Continental Crossroads

East greets West as Hungary’s history-rich capital embraces the future

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At the nearly century-old Gellert Hotel, site of a venerable spa on the west bank of the Danube, a dip into a steaming mineral bath makes a fitting start for soaking up the spirit of Budapest, Hungary's beguiling capital. The Gellert's cavernous, Art Nouveau spa first opened its doors in 1918, the year Hungary became an independent nation, after the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved in the wake of World War I. The sulfurous, spring-fed baths under barrel-vaulted ceilings hark back to an ancient tradition: the Romans were first drawn to this Central European plain around A.D. 50 by the prospect of curative waters. They also hint at the city's multilayered past. Turquoise tiles and ornately carved columns evoke the Turkish Ottoman occupation (1541-1686), and Baroque-style cherubs on the walls are a salute to Austrian Hapsburg rule (1686-1918).

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Hungarian, the language spoken by my fellow bathers—business executives, politicians and pensioners—is rooted in a linguistic strain introduced around A.D. 900 by Magyar nomads from western Siberia. It shares similarities with only Finnish and Estonian and has long functioned as something of a bulwark against foreign domination. "It was very important in maintaining our national identity," says Andras Gero, the preeminent historian of Budapest. "Turks, Austrians, Germans and, more recently, Russians never could learn Hungarian."

From the Royal Palace, begun in the 1200s and later rebuilt in styles ranging from medieval to Baroque, to the 1859 onion-domed Great Synagogue in the former Jewish quarter at the heart of the city to the neo-Gothic 1905 Parliament, Budapest's eclectic architecture and narrow, winding streets may recall Old Europe. But the dynamism is definitely New Europe. Since Communism's fall in 1989, the pace of change on either side of the Danube—Buda on the west and Pest on the east—has been extraordinary. The city of two million is now rich with risk-taking and democracy, and the most prominent figures in politics, business and the arts seem to be uniformly young, ambitious and impatient.

"Under Communism, somebody was always managing your life, and it was quite easy to become passive," says Zsolt Hernadi. As chairman of the oil and gas conglomerate MOL, Hernadi, 45, has presided over the metamorphosis of this formerly state-owned behemoth into the country's largest private corporation. He has fired a great many employees, including 80 percent of the firm's 50 most senior managers. "Age isn't my criterion," he insists, "but frankly, I find that people who are in their 30s and 40s are more willing to move in new directions."

The new spirit is mirrored in the physical transformation of Budapest itself. City historian Andras Torok, 51, published his now-classic Budapest: A Critical Guide in 1989. "My ambition was to reveal everything about Budapest," he tells me. But no sooner had his guidebook appeared than readers began pointing out omissions—the renovated lobby of an old building, a restored statue, a new row of shops. Since then, Torok has had to update the guide five times.

At the same time, old traditions are being revived. In the early 20th century, the city boasted more than 800 coffeehouses. "Intellectuals couldn't [afford] to entertain or even keep warm in their own apartments," says Torok, but for the price of a cup of coffee, they could spend the better part of a cold winter day in a café, discussing lyric poet Endre Ady (1877-1919) or satirical novelist Kalman Mikszath (1847-1910), or debating the politics of Count Mihaly Karolyi (1875-1955), the nationalist who formed modern Hungary's first government in 1918, and of Bela Kun (1886-1936), the leftist revolutionary who toppled it a year later. During the Communist era (1945-89), coffeehouses, which were deemed likely to attract dissenters, virtually disappeared. But in recent years, a handful of lavish, nostalgic cafés, re-created in early 1900s style, have opened, though they tend to be expensive. The handsome Café Central is located on Karolyi Street (named after the statesman) in a downtown university quarter. The Central, with its marble-top tables, ornate brass chandeliers, unpolished wood floors and white-aproned waiters, replicates a pre-World War I café.

Then there are the so-called romkocsma, or "ruined pubs," located in abandoned buildings scheduled to be torn down or renovated, which capture the avant-garde energy of the old coffeehouses better than the reproductions. Among the trendiest, Kuplung (Car Clutch) is housed in a space that was once an auto repair garage in the old Jewish quarter. The shabby-chic décor features discarded chairs and tables and old pinball machines on a cracked concrete floor; motley lanterns hang overhead. Patrons down beer and cheap wine diluted with mineral water to the raucous beat of heavy metal and rock 'n' roll.

But it's classical music that really moves Hungarians. This nation of only ten million has assembled an awesome roll call of classical musicians—composers Franz Liszt and Bela Bartok, conductors Eugene Ormandy and Georg Solti, pianists Zoltan Kocsis and Andras Schiff. Hungarian string players, too, are world famous for their distinctive, velvety tone. "It is genetically impossible for a Hungarian musician to make an ugly violin sound," says Rico Saccani, the 53-year-old native of Tucson, Arizona, who conducts the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO).

At a three-hour rehearsal, Saccani greets the 70 musicians with a rousing Buon giorno! Swirling a tiny baton, he barks—"More staccato!" "Stronger crescendo!"—as he leads them through bombastic passages of Rossini’s 1823 opera, Semiramide, as well as works by Schumann, Grieg and Tchaikovsky. I ask Saccani how the orchestra has changed since Communist days. "In those times," he says, "because of generous state subsidies, many more operas and concerts were performed, and ticket prices were so low that attendance was huge." Since 1989, when government financing began to dry up, there have been fewer performances, and many seats are occupied by foreign tourists who can afford the higher ticket prices. The average monthly salary for a BPO musician is only about $700, before taxes.

The next day, one of those musicians, trombonist Robert Lugosi, 27, meets me at the nearby Liszt Academy, Hungary's premier music conservatory. As we wander the halls, muffled sounds of various instruments escape from the closed doors of small practice rooms. Lugosi shows me the school's 1,200-seat, Art Nouveau auditorium, reputed to possess the finest acoustics of any concert hall in Hungary. We pause in the place Lugosi describes as "for me, the most important in the building"—the front lobby stairwell where he met his future wife, Vera, who was a piano student at the time.

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