephen’s Basilica, the Dohany Street Synagogue and Heroes’ Square area.

Like Budapest, which has two sides, hilly Buda and flat Pest, straddling the Danube River, Jozsefvaros has two distinct areas as well. The dividing line here is the Jozsef (Joseph) Ring Road. Closer to the Danube are the Palace Quarter and the grand, neo-Classical National Museum, while the section of the neighborhood where the tour takes place is on the “wrong side” of the tracks of the No. 4 and No. 6 trams — the “korut,” as the ring road is called.

The palaces found in Jozsefvaros are not yet fully renovated and the art galleries are just a couple of rooms big — but no less interesting than what you might find elsewhere in Budapest. And the area’s development has improved noticeably over the past decade, helped by the opening of a few stations on the M4, a new subway line that cuts across the district.

Independent of the Roma tour, Jozsefvaros has several other places worth seeing, including the abandoned but imposing Salgotarjani Street Jewish Cemetery, the market hall at Rakoczi Square, the Orczy-kert park with the nearby Natural History Museum and Fuveszkert (Botanical Gardens) and the Baroque Jozsefvaros Parish Church.

Restaurants and bars on that side of the district include the Csiga Cafe (Vasar utca 2), the vegetarian Macska Cafe and Gallery (Berkocsis utca 23, opens at 4 p.m.), the Mirage (Nap utca 23), Rosenstein Restaurant (Mosonyi utca 3) and the hip bar Hintallo Iszoda (Bacso Bela utca 15).

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If You Go…

JOZSEFVAROS: Tours of Jozsefvaros, a Budapest neighborhood with a unique history and ethnic mix, are offered by the Uccu Foundation, uccualapitvany@gmail.com. Tours can be arranged in English. There is no fee but donations welcome.

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12 Beautiful Photos To Make You Wonder Why You Haven’t Visited Hungary Yet

1. Liberty Bridge, Budapest

2. Budapest Parliament Building

Parliament reflexion by Krénn Imre on 500px

3. St. Stephen’s Basilca, Budapest

Budapest. In St. Stephen's Basilica. by Yury on 500px

4. Bokodi Lake

BOKODI by Arthur Burming on 500px

5. Egerszalok

Sunrise at the Pools by PhotonPhotography -Viktor Lakics on 500px

6. Bory Castle

7. Danube River, Budapest

8. Normafa Park, Budapest

9. The Underground

10. Széchenyi Chain Bridge

11. Fort Monostor, Komárom

12. Budapest

Vienna is ‘the capital of spies’

More than 7,000 secret agents and spies are currently working in Vienna, more than in any other city, according to a new book by Austrian investigative journalist Emil Bobi.

Bobi believes the city is popular with spies because “if something strange happens that cannot be explained, and if diplomatic complications and espionage are at play, then it’s just accepted as the Austrian way,” he told the ORF.

His book Die Schattenstadt (The Void) addresses the question of why the Austrian capital became a stronghold for international agents, long before 9/11.

He claims that foreign secret agents hold important positions in embassies, international organisations and corporations in the city – but that they are only here for the purpose of acquiring and transmitting secret information.

He says that Austria’s state police are aware of this, but do nothing to stop it. Spying is only punishable by law in Austria if it is aimed directly at Austria. If foreign governments wish to spy on other foreign states in Vienna that is perfectly legal.

Recently reports emerged suggesting that a US spy who worked for German foreign intelligence had been meeting with CIA agents at the US embassy in Vienna.

Former police officers and politicians, as well as cabaret artists and psychoanalysts are employed as agents, Bobi claims.

Vienna has the best quality of life - and Baghdad the worst

Siegfried Beer, director of the Austrian Centre for Intelligence, Propaganda and Security Studies, at the University of Graz, agrees that there are at least 7,000 agents based in Vienna, working in embassies and international organizations.

Bobi says that one reason spies feel so comfortable in Vienna is that “the so-called real Viennese operate in the private sector in the same way as intelligence agencies do.”

“Spies love being sent to work in Vienna, because of the high quality of life, and its geographical location. Some even return here once they retire,” he added.

https://i2.wp.com/cdn.ph.upi.com/sv/em/i/UPI-2691406828919/2014/1/14068302887104/Worlds-biggest-spy-center-is-Vienna-book-says.jpg

Austria has been an international spy hub since the late 19th Century, when people from all parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire flocked to the city.

