Budapest: Introduction

  • © lauri,

    © lauri,


What a panorama! The view from the Fisherman’s Bastion over the Danube, its bridges and the Hungarian capital is stunning. The setting alone is unique: The Buda district is situated on the elevations of the Buda Hills; opposite it, on the other side of the Danube, is the flat Pest. Both riverbanks are lined by beautiful architecture: on the Pest side is the Hungarian Parliament Building and many magnificent townhouses, on the Buda side is the formidable Buda Castle and Gellért Hill with its Citadel. Ten bridges span the Danube and they contribute much to the capital’s charm. 

Even a good 20 years after the fall of Communism in Hungary, Budapest is still a city in the midst of change. It is striving for authenticity, modernity and a higher quality of life. The city looks more  glamorous every year. One example of this urban development is the ‘New City Centre’ project, which includes an enormous, post-modern glass structure complete with zeppelin-shaped roof in Bécsi utca, near Vörösmarty tér. Four old buildings have had to be demolished to make way for this futuristic complex; from 2013 visitors will be able to admire views of the Danube from its park-like roof terrace.

Budapest is the head, heart and soul of the country

The capital is home to 1.7 million people. This figure alone speaks volumes about its significance. Debrecen, Hungary’s second-largest city, has a population of only 207,000. Some 17 percent of all of Hungary’s citizens live in Budapest. Budapest is the symbol of Hungarian national pride; it is the head, heart and soul of the country, and this is what makes living here so special.

Take Ilona as an example: the 33-year-old banker has managed the leap from rural Hungary to the capital. She has a net monthly income of 200,000 forints (about 600 pounds / 900 US-dollars), which is above average. She also owns her own home. Home-ownership is everything to the people of Budapest, and Hungary in general. Ilona’s flat is tiny, yet her mortgage and associated expenses take up more than half of her earnings. From what she has left there is no way she can afford to own and run a car. She takes the bus and train to work.

That is another thing Ilona has in common with most other people in Budapest. Public transport is the most important means of transport and during rush hour the trains and buses are packed. Budapest has the highest wages in the country, yet it is almost impossible for most people to get rich from working. The cost of living is as high as in Western countries; as a result wages only allow for a modest existence. Everyday life is tough for most people in Budapest. Nevertheless they are their city’s biggest fans. That is because Budapest is where the action is: the markets have goods that can only be found in Budapest, international music stars only perform in the capital and it is only here that cinema blockbusters are released and major sporting events and festivals are held. 

During the summer the city is a complete open-air Mecca

During the summer months Budapest is a veritable openair Mecca. The banks of the Danube and Margaret Island, the City Park, other parks and the Buda Hills are all places the people of Budapest like to flock to every free minute they get. That is also true of families: Lájos, Lydia and their two children live in one of the prefab high-rise apartment blocks on the Buda side of the city. They have a tight budget, but there’s no penny-pinching when it comes to quality time with their children. The zoo, the circus, the children’s railway, rollerblading on Margaret Island, trips to the shopping centre and the Buda Hills are all things this family enjoys, making Budapest a colourful place for them to live. 

Going out for meals is also as vital to the people of Budapest as the air they breathe, despite not having much money. The many inexpensive restaurants are the preferred destinations. Although there is much room for improvement when it comes to service and cleanliness, they are popular meeting places. You can spend hours having a good time and enjoying Hungarian fare here. Young people enjoy McDonald’s and Burger King, but most young people in Budapest are far more involved in family life than their counterparts in Western countries. Eating together as a family is something of a ritual. 

Mártha is a representative of the older generation: she was born in Budapest and has remained loyal to the city her whole life. For the 83-year-old a cup of coffee in the Astoria Hotel is absolute luxury. Meeting up with her friends there is a must, she says, even though her monthly pension of 80,000 forints is not really enough to justify it. Among her other pleasures are visits to the thermal baths. Pensioners can use the city’s public transport for free, which makes her mobile. The therapeutic treatments are paid for by her health insurance. Budapest’s thermal baths are more than just spas for the older people; they are places to enjoy and to meet people.

