The 12th century ruins of the citadel in Visegrad inspire a certain degree of awe. The hills of northern Hungary spread out to the north toward Slovakia and west toward Austria. The Danube flows from the west and makes an abrupt turn south toward Budapest at the foot of the citadel. It is not difficult to see why Julius Caesar 2000 years ago chose to build a fortress on this very spot for the security of the province of Pannonia. Through the middle ages countless rulers, conquerors and despots built their own fortifications here to look down over the river that is an artery running through Hungary and indeed much of Europe. The fortress was a symbol of military might and a refuge in times of invasion, which, during Hungary’s long and turbulent history, was a frequent occurrence. Today tourists speaking Hungarian, German, French and English fan out examining medieval ruins and gazing at the incredible panorama for a long time. A flag rustles in the wind, its red, white and green flowing magnificently above the countryside. The red star of Soviet occupation has long since been torn from its fabric forever.
I take many pictures; I find it very difficult to take any bad ones. I think to myself that Visegrad is one of many parts of Hungary that the traveler who thinks it only necessary to spend a week in the capital should see. The view is stunning, the air is thick with history and atop a neighboring hill sits a restaurant where they serve wild game and red wine for $10 a plate that one can consume while watching the shadows of clouds race across the green hills. I sit on the long wrap-around terrace of this restaurant drinking coffee while my girlfriend has a conversation in her native tongue with a close friend. The Hungarian language has no close relatives among European tongues. It has none of the guttural hardness of German, or the melody of French and Italian, nor is it nasal, like most Slavic languages. As a Finno-Uraltic language, distant cousin to Finnish and Estonian, it numbers among the 5% minority of European languages that do not have Indo-European roots. This linguistic disparity accounts in part for the fierce pride the Hungarians have in their uniqueness and longevity among European nations.
Hungary sits as an island between the Germanic and Latinate nations of the West and the Slavic nations of the East. Considered an Eastern European nation by outsiders, Hungary is, in fact a catholic country, not orthodox, having received its royal crown with trademark crooked cross from the Pope Sylvester during the 9th century AD. It has been perched between tectonic military, cultural and religious tides that have swept east and west over central Europe for millennia, yet somehow the Hungarians have managed to maintain their identity. Their manners are ever impeccable, declaring Jo napot! (good day) to strangers on the street or bringing wine, flowers and pastry to the houses of guests. Hungarian cuisine retains its age-old pastoral flavor centered on tender chunks of meat with rich sauces and of course paprika.
I think on this uniqueness as I sit and try to make out the few words that I know from the machine gun litany of vowels and consonants that my companions speak with such fluid ease. Nearby sits a group of young Russian tourists. They talk very loudly and smoke many cigarettes while telling stories that are apparently very funny. I wonder if it is difficult for them to feel at home in a country that they used to occupy. If it is, you could never tell from the great time they appear to be having.
Later we are very lucky to catch a fast river boat that will take us back to Budapest. We arrive just before the ferry is to cast off and the ticket vendor is very annoyed as she holds the boat for us and runs back to the ticket office to bring our tickets and the change for the large bill with which we paid. Soon we are sitting in the long squat cabin of the ferry while the banks of the Danube whiz past the window. The boat only holds 30 or so people but there is a bar and everyone is drinking something. Most people, including my companions drink Tokaji, the sweet dessert wine for which Hungary is quite famous. Families on holiday smile broadly and tell stories while looking out the window. The summer sun is beginning to set and it is a glorious day.
In just a half an hour we disembark on the banks of Pest. On the Buda side of the river to the west, the sun is setting over Buda castle, the immense palace built during the time of the Hapsburg occupation. Tourists mill about everywhere on the Duna Corso, choosing from among the many riverfront bistros to have a quiet outdoor dinner or haggling with old women peddling hand-embroidered tablecloths. While this is the Budapest of postcards and family photo albums, the sweeping vista of Gellert Hill, crowned by its statue of liberty, Castle Hill and of course, the Chain Bridge, is still one of great beauty. I have seen this view before and yet I am no less impressed with it. A short walk away in Vorosmarty Square a young gypsy plays Brahm’s frenetic Hungarian Dance # 5 with glasses of water and a spoon. A large crowd gathers to listen. My girlfriend, a Hungarian, and therefore a tough sell, enjoys the performance so much that she sends me over to give the man 200 Forint for his effort. The square borders on Vaci street where countless shops sell traditional Hungarian wares: paprika in assorted dispensers of cloth, tin or porcelain, palinka in hand-painted bottles, and, of course, more table cloths embroidered with colorful flowers and red peppers that are the trademark of Hungarian crafts. We walk up and down for awhile, window shopping in a throng of people, where, for the only time during this trip I can hear a lot of English spoken with American accents. Eventually, all shopped-out, we decide to head back to our apartment.
