We’re staying in a very attractive top-floor flat just off Andrassy ut, between Heroes Square and the House of Terror. Andrassy ut is what’s known as a good address, with its cluster of designer outlets at one end, the Opera House (see left) and Oktogon tér in the middle, and a series of minor embassies at the other end, before the avenue opens out to the monumental square and, beyond it, City Park. It’s tree-lined, and, for long sections, bar and restaurant-lined, and entirely pleasant to walk along, even when a gang of young men, almost certainly English, horribly drunk and perched on something called a Beer Bike, decide to moon in relative unison. Most of the pedestrians are tourists little older than the mooners, or local people with perfectly trained dogs, not always on leads. Neither group bats an eyelid. The traffic is light, presumably because it’s August. Around Oktogon, there are hop-on hop-off bus tour touts, a disproportionate percentage of them black, and a scattering of beggars, one of whom spends all day, every day, sitting behind a paper cup, head buried in a well-thumbed hardback, oblivious. When I drop some coins into the cup he thanks me in what sounds like an English accent, but I don’t stop to find out more.
Beneath the avenue runs what must be the cutest underground railway system still in action; three mustard yellow minuscule carriages, each with seats for maybe fifteen passengers, dating from the last few years of the nineteenth century, that produce a guttural farting noise and flash red lights at each station to warn people they’re about to stop. The trains pass through each white-tiled station with impressive regularity every few minutes; from a polished wood kiosk, from the same era, tickets are available. Sold in carnets of ten, they’re flimsy scraps of grey-pink paper like something made by a John Bull printing outfit from my childhood. The line was built for the millenary celebrations of 1896 and renovated a century later, when Hungary once again had something to celebrate, its return to the west and the bitter joys of capitalism. Moving just one block to either side of the avenue, the economic crisis of the country, as in the rest of Europe, becomes more visible. Wonderful secessionist facades are shedding swathes of butter-coloured plasterwork, intricate balconies are pitted by rust. Some buildings have no roof, and not all of these are being restored, although many are. At the same time, there’s a vibrancy and sense of care here that, after Rome’s air of arrogant menefreghista slovenliness and civic disregard, is its own sort of affluence. I like the city very much.
One of the ways Budapest deals with abandoned or derelict areas, generally courtyards, seems to be by converting them into bars, hostels, community centres in the loosest sense of the word. They’re known (I think) as kertek, and the ones we stumble across are mostly in the Jewish quarter of Budapest VII. We walk past the first without realising what it is, then double back, intrigued by a glimpse of oddly assorted furniture and unexpected greenery (head-high weeds for the most part, except that weeds are, by definition, unwanted, and these seem to be welcomed or, at the very least, tolerated). Each kert (if that’s the singular form of the noun; Hungarian remains the most absolute of mysteries) has its character, and its bar, or bars. Some of them are surrounded by external first floor balconies linking rooms used as bedrooms, with towels and drying clothes and flags draped over the railings, and the chromatic infinitely derivative web of graffiti holding the whole scene together. We sit around a wonky zinc-topped table on unmatched 1950s Formica chairs, drinking espresso, while people half my age (OK, one third my age) drift round the place in shorts or what might actually be underwear, drinking vodka-based cocktails, their hair still in their eyes or bunched up on one side from improvised pillows. To our left, a Trabant has been sawn in half and converted into a pair of sofas. (Recycled Trabants are a fairly common sight in Budapest bars, as though people who weren’t even born then feel the need to mutilate and domesticate their Soviet past, transforming it into post-industrial kitsch.) Other tables have been made from doors, or frames, or scaffolding (and we notice an interesting use of timber for large-scale scaffolding in the city). There’s creativity and invention in abundance, along with a sense of temporariness, although the coffee is good, the bar organised and there’s clearly a business sense at work, beneath the neo-hippie trappings. The only other man in the place who is clearly over 25 strikes up a conversation, but all we want to do is watch. On another occasion – because we’re drawn to these places as dying moths are to the flame of youth – we see a young woman at the head of a long table, announcing, in English, that she’s German and asking where everyone else is from, and people answering – Australia, the Czech Republic, France – and it’s like watching one of those speeded-up films of a germinating seed, of lives bursting out. They don’t know how lucky they are, or perhaps they do. If they don’t, we know it for them, which is no use at all.
