There are few, if any, countries that bring so much passion, and sporting, political and social history to this Englishman's mind as Hungary, and in particular Budapest, the Buda and Pest divided city on the River Danube.
It was October 23, 1956 and the grainy BBC TV newsreels (It was our only channel) and the Hungarioan Revolution began. A statue of Stalin was brought crashing to the ground and the tricolour Hungarian flag, with its communist centre symbol torn out, was placed on the Soviet dictators boots. Eventually the Soviets sent in tanks to crush the uprising and 200,000 refugees poured over the borders to Austria and the West. Elvis Pressley on the 'Ed Sullivan Show' sang 'Peace in the Valley' to 55 million viewers and $5 million($50 million in todays money) was raised for the Red Cross and refugees . In 2011 Elvis was postumously awarded the Freedom of Budapest and a major intersection named after him.
Many refugees were miners and came to my home town of Blackpool with plenty of spare hotels and guest houses, to learn English and move to mining towns for work.. I was in a clothing store and two men walked in and asked for 'PIYAMIS' I eventually figured out thet wanted pyjamas and told the shopkeeper. Blackpool FC offered them the chance to train in their spare time, and coming from a land locked country they enjoyed the beach and Irish Sea.
TIME magazine's 'Man of the Year'.. for 1956 was the Hungarian Freedom Fighter. On 6th December at the Melbourne Olympics Hungary defeated USSR 4-0 at water polo and the match was called BLOOD IN THE WATER when 2 minutes from the end Ervin Zador emerged with two bloody eyes after being attacked by Valentin Prokopof. The Hungarians went on to win gold. Twelve years later in 1968 I was at the Olympic pool in Mexico City to see another bloodbath as Hungary beat USSR 6-5 in water polo preliminaries.
In 1953 Hungary stunned England 6-3 at Wembley on a November afternoon...there were no floodlights. I was in a chemistry class and a class mate brought a transister radio to school with him. I still have the official programme, as well as the one for the return match at the NEPSTADION (People's Stadium) 5 months later 7-1 to The Magic Magyars. At the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, Hungary were firm favourites. On June 20th Hungary hammered West Germany 8-3 in Basle but at the final in the Wankdorf Stadium in Bern the Hungarians were 2-0 up inside 8 minutes but lost THE MIRACLE OF BERN 3-2 with the same referee, Bill Ling of England, in the middle.
In October 1956 the Hungarian team was out of the country. Many never returned until years later including Ferenc Puskas in exile in Madrid. My first visit was 20 years or so ago with a couple of Czech friends and we wanted accommodation. I contacted Puskas who arranged a couple of rooms at the Hungarian Army Officers Club with it chandeliers, winding staircase and paintings of generals and battles and majestic reataurant. I got a signed photo of The Galloping Major, although he spelled my name incorrectly ! He played 84 times for Hungary with 83 goals. 341 times and 352 goals for Honved . 180 times for Real Madrid with 156 goals. He was given a state funeral in 2006. He is buried under the dome of St Stephens Basilica.
On this, my fourth visit, I arrived at Keleti Station from Bratislava with memories of less than a year ago when every square metre of floor space was covered with refugees. I went down the stairs to a neat plush office to purchase a metro card. A smiling lady asked if I was a senior and told me that all local transport, metro, buses and trams would be free...just show your passport or other ID if challenged. I had found a hotel, Hunguest Millenium 4 stops away and opposite the new stadium of Ferencvaros TC...(www.fradi.hu.) 'FRADI' at GROUPAMA ARENA. 20 years ago I had been at the old Ulloi uti stadium for Hungary v Russia. On the same site but at 90 degrees was this spectacular new two year old stadium
Sunday evening I watched Hungary 'toy' with Andorra 4-0. Outside in one corner is a huge illuminated eagle... (Fradi are The Green Eagles) and there are two statues at the main entrance to the founder in 1899, Ferenc Springer and former star Florian Albert... European Footballer of the Year 1967 nicknamed 'The Emporer', who passed away 5 years ago.
Budapest is a delight to explore and the Danube is a busy working and tourist river. I strolled along the Pest Bank to the Parliament Building, where the 1956 Revolution began and now home to a democratic government, and returned via the little yellow tramcar. There are a warren of narrow streets and a Christmas marker spread through many of them with Hungarian wines and food and gifts of all kinds. I visited the brand new Hidedeguti Nandor stadium, a 5,500 arena of MTK Budapest www.mtkhungaria.hu, formerly Voros Lobogo..(Red Banner)..for a while. Hungarians go by their family name first, e.g. Puskas Ferenc and Albert Florian. Two tram stops away was the rubble of Nepstadion which will open in 2019 as the new PUSKAS FERENC National Stadium with 65,000 seats in time for EURO 2020 finals which is spread all over the continent.
I was staying a couple of extra nights for the friendly Hungary-Sweden and to meet my old friends Sven (of 40 years) and his business partner Andreas who had the electronic board advertising rights for one side of the stadium plus my new friend Nils of www.prioritet.se, a major Swedish sponsor and delightful guy. We were wined, dined and chauffeured by former Hungarian striker 'Marco' Marton Esterhazy World Cup 1986 in Mexico, ex Ferencvaros and Honved and then with AEK Athens and later Panathinaikos.
We went to the classic fish restaurant SZEGED ETTEREM in Buda, round the corner from the famous Gellert Hotel and named after the river town of Szeged. Gypsy dancers and then a string trio and singer entertained our table will lots of Hungarian palinka-fruit brandy -on the house, red bulls blood wine, beers and catfish goulash. The next day at a pleasant Italian restaurant RUSTICO on Vaci utca 71 with a delightful Hungarian farm theme. Again palinka on the house, red wine, beers, pork medallions and roasties for me and goulash for my friends plus an outstanding Tonka bean pannecotta with wild berries.
Off to the stadium again and Sweden won 2-0. Quite cold so we spent the last part of the match in the cafe downstairs where I failed to keep up with my Swedish friends drinking.
Come to Budapest anytime but I suggest Spring or Autumn with warmer weather and outdoor dining and river cruises and football all season.