Budapest – Defined by the Danube (2011)

Budapest – Defined by the Danube (2011)

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The enduring image of Budapest, the capital of Hungary, is the river that splices and nourishes the city perched on its banks. By day, a drive up the funicular to the top of Buda Hill offers a panoramic view of the city sprawled on the plains of Pest. At night, the Gothic edifices that dot the river front on both banks appear bejewelled in their glittering lights. The illuminated bridges festoon the river, vesting the city with a carnival air. Indeed, the river Danube defines this city.

We took the eight-hour train ride all the way from Munich, Germany, to Budapest. Every coach in the train has an improvised theatre at one end – a flat screen pinned up on the wall and a few steps underneath it for seating. DVDs of kids’ shows play continuously to ensure that children do not race up and down the aisle and disturb the other passengers. Our coach had plenty of kids but all of them stay glued to the screen. Nary a whimper! Even some adults stole furtive looks at the screen when they got a bit jaded with the scenery outside.

The train trundled past orderly German villages with neat rows of cottages and farmsteads; the picturesque Austrian countryside punctuated by industrial towns sped past. Finally, when we chugged into Hungary, we were heralded by an unlikely guard of honour – whirring windmills that lined both sides of the track. We were deposited at Keleti station in Budapest during the evening rush hour. The station was crowded enough, but finding someone who spoke English to guide us to the right bus proved a bit of a challenge. Hungary has acceded to the European Union but still keeps its own counsel when it comes to language and currency. We had to change our euros to Hungarian forint and figure out the machine that sold the bus tickets we had to purchase before we boarded the bus to our hotel in Vaci Utca. Eventually, we managed.

Budapest lends itself marvellously to exploration on foot. The high streets, like elsewhere in Europe, flaunt their newly acquired vanity, the shops sporting the latest branded wear, but the Roman slip shows through everywhere. The cobbled streets and squares, the covered markets harking back to a bygone era, the majestic columns that support the city’s many Gothic and baroque buildings, the statuary that adorns its public spaces, the steamy thermal baths that attract the elite and the exhausted, the labyrinthine underground tunnels that harbour dark secrets, all speak of a pronounced classical past that lingers on with intense nostalgia.

After all, at the dawn of the millennium, it was the Romans who founded the city of Aquincum where Buda stands today on the west bank of the Danube. They also built a prototype Pest on the other bank called, rather unimaginatively, contra-Aquincum. The Romans were displaced by the Magyars 900 years later, and they went on to found the kingdom of Hungary. The Mongols dropped in uninvited in 1241 but were beaten back by the dogged Magyars, who went on to build the Royal Buda Castle that overlooks the city from its lofty perch on the hill. Three hundred years later, it was the Ottoman Empire’s turn to take over both Buda and Pest and hence the ubiquitous Turkish influence in this city. In 1686, the Ottomans were pushed back by the Hapsburgs of Austria, and the city remained under Austrian suzerainty until it was delivered soon after the First World War to become the first independent Republic of Hungary.

During the Second World War, Hungary was overrun by Hitler’s troops. The Holocaust, evil as it was, was particularly vicious to Hungarian Jews, nearly half a million of whom perished in concentration camps. Post-Hitler, the Hungarians came under Soviet influence until the break-up of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1982.

The city has shrugged off the scars of history and seems in a hurry to catch up with the rest of the world. Today’s Budapest has emerged like a butterfly out of the chrysalis of foreign rule and frequent repression and has instead settled for foreign influence of an insidious variety – transnational capital and unbridled commerce. Multinational corporations advertise their presence in twinkling neon. Glass-and-chrome high-rises have mushroomed but sit uneasily and rather inelegantly amidst the city’s classical template. Hungary’s accession to the Schengen Agreement (in December 2007) has finally opened its doors to tourists and travellers eager for a peek at this lovely city that was once thought of as a worthy rival to Paris.

On the way to Buda Hill, a huge statue of Bishop Gellert standing on top of a dolomite outcrop overlooks the river, holding up a cross as if in defiance. After all, Gellert, an Italian Benedictine monk, converted the pagan Magyars to Christianity as late as the 11th century A.D. but had to pay for his enthusiasm in a most gruesome manner. He was sealed live in a barrel and rolled down the hillside into the Danube never to be seen again. At the top of the hill is the 14-metre-tall Liberty Statue standing on a pedestal 26 m high, erected by the Russians in 1947 to commemorate the liberation of Hungary from the Nazis. A setting sun streams through the outstretched arms of the Lady of Liberty holding a palm branch.

