Posted on January 7, 2011
We have logged miles in both Buda and Pest (the cities did not become one until 1873) these last two days. Budapest is a rich and complex place and probably has been since the seven Magyar tribes rode across the steppes and settled here in 896. The city’s history has been both grand and blood soaked ever since. We are still trying to get a handle on it.
Almost every significant building here is a mix of architectural designs. St. Istavan’s Basilica, for example, is a combination of Neo-Classical, Baroque, and Neo-Renaissance. The enormous Parliament Building is a similar hodgepodge. The Matthias Church at the top of Castle Hill in Buda has a Gothic core, with a Baroque-like steeple, and a Neo-Romanesque rampart attached for good measure. This architectural confusion mirrors the country’s burden and benefits of being situated at the juncture of East and West.
It was occupied by the Ottomans, by the Austrians (who used it as a buffer against the Ottomans), by the Nazis (600,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in the Holocaust), and by the Soviets. Their 1956 bid for freedom was brutally suppressed. They then lived for decades under Communist rule, albeit a somewhat more liberalized version. If one can make a broad generalization, there is an independent but also almost morose quality to the culture. We are told that Hungary for a long time led Europe in suicides. We have had waiters and guides with personalities that are so wooden that we have had to suppress our giggles. Perhaps a deep sense of forboding has become part of the cultural DNA — something bad must be about to happen right, because it always has.
Yet there is an exuberance and energy about the place as well. Austria finally decided to make Hungary a partner (thus the Austro-Hungarian Empire created in 1867) and the country reached its zenith in the late 19th C., setting out to outdo Vienna with an Opera House every bit the match of its Austrian counterpart, grand avenues lined with Neo-Renaissance buildings, the first subway on the Continent (we rode it today — just a hair below ground level and with charming little tones to mark arrival and departure at the tile lined stations), the biggest Parliament Building anywhere, and more. By the end of the 19th Century it was bigger than Madrid, Rome, and Amsterdam (according to our trusty guidebook). It developed a cafe culture to rival Paris (and some of the most charming cafes in the city look much unchanged from that time).
It was the birthplace of Liszt and Bartok. Hungarian-born innovators made their mark in America in the 20th C., including Edward Teller of A-bomb fame, Andy Grove of Intel, financier George Soros, and the great computer scientist John Von Neumann. There is music and theater and rows of dusty old bookshops. It is not yet polished, so we can wander into an old church as we did at the university and find an empty, soulfull interior and sit in the half-dark undisturbed by an attendant or other tourists.
Being a crossroads, it feels more cosmopolitan than nearby Vienna. The faces look more diverse. The food is more interesting. And just recently freeing itself from the suffocating grip of Communism, there is a reaching out to the new and to the west that is more earnest and urgent than what we saw in self-satisfied Austria.
It is a place where you find sleek, trendy restaurants inside buildings with crumbling facades. Our charming B and B, like an Ikea stage set, is on a darkened street (a long neglected infrastructure means many of the streets seem gloomy and at first a bit scary until you realize the sidewalks are full of families and old people and workers) in a building that seems tattered until you walk through the door. The trams look 1930s compared to the sleek space age trams of a place like Bilbao. It has a real charm — the kind that will not eventually survive prosperity. It is the way we feel about Damascus or parts of China or Luang Prabang.
We want to tell everyone of these places, “Go now while they still have soul.” Of course, that is the conceit of the tourist. The people in all of these places need and want better infrastructure, modern amenities, higher paying jobs, cars like ours, and more. The young generation looks hip and energetic and professional as their counterparts anywhere. Their parents and grandparents are lost generations, raised during the regime and ill-prepared to compete for jobs in a society that has much more promise and much less safety net.
What the Hungarians (like the Syrians and Laotian and Vietnamese) can’t know is the steep price they will pay for their new prosperity (God that sounds Hungarian). Much will be gained, but a lot of value will be lost. The more people heed our call and come to places like Budapest the more it will lose those qualities which compel us to recommend it. That said, there is something about places in transition that is particularly interesting and exhilarating and anyway, the one constant in life is change. Budapest will change with our without us. For now, it has a great vibe unlike almost anywhere in western Europe and we would recommend it.
That was more philosophizing than travelogue, so soon I will write about eating greasy sausages in zero degree temps, the NE Patriots gear I found, and the Cold War bunkers we explored today.