It’s been several years since I was last in Budapest and in many respects the city has changed little, with much of its Austro-Hungarian splendour remaining in a state of decay and dilapitude, but at the same time there are far more homeless people on the streets than I remember while much of the city’s streets and buildings are alive with building work. It’s blazingly hot on the day I get back and I walk towards the Danube, past the University church with its Indian door carving. The river is lined with stalls selling freshly made lemonade and I cross over the Margaret Bridge and look back at Pest from the base of Castle Hill. Crossing back over the chain bridge, I walk down Andrassy Avenue, with its ornately decorated corbels and grotesques. The Hungarian state opera house is a particularly beautiful example of this, with its rather strange Sphinx sculptures at its corners and statues of Franz Liszt; many of the capital’s theatres are nearby making this the equivalent of the West End with sculptures of composers like Imre Kalman exhibited outside. I’m particularly interested in the Mai Mano house with its Majolica tiled interior. The photography exhibitions inside are in truth rather underwhelming, with the possible exception of one that dwells on the post-communist aspects of Hungarian life.
The following day, I decide to visit the Jewish quarter. I’d passed through here before but hadn’t had time to go inside any of the buildings; I’m pleased to discover than with some renovations, all of them are now open to varying extents. The Dohany synagogue is easily the most ornate and impressive, with the interior matching the Moorish exterior, decorated with geometrical stained glass. The basement has an exhibition about the history of the synagogue from its froundation through to the holocaust while the memorial park at the back has a monument to the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. Nearby, I’m pleased to see that Otto Wagner’s Rumbach synagogue is now open; although the building remains unused and dilapidated the interior remains striking with its central dome and rich wall decorations. Last is the Orthodox synagogue, which has been completely renovated since my last visit, and whose relatively unassuming exterior gives way to an interior with vividly coloured stained glass and ceramic tiling of Jewish symbols; a clock remains set at the point where the Nazis had closed it down. Lastly, I decide to revisit St Istvan’s Basilika; last time I went to the roof of the building while this time I’m take down to the crypt, complete with the giant sculpture of St Leopold that previously hung above the door and which had killed a workman when it fell off. The crypt is otherwise a bit lacklustre; Hunagarian footballers seem to be as prominent as it gets.
The following day I visit Kerepesi cemetery. My initial impressions are that although it occupies a similar area of land to Pere Lachaise or Highgate it nonetheless seems rather empty; initially more of a park than a cemetery. Eventually, as I walk deeper in aspects of the place emerge that more closely resemble its Western European counterparts, like the monumental tombs for figures like Kossuth or the Bromptonesque central avenue lined with elaborate monuments on either side (albeit rather sensual and sinister monuments that you would look in vain for in Kensington and Chelsea). The frescos on the four domes at each end and side of the avenue are particularly extraordinary. Some traditional wooden gravestones can be found at the monument to victims of 1956. Moving further outside central Budapest, I find myself at Memento Park. Stranded in a backwater, the monumental aspects of the sculptures now acquire a certain kitsch quality; Cubist sculptures of Marx and Engels now stand near to an old Trabant while the gift shop sells a range of humorous communist merchandise. The Cubist piece is certainly one of the more adventurous present, with most of them being grandiloquent works dedicated either to Soviet militarism, Hungarian party technocrats or the cult of the worker. Figures like artists and scientists are absent, as, for the most part, is any sense of miniaturism. Returning to Budapest, I walk up Castle Hill where I revisit the Matthias church and the Fisherman’s Bastion before walking back to Gul Baba’s tomb with its recently added Iznik tiling.
I return to Castle Hill the following day to visit the Hungarian National Gallery. The initital sections on medieval stonework dwell on tomb-slabs and tympanums, one decorated with a rather strange mer-cat, before the displays move onto medieval altar paintings; there’s a particularly good painted wooden ceiling from Romania. I note that a lot of the baroque works come from the Esterhazy collection. The 19th century collection is unfamiliar to me but shares a lot of the pre-occupations of Western European art, whether Orientalism showing in pictures of the Emir of Lebanon or romanticism of landscape scenes near Tivoli through to a very extensive collection of historical painting. One of the highlights is an exhibition comparing French impressionist art with its Hungarian counterparts. Paintings by Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Gauguin, Monet and Cezanne are placed alongside artists like Merse (whose paintings of poppy meadows and apple orchards in blossom compare well to Monet, not to mention a rather fun air balloon painting), Mednyanszky Laszlo (a painter of rather crepusclular and romantic landscapes) or Grunwald Bela (a painter rather reminiscent of Gauguin’s Brittany period). Cezanne emerges as a particularly powerful influence with figures like Czigany Deszo, Kernstok Karoly and Bereny Robert following in his footsteps. One of the most striking paintings is Before the Storm by Koszta Jozsef, showing a figure silhouetted against the fields at twilight. Next door is the city museum, with exhibitions on the history of the city from prehistoric times through to the communist period, including statues of Stalin, paintings of the attempt to destroy the chain bridge during the 1848 uprising, exhibitions on the ties between Armenia and Hungary, medieval and Islamic ceramics through to a copy of a communist era living room (looking much like how I recall living rooms of that time). The interior of the structure includes a baroque courtyard through to the old chapel and gardens of the royal palace. Walking down the the hill I visit the Soviet era liberation monument and the rock cave.
