Budapest: city guide

As a tourist in Budapest in 1996 it's sometimes hard to remember that it has not always been this calm; 40 years ago people were fighting on these streets as Soviet tanks rolled in. But above the glossy shops, you notice that the buildings are still riddled with bullet holes. By Sarah Cutforth
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The Independent Travel
On a Tuesday afternoon in Bartk Bela utca, there was nothing much going on. People stood at bus stops wearing that mid-afternoon bus-stop expression of grim curiosity and clouded hope. Occasional dogs passed, doing occasional dog things, slowly.

As a tourist in Budapest in 1996 it's sometimes hard to remember that it has not always been this calm; 40 years ago people were fighting on these streets as Soviet tanks rolled in. In the Disneyish "old town", you are greeted by smiling fake Gypsies in front ofsand-coloured houses, but in the working city below you notice that, above the glossy shops, the buildings are still riddled with bullet holes.

Heading away from the city centre on the sort of yellow bus which wiggles at the waist as it turns corners, we gradually moved into a world delineated by housing blocks in shades of grey.

As polite Trabants jostled for parking space, we came to a halt and a cheerful group of very floral and very solid middle-aged ladies disappeared off into the grey buildings. Meanwhile, I kept my eyes on the map, worried that I might miss Lenin.

Bartk had six streets named after him on my map, including the one we'd just left; but he was trumped by the 19th-century revolutionary leader Lajos Kossuth, who appeared to have 14, and that's before you venture into abbreviations. But somewhere along the line Karl Marx lost all of his.

If you poke around in the back streets of any Hungarian town you may find archaeological traces of the 40 years of the People's Republic: scratched old maps which blurt the word "Lenin" where these days there should be an inoffensive poet.

Since 1989, most streets have returned to their pre-Communist names or acquired new, inoffensive-poet-type ones, apparently nominated by members of the public. So it was unnerving when, as the bus headed up a hill and its engine adopted the rising tone of a nervous teacher, we moved into a new grid of streets named simply I utca, II utca, Ill utca, IV utca, V utca, right up to XVII.

When the bus juddered to its halt at the crest of the hill, it became clear that no one bothered to name these streets because this seemed to be the end of the Earth.

Walking on, with clouds of white dust encircling my ankles like tennis socks, I kept up a busy attempt to impersonate someone who speaks Hungarian and is meant to be here. From time to time growling dogs hurled themselves unyielding garden gates.

Then, just beyond the sign that tells you with a big red slash that you've left Budapest, there was Lenin, peering out across the main road towards Lake Balaton, stooping slightly and looking out of place at the entrance to his new retirement home in the Szoborpark.

Budapest's statue park opened three years ago as an open-air museum, a place where all the monuments from the previous political regime could be gathered together and viewed with adjustable respect and derision by Hungarians and visitors alike.

Encircled by a wall of harsh orange brick that looks slightly too new, and with huddled pylons lurking nearby, it has the unfinished look of an ill-chosen Eighties private housing development. Inside, it feels like a zoo.

There's a strange and queasy line between satire and celebration, which the Szoborpark treads cheerfully, relishing its ambiguities, particularly in the souvenir shop, where cassettes of Soviet revolutionary songs are on sale alongside empty tins labelled "The Last Breath of Socialism".

The architecture, too, tries to meet symbolism with symbolism - and almost wins. Lenin's grand and tacky entrance facade is a sham. As the guidebook slyly explains: "You cannot enter at the main gate. It is always shut. But then again, if you are clever, you can always find a side entrance."

Visiting the park, you come upon all the history edited out of the city centre. All around, giant figures stride and wave, and die heroically; smaller, more realistic revolutionaries quietly resemble Arthur Lowe. There are little plaques here and there. And, in the middle of it all, among the scrubby grass, there's a red star in the flower bed.

Above, the sound of bird song mingles with distant lorries and the faint murmur of Soviet revolutionary music coming from the shop.

In this dead place, the statues seem disquietingly loud, with their hysterical waving arms and grand seductive emotions; you want to giggle like children in church. Right on cue, a pair of small Hungarian children stopped in front of an immense Soviet soldier and tried to peer under his greatcoat.

For more than 40 years this sentry, with his flag and his huge boots, stood solidly overlooking the city from Gellert Hill, another reassuring presence to be proud of or to despise. In the guidebook he's pictured, like the others, in situ, a now unimaginable part of a previous ordinariness.

But all was not so solid in 1956. During the October revolution, he was forcibly deposed from his passive sentry duty, and two years later he was replaced by a replica, practically identical. Now he remains, along with Hungary's other symbols of awkward history, corralled in the suburbs.

Budapest city essentials

Getting there

British Airways (0345 222111) and the Hungarian airline Malev (0171- 439 0577) both offer two flights daily. Expect to pay around pounds 200 return, less from discount agencies.

Getting around

Try out the oldest underground railway outside London. Line 1 opened a century ago, and looks mostly unchanged since then.

Getting up

Gellert Hill lies behind the hotel of the same name. Both are named after someone who sounds like a character from Viz magazine: Bishop Gellert, a religious zealot. His evangelism ended abruptly when he was nailed up in a barrel and rolled down the hill into the Danube. He is commemorated by a bronze figure angrily waving a cross, but is dwarfed by a much larger statue of liberty: the Liberation Monument consists of a woman offering a palm leaf in gratitude to Soviet soldiers who a decade later were to stifle the liberation movement.

Getting fed

Sample the cakes (not bread) at Gerbeaud, the epitome of central European indulgence. The atmosphere is as rich as the gateaux: scurrying waitresses in monochrome uniforms, chandeliers dripping with gilt, customers consumed with guilt, wagging tongues and raised eyebrows among the gossiping regulars.

Getting advice

There are a number of information offices in the city, but you could check in advance at the Hungarian National Tourist Board, c/o Commercial Section, Hungarian Embassy, 46 Eaton Place, London SW1 (0171-235 8767).

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