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Tram No. 2 in twilight, traveling along the Pesti side of the Danube. An effortless way to get an eyeful of the city’s major sights. Just hop on at one of the ends — near Margaret Bridge (in Jászai Mari Tér) or near Rákóczi Bridge (at Vágohíd Utca). Do buy a ticket, since inspectors apparently bring their personal bouncers around the trams now.

Hősök Tere, or Heroes’ Square, is a huge expanse aaaaaaaaall the way at the end of Andrássy Ut, just short of the beautiful City Park. Home to the three portions of Millennium Monument: an obelisk supporting a menacing Archangel Gabriel with the Seven Chieftains at his feet and two arched colonnades of various state figures. Very grand, very symbolic, clearly meant to impress.

I’m not a fan of either very big squares or very tall monuments. (Maybe a side effect of my thesis, as it’s both about big squares and tall monuments?) Whether or not it’s because I smell squashed revolution, something about physically concrete, monumental shows of the national ego irk me, no matter what the nation. But because I was lucky enough to be in Heroes’ Square during an incredible time of day — just as rain clouds were clearing away and letting sunlight through — I have beautiful photographs to share. And my personal preferences aside, this place is undeniably beautiful and well worth a walk to the end of Andrássy.


The square has been host to a few great events and oddities over the years, including the mass gathering before Imre Nagy’s reburial, a symbolic dismissal of Habsburg rulers from one of the colonnades, an ego trip of Michael Jackson’s, and a few Soviet hissy fits.

If you decide to visit, stay a bit longer for a few neighboring sites: the Museum of Fine Arts (pretty good), the Palace of Art (hit or miss — they had absolutely nothing on display when I visited), City Park (refreshingly green escape from Pest), Vajdahunyad Castle (surprisingly pretty result of architectural incest), and the statue of Anonymous (if you require luck in writing).

I’m nostalgic for my first few minutes in District VI, walking into my apartment building and seeing the spiral staircase and the central yard lined with tilting balconies and the open blue sky in the middle. All producing the first picture I took in Hungary, snapped on my phone while dragging two suitcases to the top floor.

The central courtyard, so charming and confusing when I first saw it, is pretty typical of Budapest. Before the advent of the hideous concrete boxes of the communist era, most residential buildings were constructed in this style. (Anyone know its official name?) Imagine it as a square or rectangular hole in the middle of the building, so that from an aerial view, the building looks like a thick picture frame with the courtyard floor the picture. The neat thing is that while many buildings now have restored and renovated exteriors as recovery from age, deterioration, and war scars from the middle of the 20th century, many courtyards remain as they originally were.

The one in my building is quite empty today. Just a dusty, green patch of ground. I’ve seen a few with fountains and statues, one with a garden, some with tables and chairs, and others that have been privatized for business or commercial use. Historically, however, these spaces had pretty exciting uses. Sure, there was always the business of laundry and dusting carpets. But some courtyards have been centers of political mobilization and open dialogue in times of trouble — like the Gozsdu courtyard, host to dissenters and rebels in the 1950s.

An excellent New York Times article from 1990, written by Alexandra Shelley, is full of great facts and musings about courtyards where “a traveler can find forgotten treasures of art and architecture, and footprints of the wars and revolutions that have marched across Hungary for the last millennium.” A conjunction of the past and present, these are also places with “sculptures ranging from neo-classical Greek gods to a socialist-realist bear on a scooter; an old dungeon; silversmiths’ workshops and stables; lush gardens, and the basic component of Hungarian urban landscape architecture: car tires planted with flowers.” What also makes them special today, Shelley says, is their unassuming, tucked-away existence.

The politicization of the everyday that has cyclically engulfed Budapest over the last two centuries did not miss these structures. Speaking of the socio-economic matrix within which the courtyards were originally designed in the 19th century, Shelley says —

“An interior yard allowed the coexistence within one building of both lower and upper classes – ‘Park Avenue and the South Bronx in the same building,’ as one Hungarian professor of urban anthropology, Istvan Teplan, put it. Facing the street were exclusive apartments. But fronting on the interior were small flats whose residents shared one bathroom in the corridor and drew their water from the courtyard well. In the country’s stormy history courtyards have also served as centers of rebellion. After the invention of the vacuum cleaner and the Communist system, grievances (if not rugs) continued to be aired. In fact, Professor Teplan speculates that this architectural device was abandoned during the Communist era precisely to discourage the subversive commerce of ideas.” And perhaps to bolster the hypocritical insistence on equality that was so painfully expressed in the kommunalka, since this autocratic regime rarely left a decision without the hammer of petty ideology.

The fist poem, “Budapest.” Enjoyed in a green sweater.

Let Scrooge Read!

Nirmit Shah sent across this unassuming video the other day, about Billy Collins (two-term U.S. Poet Laureate as he reminds us) reciting five of his poems set to animation.

The video really caught my attention at poem four (The Country) about a small white mouse and a matchstick – its completely unexpected twist in the plot had me glued to the poem, with twinkling eyes and an affectionate smile.

Billy also recites a poem at the end of the talk, addressed to a 17-year old teenager. This poem has no animation – but it doesn’t need it. Not in slightest. Listen on, as faces of all your siblings/ neighbourhood kids / school juniors burst hilariously into your head.

PS – Watch the video in HD. The animations and stage look crystal clear, and you can count every wrinkle on poor Billy’s face.

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I have a week left in Budapest. A week! So everything that I’ve wanted to post and show and babble about will follow in a hurried avalanche of scribbles and photos over the next few days.

First, the Great Market Hall. Located on the 47 and 49 tram stops, just east of Szabadság Bridge. My favorite source of vegetables, paprika,  and kitschy souvenirs to take home.

The Market Hall in the February cold.

Also home to this giant jar of Nutella:

Heart attack.

With the weather warming up and fruit other than apples and oranges (which I never want to see again) popping up at all of the veders’ stalls, the Market is the best place to haul a week’s worth of groceries. Just as I’m about to leave, sadly.

With a history reflecting the evolution of the city itself, the physical building is pretty interesting. Like most of modern Budapest, it was built in the last chunk of the 19th century. Neo-Gothic facades, rounded windows, tilework on the roof, a ceiling with metal scaffolding — reminiscent of Nyugati Station in brighter colors. The lanes and entrances are notably wide — an oddly wasteful (though very comfortable) feature now that was designed to accommodate horses and cargo wagons back in the day. The building as we see it now is actually a restoration. Following heavy damage in World War II, a messy reconstruction, and neglect during the communist years, the hall was deemed a hazard and closed in the early 90s. Unlike the former Exchange Palace and the Institute of Ballet, which remain eerily abandoned today, the Great Market Hall was renovated and restored to its pink-and-yellow splendor. A structure both beautiful and harmonious, as allegedly wished by architect Samu Pecz.

If you’re on a shopping trip there, cross Pipa Utca to the left of the market to check out the Azsia Bt. Not only did we find the princess pasta there last month, but they also stock the rarity of all rarities in Hungary — Skippy peanut butter. There is also an impressive variety of gourmet foods from all over the world, including a shelf of tiny panettone loaves and a whole aisle of spices that knocks you down into an aromatic coma.