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).



Bratislava: little big city

Update, New Year’s Day 2018: the Gdn does Bratislava

Where were you for Hogmanay? We were in Bratislava, watching the fireworks from our room behind the A on the first floor of the 1930s Carlton Hotel. The balcony was carpeted with snow and it was a chilly minus 2 Celsius, but nothing daunted the Slovaks circled the ice rink below to the strains of the hits of the 1980s. With around 10 minutes to go everyone set off for the banks of the Danube for a better vantage point.

I had few preconceptions about Bratislava, so it came as a wonderful surprise to make its acquaintance. Landing in Vienna we took the first Slovak Lines bus out of there, with the fare pretty much the same as the S Bahn into the big city. There was a certain step back in time feel about the coach, compounded by the bus station – the Bratislava area may be the second most prosperous region in central Europe but investment isn’t going into their transport hubs.

bus station, Bratislava

Welcome to Slovakia!

The only capital bordering two independent countries, a short hop from Vienna but psychologically rather more, the first sight you get of Bratislava is the cute whitewashed castle, followed by glimpses of the SNP bridge as the bus drives through Petržalka, a 1970s suburb on the ‘other’ bank of the Danube. Its tourist mojo seems to be working fine, with the neatly renovated 18th century old town pretty much clogged over New Year. But there is definitely more to Bratislava than that.

Prior to 1919 the city was known as Prešporok in Slovak, but rather more familiarly as Pressburg in German and Pozsony in Hungarian. Until the 1920 Treaty of Trianon it was part of the kingdom of Hungary, serving as capital from 1536-1784, as coronation city until 1830 and as the seat of its diet until 1848, but with a definite German flavour throughout. From the 13th to the 19th century German speakers were the dominant group, with Hungarians reaching a par at around 40% apiece during the 19th century; Slovaks trailed in at 15% in a 1910 census. In 1919 the city became Bratislava, a name attributed to a misinterpretation of the name of a nearby medieval settlement and previously used only by Slovak patriots.

The old town houses a number of oversized Baroque edifices which have outgrown their role, such as the Primate’s Palace with the Hall of Mirrors where Napoleon signed the Peace of Pressburg after the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, dissolving the Holy Roman Empire in the process. Famous visitors include Mozart, who famously played to Maria Theresa in the Pálffyho palác aged 6 in 1762, and less expectedly Hans Christian Andersen, who visited in 1841. When asked to write something about the city he said that there was no need to, as it was already a fairytale.

We liked:

  • the castle – resembles an upturned bedside table; burned down in 1811 and left to crumble for over a century, passing through in 1933 Patrick Leigh Fermor noted the “harlot’s nest” on the Schlossburg (sic)
  • St Elisabeth’s Church (1911) – the ‘blue church’; built in Hungarian Secessionist style by Ödön Lechner
  • Slavín War Memorial (1960) – a good walk uphill and flyover
  • SNP Bridge (1973) – parts of the Jewish old town were bulldozed to make way for this unique feat of engineering with a flying saucer shaped restaurant and observation deck on top
  • Slovak Radio Building (1983) – 80m high reversed pyramid, providing a contrast to the Slovak National Bank across the street

Less successful perhaps are the kitschy sculptures resembling living statues scattered through the town centre. Some recent public art has created controversy for other reasons, with the statues of Svätopluk I (of Moravia) outside the castle and of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Czechoslovakia’s first president, in front of the Slovak National Museum illustrating the dilemmas faced by a new nation. (Update: Balkanist on public art as a means of promoting tourism.)

Lots of redevelopment plus a large population of expats working for international companies creates a lively international atmosphere and an interest in the city’s cultural heritage. Guided tours on offer include Jewish Bratislava from Bratislava Sightseeing (who also do segways, although probably not in the snow) and Communist tours from Be Free ToursVisit Bratislava and Authentic Slovakia, who also offer an Iron Curtain bike tour, as do Bratislava Sightseeing. EuroVelo’s Iron Curtain Trail runs along the Danube marking the border between Austria and Slovakia, with remains of bunkers still visible. Bratislava is also on EuroVelo’s Atlantic-Black Sea rivers route, which includes the Danube Bike Path, the most popular holiday cycle route in Europe. Crossing the SNP Bridge all were well signposted, with separate lanes for peds and bikes.

There are notionally five bridges across the Danube, although one is out of commission for the foreseaable. As you can see from this timelapse the amount of traffic would make a Gehlite suck their teeth, but justifies Bratislava’s slogan of Little big city. (Here’s a more touristy virtual tour.) Walking over the SNP Bridge to Petržalka we were diverted onto a Soviet era flyover, which further diverted us once we had crossed the river and made locating the Apollo Bridge back a bit tricky. They do love a flyover in old ‘eastern’ Europe.

2014-12-31 15.44.49


On the main road from Vienna, the river bank houses some scenic old inns such as the offputtingly named Restaurant Leberfinger. Bratislava did boast a reasonable range of vegetarian options, if on the heavy side – see Zylinder’s menu, and we found a splendid spot based around the revolutionary concept of allowing vegans, vegetarians and meat eaters all to eat together…

Petržalka, formerly a grey suburb, is now practically a town in its own right, with a population of nearly 120,000. The tower blocks have been renovated and given a coat of paint, while investment is pouring into the creation of new areas such as Digital Park Einsteinova and a shiny shopping mall. Not everyone can – or wants – to live in an 18th century old town. Here everything is on hand and there is a growing sense of community – everyone knows their neighbours. There may be lots of traffic, but there are also wide pavements and bike lanes, and green spaces making the most of the river. These 1960s urbanists may just have known what they were doing.

Updates: see Words without Borders’ feature on contemporary women’s writing from Slovakia and Wish I were here, an expat blogger currently living in Bratislava, plus my Flickr album.

