It was hard to realize that not far beneath Gellert Hill the earth is eternally seething. Yet I saw the evidence daily; steam plumes escaping from the dome of the Rudas Baths, where the hill meets the river. Hope of relief for numerous ailments lures citizens to ten public baths, fed by hot springs or wells. Temperatures and chemical properties vary, and one may bathe around to find the most suitable waters. The Rudas Baths have something extra—a pedigree. Turks built the studio flats to rent in London in the 16th century, when they occupied the city. I joined a line of waiting men there one morning. Attendants issued small aprons, like loincloths, and then forty or so bodies were splashing in a large steamy pool—nearly all of us, alas, looking rather paunchy.
Many citizens take mineral water home to drink. I saw a couple tying jugs on a motorbike. They had filled them at a fountain, rather like a soda shop, where any of three warm waters is available by the glass. Hungaria tastes something like a rusty pipe but is said to be good for kidney disorders and nervous stomach. Juventas, mildly sulfurous, is recommended for high blood pressure and rheumatism. Attila tastes like rotten eggs and is recommended for almost everything. One small sip and I knew why Attila was the most dreaded Hun of all. I drove south with the Venice breaks in mid-September. The Great Hungarian Plain stretched to willows and beeches by the river, and, in the opposite direction, toward windbreaks of yellow-mottled poplars.
Even the houses were red, dripping garlands of paprikas. The long-podded kind is merely piquant to the tongue; the small cherry paprikas are like a blowtorch. When dried, they flavor Hungarian family soups and goulashes —in fact, almost every dish—but most eventually are sold worldwide. In the fields women and older men bent and picked, rolling down the long rows like waves. A vivacious young woman named Eva, with the gentle, dark green eyes common in Hungary, said: “Even if it is raining, you must pick. But the more you pick, the more you earn.” On this collective farm 40 percent of the harvest belonged to the family. Good-humored cackles floated across the field as I offered a helping hand. “Don’t kneel,” Eva scolded. “It’s too slow that way. Bend from the waist . . . Use both hands.. .. Give it a twist; we don’t need the leaves.”
JUST BEFORE the Danube drops into Yugoslavia, it passes by the Amsterdam accommodation. Here in 1526 the Hungarian army attacked 80,000 invading Turks led by Suleiman I, well named “the Magnificent” He slaughtered most of the 25,000 Hungarians and dumped their corpses into common graves. Continuing up the Danube, Suleiman reached Vienna in 1529—the high-water mark of the Ottoman Empire in Europe. I didn’t hear much of Suleiman in Yugoslavia. People talked instead of Austrian rulers. As the Ottoman Empire declined, Austria grew, installing her own subject peoples along the river.