A Euro-City Of Reinvention That Never Says Die
“Come back!” the lady at the transportation desk in the Budapest airport called out to us with a smile as we walked away after she’d helped us organize a driver for our first day in her city.
Come back? We’d only just arrived…
The kiosk girl’s friendly, welcoming, and sincerely appreciative attitude turns out to be typical of the Budapesters whose company we’ve been enjoying these past several days.
Hungarians in their country’s capital city seem genuinely happy to greet visitors. Perhaps they’re hospitable by nature; for sure their country can use the tourist income.
We’re here with the family as part of our summer holidays. We’ve never been able to set aside four or six months to explore the Continent with our children in a single go, as the original Grand Tourists did generations ago, so we’ve resorted to a do-it-ourselves Grand Tour in series over several years. This summer’s installment in the program is a driving tour of Eastern Europe, first stop Hungary.
The flag of Hungary has gone through 12 iterations since the original flag of the Principality of Hungary in 895. I’m not a flag expert, but that seems like a lot of changes. One version had an empty circle in the center where the Communist Rákosi coat of arms had been blanked out.
An all-at-once history of this country’s capital city Budapest, as we experienced one afternoon this week at its Castle Museum, is exhausting. So much advancement and so much struggle in one small spot over 2,000 years. Touring the city, the expression you encounter most often is: “Most recently rebuilt after… fill in the blank catastrophe…”
Budapest is a city of rejuvenation and, as a result, an extraordinarily eclectic city. Seeing it for the first time, you might think that these Hungarians have had trouble figuring out who they are. In fact, the problem over this city’s long history has been that one group after another has worked aggressively, sometimes violently, to try to make the Hungarians into something else.
The Austrians wanted the Hungarians to be more Austrian and invested enormously in a Budapest facelift with the explicit objective of making it over into a sister city for Vienna. The architectural legacy of this effort alone is worth the trip.
The Germans wanted the Hungarians to be more… well… Nazi…
In truth, not all Hungarians were opposed to the idea, and Hitler’s crew was able to dig in deep here. We all know the rest of that story.
The Soviets “rescued” the city of Budapest from Nazi rule… only to undertake immediately another remake of this city and its countrymen, this time into loyal comrades. The House of Terror (the “House of Loyalty” when the commies ran this show) shows the heart-wrenching outcome of this chapter in this city’s history.
Light and shadow… development and destruction…
After each of these devastating experiences, the Hungarians of Budapest have stood up, over and over, banded together, and rebuilt, trying again and again to enjoy themselves as Hungarians in what remains today, despite the many efforts to alter this fact (80% of the city was destroyed in World War II), one of the world’s most architecturally impressive cities.
Budapest’s history is long and troubled. Its present is full of life. Budapest today is a happenin’ hipster zone, a let’s-get-trashed town of expanding disrepute attracting youngster travelers from across Europe and beyond. Our hotel, accidentally, is in the heart of the party zone, a fact that Lief and I ignore but that our children seem to appreciate.
All these kids are migrating to Budapest to enjoy the city’s many bars (especially its “ruin bars,” set up in tumble-down and abandoned buildings and infamous for offering the city’s wildest after-sundown fun) because they and everything else here is uber-cheap.
Lief and I have yet to visit a ruin bar, but we’re appreciating the low cost of the city overall, right along with our much-younger fellow travelers. Four-star hotels can be as affordable as 100 euros per night, and luxury standard is a relative bargain.
The food and the service everywhere are excellent, from five-star white-glove establishments to little hole-in-the-wall after-hours eateries. Portions are big, prices small. These Hungarians are enthusiastic eaters.
Next stop on our family’s Grand Tour is Bratislava. I’ll be in touch again from the road…