What We Do in the Lockdown

It’s been a year now of this liminal state, when walking in the bright sunshine of the deserted city feels like the odyssey of a vampire sneaking in the dark, alone with ghosts and shadows. The dark itself doesn’t even seem to exist anymore; we’re locked out of it by the night curfew. We’re locked into the light of day and the empty city. So we explore and we find many things, often of small but not insignificant wonder.

There is an end of the world feeling as you approach the Járitz Villa. It lies at the very end of Baba street, where city meets wilderness, a geometry in white that has seen better days. On paper it is a rehabilitation unit for people with respiratory paralysis, and given its shabby appearance, you half expect to hear the creaking of an iron lung. Instead, the complete silence slowly takes on that slightly ominous weight it has been gaining over these lockdown weeks.

The villa, commissioned by István Járitz, a wealthy car part dealer and designed by József Fischer, one of the leading figures of Hungarian modernism, was however born under an ill fated star: completed in 1943, it took a direct hit a year and a half later, during the siege of Budapest, and had to be rebuilt. Another five years later, the villa was nationalised by the communist authorities, and the Járitz family never lived in it again. Alterations were made over the years: the ground floor, which had an open space facing the pool, was walled up, and a lift shaft was added to facilitate the transportation of patients. The mosaics visible on the walls of the unused pool were designed by the original owner’s sister, Józsa, a painter and graphic designer. (For a more detailed history, in Hungarian, and several historic pictures that give a better idea of how the original villa looked like, head here).

Returning to Törökvész avenue from the Járitz Villa, you might consider walking uphill. Or taking the bus uphill, which sounds like an exotic and vaguely dangerous idea, since we have shunned public transportation for a full year now. Bus 11 does however go all the way from Batthyány square first to Baba street and then to a roundabout at Nagybányai avenue, which harbours the unassuming Végállomás (Final Stop) Mini ABC, which mind-boggingly stocks a wide-ranging array of excellent Czech beers.

Our goal, the first time we made it here (more about that later), was an area known as Goat Hill (Kecske-hegy). Once a stone quarry, it is made up of formations called main dolomite, dating from the Triassic period and typical for the Alps and Carpathians. This very complicated description manifests itself in an easily walkable trail, a lookout with scenic views and Szekler woodwork (Árpád-kilátó), a recreational area with a basic football field and the abandoned quarry itself, which includes a rock that looks like a lion. This I know because I’ve read up on the matter, but failed to notice it when there. Bar a few steeper inclines, it’s the kind of comfortable trek which is perfect even for the untrained nature explorer, as long as you wear the right shoes. I didn’t.

Let’s just say I am better equipped for architectural adventures. And a big sucker for everything modernism, hopelessly enthralled by the idea of marrying the beautiful and the functional. Therefore, it’s probably a small crime that I had never visited Napraforgó street, the ‘model site’ built in the early 30s on the lush slopes of Pasarét. The idea behind the project is beautiful if somewhat utopian: building affordable housing for lower income families while also allowing them access to green recreational areas nearby. While the concept was the brainchild of a small group of progressive architects, they did also invite some more conservative, but well established colleagues to design houses on the row- today, you can see their names on small metal plates outside each building.

The name chosen for the street (Napraforgó, sunflower, but literally translated as ‘that which turns with the sun’) was symbolic: the goal of these new houses was to ensure that their inhabitants received the most possible daylight at each moment of the day. A revolution of radiance. It was during my first visit to Finland that I noticed how Northern people, forced by their circumstances, work towards increasing the amount of light you get inside your home. Traditional Central European architecture, however, tends to favour counterintuitively dark spaces. They’re not forced to shelter from the scorching heat, as you do around the Mediterranean. It’s more an instinct of hiding, from the sun, but also from the prying eyes of those who could judge and condemn you. A house that turns with the sun is therefore a revolution, literally and figuratively. It’s hope and trust. The dream was of course too idealistic to catch on, and most Budapesters are still confined to unfunctional cubes with warped windows. But Napraforgó street remains testament to the power of light and creative thinking.

Quite obviously, it didn’t take us long to locate a rock on which I could attempt to break my neck and destroy my feet, right after crossing Devil’s Ditch and heading up some stairs towards the hill known as Látó-hegy (Seer hill). The Apáthy cliff is another dolomitic formation, and a spectacular one at that, burnt orange stone jutting out from an otherwise peaceful landscape of gracious trees about to burst into the blooms of spring. A marked path meanders around the hill, alternatively revealing someone’s back garden, a miniature canyon or breathtaking vistas of the city.

Here I must mention that I usually name my picture folders on a quick whim, so I can easily identify them in the future. Or so I hope, but this time around I spent quite some time trying to figure out what Sunflower Apathy meant. The first gut reaction was an obscure indie band or an arthouse film I’ve been postponing forever. But sunflower is of course Napraforgó street, and Apáthy is the name of the family who owned the area surrounding the cliff, hence the current moniker. Wandering aimlessly about, you might just run into a WWII bunker, the ruins of a royal hunting lodge or the by now legendary Végállomás ABC. For, in a cheap twist worthy of Paulo Coelho’s timeless classic ‘The Alchemist’, once we exited the trail that took us around Látó-hegy we ended up at the exact spot where we’d started the trek to Kecske-hegy. As we’ve learned by now, the longest way round is the shortest way home.

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