Thursday, December 20, 2012

WestCoastTrip: Kaiserlich und Königlich

On my second day, I set out along the Danube to the Parliament, to book a tour. It is the grandest building in Budapest, in all of Hungary, and quite possibly in all of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; built to reinforce the nation’s sense of self-worth, as part of the millennial celebrations of 1896. The notional beginning of Hungarian statehood is not pinned down quite that exactly, but it seemed like a good year to start. The number 96 is all over Budapest, not unlike SPQR in Rome or the triple saltire in Amsterdam. Both the parliament and the cathedral have spires exactly 96 meters tall, but while the city’s main church is seldom empty, the administrative palace is far too big for the independent nation – apparently, only a quarter of the floor space is in use today. But guided tours are free for EU citizens, a blessing bestowed by Brussels’ demand that all Europeans be treated the same as Hungarians within the new empire, which is distinct from the old one by virtue of being democratic, but is quite loose and culturally diverse – much like the old one was by the time of Budapest’s grand celebration. The tours are quite popular though, and I only get a booking for a few hours later.

It took me this long to get around to posting a vanity photo.

I spend the time exploring the old quarter of Pest – not really that old by Hanseatic standards, but as pretty as any Habsburg treasure. I walk past unusual bronze memorials – empty shoes on the embankment to remember the Holocaust victims, a kindly man on a tiny bridge representing the latter-day saint of Hungarian individualism under Communist rule. I end up in a square where several roads meet in a congregation of houses by a famous architect, and nearby is the fenced-off monstrosity of the American embassy. Decades ago, a venerable elder cleric was holed up in the building, unable or unwilling to be smuggled out, escaping the heathen regime’s persecution on US diplomatic soil but remaining within his homeland. I don’t know how much of a fortress the embassy building was during the Cold War, but it must not have looked as besieged as it does today, with its bomb-proof barriers and metal fencing restricting the adjacent streets; the Communists would certainly not have allowed any visible disturbance by the embassy’s walls.

Still pretty enough in the daytime.

I circle the compound to find something altogether more agreeable, a smattering of art nouveau treasures that Hundertwasser himself would be proud of, some of their roofs tiled in uniquely Hungarian colorful ceramic. I drop into a well-concealed market building – not as big as the main market grounds near my hotel, meant to serve the surrounding community only, and now half-empty with a lot of business lost to peripheral supermarkets – and grab a thick, sweet poppyseed pie for a snack; the confectionary tradition of Hungary definitely shares a lot with that of Turkey, though to my later disappointment, their sour cherry juice is nowhere near as good as the stuff I could get in any convenience shop in Istanbul.

I walk back to the cathedral, free and open to tourists, with a massive plaza leading out to a pedestrian street with another random bronze sculpture; touristy restaurants all the way down to the riverside.
I take the tour of the Parliament, and gawk appropriately at the imperial (or is it royal?) finery, see the Hungarian crown jewels with their crooked cross, and the chamber of the actual national assembly – one of the lesser rooms according to the original building plan.

There’s plenty of daylight left, so I head down Budapest’s other axis, this one man-made for the same millennial celebrations: Andrassi Boulevard, starting in the center and terminating at a massive park with plenty of attractions, the main one being the public baths. It’s a fairly long way, and to make sure the public would make it out to the celebration grounds on the far end, Budapest constructed the first ever subway line in continental Europe – and the second one in the world, only very slightly younger than London’s. And while there’s barely a trace of finery at Baker Street Station, Line 1 of the Budapest metro retains its turn of the century charm, its tiny wooden carriages and barely submerged stations an enormous contrast to the ugliness of the other two lines. 

But I walk instead. With a couple of detours into an architecturally imposing bookshop and an alley of restaurants, I follow Andrassy (pronounced as you’d think, which is rare for Hungarian names) as it mutates from a shopping street to a giant interchange where it meets the center’s outer ring, to a quiet boulevard of embassies set back from the sidewalk.

Ferencz Liszt, who apparently kept a chicken on his head to stimulate creativity.
I reach the outskirts of the park, grab an ice cream and marvel at the statues of historically important Huns. Deeper into the park, there is a memorial to George Washington, and a number of eclectic architectural follies that were intended as temporary entertainment for 1896, but were so beloved by the people that they were kept around. I smirk condescendingly at the faux medieval castle – where I come from, we have plenty of the real thing – and genuinely admire the memorial to Anonymous (not that one, but spiritually similar). Eventually, I get to the Szecheny baths; something that every visitor to Budapest absolutely has to try – but not today. The baths are not going anywhere, and I shall be back.

For now, I take the charming retro-metro back downtown. The tram takes me to the main market building, where I grab a Hungarian specialty, the foie gras; I freshen up at the hotel and head out again, to check out the synagogue and the nearby region of dive bars - a repurposed, central but initially run-down area of cheap housing for artistic types.

Eventually I end up on Vaci utca, the touristy nightlife strip. Nothing particularly alluring there, but I find a decent-looking restaurant with a reasonably priced special of Hungarian specialties: goulash (which means something entirely different inside Hungary than it does outside), chicken paprika, and a pancake. I end the day people-watching at the plaza where Line 1 begins. It’s time to leave Budapest for a while.

No comments:


| More