The beauties of Budapest: enjoyable eye-openers for blase travelers

Some people may take bus tours more to escape the four walls of their hotel rooms than to see the sights. At least that certainly seemed to be the case on an all-day IBUSZ (Hungarian Travel Agency) coach ride I took from Budapest to the Danube Bend and back this spring.

A Swedish professor of biochemistry, one of 15 or so foreigners on the tour, wanted to talk more than look. It was a cold, blustery morning, so the tour guide decided to have the driver go directly to the farthest point - Esztergom - where we saw a massive Roman Catholic basilica and the small but intriguing Christian Museum nearby. She expected the weather to improve as the day proceeded.

Our supersophisticated professor suffered on seeing the basilica. There are, he grumbled, more beautiful churches in Italy. And he completely passed up the museum for a cup of coffee with a copywriter from London, who also sometimes put on a jaded look.

His attitude seemed like an expensive shame. For one thing, the tour cost $20 .30, in hard currency. (Hungary is hungry for dollars and other convertible currencies that can be used to buy Western goods.) For another, I found this small nation of 10.7 million people in the middle of Europe fascinating - including the tour.

Here is a communist nation experimenting with free enterprise, on a small-business scale. You can join the Hungarians crowded around shop windows that are full of consumer goods. The windows may not have the style and beauty of displays in nearby Vienna, but at least there is something to see: Hungarians love to view the greater variety and quantity of products offered nowadays, compared with a few years ago.

Hungary, of course, remains basically a party dictatorship, where some dissidents are imprisoned. But the level of fear is lower than among its neighbors in the Soviet bloc. Hungarians generally seem happier than, for instance, many stony-faced East Germans.

This could be a result of what Hungarians call ''mulatsag,'' their longstanding ability to have fun. Or their more frequent smiles may also have something to do with the dearth of long lines to buy food and other necessities. Hungarians have so much food that they export large quantities to the Soviet Union and elsewhere. Tourists, too, can eat well.

Whatever the reasons, the relative cheerfulness and hospitality of the Hungarians make it a pleasant country to visit.

A bus trip gives a tourist some hints of life in Hungary. In the suburbs of Budapest, for instance, you see dozens of sizable state-owned apartment buildings. These rental buildings are poorly maintained on the outside, with poor landscaping. Unlike Germans, Hungarians do not brighten up such rental facilities with window flower boxes.

But as you get into the hills of the Danube Bend, there are hundreds of summer cottages and houses, privately owned, mostly by residents of Budapest. Many are old-fashioned and small. Others are modern and handsome. Most show loving attention.

Also along the way you find acres of greenhouses providing winter vegetables. Probably such vegetables could be imported from Israel, or other warmer areas. But that would cost foreign exchange.

The farms you pass are either state-owned or cooperative. They are large and usually employ modern farm equipment. But you still see a few teams of horses pulling plows in the fields or rubber-tired farm wagons on the streets.

Another advantage of such a bus trip is that you don't have to be bold to talk to fellow passengers. And they are interesting to get to know. This particular trip included a bachelor from a Los Angeles bank whose parents came from this country and who spoke Hungarian; a red-haired American college girl on spring break from her studies in Paris; an Austrian working for Swissair in Zurich because of higher pay; a couple from West Berlin; and a professor of sociology from the University of Manchester, England.

Once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hungary very much shows its rich European heritage in its abundance of museums - some 500 of them, according to a small guidebook to the more important ones published by the national tourist organization. I saw the Hungarian National Gallery, housed in Buda Castle high on a hill overlooking the Danube, which contains a collection of Hungarian art ranging from the 11th century to the present day. The castle itself is worth the short walk or taxi drive from downtown Budapest, with the works of art a bonus. The castle also contains the Budapest History Museum and a Museum of the Hungarian Working-Class Movement, which our British sociology professor thought most interesting.

I also went to the Hungarian National Museum, where the Crown of St. Stephen is rather poorly displayed and heavily guarded. It was acquired by the United States during World War II and only returned in 1978, when relations with Hungary had improved. King Stephen converted Hungarians to Christianity early in this millennium.

Something else worth seeing is the Ethnographic Museum across the street from the grand parliament building. As in most of the other museums, the description in English of the articles was either inadequate or nonexistent. At this museum, the Hungarian text at least gave a hint of whether the primitive artworks and tools were from New Guinea or Brazil or various parts of Africa. They had been collected by Hungarian scientists decades ago.

Each museum costs between 12 to 15 cents to enter. In fact, Hungary is a relative bargain in terms of food, handicrafts, tickets to cultural events (a performance of ''Aida'' cost about $1.50 after the hotel made its 100 percent markup), and some other items.

Our Swedish professor was also dragged through a 13th-century citadel at Visegrad with a broad view of the Danube Bend; the ancient town of Szentendre with its quaint and narrow streets; a tiny Serbian Orthodox Church finished about 1754; and a small museum housing a collection of unusual, imaginative, fairy-tale ceramics by a Hungarian artist, Margit Kovacs. Even the professor admired the freshness of her ideas. In fact, despite his occasional complaints, I suspect he actually enjoyed himself on this trip.

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