Tuesday, 8 January 2013

A fresh start in Budapest

Happy New Year! (we said BUEK in Budapest)

New Year's Day on top of Gellert Hill

We had a couple of good reasons to spend New Year in Budapest. The first was that our friends Agnes and Bertil invited us to join them there. They live in Sweden but a few years ago they bought an apartment in a stunning spot, right beside the Danube, about two blocks downstream from Parliament (their building is obscured by the tree in the photo above). I can't imagine ever tiring of watching the river traffic and the big sky over Buda from their front room.

This was the first New Year that Agnes and Bertil have spent in Budapest. In fact, the first real holiday they've had in their apartment. Since 2007 they've been sailing around the world. We met them in 2010 in Vanuatu when we were three boats squeezed into a tiny lagoon at the top of Pentecost Island - ourselves on Kukka, our Tasmanian friends John and Ange on Nada and a Najad 39 called Panacea. We saw the Swedish flag on her stern (predictable), then Alex noticed a Hungarian flag on the port spreaders. Hungarians are not known as  ocean-going people. But nor are Hungarians easy to classify, and Agnes, as it turns out, fits the pattern (Bertil too is a model Swede). Our friendship with Panacea outlived that anchorage and several others, and when we sailed into Sydney Harbour a couple of months later, we brought Bertil and Agnes home with us. In April 2011 they set off from NSW bound for Darwin and from there across the Indian Ocean, having decided to complete their circumnavigation via the South African route and last July they arrived back in Sweden. We had a lot of oceans to catch up on.

With Bertil and Agnes at the opera (Die Fledermaus, by J. Strauss)

The second reason for visiting Budapest was more complicated. It's Alex's birthplace. He was born in 1947, not an easy year, but then again, very few years in Hungarian history have been. In 1950, when it was clear that Hungarian democratic dreams were yet again being liquidated, his parents made a dash for freedom with their little son (who was called Sandor in those times) and in 1952 the family started a new life in Australia. Alex grew up speaking Hungarian at home. He's always told me that Hungarian has to be one of the most useless languages in the world. Perhaps it is, but language gives you a key to a culture. I think Agnes has encouraged Alex to try a few locks he may have thought were seized up for good. She was born in Budapest too, five years after Alex,  grew up under Communism and made her own decision to leave at the age of 21, when she sought asylum in Sweden. She speaks five languages well (that I know of), and in her opinion (which is always a strong one), Alex is Hungarian. He's got the language. It's not a stigma, it's a code. He just has to use it, and this week he did, with growing confidence.

Heroes, Saints and Kings - what Hungarians have to celebrate

So we spent New Year with Agnes and Bertil, home from the sea, and getting to know Budapest better  - and both gave us great pleasure.

St Stephen's basilica, and Christmas market

Glugging back hot mulled wine in the late afternoon 

Food and hot drink at the night market

For me, it was a second visit. I'd been in Budapest briefly, for work, in 2005, and come home enthusing about the city and its architecture. Alex was perplexed, and somewhat disbelieving. He'd made two previous visits, one in 1971 when his parents' friends and relatives were still alive, and didn't need any reminding of the reasons why so many thousands of Hungarians had risked their lives to escape the Communist regime, and another in 1995 after his mother's death and when his first marriage was in shreds. On neither visit did he spend much time looking at the architecture, and if he did, what he saw were bullet holes and grime, loss and shadows.

Horseman in front of the Royal Palace

The Hapsburg eagle

I can't tell you what it's like to live in Budapest in 2013. We didn't live like locals, and nor do Agnes and Bertil when they are here. We lived like wealthy foreigners. We could afford to buy tickets to tour the inside of Parliament, to the opera, to the museums and exhibitions, and to the Szechenyi open-air thermal pools. We saw everything we wanted to see, and when we were cold (it was cold, very cold) and needed to thaw out our lips and ears, we ducked into a cafe or restaurant. some modest, others luxurious. We had morning coffee and strudel at Gerbeaud, on Vorosmarty Square where Alex racked his memory, as he did often, for scraps of his parents' lives. "I think this is where Dad used to play cards. Mum used to tell me that if he hadn't come home at night, she would know to look for his motorbike outside in the square." Gerbeaud is not the kind of place where you could imagine a card game taking place now - it's full of tourists doing what we were doing, paying dearly for the illusion of glamour that Budapest carried with it during its heyday, from the middle until the end of the 19th century, and even until the outbreak of WWII.