The following day I travel outside Budapest to Esztergom, visiting some of the rather extraordinary Victorian ticket halls of Budapest train stations. I walk from the centre of Esztergom up to the basilica. This is the largest church in Hungary, although as the baroque interior is filled with light it seem smaller than the rather dark interior of St Istvan. The crypt is perhaps rather more impressive; a cavernous affair filled with tombs and monuments to previous archbishops. Although the rather squat exterior of the church is perhaps rather less impressive, the view from the top of the hill over the Danube to Slovakia is particular beautiful. I have a look around the castle ruins with its exhibitions of stonework remains and Islamic armour before walking up to a hill chapel, with sculptural scenes of the crucifixion lining the way up the hill. I then walk back to the train station past the old synagogue. Arriving back in Budapest, I visit Hero’s Square before looking at City Park. I particularly the architectural gallimaufry that is Vajdahunyad Castle, with its combination of French and Romanian styles, accompanied by the sculptures of Anonymous and Bela Lugosi as well as the Cheshire cat sculptures on the chapel. While I visit there’s a fair on, with Hungarian cattle grazing alongside craft stalls selling items like cow horns and boar rugs. I also really like the art nouveau zoo buildings. The following day starts with a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. It has a wonderful collection of paintings by David, Holbein, Veronese, Gallen-Kallela, Ruisdael, El Greco, Velasquez, Brueghel, Ghirlandaio, Saenraedam, Bellotto, Goya, Stuck, Raphael, Bellini, Durer and Cranach. I also like some of the op-art in the basement. That afternoon I go on a tour of the Hungarian Parliament, which is indeed reminiscent of its gothic revival counterpart in Westminster; I particularly like the cigar rack outside one of the chambers. For all of its opulence, much of the building remains an empty signifier with one of its chambers now unused and the other having its number of members dramatically cut down from its zenith during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Walking back, I discover that the Parisian arcade is open, albeit plunged into stygian darkness. I also visit St Mary’s church with its surviving Ottoman Mihrab and the Serbian Orthodox church before finally visiting the central Market Hall; the idea that even brandy has to come with paprika seems to be a bit over the top.
I’m up early the following day for a lengthy train ride to Bratislava. Unfortunately, it proves to be a miserable grey day with incessant rain. I arrive at a rather dilapidated train station and walk into the centre of the city, stopping off to visit Lechner’s Blue Church. I’d seen several of his Gaudiesque buildings in Budapest, like the design museum and the savings bank; interesting that both Spain and Hungary found themselves looking backwards towards Islamic architectural ideas. The Blue Church itself seems more like something out of a fairy tale and, if anything, reminds me of the church of St John in Shobdon. The centre of the city is perhaps rather disappointing with much of it having been gutted by the communist to build a motorway; a large modern bridge surmounted by a war of the worlds style observation deck straddles the Danube, while the other side of Petržalka is crowded with paneláks and factories. The medieval cathedral in Bratislava does make a welcome change from Budapest’s nineteenth century glamour, with a set of elaborate wooden choir carvings, a bronze equestrian sculpture and a labyrinthine crypt. After that, I walk upwards to the Hrad. Rather more spartan than its equivalents in Prague or Budapest, the interior is modern rennovation after the building was gutted by fire. It now houses the collection of the National Museum, ranging from portraiture, phalasterics and clocks.
I begin my final day in Budapest, I visit the Jewish cemetery in Kerepesi; as the gates are firmly locked and with a less than welcoming Alsatian behind them, I conclude that I can’t get in. However, a gatekeeper appears and safely guides us in. The cemetery is in truth in a bad way, with many monuments appearing unstable and decayed as nature takes back the ground. I then visit the Applied Arts Museum, another of Lechner’s wonderful buildings. While the exterior is colourful, the roof decorated with green and yellow ceramic tiles while the Alhambraesque interior is a pure white, rather like an especially ornate wedding cake. Much of the exhibitions are dedicated to ceramics, with wonderful displays including Minton vases, works by Tiffany, Lalique and Hungarian artists like Rippl-Ronai working with the Zsolnay factory as well as Boulle furniture, Brussels lace and Meissen porcelain. There’s also a good exhibition of Islamic art, including rugs, helmets, clothing, weaponry and ceramics. And with that, my visit comes to a close and I find myself back at Budapest airport (and a rather odd stall for Hungarian delicacies featuring a stuffed Mangalica pig).