Facebook Twitter

BUDAPEST: HUNGARY’S CAPTIVATING CAPITAL ON THE SHORES OF THE BLUE DANUBE

SHARE BUDAPEST: HUNGARY’S CAPTIVATING CAPITAL ON THE SHORES OF THE BLUE DANUBE

The sun shines over Budapest with a golden, ripe warmth on a summer afternoon, and the view from the Buda side, looking across at the lacy-towered Parliament buildings from Fishermen's Bastion, is guaranteed to take your breath away.

e prospect is almost as stunning when you're walking along the Danube embankment on the Pest side, viewing the great stone expanse of the Buda Castle, sprawled over half a hillside. Or for sheer enchantment, survey the city from any vantage point after dark, when thousands of lights outline the bridges and buildings along the shore.

deed, at the top of every hill is a breathtaking view, and almost every vantage point is crowned by a hero, or memorial to some act of courage or triumph in warfare. Among the most impressive of these is the giant statue of Bishop St. Gellert, which faces you, glowing white by day or by night, as you cross the river.

dapest loves and reveres its heroes - as much the poets and statesmen as the warriors. Small squares, boulevards and circles abound, where you'll find a thousand statues - Liszt, Kodaly and Bartok right alongside Rakoczi, St. Stephen, and St. Matthias.

And the ideal of the statesman-poet is most revered of all.

Hero worship culminates in Hero Square, where a giant pillar looms, topped by a winged victory and defended at the base by the seven leaders who have occupied Hungary _ colossal equestrian warriors ranging from Oriental to Ostrogothic. In niches of the surrounding circular arcade stand the heroes of Hungary.

Also on the square you find the Palace of Exhibitions, a Grecian-style museum crammed with ancient and medieval religious art, a few masterworks, and many giant, overblown scenes of battle and mythology. Behind the square stretches the city park with footpaths, open-air restaurants, castle replicas, the zoo and circus, and the famous Szechenyi Medicinal Baths. (Such baths are popular throughout the city and the country.)

The impress of Eastern and Western cultures mixes in mellow compatibility in this city on the plains, swept by the tides of war for 1,500 years _ pulled eastward by nomadic conquests, the Mongols, Ghengis Khan, the Turkish Ottoman Empire, and tugged westward by the Romans, the forces of Christianity and the Hapsburg Empire.

Hence the Magyar (Hungarian) civilization has one foot in the culture of Europe, the other in a tantalizing mix of Oriental, Tartar, Byzantine and Turkish influences. The effect has long been irresistibly glamourous and seductive to Western visitors, and remains so today.

This despite some obvious fraying around the edges, due to rigors of Russian occupation since World War II. But one senses a will to go forward, stimulated by loosening restraints.

The wide river that both divides and unites the two sections of the city, so congenial for boating, strolling, fishing and a dozen other summer pastimes, provides both a wide thoroughfare between the halves of the city and a place of refreshment and restoration. Small wonder that rivers of Slavonia such as this have inspired so much poetry, music and art.

Along the Danube's banks the old-world illusion is fostered, with elegant hotels that pointedly do not violate the city's style, outdoor cafes and stately buildings. But a couple of streets over you join the 20th century with a vengeance, on Vaci Utca, a tourist hangout re-echoing to every language under the sun.

At one end of the street, artists border Vorosmarty Square, and laughing children press their fingers over fish or animal spouts on fountains, to make them spray. There, too, is the famous Gerbeaud Confectionary, with its mouth-watering treats, outdoor tables and leisurely service.

For those more rushed, food and ice cream vendors line the streets, along with a welter of folk art shops crammed with Hungary's elaborate embroidered goods, distinctive pottery and basket ware.

For a change of pace, you may want to stroll the most elegant Rakoczi Street, lined with boutiques and fine apartment houses. And every side street beacons the adventurer to poke about in shops and squares, and peek through gateways into secluded courtyards.

Churches reflect the religious currents that have affected Hungary, and historic examples of Romanesque ruins, Greek Orthodox, Byzantine, Jewish and Catholic churches are found throughout the city.