The Comedy Cafe on Budapest's "Broadway"

Apostolek restaurant, off Vaci Ut, est 1906

There were things which Alex needed to do in Budapest which were far off the tourist beat. He needed to see the maternity hospital where he was born, at 78 Ulloi St. It's still there, and still run by the same organisation, named for a doctor named Semmelweis, famous for having discovered a cure for puerperal fever. He needed to go to 17 Bocskai Ut, which is where he spent the first three years of his life. We found the address, but the building is new, dating most probably from the Soviet-era. We walked through the park at the end of the street. He remembers his mother telling him how she would take him there to play. It's pretty. There were young women pushing prams. Some things stay the same.

17 Bocskai Ut

3rd floor, Semmelweis Institute - where it all started

There's a shop called Alex just over the road...

Mostly we walked and walked. Budapest is a city for walking, though its trams and metro are easy to use.  

There was so much to look at in the streets - women in magnificent furs, delicate Christmas lights hanging from long avenues of lamps, sculpture everywhere (in squares, on street corners, railings,  building facades, gates), and a thick carpet of beautiful old buildings. 

The skating rink off Heroes Square

Szechenyi thermal baths

The back entrance to the Royal Palace

A lot of Budapest's grandeur dates from the 1896 celebrations of 1000 years of Hungarian rule. The monuments in Heroes Square at the end of Andrassy St are the most over-sized, splendiferous things you are every likely to find in a European capital - I've read that at the end of the 19th century, Budapest was the fastest growing capital city in Europe, with a population of 775,000. 

Heroes Square

Hungary's founding fathers - the Magyar horseman

It's been all downhill since then, I'm afraid. But incredibly, much of what was built in those triumphal years survived the destructive, torrid 20th century. Budapest is, if nothing else, solid. A few years ago it was solid and grimy, but now so much sparkles. The Hungarian Parliament, built for the millenium celebrations at a cost equal to that of building a town for 40,000 people (or so the guide told us), is so shamelessly golden and pompous that you have no trouble believing that Hungary, as the junior partner of the Habsburg empire, was once a European power to be reckoned with.

Inside the dome of Parliament

Hungarians revere the crown of St Stephen

Alex saw Budapest differently this time. He saw its beauty, and not just its terror. We did go to the House of Terror, now a museum, at 60 Andrassy Ut, an address he remembers his parents talking about in lowered tones with their friends in Sydney. In the late 1930s until the defeat of Nazi Germany, it was the headquarters of first the Hungarian fascists, the Arrow Cross, and then when the Soviets took control of the Eastern Bloc, the secret police, the AVH, moved in for 40 years. It was when the boys from 60 Andrassy St came to his father's workplace one day, looking for him (he was late that morning), that the decision was taken, very quickly, to find a way across the border into Czechoslovakia, and from there into Austria and a refugee camp in Hamburg.

Memorial wall outside the House of Terror

Post New Year's Eve - Johnny Walker on ice
 As for New Year's Eve in Budapest, well, it couldn't fail. The city is lit beautifully every night, but on this night, the streets were packed, and people waited along the river, and on the bridges and in the squares. No-one, including the police, seemed to know what was planned in the way of celebrations and in the end, nothing much did happen. We hugged each other (Agnes's dear friend Agi, and her husband Peter were with us that evening - they are locals), and blew party trumpets in each other's faces, like everyone else. We didn't wear silly fur hats with red blinking ears, but next time perhaps we should. The next evening we joined a throng of 12,000 in the sports stadium for an all-dancing, all-singing, all-fiddling extravaganza hosted by a virtuoso showman in white satin named Zoltan Maya. Modern Budapest loves glitter and high heels every bit as much as it loves being European and free to collapse in an economic heap of its own making.

Lugging our bags along K pontoon by 9 pm after a long day's travelling, via Istanbul, we thought how strange it felt to be coming home to a boat, in the dead of winter, in a small Turkish town. But a day later, we're back to normal. The boat is cosy, and at the hairdresser this morning I learned that snow overnight has closed Istanbul airport. Better to be born lucky than rich, as Alex often tells me. Is that Hungarian?


  1. Happy New Year! Great post Diana - a Budapest I never saw.

  2. Thanks Jan - yes, Alex said much the same, but they were very different times when you visited with him. Thankfully, they have passed but I doubt if those who knew them forget, or take the present for granted. Hope 2013 treats you kindly.

  3. great story, great to imagine you guys there...