The city seems to have more than its fair share of tattoo parlours, tattoo bars. Tattoos. Legs, arms, necks, the occasional forehead. Whole sleeves, and collars, of writhing collar. And under the tattoos, of the men at least, the muscles. Young and not so young men in Budapest are pumped, shaven-headed, depilated, big. So not just tattoo parlours: gyms, a lot of gyms, in cellars and up stairs, functional, unfussy, doing what they say on the tin. English names are rife, with the disquieting use of power and strength tempered by the more modish wellness. In the rest of Europe, youths may be into beards and a general hipster geekiness, and they’re certainly not absent here. But the number of biceps that rival in circumference the head of the average baby is, well, phenomenal. They’re smooth and pale, elaborately inked and eye-catching, which probably carries its own risk, although if they’re not there to be looked at what purpose do they serve? White singlets cut away to show the deltoids are also much in evidence and here too tattoos play their part in the general effect. I don’t know what this means. It’s glib to see this attention to macho display as a sort of incipient fascism, but maybe even more glib to dismiss it as vanity, or fashion. Sometimes the tattoos contain Hungarian words; I think I’m relieved that I can’t read them, although they might be the most innocent phrases in the world. And, before I move on, it’s curious to see how many Muscle Maries (if you’ll pardon the expression) have the kind of dog you’d more probably associate with Paris Hilton. Or maybe not.
Talking of language and muscles, most waiters in the centre of Budapest are young, well-built, alert as meerkats and seem to have done the same course in the lingua franca of utilitarian service English. They tend to say, ‘Thank you so much,’ when the emphasis isn’t really called for, and ‘Of course,’ in a slightly affronted but disarmingly charming way (I’m thinking of Béla at Centrál Kávéház). They all say ‘Cheers’ and ‘You’re welcome,’ and, when the bill hasn’t taken it into account, a variation on ‘May I point out that the tip is not included?’ Without exception, they’re courteous, obliging, efficient and easy on the eye. In fact, eating out here is a pleasure on many levels. Our last European city was Prague, which was wonderful, but not a culinary milestone. Budapest, on the other hand, turns out to offer not just cooking, but cuisine. Someone apparently said that the world had three great cuisines: French, Chinese and Hungarian. Well, no. But it is very good, although not perhaps a place for vegans. I’ve sampled most edible parts of the goose and duck, indulged my taste for soups (including goulash and delicious creams of garlic and wild mushroom), enjoyed lángos and lecsó (I’m showing off now). But I’ve also found excellent espresso, doner kebab, a memorable onion bhaji and a hot and sour noodle soup that left me gasping (in the right way). I won’t begin to say how good the wine is, nor how cheap the beer, in case I give the wrong impression. This isn’t a guide to restaurants, by the way, but two places we have gone back to more than twice are the deservedly much-recommended Menza in Liszt Ferenc tér and the less well-known Don Leone in Krúdy Gyula utca, in the delightful Palace District. And breakfast at Café Vian hasn’t disappointed either.
Unlike the seven-hilled Lisbon, which we visited last summer, Budapest (or the Pest part of it) is a city that lends itself to walking, which is just as well (see above). It’s not a difficult city to negotiate , and has just enough bends and curves to allow for creative confusion every now and again. We wouldn’t have found Palace District (in Józsefváros) if we hadn’t struck off from Kalvin tér looking for somewhere else, or stumbled on the grid of streets behind the splendid Opera House if we hadn’t followed our noses rather than our maps. We’re not talking rucksack and trekking boots here, just the slow unscrambling of an urban noise into single notes, and then idiosyncratic local riffs. And when you get tired of walking there are the thermal baths. The city is famous for them, which makes a visit something of an obligation, so we put it off for the first week and finally decide to sample one, if only not to lose face with our friends. Our first time we go to those nearest the flat (I’ll just check the spelling here): Széchenyi Baths, in City Park. A buttery masterpiece of municipal baroque, with a ticket office selling costumes, towels, bathing caps, flip flops, bathrobes; but we’ve come prepared. There are price lists in Hungarian, with startlingly high prices, and a small low window with a girl sitting behind it. I tell her we want a cabin, and none of what I think of as the trimmings, and she gives us both a bright-blue plastic watch, like one of those ultrathin swatches, which will get us into the place. And what a place it is. Outdoor pools at various temperatures, including the one that often appears in photographs, of old men playing chess surrounded by snow and steam – the temperature in that pool is 38°C. Inside a building that reminds me of the Savoy’s hunting lodge at Stupinigi, outside Turin. At Stupinigi, one frescoed room follows the next. Here, there’s a sequence of showers, saunas, steam rooms, plunge tubs, each with its aficionados. I try a sauna at 70°C, and then a steam room. It’s all remarkably homely, despite the grandeur, perhaps because people in swimwear really are, for the most part, homely. It’s not a competitive environment, surprisingly perhaps, given the muscle wars on the streets. I play in a whirlpool arrangement in one of the smaller pools until I’m giddy. Our second time, we go to the Gellert baths, behind the hotel that’s supposed to have inspired Wes Anderson, and we’re disappointed. They’re smaller, they don’t have a steam room (or, if they do, I can’t find it) and, dare I say it, there are too many Italians of a certain type (loud, arrogant, xenophobic). We pretend (or Giuseppe does) to be English and have a stilted conversation about how much nicer the other place is before going home. In the meantime, I’ve taught Giuseppe how to make a sausage from his swimming trunks and towel, a skill he lacked. Our plans to try the baths on Margaret Island are thwarted by a change for the worse in the weather, so I never get to go on the water slides. To make up for this, we visit an excellent exhibition of Toulouse-Lautrec graphic works at the Museum of Fine Arts. I buy a fridge magnet of Jane Avril.