The people of Budapest are well practised in making the best of things. And there is one thing in particular that they all have in common: they are proud to be from capital, blessed with the unshakable self-confidence that comes from knowing that they set the pace and the tone. They may spend the week in the city, but during the summer months at least, the exodus begins on Fridays. The most popular destinations are the nearby Lake Velence, Lake Balaton and the Danube Bend. Among the people who like to escape the city will be those who managed to acquire a little holiday getaway during the country’s Communist years, or those visiting friends and relatives.

Alternatively, they may be travelling with holiday vouchers, a form of holiday pay issued by companies. The people of Budapest are somewhat different, a typically Hungarian kind. The ‘we’ is more important than the ‘I’, and families are hugely important. Family members stick together, celebrate birthdays, Easter and Christmas together and are the most important source of support in times of need. Social relationships define everyday life at every age: students find friends for life in their halls of residence; they celebrate and cook together. Expensive cinema and nightclub visits are the exception, but they still know how to have lots of fun.

History is omnipresent in the minds of Budapest’s inhabitants. On the Feast of St Stephen of Hungary, the most important national holiday, celebrated on 20 August, hundreds of thousands of people from Budapest take to the streets, squares and bridges. It all began in 896 with the ‘land seizure’ of the seven Magyar tribes under the leadership of Grand Prince Árpád. The first King of Hungary, Stephen I, whose coronation took place in AD1000, is especially revered.

The Holy Crown of Hungary is also known as the Crown of St Stephen, and it is on permanent display in the central domed hall of the Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest. After the Mongols overran the country in 1241–2, Béla IV of Hungary built the first fortress on Castle Hill. Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary from 1458–90, had it extended in the Renaissance style. This Golden Age was followed by 160 years of continuous occupation by the Turks (1526–1668). By the time the battle against the occupying power was successfully won, Buda and Pest were completely destroyed. 

In 1941, Hungary took Germany’s side in World War II against the Soviet Union. During the Nazi reign of terror, supported by the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party, Budapest’s Jewish Quarter was turned into a ghetto and a graveyard for thousands. At the end of the war large areas of the city lay in ruins. In 1947 the Communist Party came to power. Protests by students in Budapest triggered resistance against the regime in 1956, but the revolt of the ‘counter-revolutionaries’ was brutally suppressed. Decades later in the night leading up to 11 September 1989, Hungary opened its borders, allowing around 100,000 East German citizens, including many who had been put up in a camp in Budapest, to escape. On 23 October, on the 33rd anniversary of the Revolution of 1956, the Republic of Hungary was proclaimed from a window of the Hungarian Parliament Building. That marked the end of the Communist People’s Republic.

For the past 20 years or so, the spotlight in Budapest has been focused mainly on the flourishing cityscapes: the wonderfully restored beacons of historic  Budapest, the huge international investment in shopping centres and luxury real estate, and on large projects such as the Millennium Quarter around Lagymányosi Bridge. The darker sides of progress have tended to be ignored, however. The most recent economic crisis has increased public-sector financial problems as well as social tensions. Even in liberal Budapest, the word ‘international’ does not have a good ring to it anymore. It stands for the international corporations who are to blame for the huge rises in utility bills, and for the banks to whom many homeowners are in debt and are at risk of losing the roof over their head, and it stands for the many fraud scandals associated with the privatisation of once-public companies. As the country’s political and economic centre, Budapest is a kind of lens that concentrates all these problems.

A very special kind of city-on-the-river magic

People are taking stock in the capital. The most important question is: in what way have the past 20 years benefited ‘ordinary’ Hungarians? Budapest is focusing more than ever on the difficult living conditions of the majority and on the city’s unique Hungarian identity. The people of the city want the Budapest of tomorrow to be different. What should it look like? The answer is not yet clear. The beauty of the city remains untouched by all of that. When the floodlights bathe the sights on the Danube in a beautiful light every evening, nobody is left untouched by their spell. Visitors to Budapest will find a very special kind of ‘city-on-the-river’ magic, a city that is more than the sum of its sunny sides.

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