Budapest has come a long way in a short time. The Iron Curtain fell just over 25 years ago, but Budapest has since emerged as one of the world’s favourite city-break destinations. Hotels abound, service is excellent, vibrant festivals provide year-round celebrations, and vegetarians can finally find more than fried cheese or battered mushrooms on restaurant menus. Behind all this, though, is a history of highs and lows, the pride and anguish of a country that’s faced occupation and terror but has repeatedly found the strength to pick itself up. It’s a past indelibly scored on the national consciousness, and — if you reach for it — can be felt in the very bricks and mortar of the city’s varied neighbourhoods, from the lofty Castle District and the grand environs of Andrássy út to the transformed Jewish Quarter.
“Man, this place has been beaten up over the years!” comments an American-sounding tourist to his girlfriend, his nose deep in a guide book. “You wouldn’t know it,” she replies as she gazes around the square. And she’s right; it’s spick and span. The neo-gothic arches of Matthias Church give way to a harlequin’s hat of a roof, the patterned tiles a multicoloured celebration of the spring sunlight. Opposite, a golden dove shines impossibly bright atop Trinity Column, while the coned turrets of the Fishermen’s Bastion almost glow they’re so white.
The Castle District is the Budapest of picture postcards: dreamy and romantic. But looks can deceive. Looming on its hill above the Danube, the district has suffered more than 30 bruising battles through the centuries. At the end of the savage Siege of Budapest in 1945 — when Hitler ordered his troops to defend the walls to the last man in the face of Russian bombardment — only four buildings remained unscarred. Fire brought down Matthias Church’s celebrated roof. There’s been much blood and rubble in these streets.
Today, there’s wine and music. A violinist serenades visitors while a stallholder does a roaring trade in drinks and salty snacks. The clink of cutlery on porcelain drifts from the door of Cafe Ruszwurm, just as it has since 1827. Nearby, giggling tourists peer at the under-carriage of a greening equestrian statue. “Students like to rub that, er, part of the horse for luck before exams,” stutters their embarrassed guide. “I call him Golden Balls,” grins Mark, my companion for the day.
Mark takes me down streets with names my English tongue struggles to pronounce. The pretty burghers’ houses are monuments to resilience. Plaques record a rebellion plotted at number 53, a famous novelist born at number 19. Mark points out elaborate gothic niches set into the walls, features once lost behind plaster but revealed in the post-war clear-up.
The latest renaissance is taking place in Dísz tér, where the former Ministry of Defence building, bombed heavily in 1945, has been renovated to once again house government officials. “Fortunately, a Jamie’s Italian has opened nearby, so they won’t go hungry,” Mark observes with heavy sarcasm. Clearly not every renaissance meets with his approval.
Andrássy út & City Park
Andrássy út is Budapest’s grand dame, its widest and straightest avenue, running out to the city’s main park nearly two miles away. The road’s origins were as noble as its looks. Aristocratic statesman Count Gyula Andrássy had long championed the idea of a Hungarian Champs-Élysées, a dramatic statement of a street to reflect the pride of a country on the up. And in 1876 it was inaugurated: a thoroughfare lined with neoclassical mansions for the great and the good. One writer called it ‘the hope of the city, lying in the body of Budapest like the Danube within Hungary’.
He remained silent on the subject of beer bikes. As we admire a pair of marble sphinxes outside the State Opera House, we’re overtaken by a stag party of eight cheering revellers on a beer bike, pedalling furiously and raising their plastic glasses of lager to pedestrians and cars alike. It’s a noisy, carnivalesque little cameo — Andrássy would doubtless have called it ‘a brouhaha’ — and very much at odds with the formal nature of the surroundings. But the street has always made room for disruptive elements.
“The radical poet Endre Ady fell off one of those sphinxes when he was drunk, and cracked his head open,” says Monika, my guide. There were several turn-of-the-century coffee shops on Andrássy út where anti-establishment literary types gathered for drinks and high jinks. “Ady died of syphilis in 1919,” Monika adds pointedly. Further up the avenue, statues of four freedom fighters (against the Ottomans and then the Habsburgs) are stationed around an elegant circus of towering palaces. By contrast, the mansion at number 60 — now a chilling museum — is where enemies of the state were once tortured by the communist secret police.
Gradually, the exclusive boutiques and terraced mansion houses give way to villas with manicured gardens, before the road finally emerges into the vast sweep of chessboard paving that is Heroes’ Square. “There was a huge statue of Stalin here under communism,” Monika tells me. “But during the 1956 Revolution, it was pulled down and smashed to bits. Many elderly residents still have pieces of it.”
In City Park behind, it’s clear the spirit of rebellion still burns strong. As we round the boating lake, we reach a scattering of 10 tatty tents and a hand-scrawled sign reading ‘Ligetvédők — Defenders of the Park’. “It’s a protest against plans to build three new museums in the park,” explains Monika. “They’ve been camping for a year now.” “And we’ll be here for another year if we have to!” declares a man with a defiantly bushy beard. Power to the people, as Count Andrássy may, or may not have said.
This bar is bonkers. In the main courtyard, three ladies chat over drinks in a roofless, rainbow-coloured Trabant. Another reads a book in a dentist’s chair, while elsewhere a man settles himself in a claw-footed bathtub to eat a plate of chips. No two chairs or tables are the same. Bicycles, mannequin legs and guitars hang from the ceilings; the walls of one of the rooms are strung with coloured lights and broken computer monitors.
You wouldn’t dream such an upcycled jungle lay behind nondescript front doors on a grey residential street; it’s real Alice in Wonderland stuff. “Szimpla Kert is the original ruin pub,” says Balázs, as we finish our beers, eyed all the while by a garden gnome. Balázs is a long-time resident of the neighbourhood and has seen several of these places come and go. “They take over empty, decaying apartment buildings, and can be quite short-lived — just a season or two. But Szimpla Kert is here to stay.”
The ruin pub phenomenon typifies a creative, non-conformist energy that’s transformed the Jewish Quarter recently. A neglected district has become the hottest spot in town, a hub not only for nightlife with a more bohemian flavour, but for edgy art and live music. “I can’t believe how quickly the atmosphere has changed,” says Balázs. “It’s like Clark Kent switching to Superman.”
Of course, the revival has only been possible because of the void there was to fill. In the past, Dob utca was a lively street of Jewish artisans, of watchmakers, stocking repairers, goldsmiths and engravers. Today it’s lively still, but I can find only one old-fashioned craftsman — a maker of brushes, his window crowded with broom heads — among tattoo parlours, cafes and the Foxtrott Gentlemen’s club.
Further up, a gold angel marks the former ghetto entrance. Budapest has a population of around 80,000 Jews, the largest in Central Europe. But there used to be so many more, before Adolf Eichmann arrived in 1944. I move past the angel into Klauzál tér, an unremarkable square with a children’s playground; about 70,000 people were forced to live in this small area, ravaged by disease and malnourishment, the dead stored in fridges at Klauzál tér market until space was found to bury them.
In a memorial garden behind the Great Synagogue on Dohány utca there’s a weeping willow tree made from silver, and on its leaves are the names of some of the 600,000 Jews who died in Hungary during the Holocaust. An old man stands in front of it, silent and still, staring at the metal branches. For all the current changes, this is a neighbourhood that will always remember its past.
Published in the May 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)