Bobi says that the Viennese are steeped in a culture of espionage. “In the market places and streets one could hear more than 40 languages. The Viennese were always busy getting to know strangers and trying to figure out what they wanted.”

The disintegration of Austria-Hungary and the political turmoil in Central Europe after World War I led to more and more secret services basing themselves in Vienna.

Beyond Budapest

Tucked away in Hungary, Usha Subramaniam discovers Keszthely, a cyclist’s paradise that has plenty of history as well

Keszthely (Kes-thei) situated on Lake Balaton’s shore in Hungary has its origins in the Latin ‘castellum’ or castle, and there’s one built by the Romans at Fenekpuszta nearby. Its partially excavated ruins, a basilica, warehouse and gate, can still be seen. But we learnt of this much later, so we missed seeing it. Keszthely is one of those rare places now on which online info is sparse. All we garnered from Google before our one-week summer vacation there was that biking holidays around Keszthely are exceedingly popular and the mosquitoes gigantic!

Initially swamped with disappointment at ‘wasting’ a week in a seemingly one-horse town of just 21,000 people, I realised our fears were unfounded. The second biggest town of the Balaton region after Siófok, Keszthely offers an array of interests: 200 km of hiking trails in Keszthely Hills, bird watching, water sports, gastronomy, winery visits, biking, history, to name a few. Not just Arcadian charms, we sampled castles and unusual geological phenomena. So much so, we ended up wanting to extend our stay.

Keszthely’s star attraction is the ineffably placid 77 km long, bean-shaped Balaton Lake, the largest in Central Europe. Average water temperature in summer is a comfortable 24°C. The southern half, being extremely shallow and safe for bathers of all ages, is popular with families; the northern half, we were told, is great for swimmers. Balaton is popular with Germans, Austrians and, more recently, Britons. That one-third of Hungary’s tourism revenue comes from Balaton is not surprising; peak season (July-August) sees the region’s population climb by 1-2 million. Thankfully, we vacationed just before this.

Ineffably placid 77 km long Lake Balaton

The 200 km of cycle tracks encourage pollution-free access, connecting all villages around the lake. Bicycle tourism is exceedingly popular in Hungary, which has over 2000 km of cycling tracks. We were perhaps the only family hiring taxis instead of bicycles.

A little three-coach Keszthely Tourist toy-train winds its way along the town’s streets. Particularly enchanting was a little red, two-coach train running on tracks, often parallel to the road, laid barely a few meters from the lake. Branching off Main Square is Keszthely’s shopping haunt, a quaint little tree-lined Pedestrian Street named Kossuth Lajos Utça (utça means street) dotted with historic neo-Baroque buildings. We found coffee shops, museums, eateries and ‘TourInform’ bureau, currently housed in the former Town Hall.

Largest private library -90000 volumes- in Hungary is in Festetics Palace in Keszthely

Pedestrian Street leads to Festetics (Fes-te-teech) Palace, now under Hungary’s Ministry of Culture, once home to seven generations of the aristocratic Festetics family. We were given large cloth slippers to wear over our shoes to protect the wooden flooring. The tour unfolded lavishly furnished rooms in blue, red, yellow, gold, green, white, even deep pink! From a modest 34 rooms in 1745, the Baroque mansion gradually expanded to become Hungary’s third largest with 101 rooms, with rich oakwood staircase, panelling, chandeliers and portraits. Helikon Library, established by Count Gyorgy Festetics has 90,000 volumes, with many centuries-old first editions.

‘Medieval Horse-Riding Show at Castle Sümeg’ (Shu-meg) in Veszprem County piqued our curiosity. Robert, our driver-guide-cum-receptionist, took us to a castle looming high above a hill, with a tumultuous 750-year history of having been burnt down time and again by Turkish and Austrian invaders and rebuilt several times. Warmly welcomed with a shot of peach pálinka, a traditional Hungarian brandy, we were taken to a large indoor arena for an enactment of gallantry and weaponry skills by horsemen clad in medieval costumes. The show was rounded off with a meaty, medieval dinner, sans cutlery, in keeping with the theme. Next morning, Robert halted briefly at Szépkilátó (szép=nice, kilátó=view) which affords one of the most beautiful panoramas of unspoilt Balaton. The serene vista echoed with silence of times long gone.

