Monday, August 02, 2010

On My Travels: Budapest

I'm just back from five days in the Hungarian capital.  I can rarely visit a new city without wanting to reinterpret it in some fictional context, and Budapest was no exception.  It's a fascinating place, and what excited me most about was the sense of historical layering.  In the past couple of years I've visited New York, which seems to exist entirely in the present, and Bruges, which deliberately sets out to reflect nothing but its past.  Budapest, by contrast, seems at once to embody the countless waves of invaders and occupiers who have laid down the strata which make up the city.

I didn't expect the Turkish influence to be as strong as it was, but from the Cafe Kara near our hotel to the thermal baths dotted all over the city, the sense of the old Ottoman Empire was pervasive.  At the same time, though, a traditional European sensibility was in evidence:
Buda, overlooking the Hungarian Parliament
Budapest embraces and reinterprets its own history.  The impressive Vajdahunyad Castle, although looking antique, dates from the end of thre 19th century and incorporates Roman, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture.  It's a deliberate contribution to Hungary's millennium celebrations in 1896:

Vajdahunyad Castle
If in Bruges it's easy to imagine you are walking through streets in the 15th century, in Budapest one gets a feeling of the early 20th century, as the tram and buildings in this street illustrate:

A journey from the past

We stayed in Andrassy Avenue, a long wide boulevard reminiscent of Hausmann's 19th century Paris boulevards.  Wikipedia has a picture of the street in 1896, and it's scarcely different today:

Andrassy Street - 1896 or 2010?
But while the look of the street may hardly have changed (even today there is still a second inner road where horse and carriage once trotted), since 1896 Hungary has experienced Fascist and Communist regimes (both grimly comemorated at the Museum of Terror on Andrassy Avenue itself).   Andrassy Avenue itself was renamed Stalin Avenue in the early 1950s and then, on Stalin's death, Avenue of the People's Republic.  Only on the fall of Communism was Andrassy restored to his inheritance.

The layering of history in every aspect of the city makes a visit seem like a live archaeological dig, with elements of the past six hundred years present simultaneously.  It's the kind of feeling we might get when immersed in Jack Vance's Dying Earth: Therlatch perhaps, Old Romarth, or Ampridatvir:

I have known the Ampridatvir of old; I have seen the towers glowing with marvellous light, thrusting beams through the night to challenge the sun itself. Then Ampridatvir was beautiful—ah! My heart pains when I think of the olden city. Semir vines cascaded from a thousand hanging gardens, water ran blue as vaul-stone in the three canals. Metal cars rolled the streets, metal hulls swarmed the air as thick as bees around a hive—for marvel of marvels, we had devised wefts of spitting fire to spurn the weighty power of Earth... But even in my life I saw the leaching of spirit. A surfeit of honey cloys the tongue; a surfeit of wine addles the brain; so a surfeit of ease guts a man of strength. Light, warmth, food, water, were free to all men, and gained by a minimum of effort. So the people of Ampridatvir, released from toil, gave increasing attention to faddishness, perversity, and the occult.
For a writer of fantasy, Budapest gives almost too much to work with, and shows us that fantasy can draw inspiration from periods other than the Middle Ages.  And for the tourist--well, you just have to visit the thermal baths.


David Isaak said...

Those are hallucinatorily vivid postcards!

Tim Stretton said...

None of them my own work - I had to sift through a lot of dross on Flickr to find them!