Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Istanbul to Bristol 13 - Into the West

Budapest, 4th December 2012.

"Step back please."

The crowd shuffles back and one of the two soldiers barks an order; they swing their swords up in unison, pause, and swing them down again into a new position. Then the soldiers are silent and still once more.

"The guards move their sword arm every fifteen minutes so they don't fall asleep." explains the guide in a slightly bored voice.

More cautiously than when we first arrived, our tour group shuffles back towards the thick glass case between the soldiers that holds the Holy Crown of Hungary. The golden crown is ringed with a series of enamel pictures and topped with its famous slightly wonky cross; the result of the crown being hastily hidden in a chest that was too small for it.

The central hall where the crown rests is, like the rest of the interior, gold, intricate and one feels excessively ornate. Anything that could be covered in gold is. The only parts of the walls and ceilings that aren't covered in gold give the impression of having been spared only so you notice the next bit is gold again, instead of being a monotonous shiny surface. After the crown room we're led down an imposing staircase and along red carpeted corridors into one of the two identical assembly chambers.

Until 1945 the Hungarian Parliament had two chambers, upper and lower, but since the 1989 founding of the Hungarian Republic the lower chamber is used for the single national assembly that rules Hungary. The old upper chamber, which we're shown, is kept as an ever ready back-up and for the occasional use as a double in films or television programs. Like the rest of the building the decoration in the chamber itself is not subtle; gold and dark polished wood are abundant in the tightly packed seating, the walls and the ceiling. Great coats of arms belonging to former Hungarian noble families hang along the walls.

Outside the chamber we're shown a cigar holder in the form of a long scalloped rail. Smoking in the chambers has long been forbidden, but smoking in the rest of the building was only banned recently. During the duller parts of speeches and debates senators would nip into the corridor for a few puffs of their slowly smouldering cigars, leaving the cigar in the rack again when returning to the chamber. If a speech was so riveting or important that the member didn't leave, and their cigar burnt down without them, it was regarded as being good enough to be 'worth a Havana', an expression for something good that is apparently still used occasionally in Hungary today.

For lunch we've been recommended a traditional Hungarian food restaurant named after the nation's favourite spice; Paprika, located on the south west corner of the City Park. To get there Ste and I walk up the long and grand Andrássy Avenue, another of Budapest's World Heritage sites. The wide avenue is lined with mansions, upmarket shops and restaurants. Close to the city centre everything is well kept and glamorous. As we get out towards the City Park and Hero's Square, where the avenue ends, the upkeep of the buildings becomes more variable.

There are a lot of embassies along the avenue, all well kept, but between them is the occasional run-down and unloved town house. Peeling paint, rusty railings and sooty brickwork show that while no-one who owns a property on this prestigious address wants to give it up, not all can afford the upkeep.

Turning right at Hero's square, its singular tall column rising out of the flat parade ground, we carry on along the edge of the park. We can see the open air natural baths steaming lightly in the cold air, the chatter and cry of bathers enjoying the warmth drifts towards us. Sadly Ste and I don't have time to join them and the surprisingly long walk up Andrassy Avenue has left our minds firmly focused on lunch.

On the edge of the park is another memorial to the 1956 uprising. This modern sculpture rises out of the ground with a polished steel prow rippling and buckling the cobbles before it like an icebreaker. As it slopes back towards the ground the smooth polished surface breaks into individual pillars, each becoming more tarnished and shorter the further from the point they are. The shape also starts to break apart into individual pillars as it sinks and broadens, becoming less defined and sharp in form. The metaphor is easy to understand; together people can achieve more, uniting to a sharp, unstoppable force, even if the constituents are weak and rusty on their own.

Eventually we arrive at the Paprika restaurant. The insides are decorated to make you think of a rural peasant's house, heavy timber beams in the roof, large stones protruding from the corners of the room, breaking out from the patches of smooth plaster. Even the chairs are made of large chunks of wood, to look like they were assembled made out of bits of tree that happened to be lying around. The food is excellent, stodgy and much more convincing in its authenticity than the décor. I eat a goulash with nokedli, a sort of small rough egg noodle (also known as Spätzle in some German speaking countries).

After lunch we return via the metro and its unnervingly fast escalators to the city centre. Here we visit St Stephen's basilica, which we walked past yesterday. Just inside the incredibly tall wooden doors a priest is standing next to the large collection box, eyeing every entrant and listening carefully for the twin clinks of the 'voluntary donation' landing on the shifting heap of coins within. Before us a visitor drops in his coins, but they land simultaneously and clink only once, causing the priest to step forwards and starts shouting at him. The man protests, waving his arms in defence, making the motion of two coins sticking together, but the priest suffers no protests and just looks more cross, gesticulating angrily and pointing at the door we've come through. The visitor then digs another coin out of his pocket and drops it with sarcastic theatricality into the donation box. Ste and I are careful to ensure our coins drop separately. 

The theme I've seen in Eastern Orthodox churches continues here in the Catholic basilica; dark marble and deep shadows from which gold can be seen faintly glinting. You can feel the weight of the stone, gold, symbolism and history of the building. Clearly something sacred, but weighed down with the baggage of the past. The many small security cameras and holy statues let you know you're being watched and judged through modern technology and ancient theology. On the way out we notice the brass sign on the exit door still says 'Ausgang'; so not all the signs of Budapest's previous bilingualism have been removed quite yet. 

We collect our bags from the apartment, say goodbye to Alex and return to the metro station. I say farewell to Ste, my brave companion of the last few days. Ste will fly back to London later tonight, but I have to catch a train to Vienna earlier tonight to keep my schedule. 

Back again at Keleti station the Austrian Railways (OBB) RailJet train is already waiting at the platform, the engine feels massive as you walk past the gently humming air vents. It's almost as if you can feel the electrical eddies of the huge motors and magnets inside passing through you. Unlike most other high speed trains the driving power is not distributed between the carriages, it all comes from this one neat and minimally appointed engine. The inside design matches that of the outside; understated, unfussy and uncluttered. Perhaps a bit cold for some people's taste, but it feels very clean and refreshing compared to the dusty compartments of the last few trains.

It's already dark as we pull out of the station. After a busy few minutes shaking left and right the train finds the correct track and we start to accelerate. From the darkness outside the windows I can't tell how fast we're moving, there are only occasional lights, but the screen in the middle of the carriage ceiling tells us that we're doing a comfortable two hundred kilometres an hour. So I settle down and relax knowing I haven't travelled this fast since my plane landed in Istanbul.

I'm shaken from my book by a text message telling me that I'm now on an Austrian mobile phone network. With that low-key announcement I've entered western Europe. With Hungary being part of the Schengen agreement there is no passport control or stamp to welcome me to Austria. It seems such a strange concept that just over twenty two years ago that travel between the then Eastern Bloc and the West was impossible for most people. Now you're barely even told when it happens. I look out of the dark windows for some sign to confirm that I'm in Austria, that this is now 'The West' and fundamentally a different place somehow, but in an unlit darkness all countries look equal.