Hungary Offers Olive Branch to U.S.

NATO Ally Shows Willingness to Mend Bridges as Hostilities Continue Between Ukraine and Russia

Hungary’s foreign minister has extended an olive branch to the U.S., saying his country is ready to start mending bridges weakened recently by Washington’s corruption allegations, which Budapest firmly rejects.

The country hopes to overcome its differences with the U.S., a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally, amid deepening hostility between neighboring Ukraine and Russia, Peter Szijjarto said in an interview.

“In the current situation, when there is a military conflict under way in a neighboring country, cooperation with our ally gains ever greater significance,” he said. “We are hoping that our friend, the U.S., will present signs that this situation could come to a close.”

Washington last year put several Hungarian government officials on its visa-ban list because of alleged involvement in corruption. There have been regular protests against the populist Fidesz government since October.

Mr. Szijjarto dismissed such allegations and said the U.S. needs to present evidence of wrongdoing by Hungarian officials. The U.S. has said it may not name those on its visa-ban list, but has presented some documents to the Hungarian government, which were dismissed by it as irrelevant.

“If we were speaking about corruption in earnest, the Hungarian government’s initiatives and measures do deserve acknowledgment,” Mr. Szijjarto said.

The foreign minister also said he was troubled by remarks made by Sarah Sewall, Under Secretary of State, who said in December that U.S. “embassies in two dozen countries in Central and Eastern Europe are currently drafting action plans for supporting and cooperating on anticorruption reform in their host country.”

Mr. Szijjarto said the comment came close to meddling in Hungary’s internal affairs.

“If someone has a self-declared action plan about another country, it is only acceptable if it is coordinated and carried out with our involvement,” he said.

“I do acknowledge the U.S.’s commitment to democratic values and spreading its values, but one of the most important democratic value is sovereignty. The Hungarian people made an unequivocal decision in 2010 and 2014 as well, which is only proper to respect,” Mr. Szijjarto added.

The Fidesz party won parliamentary elections convincingly in 2010 and was re-elected in 2014, giving the government of Viktor Orban a two-third majority each time.

The combative premier has introduced controversial measures, including a new constitution, prompting Sen. John McCain to recently brand him “a neofascist dictator,” a charge Hungary angrily rebuffed.

Public support for Fidesz has fallen sharply since the most recent vote in April last year, but the party continues to lead in the polls, despite the protests.

Mr. Szijjarto said Hungary was sharply criticized during his visit to Washington last year “over every single measure” in its current legal framework, which he rejected, saying the country’s laws comply with those of the 28-nation European Union, which it joined in 2004.

While walking tightrope between the EU and Russia, Hungary has stood out in Central Europe during the crisis in Ukraine by pursuing closer business ties with the Kremlin.

Last year, it agreed to expand its nuclear plant in partnership with Russia’s state-owned Rosatom. It has been far less critical of Moscow and its actions in Ukraine than some of its regional peers.

Still, Mr. Szijjarto said attempts to reduce the EU’s dependence on Russian energy resources should continue.

Hungary is highly dependent on Russian natural gas, with more than 80% of its imports coming through a pipeline from Russia via Ukraine. The country would favor the diversification of its sources for gas, or at least the routes for access.

Since Russia scrapped the plan for the South Stream gas pipeline through the Black Sea, a link that would have crossed Hungary, it has to seek other opportunities and Mr. Szijjarto said the European Commission in Brussels, the bloc’s executive arm, should help in that process.

One such opportunity could be a gas pipeline from Azerbaijan, another a connection to the planned Russian gas hub in Turkey, or a line allowing it to receive liquefied natural gas from Qatar or the U.S., the minister said.

He urged the construction of an LNG terminal in Croatia, which would allow gas supplies to be delivered by ships in the Mediterranean Sea.

Hungarian PM Viktor Orban hits back at John McCain’s ‘fascist’ accusation

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban (Reuters)

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has hit back at John McCain’s accusations of facism(Reuters)

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has hit back after US senator John McCain branded him a fascist, claiming that the country’s independence was “under attack”.

Speaking on public radio, Orban called McCain an “extremist” and said that the comments “reflect the person who said them”.

