John Lukacs on Budapest

Buda as seen across the Danube from Pest (pushingtheflywheel.com)

Pest as seen across the Danube from Buda (pushingtheflywheel.com)

This post is a naked attempt to get Hungary onto the list of nations provided to WordPress bloggers to give them an idea of where their posts are being read. I am a quarter Hungarian and my wife Victoria is a full-blooded Hungarian in all four quarters. Her parents, who live a mile from us, speak Hungarian at home. I want to visit Budapest someday, but until then I want someone from Budapest to read my blog. So hear goes.

This delightful passage is from Budapest 1900, by the historian John Lukacs:

“This city,” wrote Gyula Krudy about Budapest, “smells of violets in the spring, as do mesdames along the promenade above the river on the Pest side. In the fall, it is Buda that suggests the tone: of the odd thud of chestnuts dropping on the Castle walk; fragments of the music of the military band from the kiosk on the other side wafting over in the forlorn silence. Autumn and Buda were born of the same mother.” In Budapest the contrast of the seasons, and of their colors, is sharper than in Vienna. It was surely sharper in 1900, before the age of the omnipresent automobile exhausts and diesel fumes. Violet in Budapest was, as Krudy wrote, a spring color; it was the custom to present tiny bouquets of the first violets to women as early as March. They came from the market gardens south and west of the city, sold along the Corso and in the streets by peasant women. In March, too, came the sound and the smell of the risning river. The Danube runs swifter and higher in Budapest than in Vienna. It would often flood the lower quays, and the sound and sight of that swirling mass of water would be awesome. By the end of April a pearly haze would bathe the bend of the river and the bridges and quays, rising to Castle Hill. That light would endure through the long summer mornings, lasting until the mature clarities of late September.

At night the shadows retreated, and a new, dark-green atmosphere grew over the city like a canopy of promise. This was not the acid springtime of Western Europe: May and June in Hungary, even in Budapest, have something near-Mediterranean about them. The smoke from the myriads of chimneys retreated with the shadows (except, of course, the highblown smoke of the mills and factories in the outer districts). The chairs and tables were put out before the cafes and in the open-air restaurants. It was then that the nocturnal life of Budapest blossomed, a life with singular habits and flavors that began early in the evening and lasted into the dawn, in which so many people partook. There were avenues in Budapest which were more crowded at ten at night than at ten in the morning, but not because they were concentrations of nightlife, such as in Montmartre or Piccadilly. The freshness of the dustless air, especially after the May showers, brought the presence of the Hungarian countryside into the city. Somewhat like parts of London in the eighteenth century (or Philadelphia in the nineteenth), this smokey, swollen, crowded and metropolitan Budapest was still a city with a country heart, with a sense that a provincial Arcadia was but an arm’s length away. By May the violets were gone but there was a mixture of acacias and lilacs and of the apricots, the best ones of which in Hungary were grown within the municipal confines of Budapest. There was the sense of erotic promises, earthy and tangible as well as transcendent. It penetrated the hearts of the people, and not only of the young; and it was not only a matter of espying the sinuous movements of women, movements more visible now under their light summery frocks. It was a matter of aspirations.

My fingers are tired so I will not give the rest of the passage, at least not right now. I am afraid that my wife Victoria’s sister Barbara, having visited several times, reports that all is not well in the old city. Sadly, the same might be said of many other places, where beauty, wit and charm have been replaced by glitz, stupidity and ugliness. Still, like Prague, which I’ve visited, Budapest holds out the lure of the old, even if its greatest pungency must be sought in books. Lukacs wrote Budapest 1900 in 1988, just a year before the city and the nation became free again.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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