(Post) Lockdown Budapest Rambles

This talk about locals reclaiming their cities now that the throngs of tourists are gone, well, it is real. Forced by circumstance, we took exultingly and frankly excruciatingly long walks. No public transportation and, in a first phase, no restaurant pit stops involved. Up and down the hills of Buda, into the long straights of Pest, the familiar and the unfamiliar changing places like the clouds moving rapidly across the sky. Old places remembered; new ones discovered.

The Red Hedgehog House, in the heart of the castle, where we would never go because of the crowds. Now the streets were deserted, drowsing in the Saturday afternoon sun, only us and a couple of shaggy dogs with their humans in tow by the house. It is regarded to be the oldest in town, its first structures dating back to around 1260, and definitely the first two-story building in Buda. By the end of the 17th Century, it was the home of the Red Hedgehog Inn, which besides serving food, hosted balls and plays too. Later only the little red hedgehog remained, initially serving as the inn’s nameplate, now placed on the front wall. The building miraculously escaped bombings in WWII and was damaged just enough to reveal its by then almost forgotten medieval past.

Two of Buda’s popular malls, Mammut and MOM, are built atop what used to be large factory quarters. I’d always wondered what MOM meant, never checked, until now: it stands for Magyar Optikai Művek. The company was founded in 1876 and through its history had a colourful product range, from glasses and cameras to punching tapes and floppy discs. Production was ceased by the 90s, and the site was torn down after 1997. Mammut and the Millenáris park occupy an area that used to belong to the Ganz factories- founded by Abraham Ganz in 1844, they became pioneers in the use of electricity under the leadership of engineer András Mechwart (hence the name of the nearby Mechwart liget). According to some accounts, Nikola Tesla may have worked here as well, though the only certainty is that he was employed by the Budapest Telephone Exchange, and while taking strolls in Városliget and reading Goethe in the original also came up with what is considered to be the first loudspeaker. The factory quarters are by now a distant memory, only Ganz street reminds us of the existence of the latter- a pleasant leafy street with an unexpected block of flats covered in striking blue tiles.

One of Ganz factory’s most noticeable additions to the Budapest landscape were the UV trams- I arrived to the city at the dusk of their era, the new, German-made number 3 had just replaced old UV routes, to which my first landlady nostalgically referred to as trams you could properly climb into. She was horrified by the steep folding stairs of the new models, working with a precision too ominous for her tastes. But the UV still ran on lines 41 and 47 at the time- the original, violently cannabis smelling 41 (it was the oil used for the breaks, they said), later replaced by a model only faintly smelling of cannabis and now by a shiny new model that does not smell of cannabis at all. If you wish to still catch a glimpse of retired UV trams, the Kelenföld kocsiszín (tram depot) is a great bet, although these days it only provides newer models for lines 19, 47 and 49.

I again remembered my first flat and landlady in Budapest when I glimpsed the sign of an old Bulgarian greengrocer’s: that flat was on Bolgárkertész street. Bulgarian gardeners came to the Austro-Hungarian empire at the end of the 19th Century, pioneering hotbed techniques and settling, among others, in the proximity of my hometown of Arad. In Budapest they rented land and lived in communes, sharing their income. Many returned to their homeland to serve in WWI, but a small minority stayed on, nevertheless losing much of the monopoly they had on gardening in the city.

Back at Csőrsz utca- we walked a lot in circles -we found a peaceful park with what must definitely be the communist version of Wonder Woman meets Captain America (Comrade Sovietskaya?), flying horizontally with her skirt ruffled by the wind. Nearby, the Gesztenyés-kert (Chestnut garden) has more socialist sculpture but also an eerie whiff of the Luxembourg gardens, though it is a much more recent creation, having been a graveyard until 1984. While socialist art, especially in its more brutalist manifestations, and given its historic context, might be regarded as suspicious by most people, I have a certain fondness of it. Perhaps an unconscious form of childhood Stockholm syndrome- I never experienced the harsh realities of the communist regime firsthand and lived through its death throes in the sheltered environment of my family, dreaming of becoming a pioneer because they had nice uniforms and cute pins.

