Budapest – straddling the Danube

The train on this stretch from Vienna was modest compared to the other, longer ride from Berlin to Vienna: three-to-a-row seating in first class instead of two-to-a-row, no restaurant service and no WiFi. We also got off at the wrong station in suburban Budapest and realized that this was still a Soviet-era country trying hard to catch up with its western cousins in the EU. The station had no taxi stand, no international signage, and a Soviet-style commissionaire who wouldn’t let me into the railway ticket office to enquire about taxis in English. It wasn’t part of their service, he informed me; when I promptly changed my line and told him I wanted to buy a railway ticket instead, he allowed me to speak to an agent. The taxi stand we were thus directed to by the ticket agent was all the way across the station and out on the street. Welcome to Budapest!

But this city has atmosphere and character. Hilly Buda and flat Pest straddle either bank of the wide Danube with seven major bridges connecting them, bridges that were destroyed by Hitler in the last days of the war; some were re-opened only recently. Buda is the rich residential city, with gentrified  streets ringed by two to five-storey houses proudly displaying plaques of their distinguished residents on the walls, and built up around Buda Castle (a must visit). Pest is the bustling commercial centre with its wide, leafy boulevards and large, crumbling apartment buildings, many unoccupied on the upper floors—the dozen cranes I saw out of my hotel room indicated the massive restoration going on. A cruise down the Danube with Buda and Pest on either side, and the restored bridges overhead, is a must too, better than a Danube cruise in the more fabled Vienna with its waltz music and famous composer that memorialized the river.

The Paris of Central Europe, Budapest is called and I have to agree, albeit a more modest one, for the wide sidewalks get quite dirty by end of day, and the cracks and creaks in the infrastructure indicate that modern maintenance budgets are nowhere what must have once existed under imperial monarchs. Narrow streets and “ruin bars” (i.e. bombed out buildings from the war that were never reconstructed but allowed to morph into clean but grungy bars and restaurants) are a treat to walk by, even to enter for a drink and soak up their atmosphere. Street food is similar to Vienna, just substitute schnitzel with goulash and keep the other two items, pizza and kebabs on the menu card. Given its own currency being the legal tender instead of the Euro, I found prices here cheaper.

If I thought Vienna and Berlin had seen much destruction, then Budapest has endured much more. Hungary has morphed in shape and size many times: conquered by Magyars in the 9th century (Hungarians still identify as Magyars), invaded by the Mongols in the 11th century, subjugated for 150 years under the Ottomans in the 17th/18th centuries only to be liberated by the Hapsburgs and forced into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, enduring two abortive revolutions in the 19th century, occupied by the Nazis, in 1944 and by the Soviets the year after, another abortive uprising in 1956, only to be finally liberated from Communism after the Soviet Union imploded, and now to endure its former freedom fighter and current President Victor Orban muzzling the press and  returning the country to a strongman form of right wing government—this country grapples with identity and is owed a bit of sustained peace and prosperity. Buda Castle bears evidence of all these conflicts, and as if in punishment of Orban, the castle administration didn’t him allow him to locate his office inside its walls—instead he is next door in the Carmelite convent.

The bronze shoes by the pier outside the Parliament Building (third largest parliament in the world next to Buenos Aires and London) tells the story of the Jews who were stripped, shot, and tossed into the Danube by the Arrow Cross brigade, Hungary’s SS equivalent in WWII. Those not shot were transported to Auschwitz for execution. Six hundred thousand of the 800,000 Jews in Hungary perished in 1944 alone. The Neologist synagogue on Doheny St. (the largest in Europe and second largest in the world next to the New York Synagogue) tells the rest of the tragic story of the Jews of Hungary, with plaques, grave markers, and guides eager to share the history with visitors. But politics circulates even among the persecuted: the Orthodox Jews, not liking the Catholic style of synagogue constructed on Doheny St. (altar and elevated pulpits on either side of the nave), decided to construct their own synagogue in Budapest.

The museums were heavy going, for a lot of information had to be read, the visual element often lacking. I was heartened to read that literature had given the art of painting a boost in 19th century Hungary when publishers sought paintings for book covers; as well, portraiture peaked in that same period when notables of the newly created Austro-Hungarian empire sought immortality by having their portraits made. And yet, despite the heavy going in museums, there were queues outside the House of Terror (a building where prisoners were interrogated and tortured during the Nazi and Soviet regimes, and which is now converted into a museum) on stately Andrassi St., but I gave it a skip—I’d had my fill of suffering on this vacation.

Monuments dotting the squares and parks belong to heroes of the former Kingdom of Hungary, a kingdom now reduced to 25% of its original size, with land ceded to Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia and Austria after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1919. Heroes Square at the end of Andrassi is formidable, the Art Gallery to the right of the square is worth a visit (we were lucky to catch some special exhibitions going on, including one by Frida Kahlo’s father, Guillermo, who had Hungarian blood somewhere along his family line). The park behind Heroes Square leads to a crumbling castle surrounded by a moat, and which is now the Agricultural Museum. At the other end, by the Margaret Bridge, lies the massive Margaret Park dedicated to a saint and nun who lived in a nunnery there.  The park  is replete with pedestrian promenades that navigate around parkland, an art nouveau water tower, the ruins of Margaret’s 13th-century Dominican convent, a musical fountain and a small zoo. Other attractions include jogging tracks, thermal spas and swimming pools—a great recreational spot for all city dwellers, and for us tourists.

There is much to see in Budapest and I only scratched the surface. I gazed upon the many riverboats parked beside the pier and concluded that the next visit will be by boat. Perhaps on that visit I’ll take another crack at unravelling those museum treasures and the city’s other hidden and tortured secrets while nursing a beer from time to time in a ruin bar.

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