Budapest: Renovations on the Danube?
As a teenage fan of historical novels, mostly about European royalty and especially of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, I have long wanted to visit Budapest. Finally I was there, not in warmth but in the sun, which certainly adds to the charm of this city built along the Danube.
As in other grand Eastern European cities, Budapest feeds the eye with grand buildings and lovingly decorated facades. These are especially visible along the river – in particular the National Gallery, the Church of the Martyrs and the Parliament which are stunningly lit at night – but also in town one sees rows of handsome old palaces and government offices, many of which are now top hotels, stores, and offices.
Walking always seems the best way to get a real introduction to a city. Budapest is easy to walk with its grand avenues and interesting side streets. The renovations are very inconsistent; shopping streets are lined with designer shops in luxurious looking structures and one finds outrageously and wonderfully over-decorated places like theNew York Café. But just around the corner, even sometimes within the same buildings sporting the fancy facades, are un-renovated sections, one house still with visible mortar holes above the entrance.
The Central Market Hall is a highlight. Part food market with lots of butchers, bakers, and greengrocers in between more tourist-oriented stands selling tinned paprika and jars of caviar on the ground floor, souvenir, t-shirt and embroidered clothes and textile stands jostle on the balustraded mezzanine floor above. These are very reminiscent of the markets in Chinese cities except that here each stand is closed with a metal top so you cannot look down into them from above. A small stand near the rear door offered freshly pressed juice – orange, blood orange or grapefruit – and the young man running it was in constant motion, slicing the fruit, pressing one citrus half at a time on his press. The line was long and the juice some of the best I have ever had.
Late that evening, a magnificent production of Aida at the Erkel Theatre disgorged me, my head full of fulminous voices and wonderful scenery built around walls covered in hieroglyphs that included handguns, into a neighborhood I would not have chosen to enter after dark. Nothing dangerous occurred, but the houses were in disrepair and groups of young men with little to do who had been hanging out on the street corners in the late afternoon were still there four hours later. I could understand why many of the audience had ordered taxis to pick them up at the entrance.
The frequency of crumbling buildings and the number of homeless sleeping on cardboard and blankets on the sidewalks are symptoms of poor governance. The EU Anti-Corruption Report 2014 found systemic corruption in Hungary, particularly linked to the awarding and reworking of public contracts with EU funding and the financing of political parties. According to the report, 89% of the Hungarian citizens polled say that corruption is widespread in their nation.
It isn’t easy to be cheerful in such a state, and that probably explains the low level unfriendliness, as if people are first protective and only later might let down their guard to share a piece of information or a brief smile. Walking into restaurants and asking for a table often led to a stare and a suggestion that “well, you can sit at this table” that was near the open door or next to the toilet. When I suggested in a friendly tone that one of several other empty tables might be available and could I please sit there, the answer was a shrug and then my wish became possible. The same happened when I checked into my rather good hotel with a confirmed reservation that suddenly changed to something else “because we are completely full, only one empty room…”. When I politely continued to point out that they would surely honour their confirmation, this eventually became possible.
The place to find happy Hungarians of all ages and varied incomes is apprently in the baths. The baths are not where one goes for a swim, although there is a lap pool in the Szechenyi Thermal Baths, but rather where one goes to spend the day. To sit in a series of saunas, steam baths and ever hotter small pools inside, to perhaps have one of the many massages on offer or a coffee or meal, and then to re-enter the courtyard, depending on weather strolling through or scurrying against the cold to quickly submerge oneself up to the neck in warm water. Children, young couples, parents, and lots of elderly all fill the pools, leaning against the walls, standing over a spout, or paddling about. Surrounded by empire style yellow buildings with stone statuary, it is easy to see how such a day lets one forget all worries.