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Hungary for more

Budapest has enough heritage to satisfy the most voracious of culture vultures. Words and pictures by Tim Pile

 

Boasting two World Heritage sites and a profusion of historical monuments, Budapest is one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals.

Arrive at Keleti railway terminus after dark, however, and an altogether seedier side of the city reveals itself.

Unsavoury characters urge you to change money at suspiciously generous rates and unkempt drifters ask for a donation towards their beverage fund.

Shady-looking touts recommend cheap hotels that they’re unable to name and gypsy girls make offers that you can (and should) refuse.

Once clear of the station, things improve immensely. The river Danube splits the city in two. Hilly Buda, with its medieval core of fairy-tale turrets and spires, provides lofty vistas across to Pest, the commercial district. Buda has parks and private villas, and is the most desirable address in Hungary, but when it comes to nightlife, Pest is best.

Bearings are best pinned down on tram line No 2, which runs along the embankment on the Pest side, giving good views of Castle Hill, the vintage bridges and Parliament House, the largest building in the entire country. The service is used as much by commuters as by tourists and gets busy during rush hours.

The first sightseeing stop should be the Castle District; a World Heritage quarter so chock full of neo-gothic churches, baroque palaces and art galleries that you could spend days exploring and barely scratch the surface.

Don’t expect to have the place to yourself, though. At least, not until sundown.

As dusk descends at the Fisherman’s Bastion viewpoint, there are almost as many tripods as tourists. The coach-tour crowds have retreated to their hotels, leaving a handful of holidaymakers and photographers to gasp and gape as the signature landmarks are illuminated one by one, far below.

It’s hard to overstate how cultured Budapest feels. You walk into an imposing building expecting to find a concert hall or museum only to discover a hardware store or hairdressers. Instead of playing inane games on mobile phones, earnest teenagers sit on park benches tuning their violins.

A homeless man squats beside a handwritten sign detailing his misfortune in four languages. The dishevelled panhandler is in rags has the obligatory dog on a piece of string, yet he’s reading War and Peace. If you’re begging in Budapest, you might as well use the time to educate yourself.

Despite widespread graffiti and a soundtrack of police sirens, Budapest is a relatively safe city. Elderly couples amble along, arm in arm, late into the evening. Mind you, after what some have been through, a mugging would be considered a minor nuisance.

Andrassy Avenue is the capital’s most beautiful boulevard. For Hungarians of a certain age, however, the leafy thoroughfare has a sinister significance. Number 60, a nondescript neo-Renaissance building, functioned as the headquarters of the fascist Arrow Cross Party and, later, the communist secret police. The former mansion has been converted into the House of Terror museum.

The central atrium, which features a Soviet tank and a wall filled with victims’ portraits, sets the tone for a thought-provoking, if unsettling, experience. Within, there are dozens of harrowing audiovisual testimonies, newsreel clips and exhibits depicting Gulag slave camps.

As you slowly descend to the cellar in a darkened lift, a retired guard explains in a black and white video how detainees were interrogated, tortured and executed.

The doors then open onto a dimly lit corridor lined with grimy, airless cells and the stench of totalitarian sadism.

None of the perpetrators, some of whom are still alive, were ever prosecuted.

The museum is popular with foreign tourists but few Hungarians visit. Those who do tend to be school groups who arrive laughing and larking and leave teary-eyed and tormented.

Back on the bustling streets, I find myself looking at a group of senior citizens shuffling onto a tram in an entirely new light.

In any other city, the art-nouveau Central Market Hall would be an architectural highlight. Here it goes almost unnoticed. Dating back to 1897, “the symphony in iron” sprawls over three levels. Tourists head upstairs to bargain in euros for chess sets and lace tablecloths while, downstairs, locals stock up on paprika and pickles in forint, the Hungarian currency.

At a small tourist information kiosk on the ground floor, the girl on duty deals with questions in a number of languages, including Chinese. Fruzsi is about to finish her shift and agrees to chat about career opportunities and her compatriots over a coffee. Despite being a university graduate, the multilingual twenty-something isn’t tempted to take advantage of her right to seek employment elsewhere in the European Community.

“I considered trying my luck in Germany but Budapest is such a great city. We have an amazing calendar of events, especially in summer,” she explains, sticking closely to the tourism office’s party line.

Fruzsi is candid enough to concede that her place of birth is changing in ways she doesn’t always approve of.

“People are becoming celebrity obsessed and materialistic. It’s all about money here – just like in Hong Kong.

The only difference is we don’t have any.”

After recommending a free open-air concert by the Budapest Festival Orchestra on Margaret Island that evening, Fruzsi hurries off to her second job, in a nearby bar.

Traffic-free Margaret Island is a tranquil green space slap bang in the middle of Budapest and seems to be exclusively for the under 30s. Athletes pound around an asphalt jogging lane without breaking a sweat. At the Danube’s edge, the taut and toned challenge each other to rowing races while others swim, play football and water polo.

All this sporting vigour is unnerving so I hot foot it across town to the Szechenyi Thermal Baths, where the average age is about 60 and no one is doing anything more energetic than playing chess. People are perspiring but only because the mineral-rich water bubbling up from 1,200 metres below is a skin shrivelling 38 degrees Celsius.

This being Budapest, the pools, steam rooms and saunas are housed in a custard-coloured neo-baroque palace. Chandeliers, ornamental pillars and statues of water gods hint at the Habsburgs.

I’ll never see Hong Kong’s Morrison Hill municipal baths in quite the same way again.

 

Getting there: Qatar Airways (qatarairways.com) flies daily from Hong Kong to Doha, and from the Qatari capital to Budapest’s Ferenc Liszt International Airport.

 

 

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