Budapest is a prime site for dreams: the East’s exuberant vision of the West, the West’s uneasy hallucination of the East.
Where to start about Budapest? I think I shall start at the end and work back to the beginning. As I drive through the suburbs of this city towards the airport after 8 days in this extraordinary city, I am amazed at the sheer volume of head turning art nouveau buildings, even in outlying areas. Elegance and grandeur albeit faded, are everywhere, in this Grande Dame of a city.
However If you read the Budapest tourist guides they focus on a relatively small and somewhat predictable line up of monuments and must do’s – medieval Buda Castle, the National Museum, Parliament, the thermal baths, Chain Bridge, Doheny Synagogue and of course the obligatory boat cruise.
All of these are wonderful in their own right – the soaring Baroque splendour of the castle turrets, the endless corridors of priceless museum treasures, the immaculate grandeur of the seat of Hungary’s relatively new democracy and the exquisite synagogue, second largest in the world.
But these are the capital letters if you like, of this fascinating city, and as a curious person I always want to understand the subtleties of any given place, it’s cultural accents and punctuation. In that respect, Budapest is a literary feast.
Whilst there have been settlements in this location since Roman Times, and Turkish occupation, what people associate most strongly with Budapest are the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the demise of Communist rule in 1989.
The flowering of 19th century art, music, design and architecture are evident everywhere for those who take the time to see it, and particularly if you look up at the exquisitely tiled roofs and ornate decoration of many of Budapest’s impressive buildings. Even the municipal bank built for ‘poor people’ is an architectural masterpiece. Street names bear testament to the famous sons and daughters of the city – Bartok, Liszt, Karoly – and musical performances still abound in the various theatres and conservatoires of the city. Strolling down the elegant Andrassy Avenue, one can only imagine the Sunday scene of beautifully dressed aristocratic ladies in hats and parasols promenading or taking a carriage ride for afternoon tea and a concert.
But there is so much more. Art Nouveau architecture is everywhere, with lesser visited museums such as the home of early 20th century architect and art collector György Ráth an absolutely treasure trove of domestic history. The 7th quarter behind the Doheny synagogue says so much about the stark realities of Nazi occupation, with its ghetto tenements which saw 13,000 people die in a matter of weeks during confinement. The neo Baroque 19th century fantasy which is the Szabo Library, still used by students today. The wooded beauty of Margarit Island in the middle of the Danube, where people can watch outdoor theatre performances, swim in the Art Deco lido, rejuvenate in the thermal baths, wander amongst Abbey ruins or sit and dream about the days of Turkish conquest, when the island was home to the hareem.
For those interested in more recent events, the atrocities of the Communist era are vividly portrayed in the House of Horror, the former centre of fascist and communist secret police interrogation and now a museum, all in another grand building rather incongruously positioned on the peaceful tree lined Andrassy boulevard.
For me it was the quirks of Budapest I found so charming – the juxtaposition of so many exquisite forms of architecture, Gaudi meets medieval meets Baroque excess; the hearty French/German inspired cooking; the almost universal good nature of a generation of people who remember life under communist rule and who must revel in their latter day freedom, but who still bear the behavioural scars of a generation forced to conform and acquiesce.
Budapest is a city that seems to be awakening from its political slumber, a city excited about celebrating its cultural past once again, a city investing in bringing back to life its countless cultural treasures and uniquely, a city which bridges east and west. It’s history has not always been happy, but perhaps it is now due a timely renaissance. I think Budapest might be my new favourite city.