But I do love the tubular monster that is the Hotel Budapest, its incongruous presence on the sweetly sloping hills, flooded by the late spring scents of prickly elderflower and heady jasmine. The annoyance it must have caused to all those whose views it killed with its lumbering 64 metre tall concrete body. The terrible truth that it was built on the location of a lovely terrace and a filigree kiosk- somebody wanted to name it after the kiosk, Florida- but the name was discarded for its associations of capitalist decadence. Fear of capitalist decadence doesn’t however explain the buoyant nightlife, the Icelandic caviar on the menu, the Coca Cola bar and the presence of Sir Roger Moore on the guest list. They called it the Colosseum and said it blended seamlessly into its surroundings, lavished architectural awards on it. It’s terrible, it’s wonderful, it’s a concrete expression of the contradictions implied by being human.

I also love socialist bas-reliefs suddenly popping up on boxy blocks of flats, delicate deer, strong legged women dancing, strong armed men collecting hay, archers, people on horseback. It’s not really a break in imagery if you think of the late, folk inspired manifestation of Hungarian secession, like the houses designed by architect István Medgyaszay on Kiss János Altábornagy street. It’s just that the earlier buildings were better built, an expression of a more prosperous reality instead of cheaply and hastily put together projections of a utopic golden future that never came.

Then there is Függetlenségi (Independence) Park near Bocskai út, another accidental visit. A rather terrifying obelisk with what turns out to be Nike on top. Back in the day, this was the Hanoi park, sported a statue of Ho Chi Minh, which was later politely returned to the embassy of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh had dozens of names and aliases, just like your average public space in Central and Eastern Europe, changing its name according to the current powers that be. Above Independence Park, the timeless peace of Ménesi út, all trees and villas cocooned in vegetation (the recently mentioned Medgyaszay built comfortable communal housing but preferred his own home to be of the more secluded sort), overlooking the university’s arboretum. Used to the concrete geometry of inner city Pest, I once got lost here and missed what seemed to have been a great house party- I figured the correct location too late and never went, possibly missing out on some definitive encounter that would have changed my life.

Still on the secret slopes of Buda, a vantage point at the last stop of bus 112, on Thomán István street, until now but a weird name on a bus I occasionally took from Blaha to Keleti, when in a rush, because it was always emptier than the 7. Even further above, the Jókai Garden. It is tiny, but belongs to the Duna-Ipoly National Park, and is as such only open on working days 10 to 6, when it can be visited for free. We obviously first went there on a Sunday. It swarms with birds, insects (hornets a bit too large for my comfort) and we even locked curious eyes with an inquisitive squirrel. Jókai was living life golden here, writing, painting, making wine. Rows of vines thus line one of the slopes, the aim is to recreate the by now lost red wine of Buda, of which Kadarka, brought along by the Serbs seeking refuge from the Ottomans, was one of the types. The Kadarka grapes on this particular slopes are brought from Miniș/Ménes, Arad county.

On the way down, along Diós árok (Walnut ditch) I pick elderflower for my first ever cordial and inspect the underwhelming creek playing hide and seek with us as it occasionally disappears into the belly of the hill. Speaking of underwhelming creeks, a few days later we walk along the Rákospatak. It’s the usual urban flow of water, brown and bursting with faintly foul smelling bubbles, but its lined with fragrant lilies and an electric blue running track. Locals walk dogs, feed the ducks and talk to each other from a polite distance. The bit of the park closest to the tiny Vasas stadium is named after László Kubala, who, in any statistic you check, is still consistently among Barcelona’s top five scorers of all time. His goals per match ratio is a mind blowing 0.81, second only to a certain Lionel Messi.

And last but not least, some fleeting beauty, street art that might be there today, but gone tomorrow. On Varsányi Irén street, Maxipotzak the bat, sitting ominously in a bowl of oriental soup, courtesy of 0036mark, paraphrasing a line from The Streets’ “Where The F*&K Did April Go”: whoever said a single person can’t change the world never ate an undercooked bat. At the foot of Árpád bridge, close to his old haunts, the walls honour the works of Gyula Krúdy- it was painted as part of the Színes Város initiative by Attila Balogh in July 2019. And we’re back to Mechwart Liget, where we bumped into a version of the Cicavízió test card. Considered to be the world’s only test card aimed especially at children, it was designed by Ágnes Bálint and Edit Fekete. Not that I knew any of that back in the day, all I knew is that when she was very angry with our cats running amok in her kitchen, my grandmother would throw them out telling them that they would not be making any cicavízió in there. And thus this aimless Budapest meandering became a walk not only in the present, but the past too, and not only the city’s, but mine as well.

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