A Walk Through Budapest
It’s time to celebrate Hungary’s freedom at the moment; the streets may be awash with national flags and displays of folk-dancing, but twenty four years isn’t a very long time, and memories of the Communist occupation (replacing the Nazi occupation) are understandably long and vivid. It doesn’t help that you can still see plenty of bullet holes in the fine beaux-arts buildings and there are pamphlets being given out by a few earnest young Communists trying to return to the bad old days of the Sovietski Soyuz collective state farms. Even idealistic youths would surely not wish to return to a time when a tenth of the population disappeared.
To understand just what happened and how it continues to affect lives, we went to the House of Terror,Â a museum located on Andrassy Street. It contains exhibits related equally to the fascist and communistÂ dictatorial regimes in Hungary, and is also a memorial to the victims of these regimes, including those detained, interrogated, tortured or murdered in the building. And like its counterparts in Berlin and Riga, it has found a way to express freedom within its explanation of the past.
The building itself has been painted grey and separated from those surrounding it by a great steel awning, lit with a white key-line at night, as if to show that its history has removed it from the surrounding city. ‘This is not us’, it seems to say, ‘but inside we will show you what occurred here.’
Brilliantly, and to greatly moving effect, the museum mixes factual reportage and art to create powerful sensations as you walk about. Video interviews with those whose lives were touched are devastating for the stories they tell, and there are haunting juxtapositions between screens and artifacts. Art strengthens the ideas; a maze of human soap bars leads to a pig peering around a corner. An illuminated soviet stage draped in red flags reveals desks of listening devices concealed behind it. Corridors of brass lettering emphasise the victims, not the perpetrators. The twin extremes of the dictatorships have made Hungarians wary and anxious to guard freedom. In the UK, where there is little residual memory of hardship, the population is fatally disconnected from politics or even the thought that its freedoms were hard-won.
The imagery of death abounds, from symbols and uniforms to skulls and bodies.One montage shows ordinary people donning different uniforms; peasant, commandant, prisoner and so so, suggesting that people change once they’re given roles. The cells are sobering, as all cells are, but a dinner table laid with insignia-stamped plates is equally chilling. By comparison, the head of the secret service has an HQ that’s as drab and mundane as any council office, considering it’s where so many death warrants were signed.
I saw several other sides of Budapest in what was probably the most crammed-in weekend we’ve managed for a while. There was the gaudy part, typified by the hordes of British weekend staggers who presumably never saw anything of the city beyond nightclubs and bars. When did weddings turn into naff reality-TV-inspired events? I’ve seen this wedding shotÂ before, but I’ve never seen it used to advertise weddings in a shop window before.
Then Â there was the food misfire. DO NOT EAT THIS. It is fatty bacon wrapped in a doughnut, and is the worst thing I’ve put in my mouth since rotten shark in Iceland. The food was mixed, some superb in restaurants like Big Fish and Gresham – often your meal is weighed and you pay accordingly. Some meals just seemed designed to put you into an early grave. I do not recommend hot palinka and rock-hard gingerbread biscuits consumed together, or pig fat in cabbage, or ‘pot of lard’, although in fairness they look no worse than the dinners the White family eat on ‘Breaking Bad’.
Finally there was the fairytale part, which felt like the ending of Blake Edwards’ ‘The Great Race’, with Jack Lemmon being crowned in a Ruritanian principality. Or possibly it was a scene from Tintin’s ‘King Ottokar’s Sceptre’. The display of folk dance could have rounded out an incredibly boring afternoon after visits to the Budapest Museum of Marzipan and the Museum of Hungarian Telephones.
Luckily, at this point the sun began to set, revealing the city’s true glory. It’s a wonderful place, the people alternately distant and friendly, and the balance between tradition and modernity feels right, with much of the harmful past yet to be dealt with (a terrible number of older people are living rough on the streets) and crumbling buildings yet to be restored to their zenith of beauty. There was an energising friendliness among the younger people we met, who want to make something of themselves and their city.
The cost of the weekend was extremely low, or would have been if we hadn’t arrived back at Gatwick to find no trains, necessitating yet another nightmarish journey into London on filthy, overcrowded transport that ended up costing more than my flight.
For some shots of strange Hungarian shop windows, visit my Facebook page here.