After a week in Budapest I know the metro very well. It is my lucky gift to be able to negotiate the mass transit system of any major city in the world after only a short time. We travel on the yellow transit line, the oldest subway line in Europe, to the district in which we are staying. At every stop there is a distinctive jingle with which we cannot help but hum along. The terminal on the other end of the line is filled with people. These are people that tourists staying in a Holiday Inn might never see. They are workers returning home from their jobs dressed in smart business clothes or the stained rags of the plain laborer. They are the gypsies who inhabit these subterranean depots and sit on crates everyday socializing with one another and smoking cigarettes. They are the vendors who sell all manner of produce from wooden crates. You don’t have to ask these vendors for organic food. Here it is all organic and when you bite into a paradiscom (tomato) you can taste the flavor of the black earth in which it was grown. There is a drug store that sells over-the-counter creams, soaps and shampoos with English labels on the front of the bottle and caution labels in Hungarian on the back.
The people leaving the metro walk to the tram stop nearby on Mexico road, or to their cars. While much of the architecture of Budapest is a stately Victorian, the cars that Hungarians drive belie the recent history of affliction and poverty. Trabants and Ladas, the fruits of communist mass production make the American standard of economy car, the Honda Civic or Geo Prism, appear mammoth by comparison. They are slow, smoky automobiles made of plastic or fiber glass. On the outskirts of the city more relics communism can be seen like the endless rows of prefabricated apartment buildings that line many streets like filing cabinets, examples of a utilitarian form of architecture that reminds me more of the housing projects on the upper east side in Manhattan than the elegant capital of a European nation.
Our apartment is on Nagy Lajos Kiraly Street and is located in a modest but fashionable neighborhood to the north of the city center. It is a prewar affair with high ceilings and huge floor-to-ceiling windows. We stay for free courtesy of a friend who lives here but has gone out of town for a few months. This convenience makes what is an already rather inexpensive trip even cheaper. Since the country joined the EU in 2004 prices are on the rise but aside from shopping and tourist conveniences, day to day living is still extremely affordable. My girlfriend, who grew up in Pest, always does the haggling however. If they hear one word of my New Jersey accent the price of anything we buy is liable to double without warning.
Near our apartment is the city park, a shady expanse with a zoo and amusement park. In the park also lies the Szechenyi thermal baths, a 19th century pleasure palace filled with Renaissance style halls in which one can bathe in the scalding waters that rise up from the many geothermal fissures beneath the city. In the large pools young European tourists with dread locks and facials piercings soak beside obese old Hungarian men who play chess on poolside tables. On the far side of the park through the impressive expanse of Hero’s Square lies Andrassy Road, a tree lined boulevard stretching into the heart of the city that rivals the Champs Elysees in cosmopolitan flair. Stop at building 60 on this road and you will find a most unusual museum. This severe grey Victorian mansion was once the headquarters of the fascist Arrow Cross party, from which, at the behest of Hitler, members sought out party enemies for torture and murder. After the Soviet liberation, the KGB chose the very same building for the very same purpose. Its cellars were turned into a soundproofed prison for torture and execution while passersby on the street above had no clue as to what was going on inside. Today 60 Andrassy road exists as the Terror House, a monument and exhibit chronicling the horrors of Hungary’s past, from World War I through the end of Soviet Occupation. The Terror House and its grim secrets form a stark contrast to the otherwise regal aspect of the Hungarian capital. This contrast is what makes Hungary not just a place worth visiting but an essential experience for anyone who wants to really know Europe.
This is my second trip to Hungary. I do come here for views of the Danube, Buda Castle, Hero’s Square or the fantastical spires of the parliament building. But I also come here to see the relics of the iron curtain, the Ottoman occupation, the Roman ruins and the leftovers of other historical eras that have touched Hungary, eras that once only existed for me in books. I come to see a fertile land from which some of my ancestors came. I am drawn to the complexity of this nation. Such elegance is so often juxtaposed with squalor and it fascinates me. I come to wander through the chaos of the yearly Sziget Music Festival, a labyrinth of music, food, games, young people and really cool t-shirts that in everyway mirrors an American Phish show. I also come to sit down at the dinner table in a Hungarian home with friends and family and enjoy home cooking, warm hospitality and great conversation with a people who are thoughtful, proud and witty. Hungary is not under glass; it is no museum piece. It has flavors and sounds and smells and they are not always pleasant, but they are most certainly real. I come to Hungary mainly for this reality, a culture that you can touch and one that will touch you back.