In Hungary, a ‘joyful sadness’

World September 20, 2017 01:00

By Carleton Cole
Special to The Nation

5,397 Viewed

The Danube separates Buda and Pest, each one distinctive, but Hungarians share in an unqualified unity

DRACULA ISN’T the first character that comes to mind when visiting Budapest, but old Vlad the Impaler – from the Translvania region of neighbouring Romania – is certainly there in spirit.

Muslim Turks conquered the Eastern Roman Empire, and both Constantinople and Budapest with it, in the 15th century. Vlad rose against them, his gory crusade sowing the seeds for the Dracula legend.

One of the many iconic images of national hero St Stephen, under whose reign a millennium ago Hungary became a Christian nation.

But while Constantinople (Istanbul) remained in the Turkish world, the Hungarians recaptured Budapest in 1686. 

In “The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat”, Paul Lendvai calls the survival of a people with a language closer to Korean than German or any Romance language “a miracle of European history”.

The Danube River famously divides Budapest into Buda and Pest. Much of the broad vista can be enjoyed from the neo-gothic Fisherman’s Bastion, a warren of stonework arches, stairs and lattices named for the profession of the citizens who defended their homes against the invaders.

The bastion rests high on the hilltop crowning Buda, overlooking Pest. This close to a continental divide, it may seem that East is East and West is West. Hungarian history dramatically proves otherwise. “How did the ‘child-devouring cannibals’ and ‘bloodthirsty Huns’ became the defenders of the Christian West and heroic freedom fighters against the Mongols, Turks and Russians?” Lendvai asks.

The blurring of elements in the national psyche resonates in conversations with locals. A friendly key-maker fixing the guesthouse door might offer a tip on superb dining (beyond goulash) you’d otherwise miss in a nearby Serbian restaurant. 

Nazi and communistera horror stories on a par with Dracula’s cruelties await contemplation in the House of Terror museum.

You never know who you’ll meet in Pest’s hip “ruin pubs” – watering holes in crumbling post-communist structures, where the parties brim with historical soul. Lendvai attributes “intensity” of existence in the city to an “exceptional loneliness”.

The two distinct sides of the Hungarian capital share mystery and beauty across the river. Somewhat airier, Buda boasts fascinating medieval lanes and hints of the majestic architectural legacy displayed in the palaces and gardens of Vienna, capital of the Hapsburg Dynasty, which dominated the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary that ruled the region from 1867 to 1918. 

Austria’s governance of Hungary was relatively benign in comparison to that of the Turks, though the latter thankfully left behind their coffee and bathhouses. “All Hungarian historians agree that the 170 years of Ottoman rule represented the greatest catastrophe of Hungarian history,” says Lendvai. 

Yet, in moments of tragedy, the seeds of greatness are sown. “Hungarians take their pleasures mournfully” is a well-known saying.

Most visitors explore the Labyrinth of Buda Castle, a dungeon capturing the classic moodiness of the Dracula legend. Myth and fact blur, of course. You read about Dracula’s first wife, from the Hungarian royal family, committing suicide while he was locked up here. 

Hungary’s Parliament, the nation’s largest building, looms large when viewed from a vantage point near royal symbols of authority across the river on Buda District’s Castle Hill, where the “Raven King” reigned across the wide and sparkling Danube.

In these subterranean corridors, Vlad’s captor, King Matthias – often called “the greatest Hungarian” for his courage – would consult his prisoner, who had, after all, married his cousin. Across from Fisherman’s Bastion soars Matthias Church. 

Lendvai acknowledges that Germans, Slavs and Romanians maintain to this day an alternative view of “what Hungarians hail as the heroic deeds of their victorious ancestors”. For the others, he says, it was “a tragedy”. 

“The Magyars annihilated the supremacy of the German Empire” in the region. And Matthias was the central hero in question.

Matthias Church blends the imagery of Islamic and Orthodox Christian, Catholic and Protestant art. Its beautiful alcove is awash in the “joyful sadness” of Hungary. 

A lone figure in white marble is dramatically positioned before a wall of stained glass, rose in hand. This is Austrian Empress Elisabeth, whose martyrdom and spirit of resistance moves Hungarians to this day. 

“Everything had an uncanny fascination for Sisi [Elisabeth], and perhaps it was the only thing that really gripped her,” writes Lendvai.

Among the multitudes of foreigners who have been enchanted with Hungary is Jonathan Harker, the protagonist in Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula”. Before becoming caught up in Transylvanian temptations, he writes in his journal: “Buda-Pesth [a variant spelling] seems a wonderful place from the glimpse I got of it from the train and the little I could walk through the streets.”

Franz (Ferenc) Liszt, inspired by the wilder rhythms of the gypsies, is caught in a moment of artistic flourish in an urban oasis of cafes.

Across the Danube, the most prominent street in Pest honours both Hungarian patriotism and forbidden love. This is tree-lined Andrassy Ut, a boulevard named for Count Gyula Andrassy, the dashing rebel who attracted Elisabeth’s attention. She admired the Hungarians’ lack of restraint over the staid habits of her Germanic kin.

St Stephen’s Basilica personifies the dramatic essence of Hungary. The beautiful shrine honours the monarch who oversaw the country’s conversion to Christianity. It stands beyond the imposing Parliament, the nation’s largest building, significantly placed at the base of the Paris-inspired boulevard. 

Through its elegant treetops blow the darker winds of history that Andrassy buffered, earning him Elisabeth’s affections. The aspirations of the Hungarian nation flow through venerable cafes, like the Muvesz Kavehaz, established in 1898. 

Another imposing venue of a more civilised age, the Hungarian State Opera House boasts an exquisite lobby and regular line-up of top-end theatrical performances. 

For a century, conversation and coffee have flowed in the cafe Muvesz Kavehaz, a Budapest institution on Andrassy Ut boulevard.

It’s a short walk from the House of Terror, where the epic abuses inflicted by German troops during World War II are movingly documented – along with those of Russian occupiers after 1956. 

But there is an unmistakable sense of defiance and dignity in all of this, a spirit of survival. It is again expressed in the Great Synagogue, the world’s second-largest structure of its kind, wonderfully restored in recent years and offering messages of remembrance for victims of the Holocaust. 

Just as Elisabeth was intrigued by Adrassy, Hungary’s favourite son was inspired by the unconstrained passion of the gypsies, descendants of the Roma people who migrated from India.

Visitors to Hungary these days are less likely to thunder in from Asiatic steppes. They fly in to Budapest Ferenc (Franz) Liszt International Airport. It’s named for a man widely regarded as the world’s most gifted pianist, though his attention was riveted not on classical Vienna but rather the energetic rhythms of the gypsies. 

Gypsy music too has a certain joyful sadness. It flows with a sensibility that is neither Eastern nor Western, and it exactly captures the vibrancy of the people of Hungary.

>> Carleton Cole teaches world history and journalism at Mahidol University International Demonstration School.