Ten days in a city extends beyond the hurried visit, but falls well short of residency—somewhere between passing through and staying on. Just enough time to encourage the illusion of knowing the city.
Budapest. It started off cold. Very cold. February cold. The cold that hunches people over, making them shrink below their collars. The weather turned milder during my visit: the rising temperature and my growing familiarity warmed me, both literally and metaphorically, to the city.
Budapest is two cities. Buda of castles and winding streets on a hill above the Danube. Pest of avenues and straighter lines on the other, flat side of the river. This city grew dramatically in the late nineteenth century. The architecture of Pest is a wonderful fantasyland of neoclassical revival as architects revived the past as well as the art nouveau that embraced the modern. Inside the four- and five-story residential buildings are courtyards of shared domestic space, liminal places between the public street and the private hearth occasionally colonized by commercial activities and business enterprises.
Budapest is a kaleidoscopic experience, a challenge to comprehend and to navigate. My efforts to do so encompass a complex flânerie that is a mixture of spatial strategies, place tactics and site visits.
Strategies. I use the public transport to get around. There are three metro lines and numerous bus lines and trams. My favorite is the Number 1 metro—the Yellow Line. The second oldest metro line in the world, the Number 1 runs underneath Andrassy—the fashionable street laid out in the waning decades of the nineteenth century. It is scarcely underground, little more than thirty steps below the ground, with small cars, flashing lights and outbursts of music when the trains stop. It is more like a fairground experience than the often-spooky phenomenon of the more modern mass transit systems with their deeper tunnels that transport you through the subterranean. On the Yellow Line you can still see the light of day while standing on the platform.
Place tactics. I move between the text of the map and the guidebooks and the text of the city, constantly comparing them along my routes. I walk around the castle district. I visit the large synagogue and walk around the old Jewish district, a reminder of dark histories and modern savagery. I walk the pedestrianized streets, stroll along the side of the Danube–not all that accessible to the walker–and take many photographs. The act of photography sharpens my gaze as I look for the next suitable subject and constantly frame the city through a lens.
Sites. I visit the main sites, unhurried and uncrowded. It is early February, well outside the main tourist season. I sit in elegant coffee houses both genuinely old and lovingly refurbished. My favorites, in order, are Central, Muvesz and Gerbeauds. I visit the the Hungarian National History Museum, leaving with a better general perspective: the country emerges from medieval misty times with a series of kings—all of whom look as mad as a rabid stoat. They fight against the expanding Ottoman Empire. Then they become part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There are always rumblings of independence but nothing much comes until the end of World War I. Brief independence comes, soon to be undone by an alliance with Nazi Germany. Big mistake, especially when the Russians come. Communism, repression and then independence. Whew. The Hungarian National Museum—some interesting late Gothic religious art then nothing much original until the later nineteenth/early twentieth century, when Art Nouveau and modern art emerge in an explosion of creativity. Cubism, expressionism and other movements are all worked out by Hungarian artists and graphic designers as they respond to modernity.
All city experiences include the unexpected. For me, spending three hours in the Gellert Baths—soaking in hot mineral waters and admiring the sumptuous marble and tiling. Visiting a Serbian Orthodox church by accident on a Sunday morning and sitting in on the service. All incense, swinging gold cups, and ornate Byzantine costumes. Incomprehensible on so many levels. Later, visiting the stamp museum and grasping Hungarian history through philatelic iconography. I especially liked the Social Realist phase of men on tractors and women carrying bushels of wheat. The Museum of Applied Arts housed in a wonderful Art Nouveau building. The architect, Odon Lechner, renders his own kaleidoscopic design in a fantasyland of Moorish arches, elaborate arabesques and a gilded exterior. The decorative items, especially the Art Nouveau furniture, are expressed in flowing, sensual lines. After the relatively flat surfaces of fine arts, it is a delight to see the textures and dimensionality of the decorative arts. I like the building so much, a few days later, I search out another Lechner masterpiece, the former Post Office Savings Bank on Hold street.
Intellectual illuminations. We are enlightened by visiting cities. Who knew the Ottomans had such an influence? Many no doubt do know, but I admit to a knowledge gap here. The baths, the cuisines, the decorative elements. You can trace the Ottoman influence in textiles down through the centuries. I also was unaware of the large Jewish population in Budapest’s history, of Hungary’s complicated and compromised history during World War II.
Cities express silences as well as embody utterances. It was fascinating to me to see the lack of traces of the Communist regimes, especially in the central city. It is as if forty-four years of recent history has quickly disappeared from the built form and collective memory of the city.