Budapest Emerges From Communism’s Shadow
Budapest, Hungary, Europe
Budapest, the capital of Hungary, nestles on the threshold of the imagination where Central Europe segues into the East. And not so long ago, the city of nearly 2 million inhabitants was clearly tied to the East in the bipolar Cold War world.
From 1947 to 1989, the Hungarian Communist Party held sway. Although the regime was not as deferential to the Soviet Union as its counterparts in East Germany or Bulgaria, the collective economy and fear of the secret police shaped the lives of Hungarian citizens.
But since 1990, Americans haven’t required a visa to visit Hungary. That’s just one sign of how the nation, which joined the European Union last year, has divorced itself from its Eastern Bloc past.
Today, Budapest is a modern city with most of the amenities you find in other European capitals. Don’t be surprised to see a Duran Duran concert poster or a workman rocking out to Lynyrd Skynyrd while lunching at a local pub. While peeling painted walls and rambling sidewalks are common, public parks are well-kempt, the cafÃ© scene is nearly as lively as Paris, and the stately ambience of the famous Gellert Spa on the banks of the Danube evokes the pre-World War I splendor that the city shares with Vienna.
Still, there are vestiges of Lenin’s legacy. Walk by the Hungarian Parliament, on the lawn of which flies a flag with a hole in the center. An inscription reads: “This Hungarian flag has a hole in it because on October 23, 1956 the revolutionists, those Hungarians who revolted against the Soviet Union, tore out of it the foreign coat of arms that symbolized the power of the Soviet Union and Communism. Since then this flag has symbolized the freedom of the Hungarian nation.”
The House of Terror Museum ($6 US, open daily from 10 a.m. except Monday) is at 60 Andrassy Road, the former headquarters of the AVH, the dreaded secret police. Dioramas, reconstructed jail cells, a pounding soundtrack, and a massive Soviet tank from the 1956 invasion conjure up the brutal reigns of both the Hungarian Nazi Party and their Communist successors.
Room 20 at the Hungarian National Museum is dedicated to the Communist epoch. You’ll learn how squares were named after Stalin and dictator Matyas Rakosi in the 1950s – the latter’s 60th birthday was the “greatest festive occasion of the era,” according to a blurb. A miniature display of Hungarian Air Force planes and industrial projects embodies the prevailing militarism.
Yet more grotesque is the Statue Park ($3, 10 a.m. to sunset), with 42 “Gigantic Memorials from the Communist Dictatorship” in south Budapest. Cubist busts of Marx and Engels and a bug-eyed 15-foot statue of a triumphant Soviet soldier are among the surreal highlights.
For the ultimate combo of good taste and bad taste, head to the Marxim Pizzeria (noon to 1 a.m. daily, except Sunday, 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.) near Moscow Square. The big red star on this subterranean pub’s door and the barbed wire separating its booths belie the 34 delicious personal pizzas it dishes up ($3-$6). Try the juicy “Gagarin’s favorite,” named for the Russian cosmonaut, slathered with Bolognese meat sauce, broccoli, smoked cheese, and paprika. On the wall, Beavis and Butthead snicker: “Taste the East! Ho Ho!” Decades of Communism evidently didn’t rob Hungary of its sense of humor.
If all this totalitarianism makes you yearn for a drink, you might want to relax aboard an hour-long Legenda boat tour on the Danube. Sipping champagne, beer, or wine, you listen to a classical music-spiced audio commentary through headphones, learning of medieval floods and ingenious Hungarian inventors and viewing Buda Castle, the Liberation Monument, and the former Karl Marx University. Try an evening cruise and watch the two halves of the city (Buda and Pest) light up.
True connoisseurs of the grape must check out the self-guided tasting tours at the House of Hungarian Wines in the Castle District (12 p.m. to 8 p.m. daily). This huge cellar features more than 700 vintages representing the country’s 22 wine regions: whites, reds, and the famous Tokay dessert wines. Prices are not overly expensive for the Western visitor, with most bottles averaging between $4 and $20. Hungarian winemakers are still rebuilding their international reputation after the Communist era, during which three companies held a monopoly and quality declined. If you don’t have time to stop in, certain vintages are available in the USA through Monarchia Wines.
Whether you drink it all in or just sip lightly, Budapest has plenty of Magyar magic to uncork in its post-Communist incarnation. Purchase a Budapest Card from the city tourism bureau to save on your travels and tours.