Budapest enchanted me from the moment I emerged from the Deak Square metro station and started walking in the wrong direction in an attempt to find my accommodation. It announced itself with its name spelt out in life sized, red block letters – part of a display featuring Soviet era army tanks to mark the upcoming anniversary of the 1956 uprising against the Soviets.
I was quick to fall in love with the place. It seemed more human than many other European cities I had visited, such as Prague, with which it is always compared. Unlike Prague, where the tourist is drawn to one beautiful, but crowded "old city", in Budapest, you cannot miss the "real" city, as it is experienced by locals. En route to the castle, the baths, the delectable opera house and Statue Park (where communist era statues are on display), I delighted in the "ordinary" charms of the city: watching locals ice skating in the park behind Heroes’ Square, sipping coffee in an otherwise forgettable, everyday commercial street.
The place had such an ease. I felt I belonged there. I was reminded, though, of my outsider status; how oblivious I was to the real concerns of the Hungarian people, the day the riots took place. I was aware there had been previous riots after the Prime Minister admitted lying about the economy, however, I had assumed the situation had died down. I had no concerns about going to town to watch the 1956 uprising celebrations and accompanying the demonstrations with my American friend.
When we arrived at parliament, we were disappointed to find only a scattering of police and the occasional barrier, but no protesters. I had recalled hearing something about an unveiling of a monument in Heroes' Square, so we headed in that direction, stopping for some of Hungary’s infamous goulash and beer along the way. It was from the safety of this restaurant that we witnessed the riot. Initially, it seemed a normal protest march. The crowd was diverse: young and old, loud, but not particularly rowdy. Then the pace quickened. The simple orderly march transformed into a chaotic swarm. Some protesters stood still, waving their flags at the distant police, defiant. Others were running. Chants erupted into an incomprehensible noise, pierced by an even louder bang. As smoke arose from the crowd, the waiter quickly pushed past me to close the window – tear gas.
The American and I continued to watch from the window. We knew staying inside was the sensible thing to do. We agreed on this recourse for the moment. The temptation to take great action photos, and an unforgettable story for group emails back home, won us over. As we stood on the sidelines, the tear gas lightly pricked our eyes. We still tried to subtly take pictures of ourselves with the riot police in the background. As the riot moved back towards us, we sought retreat down a quiet side street, only to be faced by baton wielding police running towards us. Apparently, they were chasing one particular protester, but I was too busy running out of the way to pay attention. The next thing I saw was a number of police huddled in groups with their batons swinging. About this time we decided to have a beer in the comparative safety of my friend’s inn, via the metro.
We didn’t have tickets, but we figured the transport police had bigger concerns The tear gas had culminated in the underground stations, so we were eager to escape once we reached the Deak Square station. Having assumed the main riot action had taken place at the parliament end of town, we were stunned as we popped up from the metro, and found ourselves in front of the police line, surrounded by protesters. One of the display tanks was now in the middle of the road (we found out a protester had actually gotten in and driven it there). The red letters that had spelt Budapest were scattered throughout the street. It was a sight, but with only ourselves standing between rioters and police shields, we did not waste time contemplating the scene. We moved quickly to get away from the protesters and back to the inn where we could watch the rest of the action on television.
I tried to reach my inn later in the night. The protesters had been contained in one small area, but it happened to be directly in between my friend’s hostelry and mine. After walking around for a while with gas induced tears streaming down my cheeks (the air was still thick with it, long after the last tear gas canister was thrown), I conceded I needed to book a night at another place.
I returned to my accommodation early the next morning still tasting the tear gas in the air. The streets were a mess, but I had to smile as I walked past Deak Square station. The letters that had spelt "Budapest" had been resurrected – a final farewell from the city I was so fond of.