Budapest, Hungary. The quintessential Eastern European city in that it’s so quixotic, so different from the rest of Eastern Europe yet it echoes with so many historical and cultural similarities to elsewhere in Europe. I’d like to put my finger on this place’s pulse, but there is a lot going on.
With wide streets resembling Paris, a rich cultured history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and many UNECSO buildings, it is probably 70% Western. That means still 30% Eastern: Ottoman, Mongolian, Turkic and Soviet. An enthralling place.
Hungary was my big 50th country visited (see post anticipating this and pondering what is a country here). But somewhat more notably it is my seventh, and thus final, Warsaw Pact country, completing the list with the USSR, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. I’ve now visited the remnants of each country of the old Eastern Bloc (Soviet version of NATO, but where big brother invades, not protects you).
Having traveled so extensively in the old Warsaw Pact zone, I thought I had a pretty decent handle on understanding what Hungary would be like, an ex-Soviet Vassal State that now leans West. And while I think I had the anti-Russian, pro-European politics pinned down before arrival, the very unique Hungarian culture was something new, fresh and surprising.
Budapest’s very regal Opera House
Budapest is a city out of a dream. I’ll take it over Prague any day, if only because it’s less perfect, more alternative, more broken, farther from the West. Its huge, ancient dilapidated churches and classical buildings are probably unmatched in Eastern Europe. But you have to like the slightly gloomy, imperfect atmosphere. Peeling paint and broken windows make it more romantic and picturesque.
The continent’s oldest metro, still operational, is evidence of the past’s opulence and sophistication. And the fact that most of the trams and trains still seem to be Stalin era vintage or older, it’s clear that Hungary has not yet fully re-arrived into the world of prosperity.
The Hungarians have a Central Asian/ steppe/ horseman background and language, not a Slavic one. Still, we saw Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker at the opera house, so ties to Mother Russia are at least extant. But this Magyar ethnicity and Ottoman history (as well as being the only non-Slavic part of Europe that Ghengis Khan’s warriors conquered) mixed with the alternative East European artsy culture and Western commerce to create a charming place. And oddly isolated, culturally, from its Slavic neighbors, who can relate on similar languages and other cultural facets.
Matthias church up on Buda’s Castle Hill, I’d probably put in my worldwide top 15 or so churches I’ve been in. It’s interesting because of its Eastern elements of design, as well as being a superb setting and gothic architecture (top 10 churches list here, search St Mary’s). In fact, the ramparts on the castle complex are also something out of a fantasy novel. I’m sure Gaudi designed something of its equal somewhere, but Budapest’s spires are still really something.
Budapest also has a humongous Synagogue and a still resilient Jewish community, unlike the rest of the decimated East European Jewry. Our guide there was very proud of Hungary as well as its Jewish heritage, noting 14 of Hungary’s 15 Nobel prizes were by Jews, and mourning the great years when “Slovakia was not a Country” but rather part of the Hungarian Empire along with Transylvania and other large swaths of Europe.
Perhaps the most standout feature of Budapest is its plethora of thermal pools. These classical bathing grounds, big outdoor (and indoor) hot pools felt like a superb mix of Soviet and Royal. Oh and Budapest has a Frank Zappa themed Café. Not quite a Zappa statue like Vilnius. But still a nod to the artistic alternative of this place.
An upshot of Hungary’s misfit background is that nobody knows Hungarian except Hungarians. The linguistic isolation is just an obvious manifestation of other unique attributes of the place. Being nonetheless very connected to Europe and the EU, as a small country Hungarians have to know English. Slavic countries can rest on the ease of mutually intelligible neighboring languages, but Hungarian’s closest neighbor is Finnish.
Consequently I doubt I’ve ever been to a country where knowing the local language was less necessary–English was widely known. Not once did I need to use even a word of Hungarian in two plus days in Budapest. Which is a little sad, I guess, but it was fun to hear it spoken all around me, what a foreign sounding language! I bet if I traveled further afield to the countryside, as is necessary for the full experience in neighboring Romania, I’d get a deeper cultural perspective. I’ll save that for a drier, warmer trip.
Communism was a very bad thing for Hungary, tearing apart the fabric of its national identity, culture and religion. And while the schizophrenic and art-nouveu “Terror Museum,” housed in the old secret police headquarters, condemns communism in no uncertain terms, some ill effects still linger. For instance, having “no change,” thus preventing commercial transactions or needing to follow specific unnecessary protocols, such as not refunding our towel deposit without a matching receipt.
For posterity, my top 5 recommended Eastern European cities (in order) are: Vilnius, Kiev, St Petersburg, Krakow and Budapest. I personally really like Bucharest too, but it’s a little too drab, big, and dark to be truly a mainstream recommendation. And I should put Kazan on the list, but it’s so far into Russia that the Asian feel exceeds the European influence. Oh and Berlin, East Berlin. Amazing history and culture but, like Prague, it’s probably too far westernized at this point to count for this list…