Budapest 1989 and 2015

In Dec/Jan 2014/15 we undertook a Hapsburg three capitals tour, spending Hogmanay in Bratislava and three days or so apiece in Budapest and Vienna. Having finally finished tagging my Budapest photos here are some brief highlights from that fabulous city.

I visited Budapest for a long weekend in spring 1989, although from my photos it looks more like 1969 (pic). My photo of Castle Hill by the Fisherman’s Bastion even shows cars running free.

We arrived by bus on New Year’s Day from Bratislava, leaving for Vienna on 5 January by the rather pricier train from a chilly Keleti Station, passing through the deserted border town of Hegyeshalom. That was January – things were rather different at the station later in the year.

There’s something very special about Budapest, it’s much more of an enigma than other central European cities. At New Year there were plenty of tourists and aggressive tourist touts – tourism is clearly a year-long affair. There’s a sense of an economic sleight of hand going on.

We took in three shiny new things. First up, the new M4 metro line (pic), which finally opened in March 2014 after first being mooted in the early 1970s. The city’s four metro lines offer a pleasing design tour, with the M1, the Millennium underground, continental Europe’s first underground line (pic), joined in the 1960s and 1970s by Soviet style lines of the wide vaulted, marble halled type. The M2, deSovietised with cladding and adverts, shows its origins in its granite floors and beige pillars (pic), while the M3 is “where modernity has gone to die” (Owen Hatherley, in Landscapes of Communism), with chrome plated columns and square lamps against black marble (pic).

Next up, Kossuth tér, Hungary’s parliament square, redeveloped in March 2014 with the aim of restoring the square’s pre-1944 appearance, and now with open spaces and lawns at the expense of trees (pic), asphalt replaced by decorative stone, a new bike path and a 33m flagpole; the parliament’s new visitor centre, tastefully situated underground with a cafe attached, is totally generic – switch souvenirs and you could be in London’s Houses of Parliament.

Finally, Várkert bazár, a series of buildings and gardens on the slopes below Buda Castle,  opened in 1883, damaged during WW2 and functioning as a youth park from 1961 to 1984 when it was finally closed down; re-opened August 2014, with a neo-rust escalator and Gormley style figures among the attractions (pic).

There’s lots of lovely writing about Budapest, not least Caught by the River’s Tale of two soups: Neil Sentance’s Goulash and Nick Bellorini’s Stone soup. Writing on ‘Hungarian confusions’ in 1985 (with the subtitle ‘An eighth part of paradise’) Hans Magnus Enzensberger described the city as “an example of that architectural megalomania which Budapest’s proud citizens called eclecticism”.

I’ve spent whole days reading the wounds and splendours of the city of Budapest from its doors, walls, and nameplates. I think of it as an ambiguous, puzzling, dirty panorama. Every sign in this country seems to promise a secret to the flâneur from abroad and impresses upon him that he is condemned to remain an idiot, an illiterate…every house conceals a dream arcade out of Benjamin’s repertoire.

Compared with Copenhagen’s hyggelige Historicist buildings this stuff has a real edge, with a litany of jaw dropping buildings, from the Great Market Hall groaning with paprika souvenirs and the Gellert Baths, with that unmistakeable swimming pool smell, to the ‘Caterpillar House‘, aka the heart achingly stunning Párizsi Udvar (vid), and Ödön Lechner’s Museum of Applied Arts.

Newer buildings such as the National Theatre (Wikipedia) and Palace of Arts, part of the Millennium City Center under development on the fringes of the centre of Pest, provided contemporary context, as did the NowUs demonstration in front of the opera house on 2 January.

It being a tad parky we invested in a 24 hour ticket on our last day and proceeded to hop on/off the metro and tram until dinner time with the help of BKV’s itineraries, spotting the Xmas tram several times on the way. This leaves proper exploration of the city ring (now Nagykörút/Grand Boulevard but once the Lenin Ring) and UNESCO listed Andrássy út (see the Millennium Underground Walk; once Stalin Street, renamed the Avenue of Hungarian Youth in 1956, then People’s Republic Street until 1990) for a third, summertime, visit.

Below: classic Budapest, Párisi udvar (1913).

 

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