Hungary has something of an image problem amongst European States. Undeniably broke, arguably drifting towards a less free and uglier populism in politics and still more contentiously foreign-sounding due to the language’s Finno-Uric roots (i.e. closer to Mongolian than many of the Romantic derivations), Hungary rarely inspires the same optimism as Poland or the Czech Republic. Yet this obscures the fact that in Budapest, the country has one of Europe’s most imaginative cities – a place that deserves to be on the consciousness of the Western world.
The charm of Budapest is that its history and culture has so frequently been riotous and incongruous, and yet has blended together in an apparently harmonious expression of easy living. This is quite literally two cities, divided by the Danube. On the Western bank sits Buda, seat of the Hapsburg Empire, home to art galleries and the Hilton, the Gellert Monastery and the Soviet-era statue of liberty – all symbols of the ideas in which comfort has been taken at various times. Opposite; Pest, the living city, full of ruin pubs, places of worship for the common man and the realities of everyday life.
Hungary itself used to be one of the great European powers. Indeed, its capital was once the far more westerly Poszony, or Bratislava as it is now known. Absorption into the Holy Roman Empire rendered its profile considerably smaller over many years, until the eruption of the Hungarian nobles, supported by the petit bourgeoisie, nationalist proletariat and Jews of the City alike in 1848.
By 1867, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was officially a Dual Monarchy with theoretically equal constituent parts (no comfort to smaller minorities) and the Hungarians had commenced planning for their National Parliament, a building completed in the first decade of the Twentieth Century which is their crowing glory. The Parliament, standing 896 metres at its highest point to commemorate the arrival of the Hungarian people at this bend in the Danube in that year AD, is testament to the preference for symbolism and image that separates Hungary from the legalistic traditions of Poland. Its aristocratic chamber, now defunct, was bestowed with statuettes of the poor and lowly at great controversy in order to remind the Lords of their responsibilities. Despite the great importance given to debates (the Hungarian phrase ‘worth a Cuban’ relates to the holders outside the Upper Chamber that allowed fat cigars to burn out during long speeches, the Hungarian element of the Empire was never equal and barely free.
Yet freedom can be expressed in many ways. Hungary was the first country to breach the Iron Curtain in 1989 and also the first to show Stalinism in its true light when the reforms of Imre Nagy were suppressed and the Hungarian Clement Attlee murdered. Today, a plaque to Nagy can be seen on the wall of the university building in Budapest opposite a bust of Marx. The irony is presumably not lost on many people, since it is so contrary to the flag flown outside the Parliament – the old communist colour, with the hammer and sickle cut out.
Memory is also a form of freedom, and in this Hungary excels. Its museum to the consecutive horrors of Nazism and Stalinism (the Terror House, which sheltered the purveyors of both) is liberating in its sincerity. By collaborating with the Nazis under Admiral Horthy, Hungary was able to avoid the worst of the Holocaust. Yet its local National Socialist Party, the Arrow Cross was among the most brutal of all but the SS.
The Jewish district of Pest must be amongst the most celebratory of the Righteous in Europe, with its memorials to the likes of Karl Lutz, Szenes Hanna and Raoul Wallenberg – all of whom served humanity from Budapest. An interesting anecdote related to us on a walking tour of the City concerned the old ghetto wall, the last part of which was torn down to make way for new high rise offices. Local residents in one of the few unrestored blocks of the same district campaigned for the developers to erect a replica, which they duly did after some persuasion. But the wall sits in a back garden where few can see it and as the recession takes its toll and pays dividends for the far-right Jobbik Party, out of sight is often out of mind.
Nonetheless, outside of politics young and old, Hungarian and tourist mix amiably in the many garden pubs made out of the ruins of residential buildings or in the thermal baths (of which, the Szechenyi are the best). While friendliness is sometimes an unaffordable luxury in this busy City, it does have the benefit of bein a literary city, where people read constantly, not just a place Austrians go to shop cheaply.
Will the charm of Budapest will survive the apparent ostracism of Hungary within the EU? The City is big enough to resist the demands of tourists but is it prosperous enough to protect the things it wants to? Tourists passing through to reach Sziget or investors from outside Hungary can help, but only by allowing themselves to be taken with the flow.