On Tuesday, Republican senator and former presidential candidate McCain criticised the appointment of Hollywood producer Colleen Bell as new US ambassador in Budapest.

Hungary, he said, “is on the verge of ceding its sovereignty to a neo-fascist dictator getting in bed with Vladimir Putin, and we’re going to send the producer of The Bold and The Beautiful as the ambassador.”

The US has barred six Hungarian officials from entry over corruption allegations.

Western officials have criticised Orban for weakening the independence of the country’s judiciary, press freedoms and democratic checks and balances, and attempting to forge closer economic ties with Russia.

The Hungarian Foreign Ministry summoned the top US diplomat in the country following McCain’s remarks.

In his speech on Friday, Orban pledged to safeguard the country’s national sovereignty.

“Hungary’s independence is under threat here,” he said, reports Hungary Today.

He said “the country’s independence in terms of energy, finances and trade relations is unappealing to those who profited from Hungary’s dependence prior to 2010″.

Orban has tried to forge closer economic ties with Moscow, which has drawn criticism from Washington and Brussels.

Officials argue that Hungary, an EU member, shouldn’t be making energy deals with Putin, who they accuse of backing separatist rebels in east Ukraine who are battling government forces, after a popular uprising saw Ukraine’s pro-Moscow government toppled.

Budapest is also in negotiations with Russian company Rosatom over a multi-billion dollar nuclear energy deal.

In yesterday’s speech, Orban blamed the EU for the cancellation of the South Stream project, that would have seen gas pumped from Russia under the Black Sea and into central Europe, bypassing Ukraine.

He added that the “the file on the South Stream gas pipeline is now closed” but Hungary’s interest has remained “to have a gas pipeline that arrives in Hungary avoiding Ukraine”.

He said that he “would not be a viceroy in Hungary commissioned by some foreign state”.

US diplomat lashes out at Hungary’s Orban

BRUSSELS – Victoria Nuland, the US’ top diplomat on Europe, has indirectly criticised Hungarian leader Viktor Orban for the “cancer” of “democratic backsliding”.

Speaking at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a think tank in Washington, on Thursday (2 October), she said: “Central Europe is once again on the frontline in the fight to protect our security and values. And today, that fight is once again both external and internal”.

Protesters march hand in hand around the controversial World War II monument being built by the Hungarian government in Budapest’s Szabadsag Square

She did not name Orban, but she alluded to his open criticism of Western sanctions on Russia.

“Implementing sanctions isn’t easy and many countries are paying a steep price”, she said.

“But … when [European] leaders are tempted to make statements that tear at the fabric of our resolve, I would ask them to remember their own national history, and how they wished their neighbours had stood with them”.

Balazs Nagy Navarro, a journalist who once worked for Hungary’s state television network, stands in front of the camper trailer that has served as his home during his long-term protest against his former employer

She also referred to Orban’s statement, made at a meeting of ethnic Hungarian leaders in Romania in July, that: “I don’t think that our European Union membership precludes us from building an illiberal new state based on national foundations”.

“Even as they reap the benefits of Nato and EU membership, we find leaders in the region who seem to have forgotten the values on which these institutions are based”, Nuland said on Thursday.

With Orban also accused of restricting press freedom and cracking down on rights NGOs, she added: “So today I ask their leaders: How can you sleep under your Nato Article 5 blanket at night while pushing ‘illiberal democracy’ by day; whipping up nationalism; restricting free press; or demonising civil society?”

She spoke of the “twin cancers of democratic backsliding and corruption” in eastern Europe, which create “wormholes that undermine their nations’ security”.

She also hit out at EU states who are preparing to build South Stream – a Russian gas pipeline through the Western Balkans to Austria and Italy, involving Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Romania, and Slovenia.

“I ask the same of those who … cut dirty deals that increase their countries’ dependence on one source of energy despite their stated policy of diversification”, Nuland said.

Her remarks come after US leader Barack Obama last month put Hungary in the same basket as Russia in terms of threats to civil society.

“From Russia to China to Venezuela, you are seeing relentless crackdowns, vilifying legitimate dissent as subversive. In places like Azerbaijan, laws make it incredibly difficult for NGOs even to operate. From Hungary to Egypt, endless regulations and overt intimidation increasingly target civil society”, he said at an event in New York on 23 September.

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