In the neighborhood of the Buda Castle with its elaborate, Romanesque architecture, people flow in and out of Matthias Church, a golden and red-hued interior of Byzantine inferences, where concerts are as regular a feature as church services. Before the church stands an ornate monument erected to celebrate deliverance from the Black Death of 1347 (though in truth the plague continued to visit Europe regularly for hundreds of years thereafter).

The area around Matthias Church is ambient _ an old, expensive district of apartments, art galleries, shops and outdoor markets; and just behind Fishermen's Bastion, the Hilton Hotel, which has incorporated Roman ruins into its walls, outdoor spaces and general decor. The Roman influence is to be found all over town, with restorations of all sizes in evidence.

Arpad Bridge and Margit Bridge anchor the ends of Margit Island. There in the relaxed, "real" Budapest, dozens of family groups, couples old and young, and children pedal the rakish pedicars through grassy meadows and little stands of trees, and past romantic fountains. There, too, fiacres carry happy groups, and a double decker wagon pulled by big dray horses passes by, filled with merry riders. The whole island park is infinitely Slavic and utterly charming.

While railroad stations are usually places of crescendoing tension for travelers, you might draw to one side to survey the beautifully proportioned Western Railway Station at downtown Nyugati. There traditional domed and towered brick wings at either end abut onto a glass and metal covering for the train tracks _ the first hall in the world entirely constructed of iron framework, designed by G. Eiffel and built in 1874.

Music is an integral part of Budapest, where every restaurant and hotel of any significance have their gypsy orchestra. Near the waterfront stands the Vigado, a palatial stone center of concert life, where in three buildings since 1832 the great names of music have appeared since Johann Strauss the elder and his orchestra inaugurated the hall. A few blocks away the State Opera and the State Ballet stare at each other across the street _ imposing stone-pillared buildings guarded by high friezes of musical heroes and muses, and formidable doormen. Don't expect to get in for an informal look, though tours are held periodically.

While the opera season runs from Sept. 15 to June 15, the best time for musically inclined visitors is autumn, when Hungarian musical weeks traditionally begin on Sept. 25 (the date of Bela Bartok's death) and continue to the end of October. Or try spring festival, next year scheduled for March 16-25, which involves not only the city but the whole country in a wealth of concerts. Nonetheless, summer visitors are beguiled by a wide array of summer theater in the parks _ opera, ballet and folk dance, operetta and other light music, and cinema.

One must be impressed by the devotion of these people to their own city, and their own arts and music. Gabor Koltay, who supervises the summer theaters of Budapest, is a fine independent film maker whose works include an open-air production of "Stephan the King" in 1983, and in 1985, "You Shall Live and Die Here," a film incorporating 1,000 years of Hungarian history, on the 40th anniversary of Hungary's liberation from Nazi oppression, performed in Hero Square.

Music, poetry and dance come naturally to the Hungarian people, said Koltay. "Only a very sensitive people could have such music. They express all their feelings in their art."

A few notes from the casual observer department:

Hungarian young people, responding to the impersonality of the place and perhaps living quarters with little privacy, kiss in the halls and on the benches of subway stations _ not just pecks but long-winded smooches.

The people are friendly and mild-mannered, young people exuberant but gentle.

Bras may not have been burned, but they are a rarity on Hungarian young women, who seldom wear slips, either.

Most graffiti on walls, stairwells and statues, bridges and embankments is in English! Sabotage in preparation for Pres. Bush's then-upcoming visit?

The Adidas outlet on Vaci Utca is continually thronged with eager buyers.

Hungarians favor dogs similar to ours _ Yorkshire terriers, cocker spaniels, collies and German shepherds _ and there are next to no cats in evidence.

Streets are cleaned constantly by orange-vested workers, and trucks spray water every night.

Budapest struggles against grime. At the giant Basilica of St. Stephan (first king of Hungary), a few isolated steam cleaners make what inroads they can _ a scene frequently repeated elsewhere around town.

Building is going on everywhere, repairing and upgrading, and despite the slowness of workmen with their outdated methods and tools, the city is obviously making a strong bid to catch up with the latter quarter of the 20th century.

For tourist information, contact Tourinform, 1052 Budapest, Suto u. 2., tel. 179-800.

Dorothy Stowe visited Hungary earlier this summer with Zivio, a Utah folk-dance group.