I’d like to think that the creator was aware of the double meaning of this sign. Spotted inside Szent István-bazilika last spring, when I went back to Budapest for a short visit. We can all sympathize… as we plan our own tourist outings.
Budapest has a lot of suspended sites — empty buildings and enclosures that now fulfill no practical function, no useful purpose. Commonly cited to tourists are the old Hungarian State Television building and the Ballet House, both grand and beautiful in a haunted way. Both have stood empty for more than a decade but will soon transform — the former into a cultural center and the latter into a luxury hotel.
These transformations aren’t unusual. Hungary has faced dramatic recent change and is on a path that we can only (with great hope) describe as transitional still. Spaces and places, making up the material faces of cities and states and nations, are one of the usual ways in which a profound change of organization, institution, and everyday materializes.
To the usual list of sites wasted, neglected or frozen in Budapest-time, I’d like to add another: the Parliament building, the House of the Nation. With gold-washed ceilings and kilometers of decadent stairwells and hallways, domed and glistening on the Pesti bank of the Danube, this grand palace has retained a superficial pretension to being a house of the nation. It houses only one house of legislature, a bitterly weak institution that elects both the president and the prime minister in a system guaranteeing executive-legislative agreement. Embedded in the storm of constitutional change that has removed nearly every other source of restriction and balance in Hungary, this system makes the House of the Nation into a House of the Party. And, currently, Orban’s den.
The Parliament building is comparable to suspended sites that have come about through deliberation or neglect. It surpasses them, actually. Its function is not suspended per se. Rather, it is perverted, crippled, and wasted. Whittled down into an effigy of both what it used to be and what it could be.
If you can catch Fisherman’s Bastion in the off-season without tourist groups, you’ll find yourself in one of the most romantic spots in Budapest. At night under the glistening Buda lights or in broad daylight under warm sunshine, this place is just breathtaking. I’ve also enjoyed it at sunrise, as a serene way to finish a hike from Pest.
This popular viewing terrace and Buda landmark took its name from the guild that, during medieval and early modern battles, was responsible for the stretch of land on which it now stands. The Bastion was completed in 1905, destroyed along with much of Budapest during World War II, and restored shortly after. It actually stands on a stretch of the original Buda Castle walls. At the turn of the century, with castles and defensive walls no longer strategically relevant, this space transformed in both shape and function. Architect Frigyes Schulek used the remnants of the wall as a foundation for a viewing terrace — a public space, one devoted to shared leisure and pleasure rather than exclusion and militancy.
The skies were overcast and drizzly when I visited this spring, so looking across the Danube came with a wholly different feeling. You know what wasn’t different? The whoosh of breath when you realize (again) how majestic this place really is.
Especially for today but also for the everyday. Not just for Hungary but for everywhere.
“No questions of national identity in the present can ever avoid encountering the painful secrets of the past. In this sense, as long as these questions are alive…there can be no forgetting.”
Nagymező utca is full of great things: the ruin pub Instant, the restaurant Két Szerecsen, a major photography gallery, many many theatres, many many theatre cafes, the sketchy B-City Pub and its friends, a classy tattoo shop, an awesome grocer with a season-defying supply of clementines and apples, and a relic of the past in the form of DVD/CD store where English-speakers are automatically welcomed with gangster rap and Selena albums reign supreme. On top of that, it crosses three other pretty amazing streets in Pest — Bajcsy, Andrassy, and Kiraly. On top of THAT, it’s home to fun statues like this one.
All that to say that you should take a stroll down its very narrow sidewalks. Just take care to avoid beer bottles and dog poop.
This is what Budapest was like.
I know the whole world is talking about the weather going crazy, and Ithaca has conditioned me to shrug when all four seasons chase each other through one day, but it really sucks when you pack for spring and then get rained, snowed, and hailed on all the way across Central Europe.
On the plus side, I found that the Ludwig Museum remains wonderful. Pay a visit! Their current exhibitions, found here, feature naked men and universal subsistence allocation.