Budapest: City of secrets

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Julianne, a history teacher, accepted an invitation to present at The Eleventh International Humanities Conference in Budapest. She discovered a vibrant, historically rich, beautifully clean and welcoming city that held her spellbound.

Once a year I taught about Hungary and WWI (mainly) to my students.  But had never once questioned the truth or validity of Hungary’s place in history. Now I have been proven wrong in all my preconceived notions and I feel humbled.

My first inkling of what might greet me was at the local bank in Devonport, Tasmania. Hungary? Yes, they use Euro, they said. They are part of the EU. Buy Euro for your travel card. Really? I did my homework to find they use their own currency, the Hungarian Forint, affectionately known as HUF; our reference to ‘HUF’ brought a twitched smile to many a Hungarian’s face. But they did not laugh at the foreigners, they were open and friendly (all except the girls working in the supermarkets who were less than sympathetic of the Aussies fumbling through a handful of coin at the checkout. I forgive them as we were indeed ignorant tourists, although it is hard not to be) The bank also was grateful when we told them Hungary used the HUF – we’ll have to remember that, they said. Indeed.

Parliament buildings at sunset
Parliament Buildings at Sunset

Now for the Wiki stats of Hungary, a medium-sized, upper middle income open economy; an economy that is growing in spite of the odds against it in the European market. They are a non-Eurozone EU member and home to one of the most beleaguered cities in history, the beautiful Budapest. They have a long history of every country around them wanting a piece of Hungary – and taking it. These include the Turks, the Germans, the Austrians and the Russians.

Over the centuries Hungary once stretched to the Black Sea in the East and to the Adriatic Sea in the south west. Finally, after the end of WWI, they were reduced to their current size; after WWII they became Socialist (gross oversimplification I was to find out) and by 1992 the last Russian left, leaving the Hungarians to deal with how to become Hungarian. This is a task they have taken on with great fervour and pride and Hungary today is vibrant and economically sound after market liberalisation following the Russians departure for home.

But there are still secrets

The Hungarians speak of being ‘liberated by the Russians’ at the end of WWII (was this in preference to an allegiance to Germany?) and they do not speak of WWI – I asked. Even the tours do not speak of WWI. What is taught in their schools? I did not find out, but would love to. My education is incomplete and has gaping holes that I perpetuate in my own classroom.

Heroes Square
Heroes Square

The people were exceptionally beautiful – physically the men were mostly strong and tall, the girls tanned and slim (didn’t see a single overweight person while I was there); they wore clothes beautifully and mimicked our notions of the French; a sophisticated people, comfortable in their own skin, confident and gracious with a faint secretive air that was all the more alluring. They were more French than the French and later, when we arrived in Paris, the influx of people from sunnier climes reminded me more of Algiers than Paris.

Budapest was Paris and Paris was Algiers. But that was only the beginning of the surprises.

Travel was cheap. An underground ticket that got me everywhere I wanted to go was 170 Forint one way (about 80c AUD); an average lunch meal, street café style, was about 1500 – 2000 Forint (about $5 – 10 AUD!) and a good evening meal was anything from 5000 – 15000 Forint (about $25 – $70). This included a bottle of sparkling water (obligatory at every meal) and alcoholic drinks. Many restaurants had cocktail hour – a huge (and very alcoholic) cocktail was about 1200 – 1500 forint ($5 or so). I developed a taste for over-large Pina Colada. Food was delicious but I did notice that the bread was often dry, even when you bought it in a bakers.  Accommodation was modern (and air conditioned) thank heavens as the temperature was between 40 and 45 degrees for a few days then it settled to a temperate 27 degrees or so. Beautiful. One day it was 17 degrees and I froze in the wind blowing off the Danube.

Buda Castle
Buda Castle behind Elizabeth Bridge (named after the King’s wife, Elizabeth, affectionately known as ‘Sissi’)

Museums and galleries abounded, as did castles (Buda castle is a must see, still complete with ruins from WWII bombing, still re-building). Ruebens, Corot, Manet, van Gogh, the nineteenth century romantic painters and many more; an exhibition of Helmut Newton, the German-Australian photographer whose provocative often black and white fashion photography was a mainstay of Vogue for many years; and a surprising representation of work earning his ‘King of Kink’ reputation as well as that iconic image of the New York Playboy bunny.

Playboy bunny
Helmut Newton’s Playboy Bunny

I didn’t get to all the museums but I did get to the National Museum, Museum of Fine Art,  Heroes Square (Hősök tere), Gellert’s Hill, Buda castle, cruised the Danube and stood in awe as the sun set over the iron shoe (exact replicas) sculptural installation on the banks of the Danube, commemorating those Jewish people who were dragged from their homes at night in 1945, told to remove their shoes and were then shot by the Germans on the banks of the river, their bodies left to float away by the rushing waters. Some of the shoes were children’s and the hundreds of onlookers who stood with me watched the sun set over the Danube in absolute silence.

The Jewish museum, the garden a mass grave of those murdered in 1944 and 1945; the unbelievable beauty of the buildings and their internal decoration, some richly Baroque. The University of Fine Arts is one such building, not to mention the Opera, St Stephen’s Cathedral (exquisite), the Parliament building,( more lacy than Notre Dame), New York café (the ‘most beautiful café in the world’), the bookshops (in which I bought a book on architectural decoration, published 1880 and a map from WWI).

And the shopping – a visit to Budapest is not complete without a walking tour of Andrassy Utca (pronounced ‘ootsa’, the only Hungarian word I learned meaning street or avenue; apart from learning yes, please and thank you), their equivalent of Champs Elysees, only more beautiful. We strolled by the Danube and ate in sidewalk restaurants watching the sun set over the Danube; listened to street performers (one particular virtuoso on a steel guitar); marvelled at Buda Castle lights reflecting in the Danube, the Chain Bridge,(bombed during the war) and its guardian stone lions crouched by the river.

The city celebrated the Summer Solstice with free transport and entry to any museum and art gallery (for the price of one) until 2 AM. in the morning. We rode the subway, ate in a street café with views of Heroes Square, visited the University of Fine Arts, absorbed the arts of the Renaissance, the Impressionists and more and danced in Heroes Square alongside Hungarians celebrating the balmy summer. It seemed the whole city was out on the streets celebrating.

There is a frankly bohemian feel in some quarters of Budapest, mainly on the Pest side, with little cafes in quiet streets, lovers strolling hand in hand, leafy parks and avant garde art galleries and designers in back street boutiques where I discovered ‘assassin bunny’ and ‘pleasure is pretty’ (below).

I was a guest in Budapest for two weeks and could not see it all. I barely scratched the surface. I breathed history I never imagined, had to re-think my pedagogy as a teacher and, in fact, the knowledge that endows me with the privilege of standing in front of a classroom – what was I thinking? Indeed, the idea that the victors write the history books was driven home.

Budapest calls and I hope to return. She has her secrets and it is a powerful mystery for an Aussie history teacher. Oh, and yes, I also attended a conference…

1000HUF = roughly $5 AUD
Meals 1500 – 3000 good value in anyone’s language
Drinks 2 courses about 7000 – 10,000huf – 30-50AUD
One way ticket in the underground 170huf – about 80c

Author: Julianne

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