Sunday, 21 September 2008

Budapest - The Sociable City

I think our main impression of the Hungarian capital is how its citizens love to be part of a big crowd. On our first night in Budapest, we watched intrigued as several hundred young people wearing red or yellow armbands amassed in one of the city's main squares. As Theo drank dark Magyar beer and I sipped a palinka, they stood around in groups, then dispersed and re-grouped
with occasional breakaway contingents suddenly chasing one another pell-mell through the chairs and tables set up outside the bars. Our waiter was similarly nonplussed, but eventually he discovered it was a game of "Capture The Flag". We were greatly taken with the scale of the event, it made quite spectacle.

The next day our sightseeing was livened up by big screens, amplified music and a hell of a lot of flags. Twenty thousand or so Hungarians had taken to the streets in a pro-democracy march, concerned by the faltering economy and the country's vociferous fascist minority. "It's all a bit bullshit, really", commented the TV journalist who told us what the protest was about, "They don't really know what they want." It didn't stop us feeling impressed, though.

Mind you, it wasn't long before we saw the focus of those people's worries - particularly the sizable group of Roma demonstrators. Having just had an afternoon cuppa in the gorgeous, Art Nouveau cafe Lukacs, we intended to visit the Terror House - the museum chronicling the atrocities experienced in Hungary under the communists and before them, the Nazis. Ironically, our plan was scuppered by the appearance of another march, which turned out to be the modern fascists, the ultra right, complete with skin-head haircuts and racist chants.

As we watched the thousand or so marchers pass us on Andrassy Utca, the owner of Cafe Lukacs stood beside us, bemoaning the demo's effect on his business. "It's all a bit bloody bullshit, really," he told us. "They don't really know what they want."

The next day, Sunday, we decided to take a dip in Budapest's famous, century-old public thermal baths. Once again, there were crowds of people. Many were obviously tourists; as one French girl said to another "c'est plein d'Anglais". But many were clearly local and came to enjoy the twenty or so different pools, saunas and steam-rooms as much for the socialising as their health. It was a grand excuse to hang around and have a bit of a chit-chat with your mates or, indeed, a game of chess. We saw at least three boards set up on one side of the outdoor pool, while various middle-aged men stood chest-deep in the water, solemnly working out their moves.

If that wasn't enough, we also wandered through a free, green-themed street party, complete with children's games and outdoor concert and a market with another stage and yet more live music.

And then there is the willingness with which various people joined us in conversation. As well as the journalist and the businessman, a teacher of English and ice-skating had helped us on the trams and ended up sharing a bit of her life-story as we all negotiated the public transport disruptions. For all our wanderings in the various foreign capitals we have visited, we have seldom managed to talk to the people who live there, unless we already knew them. Budapest is different. It's a lively place and I think I can honestly say we both got thoroughly caught up in the action.

No comments:

Post a Comment