Man In A Suitcase

Budapest, Hungary

Travel for a while and you learn an important lesson: treat guidebooks with an attitude somewhere between skepticism and outright contempt. Their job is to make a destination sound interesting and attractive, while avoiding the slippery slope that leads to outright fiction. (And sometimes their maps leave reality far behind.) So when my guidebook to Budapest spoke of the city in the most glowing of terms I was hopeful but prepared for some amount of disappointment.

For once I was worried over nothing. Budapest is a remarkable place, full of history and whimsy, of beauty bestowed by nature and by man. (God, that's good!) Situated on the Danube River (known to the locals as the Duna), it's actually two separate cities: Buda, the hilly city to the west and Pest, the flatter city to the east. Only recently (a hundred years, which is no time at all for a place this old) have they been joined by a series of bridges. The one on the right is the Chain Bridge, the oldest of the lot. Both of these pictures were taken from Buda, looking at the Pest riverfront.

A couple of views of Buda from the Pest side of the river. Buda is a lot hillier, and the locals used the heights for many monuments to their history. The one on the right honors an early missionary who tried to bring Christian enlightenment (and, one assumes, the Missionary Position). For his troubles he was thrown off a cliff either in a wheelbarrow or nailed into a barrel (the record is unclear). Later on Christianity took, and I guess the locals decided he wasn't such a bad guy and built him the monument. It's neat and all, with its own waterfall. But I wonder if he would rather have skipped the whole deal...

A study in contrasts. On the left you can see a picturesque street from Castle Hill on the Buda side of the river. This was right around the corner from the Hilton, itself a modern structure that uses the remains of a 15th century church in its decor and mirrors to reflect the glory that surrounds it. On the right is a more modern intersection in the heart of Pest, full of shops and trams and real people going about their lives.

Two more scenes from Castle Hill. I'm not normally big on churches, but I particularly enjoyed the mosaic roofs on this one. They're so cheerful, which is something I don't normally associate with houses of worship. On the right is a remarkable example of distressed brick. Considering the age of many of the buildings on the Hill and the damage from various wars, the locals have done a magnificent job of maintaining (and in many cases recreating) their architectural heritage.

Andrássy út is a major avenue running through Pest. It starts at the Danube and leads to this place, Heroes Square. Built a hundred years ago to celebrate the thousand years since the Magyars arrived in Hungary, it honors many of the country's great heroes. Which I guess explains the name. One great Hungarian not honored in the square gets his due a few hundred meters to the east. Yes, it's that famous writer, poet and author of clever sayings, that man about town, that model of ubiquity, Anonymous! Bet you didn't know he was Hungarian, did you?

The memorial to Anonymous resides in a fantasy park that was another part of the millennial celebration. Replicas were made of castles from various parts of the country, all done in different scales so they'd sort of fit together. The result is peculiar and fascinating, kind of what Disneyland would have been like with better senses both of history and of humor.

Margaret Island is a huge park that sits in the middle of the Danube. Two and a half kilometers in length, it's as if a much larger Central Park were ripped out of Manhattan and dropped into a much cleaner Hudson River. There's a hotel on the island, sports and entertainment facilities and a lot of trees and grass. An oasis from the noise of the city that surrounds it. Like much of Hungary, the island was settled by the Romans long before the Magyars showed up. I'm told that Roman ruins are a real problem. It seems every time a public works project gets going they discover some. Then everything has to wait for the archeologists to evaluate the find and decide whether it needs preserving and what to do about the works project that caused it to be uncovered. At least we in California don't have that problem!

Before the war, Budapest had a large and prosperous Jewish community. The Great Synagogue is a reminder of that time, a grand and glorious structure whose look owes more to Byzantium than Jerusalem. It's also a reminder of a more recent, more horrifying time. A metal tree of life in the rear courtyard honors the memory of those taken in the Holocaust and its garden of headstones recalling their names. The armed policeman at the front of the synagogue reminds me that some horrors never leave us.

The best parts of a trip often come during unexpected moments. I was walking around Pest on Sunday morning when I heard music. After a few seconds I recognized that it was both brassy and being done live: a band concert. So I followed my ears (which makes you walk funny) until I came upon a most peculiar sight. Avis Rent-A-Car in Hungary was having a little parade. Just why they were marching I never did find out. But I thought it was nice that the move from Communism to Capitalism included things like public spectacle. Although I bet the Communist marchers had cooler uniforms.

As I write my impressions of the places I visit I sometimes wonder how my foreign colleagues will react if they ever read it. I guess someone at SGI Hungary liked it; for a while there was a link here from their home page. Sounds like a compliment to me. (I'm assuming there was nothing rude in the link. Hungarian is just one of many languages I don't understand.)

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 Comments to:, Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California