Buda Hill hosts most of the historical sites of the city, including Buda Castle on its sprawling lawns, and houses the National Gallery with its astounding collection of paintings. But there used to be a time when the hill was believed to be a witches’ haunt, and the locals avoided it scrupulously. It took great persuasion, mostly by foreign diplomatic missions, to puncture this superstition and make Buda what it is today. We make our way to the Fisherman’s Bastion, a lookout platform on the river front affording enthralling views of the red-tile roofs of Pest amidst which rises the majestic Hungarian Parliament building. Matthias Church with its striking cross-stitch patterns on the naves and steeples is, alas, encased in scaffolding and undergoing massive restoration. So we make our way to Budapest’s most fascinating sight – a veritable underground world of tunnels and canals criss-crossing the foundations of Buda Castle. Called the Labyrinth, these unique caves were sculpted by natural sulphur springs many of which still survive to make Budapest a spa city, as it were. There are 131 medicinal springs in Budapest and 30 hammams (Turkish baths).

The Labyrinth has served as torture chamber, jail, and even as arsenal and ammunition dump. It has been used as a military hospital during times of war. In better times, it has doubled as wine cellar and treasury. In the cellar, we groped our way through slippery rock floors and slimy rock walls and went around in circles unable to find the exit. There are prehistoric engravings of animals much like in the Bhimbetka caves in Madhya Pradesh and some eerie-looking statues and skeletons. The caves and maze of tunnels sprawl over a vast area and can serve as a shelter for 10,000 people in times of emergency.

Despite years of alternating bondage, Hungarians have managed to keep their identity intact and their spirits alive. To a Hungarian Jew, Theodor Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl, goes the credit for establishing the Zionist movement. There is a large Jewish population in Budapest and three synagogues to cater to their spiritual needs. An evocative art-nouveau metal sculpture commemorates the Jews who were marched off to Auschwitz-Birkenau and exterminated in gas chambers. Harsányi János Károly, who devised game theory, and Soros György (George Soros), one of contemporary world’s largest financiers, have Hungarian origins. In fact, Soros has invested heavily in post-communist Budapest and made a handsome grant to the local university. Hungary also has Europe’s second oldest underground railway, the Budapest Metro, built by Siemens and Halske and completed in 1896. It makes the city eminently navigable.

Andrassy Avenue, the main promenade of Budapest, is a World Heritage Site as are many other sites in the city. The avenue is a delightful mixture of residential, diplomatic and the occasional commercial establishments canopied by leafy old trees. A stroll down this avenue brings one to the famous Heroes’ Square. The square was constructed to commemorate the seven founding fathers of the Magyar Empire but today is celebrated for having hosted, in 1994, one of the most outlandish spectacles in the history of pop music. Michael Jackson filmed his video album “History” at the square – a grandiose and delusionary video commemorating a fictional liberation of Hungary from communism by the singer himself. An outsized statue of the pop star dwarfed everything else on the square, even the 36-metre Corinthian column that sports a statue of Archangel Gabriel; helicopters whirred and swooped down between the legs of the statue of Jackson, and the crowds cheered in a frenzy as he gyrated to his own music at the square.

While the red hot chilli pepper is used in most parts of the world as a way to spice up food, Hungarians have appropriated this condiment like no other. Hungarian red chilli peppers hang from window sills, shop fronts, café marquees, virtually everywhere. There are even chilli pepper key chains and other trivia for tourists to take home. Ever since the red chilli pepper was brought to Hungary by the Turks, Hungarians have incorporated it in their everyday diet, including in their favourite goulash. Mounds of red chilli powder and bunches of red ripe chilli peppers decorate grocers’ shops in the covered market. Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, a Hungarian scientist, even won the Nobel Prize in 1937 for extracting vitamin C from chilli peppers.

The sight of all those peppers make us long for some spicy food, and we make our way to Govinda, the vegetarian restaurant run by ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) in the heart of the city, to sample some bland fare that goes by the name of Indian vegetarian food. Of course, today’s Budapest is cosmopolitan, and one has a choice of cuisine, including kosher and halal, which, some years ago, would have been impossible to get.

Budapest, like Prague, is best enjoyed by moonlight on a cruise down the Danube. By evening, almost every visitor to the city heads to the many quays that dot the banks of the river. There is a virtual parade of cruise boats, yachts and schooners moored on the banks. Champagne on tap, dance floors agog with waltzing couples, psychedelic lights and a gentle breeze make the cruise a dream-like experience. The Danube seems to be a symbol of continuity in a rapidly changing Magyar rhapsody.

(Published in Frontline dated April 9, 2011)