Danubia and the myth of Mitteleuropa

Before I kick off my latest batch of belated travel  blogs here’s my first book of the year, Simon Winder’s not unrelated Danubia (Amazon | GoodReads | Google Books). Reviews: GuardianNew York Times SpectatorTelegraph.

The Austro-Hungarian empire, at the heart of the alluring concept of Mitteleuropa, is a pyschogeographic gold mine – a “psychic and liminal space between east and west rather than an objective geographic reality, its borders imaginary, drawn and redrawn with each new historical situation” (Chris Haddix), erased almost unnoticed in a world of dichotomies after the Second World War. Writing in the New York Review of Books in 1986 (republished in the 1991 edition of The uses of adversity) Timothy Garton Ash explored its temporary rebirth – and in the early 1990s it briefly looked as if there just might be a middle way.

Simon Winder’s Danubia, the companion piece to his Germania, is a “personal history” of the mosaic of Mitteleuropa, taking political and especially military history as its main framework but seasoned with a host of sidesteps and even dead ends. Not entirely chronological and assuming an amount of prior knowledge on the part of the reader, it’s a long haul to get to my personal main event, typified by 1913 (“when Freud waved cheerily from a tram at Schiele and the Second Vienna School sang a capella to delighted cafe-goers”), but equally it’s a pleasure to bathe in the quirks of the Hapsburgs and their blundering incompetence, a quality they excelled in, and simply enjoy the ride.

On central Europe’s towns:

the standard full kit: electric tramways, an opera house, a whole lot of art nouveau, a bust of Schiller and a comically dreary monument featuring a statue of a lumpy woman with an ivy entwined sword and a palm leaf

On the Hapsburg jaw:

the women in portrait after portrait appear to have a sort of awful pink shoe attached to their lower faces

At the start of his bibliography Winder states that he has deliberately excluded Claudio Magris’ Danube (1986), along with Rebecca West’s Black lamb and grey falcon (1941), reprinted in 2006 with an introduction by of course! Geoff Dyer. Like Winder I find it impossible to avoid the gravitational pull of a growing canon of books and authors, and having dusted off my central European bookshelf am now embarking on Nick Thorpe’s The Danube: a journey upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest (Amazon), ie the wrong way, which looks like a good counterpoint to the rather blokey Danubia.

Also making a case to be read is Nick Hunt’s Walking the woods and the water (Amazon; blog), a 2011/12 retread of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s 1933 trek from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Nick H highlights even more jolly japes in Paddy’s footsteps, including Travellers’ century, a 2008 TV documentary by Benedict Allan, Blue River, Black Sea (Amazon) by Andrew Eames, who “travelled the length of the Danube by bicycle, boat, and, for some reason, a green plastic bathtub” in 2009, and New York Times‘ journalist Matt Gross, who walked from Vienna to Budapest in 2010. A final PLF related find is this analysis of the literary and historical references in A time of gifts, crying out to be mapped.

For a different perspective see Dimiter Kenarov’s From Black to Black, a literary overview which starts and ends with the significance of the Bulgarian equivalent of R4’s Shipping Forecast:

For nearly fifty years the Danube was a demolished bridge, a liquid roadblock. The wall may have been in Berlin, but the truly impassable one was an invisible dam on the Danube, somewhere between Vienna and Bratislava…Today, to sail along the Danube is to see the new face of Europe, old as it is…The great changes of 1989 might have brought freedom to the people of Eastern Europe, Eames suggests, but it has been the freedom that comes from the sudden bursting of a dam wall, the waters inundating everything on their way downstream.

In an article about Freud’s Vienna as inspiration William Boyd asks: “Why do certain cities haunt the imagination? Not just the city itself but the city in a particular historical period.” He identifies the cause as a place in time you would like to have lived in yourself, but sadly the 1913 narrative was a post-war creation. According to Winder at that time Austria-Hungary “could probably have been summed up as a barracksridden, aristocratic and actively philistine place”, with its music viewed as having a merely museum-like quality (Der Rosenkavalier rather than Mahler’s Ninth), its writing disregarded and its painting and architecture swamped by the Paris art scene.

This society “only really appreciated in the rear view mirror” was preserved in the memoirs of countless exiles and the writings of in particular Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, all soon eclipsed by a fresh wave of horrors. The keepers of the flame of the Hapsburg myth see the Dual Monarchy as a period in which a diversity of nationalities lived together peacefully in a well ordered, ideal fairytale world, compared with the series of “small and dirty cages of the new nation states” created after 1918, a dichotomy which persists into the 21st century.

Highlights from my Mitteleuropa bookshelf:

  • Frederic Morton’s A nervous splendor: Vienna 1888/1889, the year Crown Prince Rudolf shot himself
  • Gregor von Rezzori’s Snows of yesteryear on his childhood in Czernowitz  (“his very name a perfect Hapsburg amalgam”)
  • Bruno Schulz’s The street of crocodiles – Schulz lived in Drohobycz, where “oil deposits created a strange little semi-Americanized enclave of prosperity” near Lviv, and was shot dead in 1942 by a Gestapo officer

Just where is Mitteleuropa? The shifting borders are a thing of endless confusion – this timelapse doesn’t really help. Winder includes a map of how Kaiser Karl’s United States of Austria could have turned out, with names such as Carniola and Galicia which have vanished into history.

Update, 2 May: just back from Sofia, pretty definitely not Mitteleuropa and also not on the Danube, although not a million miles from either, brings us the story of Liberland, a self-declared microstate consisting of a wetland wilderness upstream from the point where the Danube is joined by the Drava, a borderland between Croatia and Serbia. More to be done on this stretch of the river, and also on the Rhine, rather less written about.