Extraordinary, though, how little one can really know about a city, a country. Six months ago, for me, Budapest, and the whole of Hungary, was, what? Goulash. The Hapsburgs. Mazurka? (No, Polish.) Tokai. The 1956 uprising. Liszt. Oh right, Bull’s Blood. And that was it. Then TripFiction heard I was coming to Budapest this summer and very kindly sent me The Invisible Bridge, a novel by Julie Orringer, and I learnt a great deal more about what I should have known already, that Hungarian Jews were persecuted with the same merciless efficiency Jews had been treated to in much of the rest of Eastern and Central Europe, a gradual attrition of rights followed by massive deportation, 600,000 in the case of Budapest in a matter of months. I followed Orringer’s thoughtful and gripping novel with the first volume of the Writing on the Wall trilogy by Miklos Banffy, They Were Counted, describing the privileged world of the Hungarian aristocracy as it teetered on the brink of a partly self-willed destruction at the outset of the last century. Instructive to move backwards in time, as I did, through fiction, and maybe not the worst way, or so I’d like to think, to approach a new country. I brought two books with me, A Book of Memories by the Hungarian writer, Peter Nádas, and Dominion, by C.J. Sansom. I read the first 50 or so pages of Nádas and, well, some books are right for holidays and some books are right for reading at home, and this turned out to be the latter. Which is more a reflection on myself than on the book, although it may continue to thwart me at home as well, despite the fervent thumbs up of Susan Sontag. Dominion, on the other hand, turned out to be just the right sort of read. For those who don’t know it, it’s a what-if? novel. What if the appeasers had won in 1940 and signed a treaty with Germany? It’s a picture of the England I was born into, the grey 1950s – post-war for me, under the German yoke for the characters in the novel – and it couldn’t have been a more apposite read, given Hungary’s history since 1940. A history of appeasement, and resistance.
On our last afternoon I go to the House of Terror. It’s three blocks from our flat and we’ve walked past it at least once every day since we arrived. Folding round the corner of the building, the wall is studded at eye-height with the kind of photographs you see in Italian cemeteries, each with a name and the date of birth and death. It doesn’t take long to see that most of the people portrayed died between 1957 and 1959. They’re mostly, but not all, men, and mostly, but not all, young men. A two-yard-wide ribbon of matt black metal delineates the façade, rising from pavement to roof, following the roof as a sort of forbidding cornice – the letters of T E R R O R punched into it twice, with a communist star and a fascist arrow cross where the two sides meet – coming down to ground again where the next building starts. It’s oppressive, hard to miss; the shadow it creates is not only metaphorical. Inside, the courtyard of the building is occupied by a Russian tank. Already large, it looks enormous in the limited space. The courtyard is overlooked by internal balconies on the upper floors, which gives the place the air, fittingly enough, of a prison. The building was used by the AVH, Hungary’s secret police, as an interrogation centre. Above ground, the space is devoted to an exhibition of life under the Fascist and Soviet regimes, although the bulk of the exhibits concerns the period between 1944 and 1956. There are telephones from that period dotted along the walls. I pick one up and hear a voice in Hungarian, and can only imagine what it might be saying. In another room monitors show films of the trial and execution of, among others, Imre Nagy. But most of the films, with English subtitles, are of ordinary people, as we like to call them, talking about their lives. They’re my parents’ generation, and it’s pure chance that my mother and father aren’t there alongside them to talk about being displaced, or tortured. An accident of birth. Stalin’s death came just in time to save many of these men and women’s lives, according to their testimonies. One man, a Captain Mainwaring sort, shows the camera his hand, reduced to a two-fingered claw by torture. A lift takes you down to the cells in the basement, although there’s a room on the first floor, known as the ‘gym’, that’s kitted out for torture, with a row of tools hanging neatly on the wall, and a drain at the centre of the floor. The lift moves slowly and, possibly by design, begins its descent only when it’s almost too full. On one wall of the otherwise unlit, slowly descending box, is the film of a man explaining how public executions were carried out, the mechanics of it, in a calm, academic voice. You leave the lift and walk past one cell to the next, noting the variety, the creativity involved in inflicting discomfort, and then pain, and then, as a last resort, the noose on a scaffold that’s no more than a single vertical with a loop of rope at its summit. The walls of the final room are covered with photographs of the torturers, the collaborators, the implicated. In the words of the museum, the ‘perpetrators’. Unlike those of their victims on the outside wall of the building, many of these have a birth date but no indication of when they died. Which means they’re still alive, and presumably free. An American woman standing beside me calls it a wall of shame, in a disapproving way, and I suppose she’s right. The damage, after all, is done. But it must have given comfort too, to those whose fathers and mothers, and sisters and brothers, and husbands and wives, and children and lovers, were tortured to death in the adjacent rooms.