It was during the summer of l986, fresh off the train from Vienna, that my love affair with Budapest began. An innocent to the charms of Central Europe, I walked and walked throughout this battered jewel of a city, where—as my friend the writer György Konrád put it—“entire streets are bulletin boards … all visible matter is sculpture.” And I saw then what I still see: to my left from Margaret Bridge, the breathtaking view of the House of Parliament (described by Hungarian poet Gyula Illyés as “a Turkish bath crossed with a Gothic chapel”); to my right, the equally magisterial and magnificent Fisherman’s Bastion and Castle District in Buda; and, behind me, pastoral Margaret Island, later to become my preferred venue for swimming, walking, jogging, and simply meditating on the beauties of my chosen city.
During that week, I also walked over Szabadság híd (“Freedom Bridge”) and bathed in the medicinal thermal waters of the art nouveau Hotel Gellert; I strolled past the congested hub of Moszkva tér up into the clean air of the Buda Hills; I ate goose legs with red cabbage and greasy potatoes at Kis Kakkuk on Pozsonyi út a busy commercial street along the Danube that would later become my home. I also observed—how could one fail to?—the extravagant beauty and sensuality of Hungarian women.
It was all this—the grime-caked stained-glass windows and sybaritic baths, the lovers kissing on Chain Bridge and Margaret Bridge and Freedom Bridge, the jeweled boats and floating casinos, the peep shows and puppet theaters, the crumbling and shell-pocked buildings imbued with romance in the first light of morning, this visual feast of wild and unusual juxtapositions (occasionally condoms, oil filters, and bananas exhibited in a single store window!)—that first charmed me… and charms me still.
Little did I know that I would return as a Fulbright professor in l992—communism gone, Coca-Cola firmly entrenched—and remain for four years. Little did I know then how deeply and enduringly the sense of heartbreaking yet lyrical melancholy that permeates this city would resonate with something deep inside me.
Now, more than 20 years after that first visit, Budapest’s romance endures. Each time I lift a glass of pálinka (brandy) to my lips, I again take my friend György Konrád’s prudent advice. “Refuse modesty,” he writes, “drink to every life in this jewel of a city that you made yours.”
MICHAEL BLUMENTHAL’s collection of essays from Central Europe, When History Enters the House, was published in 1998. He is most recently the author of All My Mothers and Fathers, a memoir.
Nat Geo Traveler All Access
Available in print and for iPad®! See destinations come alive with 360-degree photos, videos, and more!