I visited Budapest, in the winter of 1994, travelling by night train from Amsterdam, changing trains in Vienna in the early hours of the morning, and then on through the great plains of Hungary until finally arriving in the city’s cavernous Railway Station. At the time of my five day visit the two cities of Bud and Pest, now one, and united by the River Danube broadly flowing between them, was still recovering from its years within the Soviet bloc.
It was interesting talking to people about the changes. I spoke to a young man who worked in a rehabilitation centre for Bosnian refugees. He said ‘some people are suddenly getting a lot of money but many people are sinking’. In the communist era everyone had work, he said, and a modest income, now there was poverty and homelessness. A Methodist pastor I spoke to considered that it was at least debatable that living under the ‘shadow of the Kremlin’ might be no worse than being at the mercy of the capitalism and commercialism of the West and the U.
S.A. But this was twelve years ago of course, and there will have been many changes since then.
I was staying in an unfashionable part of the city- 65 stairs to my bedroom! And the building was propped up by scaffolding, part of a street lined with tall buildings, grey and grave and in need of repair. But around the beautiful river there were many fashionable hotels and shops. It was sunny during my stay, but fiercely cold. A lake near the Museum of Fine Arts was frozen and covered by people skating and wearing bright clothes and bobble hats. Food is good in the city, I found, and in the time I was there, reasonably priced. One evening a gypsy band played as we ate, though that isn’t guaranteed. Excellent coffee is.
I had a wonderful visit to the State Opera House. It isn’t huge – room for 1,300 people – but very elegant, stalls on the ground floor and then three tiers of boxes with a gallery at the top.
I was in a box in the third tier next to two dear old ladies who said ‘we will be partners’. The ballet was based on Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’ to music from various works by Tchaikovsky – wonderfully danced and sumptuously played. My seat cost me a little less than £5.