war and peace, knowledge and glory

On Thursday morning, we hit up the Budapest National Museum. Like most national museums outside of Britain, it’s actually about the country it’s in, rather than the stuff that country nicked from everywhere else. Past an enormous classical facade and an entrance hall with an amazing painted roof featuring the various virtues and muses of antiquity, the collection was superb – jewellery older than writing, medieval icons and relics, Turkish trade goods from the century and a half of Ottoman rule, Habsburg outfits and jewels from the height of Imperial excess, arms and armour from every period, Constantine’s crown, Lizst’s piano, Domokos’ gömböc. The sections about the great two-act tragedy of 1914-1945, and the gallery chronicling the communist occupation, were particularly good. It was all neatly and carefully presented, and most signs had an English translation, which helped a lot. It’s not like French or German, where you can get by on word-association and vague old secondary-school familiarity, or even Russian, where most of the critical nouns are familiar once you can read the absurd moon runes they’re written in. Hungarian bears no resemblance to any other language. Downstairs, near a lapidarium brimful of Roman remains, we had cheap, delicious coffee and cake.

James was feeling fatigued, so took off back to the flat; the rest of us went to the Museum of Applied Arts, which runs an (admittedly distant) second to Parliament as the most beautifully excessive building in the entire city. The place was smaller inside than expected (though no less architecturally glorious, an Ottoman-influenced interior kept neutral white to avoid interfering with the exhibits, but pimped like a pasha’s palace in its surface detail), and the collections on display were limited but, again, excellent (apart from an assortment of mediocre modern ceramics on the ground floor, full of aimless passion and visual clutter, signifying nothing). An exhibition devoted to the extraordinary ceramic work of Alexandre Bigot segued into a gallery of general Art Nouveau, half tritely quirky and half heartstoppingly beautiful, and the first floor mezzanine held a collection simply of Amazing Stuff through the ages. I won’t bother trying to describe the best pieces; words can’t do them justice. That’s the point.

We’d not used the Budapest Metro, having stuck to the charmingly creaky old-world trams or just walked. It’s the second oldest underground in the world after London; the line we took dated from 1896, and judging from their performance the ticket machines hadn’t been serviced since then. At the first station, the machine was out of order, and we decided to just get on anyway (Hungary follows the “honour system” ticketing approach, with minimal barriers and few inspectors). At the second, the machine was also out of order. At the third, it was technically working, but wouldn’t take card or notes, and we didn’t have 1400huf in shrapnel. At the fourth, we could see the now familiar “out of order” signs without getting out of the train, and at the fifth we didn’t even bother looking. This unexpected incompetence continued at our destination, the Szechenyi baths, where the turnstiles apparently glitched for fifteen minutes, leaving our high-tech RFID watches utterly useless.

But we finally got through, and it was pretty impressive. Between two huge, imposing baroque revival pavilions, there are three main geothermally heated outdoor pools: a normal one with lanes, a hot one, and a just-warm one with a cool tiled structure in which water jets generate a circular current, in which we mucked around for ages before heading to the hot one. A statue of Leda and the swan overlooked the pool, which was full of couples in varying degrees of refraction-disguised intimacy; I’m not sure how many were actually having sex, but plenty weren’t much short of it. Like a few others in the pool, I put my head and shoulders in the path of one of the water jets projecting from the statue’s base; the sound was like pebbles cracking together, and the feeling like being pummelled by a thousand fists a minute.

We came back via Heroes’ Square, a huge open expanse of flat stone with great assemblies of heroic statuary. Two huge colonnades are lined with Hungarian notables and surmounted with allegorical figures of various Good and Impressive concepts; between the two, Arpad, semi-mythical first ruler of Hungary, stands in front of various assembled lords at the base of a huge column, atop which a hooded archangel holds a double cross in his left hand and the Holy Crown in his right. It’s all very impressive, but the light was fading and the air was full of hungry mosquitoes, so we didn’t linger.

We went back into town to meet a Hungarian chap I know off the INTERNET and wander with him around the party-district swastika, for a nice chilled evening of table football, nachos, drinks and arcade games.


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