So as I write this (on Thursday morning, 11th Feb), it’s nearly time to leave Budapest, and by the time I get a chance to publish this I’ll be in Romania. I’d definitely love to come back here – two and a half days most certainly isn’t enough, but for now I thought I’m going to sum up what I’ve seen here so far:
Good things about Budapest
- The beautiful buildings – residental, presidential, palatial, and worshipful. All breathtakingly splendid examples of architectural design and grandeur, towering 7 storeys and more into the sky if you count the statues that many have on top. The stereotypical 50s block-style communist buildings aren’t especially prominent in the city centre, but you can still see their influence if you look closely. Andrassy Avenue in particular, another of Budapest’s UNESCO world heritage sites, has a vast selection of impressive architectural styles along its many residences, and the city park’s fairytale Vajdahunyad Castle is a veritable schizophrenic delight for architecture and indeed fairytale nerds.
- The spa baths. Famous though Budapest is for its healing mineral spa baths, I did not get the chance to go this time. Booo! I love a good spa bath, and if they’re anything like the geothermic baths in Iceland then I’ve definitely missed out bigtime. However, I consoled myself with looking at the Zoo buildings, which are very Turkish influenced (and actually next to a good baths in the city park I later discovered).
They did have have statues of animals at the entrance in the old animals-as-exhibits style, but as this included a baboon, I had to take a photo for my monkey-mad friend Katie:
- The oldest tube line in continental Europe. The Metro 1 takes you up to Heroes Square where there is a huge monument reminiscent of the Brandenburg gate, constructed to honour the 1000th anniversary in 1896, of the Magyar conquest of the Carpathian basin. Lesser scale statues to national heroes and warriors are everwhere throughout the city which if you care to investigate will give you a starting point to myriad bits of Hungarian history.There’s also a lot of other underground history here, including an underground labyrinth, an underground bunker/hospital that was used during WWII and a church carved into a cave in the Citadel area.
- The wine. As we’re here midweek and have been getting back from exploring late and tired from doing lots of walking, it’s been tricky to find time to go out to the bars in Budapest and experience the famous party scene here. It’s definitely somehting on my list for next time though, as well as going to some of the folk music clubs here, and will be easier and more fun to do with longer here and a weekend evening to play with. We took a walk through Franz Liszt square (named after Hungary’s favourite composer son), which in the summer is a hive of cafe culture, wine imbibement and dancing, with trees, park benches and a lively cosmopolitan atmosphere, but in February it’s a little quiet unfortunately. I’ve got a wine tasting session planned for later today, but for now we made do with sampling the delicious Egri region red wines from the supermarket while our host at the hostel regales us with conspiracy theories and plans for world domination through blood type testing, upon which I will make no further comment!
Not so good things:
The buildings may be beautiful but they are in varying states of repair, and if nothing else grubby with pollution. Gold leaf and painted mosaic illuminations that adorn many apartments are covered in grime and it’s not unusual to see large chunks of plaster crumbling off buildings, some of them to the extent where they have to be propped up like this:
Now I’m not a knowledgable historian nor here long enough to investigate first hand, so I don’t know whether this is just because the buildings are old and have never been repaired, whether it’s neglect from the communist regime, or whether it’s just neglect in general because of Hungary’s poverty prior to joining the EU in 2004 and then the 2008 credit crunch. Part of me actually thinks it’s nice that the authorities are propping up these buildings rather than bulldozing them as would happen in the UK, but realistically, it’s likely bulldozing and rebuilding is too expensive, and maybe bulldozing on its own is too. Still nice though that they’ve thought it through as far as whether they’ll be able to rebuild, something Bradford council could learn from (they have a penchant for knocking down beautiful Victorian buildings and then leaving the city with massive holes for years on end). Despite the poor states of repair of a lot of buildings that I’ve seen, the city’s pride and individuality is still obvious, something which would become much more hidden if it were to be knocked down and “regenerated” (which has already happened in the centre nearest the Danube).
So this brings me to the communist regime, which lasted in Hungary from 1947 till 1989-90 when the iron curtain came down. There is a sense here if you talk to people about this part of their history that they just want the tourists to stop banging on about it, forget about it and move on – and I can’t say I blame them in the slightest. Communist statues have been removed from the city centre and dumped 8 km southwest of the capital at Memento Park, and although I’d planned on going to see them, having been to the Terror House, I just felt it had the potential to be a bit of a gawpingly inappropriate tribute and was glad I decided not to go in the end.
Communism is a very dark period of Eastern Europe’s recent history, but as with the victims of Nazi fascism, there are memorials and museums dedicated to the memories and stories of the victims of the communist regime in Budapest, and rightly so, especially as I think it’s easy to forget, or fully understand as a Westerner who was 12 when the wall came down, just how tyrannical and fearful a hold the communist regime had over the lives of millions of ordinary Eastern European citizens – and also easy to forget how incredibly lucky that as a Westerner I’ve never had to live in fear of my life for thinking the wrong thing, or of losing a loved one to torture, execution, imprisonment, or labour camps with no warning, trial, information or reason.
Budapest’s memorial dedicated to the Jewish victims of the holocaust was set up by the late Tony Curtis (the Nazis occupied Hungary from 1944), and the Terror House, former headquarters of both the Nazi and Communist terrorist dictatorships, has been converted into memorial museum. All along the outside are black and white photos of people executed or disappeared by the Hungarian communists. Under each photo is a name, an occupation, a year of birth and a year of death or disappearance. Many are young, hardly into their 20s, but many are older opponents of the regime. There are a variety of jobs too, from baker and secretary to “intellectuals” such as radio journalists and writers. The roof of the house has a mirror-image stencil of the word TERROR in the overhang, and when the sun shines in the right direction, you can see the word the right way round shining as a shadow on the specially designed walls of the house that extend across the pavement. Always there, never knowing when it will cast its shadow, it’s a powerfully metaphorical tribute.
If this isn’t moving enough, outside the house is a sculpture symbolising the iron curtain, and on each end is inscribed words which really bring home how much the regime was hated, and how hard Eastern Europeans fought to overturn their countries’ dictatorships and win their freedom from terror:
“Shall we live as slaves or as free men? (Sandor Petofi)
It isolated the East from the West
It split Europe and the world in two
It took away our freedom
It held us in captivity and fear
It tormented and humiliated us
And finally we tore it down”
Days since leaving the UK: 5
Kilometres travelled so far by main train journeys: still 1911
Countries travelled through so far: 6
Cities visited: 5
Weather: sunny and 5 degrees. And then drizzly