sightseeing

 
 

Budapest and its residents are oddly unstuck in time.  Buildings that you pass appear to have been built hundreds of years ago, and they bear the scars of sabers striking them, bullets ricocheting off of them, grand regimes decorating them and poor ones deferring their maintenance.  It’s the simultaneity of it all that’s so striking.

The more I visit Budapest the more convinced I become that sightseeing is not the point.  There are plenty of sights to see, but, frankly, they have little to do with why I keep coming back again and again, or, I think, with why our guests enjoy the city so much when they travel with us.  I recognize one has to do something while trying to get at the more subtle and intangible aspects of the city, so I’ve tried, in the remaining pages of this section of the website, to provide tools for visitors who want to keep their left brains occupied while their right brains soak up the milieu.


But for the remainder of this page, let me try to put into words the kind of thing that makes Budapest so special for me:


Budapest and its residents are, to start off with, oddly unstuck in time.  Buildings that you pass appear to have been built hundreds of years ago, and they bear the scars of sabers striking them, bullets ricocheting off of them, grand regimes decorating them and poor ones deferring their maintenance.  It’s the simultaneity of it all that’s so striking, these things layer on top of each other like the components of a Photoshop document, and then someone issued the Merge Layers command.


But it’s not just the architecture.  The people as well seem to be living simultaneously in a stretch that extends back at least to 1848 (though for many it goes much farther back than that, to the Turks at least, and well beyond them to the Magyars) and forward into the present, all at the same time.  The Treaty of Trianon partitioning Europe after WW I continues to rankle.  Rankle? It’s an ongoing affront to the Person-on-the-Street.  It’s a current topic of conversation at dinner or over a glass of beer.


But so is the 1848 revolution, and the words and actions of the adolescent poet-revolutionary Sandor Petöfi, who declaimed his great exhortative poem and led the populist revolution, starting (characteristically) in a café (in the Pilvax Hotel off Vaci utca) and marching off to the steps of the National Muzeum, only to die tragically young in battle.  His fate brings contemporary tears to the eyes of all Budapesters, who seem universally to recall not only the events but Petöfi himself as though they were formative components of their own lives.


And so is World War II, a scar on people’s recent memories, involving (by and large, though there is a small but vocal Neo-Nazi nationalist movement in Budapest; less present than in other Central European countries but there nonetheless, and stronger outside the cities than within them) great pride in the nation’s efforts to shelter itself (and its Jews) from the Nazi onslaught, and deep shame at the collapse of that effort in 1944.   There is a reason why of all the Central and Eastern European countries, Hungary maintains a significant Jewish population (the second largest per capita in Europe and among the largest in the world).  Many Hungarian Jews survived, and still more returned…


…only to find that the Russian era was less intense but no less harsh.  And so, 1956 lives vibrantly in the memory of even the youngest child.  Hungarians born well after 1956 seem nonetheless to recall viscerally the stance in front of the Television Building, the toppling of Lenin’s statue, the Russian tanks mowing down the revolutionaries and the revolution, the mass unmarked graves in Kerepesi Cemetery, and the children valiantly fighting (and being gunned down) at the Corvin moviehouse.


It is quixotic but not surprising that Hungary boasts two major national holidays (of course, if other countries have one, Hungarians must have two), and that the entire nation turns out for both, with red-white-green pins and public processions and fanfare and speeches and young girls dancing on makeshift stages.  And no one seems at all concerned that one celebrates the socialist nationalist uprising of 1848 and the other the anti-socialist nationalist uprising of 1956.  Or that both were failures measured in mere days.  They are linked by the heroism, the spirit, and the fact that at heart Hungary has always been populist and always been dominated by one outside invader or another, and always bristled at being a vassal state, whether under the Austrians or under the Russians.


So as you walk through Hungary’s streets, this feeling of 150 years of immediate and simultaneous shared history forms the atmosphere through which you move, the air that you breathe.


It is abetted by the odd mix of fashion that seems to tumble the 19th Century (there is a tailor on a side street who exclusively crafts bespoke 19th century army officers’ uniforms) into Eastern Bloc severity into 1950s push-up bras.  There are hot pants and Retro and lots of Hungarian beer bellies proudly displayed in gaps between t-shirts and work pants, nicotine-stained fingertips and teeth, a world unshackled from fear of coronaries and cancer.