Budapest, the heart of the country

All roads lead to Rome, the ancients claimed not without reason. The same can be said about the Hungarian situation: all roads lead to and from Budapest. Unfortunately, I believe; not only do all roads go through the capital physically, but this physical centrality reflects a generally overcentralized governmental and cultural structure. I think I mentioned already that in Hungarian a very strange usage of the words "city" and "country" has become accepted. Budapest is the "city" and everything else is the "country." If someone living in Budapest gets into his car and drives to Szeged or Debrecen, two fairly large cities, he tells his neighbor, "I am going to the countryside." The difference in population between Budapest and the next largest city is pretty staggering: Budapest’s population is 1.8 million while the next largest city, Debrecen, has 203,000 inhabitants. This ratio hasn’t changed very much in the last 50-60 years. It is true that the larger towns (Debrecen, Miskolc, Szeged, Pécs) have almost doubled in size, but at the same time a lot of people have moved to the capital. In addition, during the Rákosi period Budapest absorbed many of its surrounding, until then independent towns.

Budapest didn’t exist before 1873. There was Pest, Óbuda, and Buda, the three towns that united to form Budapest. About two decades later, when Hungary was celebrating the one thousandth anniversary of the Hungarian tribes’ arrival in the Carpathian basin, the capital city was transformed into a modern urban center. The first subway in Europe was built here, wide boulevards were carved out from old streets, more and more bridges were built across the Danube. The location of Budapest is quite sensational.

Unfortunately, Budapest cannot boast really old buildings because of the ravages of history. Buda and Pest were destroyed once in the middle of the sixteenth century when the Turks occupied them and again in the late seventeenth century when the Habsburg army liberated them. The city suffered terribly during the Second World War as well. During the German occupation the allies bombed the city. At the end of 1944 the Germans decided to stop the Soviet armies in Budapest. As we know, they didn’t manage to do that, but two months of siege left the city in ruins. After the war some buildings were more or less restored, but the city still had extensive visible scars. For instance, the wreckage of the Elizabeth Bridge, blown up by the Germans just like all the other bridges between Buda and Pest, was still visible in the Danube. It was only in the 1960s that the Elizabeth Bridge was rebuilt. 1956 was not kind to the city either. One of the important downtown streets in Pest, Rákóczi Street, looked about as bad as after the siege in 1945. I left Hungary in 1956 and returned for the first time in 1965. After being familiar with such large cities as London, Toronto, New York, Amsterdam, and Vienna, it was hard to be enthusiastic about Budapest. It looked grey, sad, and poor. During the Kádár period the city started to improve but still, in comparison to western cities, it was not exactly a showpiece.

Since the change of regime one building after the other has been erected. Suddenly there was a need for more and more hotels, more and more office buildings, more and more luxury apartments. Old, dilapidated buildings were razed and new, modern apartment buildings were erected. New bridges are planned. And at last a new connector between two superhighways will be finished which ought to help Budapest’s very serious traffic problems. The modernization of the city made headway despite a very conservative chief architect who tried to stop everything modern. As he once said, the best buildings are those that were not built. Luckily, last year he resigned. Perhaps now Budapest will abandon, for example, the stringent rules regarding the height of buildings.

At last the city managed to start the fourth, much needed metro line. The little, by now antique metro line, perhaps two kilometers long, may have been the first in Europe but nothing more happened to the metro system until the late 1960s. In the 1950s there was an attempt to build a modern metro, but the country’s disastrous financial situation put an end to the work that had already begun. This fourth line has been planned for at least forty years, but there was never enough money. When at last in 1998 it looked as if with a government guarantee the city would be able to finance this costly metro project Viktor Orbán’s new government refused to extend the guarantee. I guess Orbán wanted to punish the sinful Budapest which is heavily socialist and liberal. In fact, during his premiership he very actively tried to turn the " countryside" against the "city." Admittedly, his party is much stronger in the villages than in the cities, with the exception of Debrecen, which is a Fidesz stronghold.

Those who don’t live in Budapest and see it only every three or four years are amazed at the developments. Those who live there are less appreciative. They complain and complain. They complain if the city doesn’t have enough money to fix the roads but they also complain when they are at last fixed because certain roads are closed and the traffic slows down. It is terrible that there is no new metro line, but once the work begins, they complain that the work is too noisy, too dusty, again too much traffic and so forth. They bitterly complain about the dirt but they don’t seem to realize that the inhabitants themselves are responsible for the trash. Altogether they are dissatisfied with their surroundings. A few weeks ago there was a European-wide survey about the inhabitants’ satisfaction with their capital city: not surprisingly the Hungarians were the least satisfied.

At the same time everybody who visits the city is amazed at the efficiency of the public transportation and the cultural opportunities. There must be over a hundred theaters in the city and they are all full. Tickets are relatively cheap because the government still subsidizes the theaters’ upkeep. The musical offerings have always been good. Lately there have been some fantastically successful exhibits in Budapest. Half a million people visited the Van Gogh exhibit, for example. All in all, I think there are many good things in Budapest. Nothing is ever perfect. That is what the Hungarians will have to learn.