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TRAVELING IN STYLE : Prime Time in Budapest : On Both Sides of the Danube, the Hungarian Capital Echoes With the Past--and Glows With the Season

March 07, 1993|JOHN LUKACS | John Lukacs, a native of Budapest, is a professor of history and the author of numerous books, including "The End of the 20th Century," published this year by Ticknor & Fields, and "Budapest 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and its Culture" (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

IN LATE SPRING, THE CLIMATE OF LANDlocked Hungary has a Mediterranean tinge to it. By the beginning of May in Budapest, the trees are already in full leaf, the streets and avenues are flecked with green and gold, and the air is liquid and sweet, despite the pollution that often hangs like a veil over much of the city. The terraces of the cafes and restaurants have opened, and it is pleasant to sit outside at almost any time of day.

Today, most of the people sitting on those terraces will be tourists. The inhabitants of Budapest today lead lives that are too harried for dallying in such places. That was not so two or three generations ago. At the beginning of this century there were no less than 600 coffeehouses in Budapest--and there were very few tourists. Budapest was a modern city then. Foreign visitors were surprised to find, east of Vienna, a metropolis with luxurious hotels, fine shops, smartly dressed men and women, wide, long boulevards, and new buildings by the hundreds.

Today, most of Budapest still looks like a turn-of-the-century city--a fact that charms its visitors, perhaps, but not necessarily its inhabitants. True, there are a few new postmodern office buildings and ultramodern hotels around the city (the latter with all the amenities of such establishments in, say, Berlin or Brussels, and with solicitous staffs of a kind all but obsolete in most other places). However, a vast number, perhaps the majority, of the residents of Budapest live in apartment houses built 80 to 120 years ago. They know, and experience every day, how run-down they are--while foreigners, passing through, find these sooty petrifications of a Central European bourgeois civilization to be attractive. Those chiseled and carved portals, those muscular caryatids holding up balustraded stone balconies, those quadrangular towers atop some of the buildings, are small monuments of artisanry and handiwork. One hundred years ago, those rows of buildings were assertively new. Now they belong to an age long past, which is their great appeal--from the outside.

BUDAPEST: BUDA AND PEST. THESE WERE ONCE TWO separate towns, two municipalities on opposite sides of the Danube, united only in 1873, 24 years after the first permanent span, the Lanchid or Chain Bridge, had connected them. Buda is hill and dale; Pest is entirely flat. Buda was traditionally German-inhabited, conservative, Catholic, agricultural. Pest was Magyar, rebellious, radical, a market town, with a considerable Protestant, and later Jewish, population. In the 19th Century, Pest overtook Buda demographically, politically, culturally, architecturally.

In 1890, only one of every four inhabitants of the city lived in Buda. Pest was more fashionable, a fact that one may sense today ambling around what was then its most elegant residential quarter, full of turn-of-the-century villas reminiscent of the Belle Epoque mansions found in the suburbs of Paris or around the Retiro in Madrid. Things are different now. Those who have a choice prefer to live in Buda, and the population of the two halves of the city is now almost even.

Those hills of Buda--cascading down toward the river in an irregular and asymmetrical fugue, their crests punctuated by clumps of houses--are enticing, particularly in the spring and summer. (Some of them are more than hills; the highest one is nearly 1,600 feet high.) In May, the air--always more salubrious here than in Pest--may be warm enough to let the visitor sit outside late into the evening, on a park bench or in an outdoor restaurant, and watch the slow brightening of lights in windows across the river in Pest, together with the sudden coruscation of the brilliant electric garland that traces the classical outline of the Chain Bridge.

Or, descending from the slopes of Buda, the visitor might walk across the Margaret Bridge and pause for a moment to lean over its ugly French-Victorian railing. From there, the slow curve of the Danube is such that one can see, reflected in the dark flowing water, the floodlighted monumental buildings on Castle Hill, the immense and ornate Parliament and the glittering Chain Bridge garland, all at once. It is one of the great cityscapes in the world.

BUDAPEST IS NOT A VERY OLD CITY, WITH A FEW EXceptions. One of these is Varhegy or Castle Hill, in Buda--a plateau occupied by the first citizens of Buda as early as the 13th Century. The Hill--from portions of which, thank God, automobile traffic is now excluded--is the site of the city's Royal Palace and many other notable structures, including numerous museums. Most tourists are driven up to Castle Hill in buses for the view, to gaze down on Pest from the white parapets of a strange serpentine breastwork, the so-called Fishermen's Bastion (which, despite its medieval look, was built between 1890 and 1905). That view is grand rather than beautiful.

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