Budapest by Night
The Same Monarchy, the Same Architects, a Very Different Modern History; Vienna’s Sister City is Still a World Apart
My train pulls into Budapest just as evening is falling. At the outer city station, Kelenföld, we are in a grey, industrial world. Large cranes stretch out over blocks of communist-era, "Plattenbau" housing. The station is dingy, unkempt and depressing.
As we start up toward the center of town, however, things start cheering up. Poplars stand out against the sky, pitched roofs are back; the streets and squares are warmed by yellow lamplight. Along the Autobahn that parallels the tracks, cars stream home – much more comfortably spaced than in Vienna. A developing economy has its advantages.
The tram cars, painted yellow and white, are brightly lit, the windows larger than in the Viennese Strassenbahn, so that you can clearly see the commuters sitting and standing inside. There are lots of trees, and streets of K und K houses of yellow stucco and roofs of red clay, all lovely, at least from a distance. There also seems to be less graffiti here, but I’m not in the city yet, so I’ll have to wait and see.
And I have to stop comparing Budapest to Vienna, I tell myself, although it’s hard. So much of the architecture looks so similar – same monarchy, same era, even the same architects in many cases. But such a different history, particularly over the half century of communism.
I must allow Budapest to be itself.
A taxi driver approaches me on the platform at the Keleti station. "Taxi, Madame?" he asks hopefully, choosing international words. I smile. You know, I say in German, Budapest taxi drivers have a very bad reputation in Vienna. Everyone knows they will try to chisel you.
"Where are you going? We will make a price," he promises. The Intercontinental, I tell him. "€14," he suggests? This is ridiculous. I have looked at the map, and I know it is, at most, a 10-minute ride. I laugh. He quickly drops the price to €12. I shake my head. We settle in the end for €8, although he looks almost injured.
"I must save for the future, you know," he chastises me. But by then we have introduced ourselves, and on our short ride, András Kovács is happy to talk about the city, which he clearly loves.
"Budapest is changing so fast, and not always in a good way," he tells me. "Ten years ago, it was a peaceful, quiet city. Now there is more stress, more traffic, and everything is more expensive."
All this is not so good for the people in general, he says. But still, he is optimistic. His children will have a better future.
"The young people are full of energy and confidence, and this is very important." His pride glows in his voice. Still, I sense he has trouble relating to this new world. The waves of privatization are largely finished now, he says, and many have been left out. One of the last public assets to go on the block, the airport, was sold last year to British Airways, who he says are planning a major renovation.
"There’s a big split between the rich and the poor – there is really no middle class, and this is very dangerous. Many are very frustrated," Kovács concludes, as we pull up at the hotel. I pay him the agreed upon price, plus a little more.
I had come to Budapest to have dinner with a favorite brother, whom I hadn’t seen in several years. I will only be here over night. Still, I would try to make the most of it. Giles has made the reservations, and I find myself in a prime room overlooking the Danube and across to the Parliament, at night glistening in the wash of floodlights and the twinkling of houses and streetlights among the trees on the Buda hills. The Intercontinental itself is a refurbished 50s-era construction, thoroughly refurbished into a very comfortable, if not spectacular modern hotel. But the views are spectacular, and from nearly every room. However beware: prices are high for what you get and room service, particularly, is very steep – nearly €20 for a continental breakfast and one juice from the mini-bar.
The busy lobby of the Budapest Intercontinental is a free trade zone at 7 o’clock in the evening, a bustling world of languages, styles and accents. Though on this particular evening, there seem to be Americans popping up in all directions, hailing one another in loud voices, laughing and back-slapping. At first I’m taken aback at this almost tasteless lack of reserve…
Then I overhear a few conversations and realize what’s up: The World Series is in mid play, and the men (and even a woman or two) are busy checking the latest division scores on their Blackberries and trading updates with colleagues. Giles is planning to be up till 4 am watching the Yankees play the Cleveland Indians in Yankee Stadium, already figuring out how he would keep himself awake for his tech investors’ conference the next day. I was glad later that we had not planned to meet for breakfast, after the Yankees lost to Cleveland 6 – 4, thus clinching the American League Division Series. I hate to see a grown man cry. Well, at least not over baseball.
We dined a short walk away at a chic wine bar called Bock Bisztro, in the Corinthia Grand Hotel Royal, at Erzsébet körút 43-47 CHECK where the high polish of the décor spread seamlessly to the service and the cuisine, that to me was disappointingly international and could as easily have been New York or London. But this seemed to be the spot for the conference crowd, and several attendees exchanged greetings in passing. Appetizers included both terrine du fois gras (which Giles ordered and gave a thumbs up) and tempura, but no S’chee (cabbage soup), one of my favorites. Eager for something even remotely local, my brother opted for a Wiener Schnitzel, which looked more or less normal and was reportedly very tasty, although clearly cut too thick.
Finding no Gulyas or Kohlrabi anywhere on the menu, I ordered roast duck and red cabbage, which was beautifully prepared, slices thin and tender enough to cut with a fork. We ordered a bottle of Tokaji Furmint 2004, a lovely crisp white wine, both fruity and dry, a special gift of Hungarian wines from these former Imperial vineyards in the country’s southern region. Very smooth sounds emanated from the background that turned out to be live, but were so processed I hadn’t noticed at first, and not a fiddle or accordion among them. Sigh.
The time slid by. With years to catch up, we covered lots of ground in these stolen hours, including one memorable tale of the hazards of hosting a large reception in Budapest, where cash is the order of the day. No credit cards please, and certainly not a check – "What’s that? – causing a mad scramble for ready funds, attempting transfers and adding up credit cards balances, saved in the end by an old school friend now Budapest ex-pat who agreed to play banker. Which only left the awkward problem of how to fabricate some official-looking records for the bookkeepers back home.
On the way home, we walk up a block to gaze in wonder at the now restored St. Stephan’s Basilica, whose soaring towers, each an ornate pavilion of classical arches under a jeweled dome, are brilliantly backlit against the night sky – and marvel at the majesty of this old culture, with so much pride in its past and such eagerness to embrace the new, in a jumble of hope and regret, finding its way into the future.
In the Corinthia Grand Hotel Royal.
VII., Erzsébet körút 43-47,
Tel. 321 03 40,
U-Bahn 1: Oktogon,
Straßenbahn 4, 6
Apaczai Csere J.U.12-14
Res: 0800 291 353
Front Desk: 00 36-1-3276333