(Published in Magill Magazine, 2006)
With a population of nearly two million, Budapest operates at a surprisingly hectic pace, although an array of public transport possibilities, including the oldest Metro line on mainland Europe makes it a relatively easy city to negotiate. This is a true capital city with no other Hungarian city even approaching its scale.
Cognoscenti will tell you that Budapest, divided by the majestic Danube, is really two cities in one, affluent Buda and the slightly more-densely populated Pest, but the city has long been an administrative whole.
The starting point for any visit should be Castle Hill, where the terrified inhabitants of Pest would have witnessed the sack of unfortunate Buda which fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1541.
Looking east across the river, through warm autumnal sunshine from the medieval fortifications a sense of melancholic underachievement seems to pervade the city.
Twentieth century Hungarian history offers a salutary lesson in the peril of imperial aggrandizement. Where previously the Hungarians had lorded it over their Slavic neighbours, the Treaty of Trianon, after World War I, imposed minority status on millions of ethnic Hungarians who were left outside the new borders of Hungary, a rump state created out of the ruins of a once flourishing empire. Budapest now has the impression of an emperor of a city disrobed.
Pax Sovetica preserved these grievances in cold storage, which are now exploited by increasingly powerful right-wing parties.
Coming into the bright lights of the new Europe, old certainties have been washed away in a torrent. The beautiful and the intelligent prosper but for others unfulfilled expectation leads to bitter resentment. The women have become less obliging as fetters are loosened, and Hapsburg modes of family ordering dispensed with. Work can also be scarce, as Western capitalism does away with inefficiencies once tolerated. In response, men pout, guts protruding as pride diminishes. The working men’s pubs scattered around the city that open their doors at five in the morning and close at nine at night, bear witness to this blotting of memory. The day is started with a shot of Unicum, the local firewater, followed swiftly by a glass of beer, and is drawn to a close in similar fashion.
A nostalgia for times past is also the lot of the long-suffering Hungarian football fan. During my visit, the entirety of the 1953 match between England and Hungary was shown on national television. One wonders how often this game is aired. The great team of Puskas emerged with a spectacular 7-2 victory over their English counterparts (featuring Stanley Mathews) who had never before been defeated on home soil. The Hungarians would go on to contest the final of the 1956 World Cup, losing narrowly to the Germans. Meanwhile, in real time, the Hungarian team looses in unfortunate circumstances at home to Sweden, effectively eliminating them from qualification for the next World Cup. It will now be twenty years since they last qualified. Once again, the country is oppressed by the glories of the past.
But of course there is great fun to be had in this sprawling city. There seems to be much to laugh about in the chaos and bureaucracy, and the melancholic national character provides for a refined sensitivity. The young seem far more discerning than their Western European counterparts with Art House cinemas abounding and a commonplace fascination with literature in evidence, and of course there is the polyglot legacy of being in the heart of Europe, with German widely spoken and the English language an emerging lingua franca.
Moreover, amidst the national lamentations, there is tendency to forget Budapest’s regal beauty. The grandiose architecture and a street grid modeled on the wide boulevards of Paris, testify, like the grainy black and white footage of Puskas’s skill, to a golden era. Even the accumulated dirt of so many years of Communist disregard applies a gritty charm.
Eating and drinking is also a surprising pleasure. Although Hungarians are reputed to be the greatest consumers of smoked meat in the world, there is plenty on offer for those of a more sensitive constitution. For breakfast a raw pepper is the staple, a pale yellow variety not seen elsewhere (the more familiar green, yellow, or red varieties are referred to, somewhat contemptuously, as ‘Californian’ peppers), containing a sweetness and crunch that gives way to a reassuring vitality; abundant vitamin C replenishing stocks diminished by nocturnal excesses. Another popular dish is the ubiquitous Goulash, a Hungarian word meaning herdsman, which is a soup in Hungary.
Hungarian wine is a well-kept secret; the Tokaji region provides some of Europe’s finest white wines, their shocking sweetness giving way to a comforting apple-tinged acidity. Reds are also of decent quality, with most grape varieties prospering in Hungary’s warm climate and lush fertility.
Budapest by night is certainly lively, and is best sampled in the open-air bars that are to be found in secretive courtyards. Conversation tends to flow as Hungarians bemoan their plight. Moreover the city has not yet subject to the barbarian invasion of stag parties that now beset so many of Eastern Europe’s cities. For those looking to expand their Eastern European horizons beyond a rather hackneyed weekend in Prague, Budapest is a city well worth visiting. A perfect destination for those with a taste for the bitter sweet.