Budapest has drama. It’s monumental—in a grungy sort of way. But maybe we felt that way when we visited it because the summer weather was so hot and humid that the requisite sightseeing became a miserable chore. Budapest, the confluence of royal and proletarian legacies in a country of only ten million inhabitants, seems to still be struggling from its relatively recent communist past. Replaced by democracy only in 1989, its current leadership has overseen the steady dismantling of the country’s democratic institutions.
You see extensive reconstruction everywhere as Budapest tries to put itself together, perhaps partly to cultivate tourism. The city is ripe for hugely increased tourism and should appeal to those curious or interested in grand gestures. But while signs of an up and coming city are unmistakable, you somehow get the feeling that Budapest has not found its comfort zone yet.
Hungary’s imperial past is visible everywhere in the city with its majestic architecture and vast ceremonial squares. Hungary also lived through more than a century of rule by Ottoman Turks, evident to tourists in its Turkish-style strong coffee but more so—thanks to Budapest’s well of hot springs—in its Turkish-style spas. Who can resist the enticement of sensuous wallowing in rejuvenating warmth? And yet, tourist traffic in Budapest seems not nearly as congested as it is in Prague, just a few hours away. It’s tempting to speculate that the political and social pickle the country is in is affecting tourism.
Although the artifacts of past communist rule and its strained “democracy” do not assert themselves to the casual visitor as much as the display of baroque-style statues and art nouveau ornamentation on numerous buildings, Hungarian tourism cannot and does not want you, the visitor—to forget the horrors that came with recent uprisings and communist rule. For instance, instead of tearing it down, they decided to finally preserve a small fortress in Buda, a low-slung building pockmarked from bullet hits. Tourists are also often shown the House of Terror where dissidents were interrogated and tortured, and Statue Park where toppled statues of repressive rulers have been collected.
Many people draw parallels between Paris and Budapest, maybe because of the rivers that run through these cities (Budapest has the Danube, Paris, la Seine). And the character of each city on either side of the river is distinctly different from that of the other.
In Budapest, terrain defined these differences. The hillier, greener Buda attracted the royal and rich while flat Pest became the center for official business and commerce.
In Paris, history was more at play. The left bank had universities which attracted intellectuals while the right bank nurtured the nobility, the fashionable and the rich. Budapest, like Paris, has grand buildings, wide boulevards, and small islands in the river, sandwiched between the two sections of the city.
To me, at least for now, the parallels end there although, to be fair, we know little about Budapest and may only be relied upon for first impressions. We’re more acquainted with the heart of Paris which Rich and I visited many times, and where we stayed, not for days, but for months during each visit.
Who knows where Budapest would be in another generation? Could it finesse the art of pleasing tourists?