the hun and the furnace

buda castle wall

The city of Budapest was, as any fule kno, once upon a time two separate cities: Buda and (shock) Pest. Pest, spread across the Danube floodplain, is a classically continental city, large, attractive buildings of a consistent height lining broad avenues and boulevards down which trams and trolleybuses rumble, with all the space, light and coherency of Haussman’s Paris but none of the monotony. The skyline is patterned with the many-coloured mosaic roofs of churches, a style I’ve seen nowhere else, topped with copper-green towers halfway between onion domes and spires. On the apartment blocks and shopping streets, Art Nouveau and Art Deco facades predominate, every one a quiet masterpiece.

Buda, on the other hand, is built on stone hills, and while at river level it has a few of the great dramatic apartment blocks, the buildings that line its leafy streets and fringe its spacious parklands are more restrained, and often more modern. Two hills in particular dominate the west bank: Gellert Hill, home of the Citadella, and Castle Hill, site of the Old Town and the vast Buda Castle complex. These were our objectives on Tuesday. (The Met Office promised an overcast, but dry, day. This, as it turned out, was a lie.)

We broke fast at a bakery down the road on shockingly cheap pastries (a small cold pizza thing and a split bun that resembled a giant bready vulva stuffed with bacon and cheese set me back slightly more than £1). Then we started hunting for Paris Court, the abandoned shopping centre we’d failed to find last time (which you may know from the opening Budapest scene of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.) Words can’t quite describe it, so have some photos instead.

The Citadella on Gellert Hill is one of those vast, heavy 19th-century hilltop fortresses, of a period where designers gave up on any attempt at subtlety, aesthetic refinement or trace italienne-style geometric patterns, and went for simple massive brute-force stonework to absorb any amount of fire, casemated batteries poking their cannon-snouts from stone walls metres thick. In 1945, that once-immovable object encountered the irresistible force of the late-war Soviet machine, and came off worse. Most of the city’s scars from the calamitous Battle of Budapest* have been covered up, apart from a mess of bullet-holes in one of the buildings near Parliament, but the Citadella bears all the originals, and its old stone is riddled with the impacts of guns and rockets. A lot of people died for this place. Now it’s a tourist trap full of cheerful Hungarians selling trick boxes, lacy tablecloths and three-sided chess sets, and by the gate of the Citadella an overpriced al fresco bar/eatery with pretentious fire-in-tubes decor and generic throbbing background music turns this little piece of history into every other poncy “upmarket” money sink everywhere in the world. We loitered around the monolithic Soviet “Liberty Statue”, admiring the panoramic views of the city, then descended back into town.

Buda Castle has been some form of vast royal palace or other for almost eight hundred years now, rebuilt again and again by the dynasty of the day; the most recent construction, a huge Habsburg palace standing proud atop Castle Hill, was unfortunately the site of the Axis last stand in 1945, and as a result completely and utterly trashed. What decor wasn’t blasted off by communist soldiers during the war was torn down by communist architects afterwards, in their attempts to expunge the decadent glory of the pre-war regime, but the exterior is still an incredibly imposing building. The rebuilt interior, which serves as home to the Hungarian National Gallery, is one of those rare triumphs of modernist architecture, red granite floors, swooping staircases and chamfered columns that combine simplicity of form and elegance of function. It looks like one of the more restrained Moscow Metro stations, which is about the highest compliment I can pay to a building’s interior. The gallery’s collection is interesting; there are lots and lots of historical paintings, depicting great figures from Hungarian history either sitting for portraits or gloriously killing Turks – since Hungary has been fighting Turks since Hungary and Turkey have been concepts, it makes sense as a theme. The battle pictures, oddly, get across the intense, frenetic chaos of combat but have an odd artificial quality to the details; in my experience, most historical paintings are the other way around. Another interesting gallery was full of carved medieval wooden altarpieces, full of smug-looking babies, willowy blonde women shaped like Leiji Matsumoto heroines, and various other uncanny-valley carvings of not-quite-right biblical figures with beetling brows and high foreheads. The upper floors contained statuary and Impressionism (which is always hit and miss with me: half “wow, what perfect economy of detail”, half “oh put some work into it you lazy berks”) and a top floor of purposeless modern trash.

After the gallery, we visited the Hospital in the Rock, a reconstruction/museum of an ancient cave system turned wartime hospital turned Cold War nuclear bunker, full of original medical supplies in their lovely mid-century paper packaging and racks upon racks of terrifying glinting surgical equipment. The museum is populated by various waxworks in German and Hungarian uniforms, ranging from pretty good to pretty terrible (Tom, who works at Tussauds, declined to give a strong opinion to the slightly pushy tour guide, who managed the impressive feat of giving detailed descriptions and explanations in two languages extremely briskly.) Surprises included a display with a Mi-2 helicopter which had apparently been brought into the caves piece by piece and reassembled, and being locked in a small room with two air-raid sirens being cranked enthusiastically by children.

We wandered across Castle Hill to the Fisherman’s Bastion, an absurd affected fairytale structure built on an old crownwork, admiring the fancy statue of Saint Stephen and the simultaneously refined and excessive Matthias Church, before traipsing over to the funicular by the castle on the drizzly walk home.

*Hungary had been well aligned with Germany when the war kicked off, but after having their army obliterated at Stalingrad they could see the way the wind was blowing, and attempted to extricate themselves from Hitler to avoid being the backdrop of Act 3 of the enormous head-on clash between the Nazis and the Soviets. Hitler wasn’t having any of it and had the country occupied. The rest is (a particularly bloody chapter of) history.


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