Monday, March 28, 2011

Buda and Pest

Budapest is quite a unique city. On one of my first days here, I went with Andrea to one of her classes. Her student, in between telling me about the love of her life who has de-friended her on facebook, said that she couldn't imagine why anyone would want to come to Budapest. In her teenage mind, there is nothing interesting about Budapest or Hungary in general.

Budapest is not a vital cultural or financial hub like some other cities, and it doesn't have famous sites like the Eiffel Tower or the London Eye, but it still has a wealth of interesting things to do and see. Budapest is actually made up of two (possibly three? I am unclear on that) cities that have melded together over the years. The rolling hills of Buda are on the West side of the Danube and are more upper-class (read: expensive) and residential while Pest, on the East Bank, is more industrial and, today, busy.

Hungary, like most of Europe, was in the thick of the World Wars and it left an indelible mark on the country. Archduke Franz Ferdinand may have been an Archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but he was a royal prince of Hungary. So, obviously they were involved in that. World War I ended in the dismantling of said empire into different countries, with Hungary loosing lands it believed to be ancestrally Hungarian.

Hungary then entered World War II on the side of Nazi Germany because they were promised the lands that had been taken from them in the 1920s (parts of modern day Romainia, Croatia, Austria, and Czechoslovakia) would be returned when Germany ruled the world. Since the loss of these lands had induced a kind of national neurosis, the Hungarians were all to quick to aid the Germans. But the Hungarians didn't entirely approve of everything the Germans did and at some point opened up secret negotiations with the Western powers.

The Germans found out and invaded Hungary in 1944. It was at this time that the persecution of the Jewish population in Hungary (which apparently was pretty sizable) started in earnest. There is a very powerful memorial along the Danube, where a large amount of empty shoes are fixed to the pavement right on the edge of the river. This is where, during the Nazi occupation, many Jews were made to stand so they could be shot and pushed into the river.

Later that same year, the Russians crossed the border into Hungary. The general in charge of the Hungarian army signed an armistice which was completely ignored by the Hungarian army. The Soviets invaded and expelled the Nazis anyway.

This led to several long years of communism that has changed the landscape of Budapest forever. The Budapest near the Danube has very picturesque buildings reminiscent of (though toned down from) Vienna (you know, Austro-Hungarian Empire). But in the distance you can see the rise of the block housing the Soviet Union was so well known for. And some of the buildings towards the center - the ones that were destroyed during World War II have been replaced with very plain, almost obsessively unadorned buildings.

In the subway, instead of machines to check passes, they have burly men standing in your way reading each pass as it goes by. This is a kick back from the days of communism where everyone needed a job. The attitudes of some shop keepers also hail form that era, where you didn't necessarily have to be good at your job (or nice to customers) to keep it.

Modern Budapest presents a multi-faceted landscape. Rent in the city is very cheap and this has resulted in the popularity of what is referred to as 'ruined bars'. These are empty buildings - often run down and decrepit - that are never the less decorated in weird and wacky ways, filled with couches and chairs and alcohol, and opened as bars. The effect is that the city is filled with these off-the-wall, half condemned, drinking spots that are wholly unique. In these cases, no one can deface any part of the bar, because when they do, it just adds to the atmosphere. Andrea, David, and I went to two different ones the other night (makes us sound like party animals doesn't it? In reality we were just stopping in) and the places were massive. Two floors at least and something to see around every corner.

We drank Palinka which is a traditional Hungarian brandy that is very strong. Since I have entered Europe, drinking and I have become much better friends and yet I have not once been drunk. I always hated the American 'go-out-to-get-drunk' attitude that seemed so prevalent in people my age and older. Here being drunk is a byproduct, not the main intention.

Many buildings in Budapest also have courtyards in the middle which I think gives them a sense of community (though I don't know if this is taken advantage by the residents). Smoking indoors is very popular here but the city is about to impose a smoking ban in June. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Underneath Buda are a labyrinth of caves that actually have been named a UNESCO world heritage site. They were used during the World Wars as hospitals and hideouts and are some of the most extensive in the world.

All in all, the city is an interesting place to be. It doesn't have the extravagance of Vienna or the tourist appeal (read: Disney World-like atmosphere) of Prague, but it feels lived-in and it's still beautiful with an interesting and often tragic history.

No comments:

Post a Comment