Hungary at heart

The language is impenetrable but no country is more likeable, says Nicholas Lezard as he returns to a land reunited with Europe at last

The conscientious traveller will have had a peek at a Hungarian phrasebook before setting off. And then quickly close it again. Hungarian is not an impossible language to learn, if you are a genius, or have some talent for extraterrestrial speech. If you speak Finnish or Estonian you'll have a head start, for Hungarian is related to these languages, and these alone, but only in the way that English is related to, say, Polish.

The conscientious traveller will have had a peek at a Hungarian phrasebook before setting off. And then quickly close it again. Hungarian is not an impossible language to learn, if you are a genius, or have some talent for extraterrestrial speech. If you speak Finnish or Estonian you'll have a head start, for Hungarian is related to these languages, and these alone, but only in the way that English is related to, say, Polish.

So one is affected, perhaps more than usual, by the first poster greeting you in your own language. "A little bit of roaming, a little bit of home," says an advertisement for Pannon GSM at the airport, which not only leaves no one the wiser about the company, but makes one suspect that the slogan has been swiftly translated from a more resonant Hungarian proverb. Still, when I read this it was only the country's first day in the EU, and they'll get plenty of practice later. And they are, anyway, brainier than any other country (more Nobels per capita than any other nation; see remarks on language, above), even if their history demonstrates an almost absent-minded compulsion to align themselves with the wrong or losing side in any major conflict. They even took to fascism long before the Germans, trusting their destiny, albeit with a certain degree of pressure, to the military dictator Admiral Horthy, without having noticed that the title "Admiral" sounded a little suspicious in a landlocked country.

Yet despite having been on the German side in two world wars, and one half of the focal point of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before then, none of their neighbours dislikes them. And in the fractious atmosphere of central Europe, burdened with murderous histories, alliances forged and betrayed, that is miraculous.

They even managed under communism, once they'd recovered from the beating up the Russians gave them for daring to rebel in 1956. The place was an Iron Curtain country the last time I was there, 17 years ago: but even then, with a big red star glowing on top of the parliament building, they had freedom of thought and, to a much greater degree than their neighbours, expression. Only travel was next to impossible, largely because of the prohibitive expense, and the folly of attempting to drive for more than five kilometres in one of the ubiquitous Trabants, the most comically under-engineered car that the Warsaw Pact could offer. But I quickly grew to love the Hungarians. Paprika, remember, is the national spice, however tactful and reserved the people seem to be. Be assured: they are passionate, like their flag, at right angles to the Italians: good people to have at a party - but natural, unrapacious entrepreneurs, capable of organisation and thought.

The Hungarian, they say of themselves, is the one who enters a revolving door behind you but somehow leaves in front of you, yet no one holds this against them. Their response, in 1987, to a law obliging everyone to buckle up in the front seat was to manufacture T-shirts which featured a realistic representation of a seat belt diagonally across the front. It hardly fooled anyone less than 60 feet away but the police considered it a good enough safety measure. No one wanted to make a fuss. They aren't overexpressive or too loud in that continental way that used to alarm the English, and could remain buttoned-up all day long if they had to - but with a few drinks under their belts, they went wild. They are not a highly religious people - their talent for science and mathematics attests to that - and are in any case not too troubled by the eschatological consequences, as their impressive suicide rate shows.

But even that seems like a refinement, rather than a barbarity (for a hugely entertaining explanation, or portrayal, of suicide as the national sport, read Antal Szerb's splendid novel, Journey by Moonlight). For Budapest - I cannot speak for the countryside - is unarguably civilised. It is not so much a matter of them joining Europe; Europe, at last, has rejoined them. Few cities on earth feel as essential to the continental project and as at ease with the attendant obligations, as Budapest. It is an irony lost on no one that the only other country that feels so European is Switzerland, which isn't even in the EU. Yet Budapest's place on the fringe makes its European qualities all the more apparent, a matter of choice and destiny rather than mere geographical accident.

That they speak a language that no one else on earth can understand somehow doesn't seem to matter. Its almost comical difficulty absolves the visitor of the duty to learn more than a few handy phrases. Which, as you might expect, are the numbers one to 10, yes, no, thank you, please, beer, wine, and gulyas, or, as we call it, goulash. (Hungarian is quite easy to pronounce, I find, and its music, if not its message, is audible to anyone prepared to put in half an hour learning its rules.) And now easyJet has opened a route to the capital, which ends for good the episode of Hungary's isolation.

It is an encouragement you would be wise to accept. Endure the easyJet experience (which isn't bad: the cabin staff sprinkle their announcements with genuinely funny jokes, and the low fares mean that you get a nicer class of people sitting near you) and use the money saved for a fancy hotel, the Gellert, say, or the Royal Grand Corinthia if you're feeling really flush. The former has its own spa but you are advised to avail yourself of the public ones, which is the best way to refresh yourself after a hefty lunch (the time of day when Magyars do most of their quality eating).

Budapest, lush after much-needed heavy spring rain, offers one of the nicer drives from the airport to the city that I have experienced. The dinky motorway, if you can even call it that, is lined with houses that may be on the shabby side but lean also towards the picturesque. The last time I saw the place it slumbered under a heavy layer of grime, that patina of underinvestment that seemed to be such a feature of communism. This is still there - as is a good deal of the original street furniture, its charmingly ramshackle flower kiosks (the Hungarians love their flowers; in Ulysses, Leopold Bloom's family name, before it was anglicised, was virag, the Hungarian for flower), its plentiful trams, its scarlet postboxes. Entrepreneurial vulgarity has, inescapably, begun to infest the place, but this is arguably better than the old system, whereby one could walk the streets for an hour and still wonder if there were any kinds of shops or restaurants or indeed anything selling anything other than taxi rides - or virags. The march of the free market is not as dismaying as it is in, say, Prague (although the usual fast food outlets abound, with depressing ubiquity). The place still feels classy.

As do the people. The middle-aged, if men, look like university professors, even when driving taxis. The young are not at all shabby. Our guide, Victoria, may walk through the flea market as if all too conscious of a real danger of acquiring fleas, but this could have something to do with being one of the most beautiful women my wife and I have ever seen. (Budapest would appear to be entering a tentative experiment in sex tourism, in the striptease and stag-night areas - we saw no prostitution, although we weren't looking for any - and there are now a few of what are disconcertingly called "Szex Shops" in certain areas. Whether the extra z adds or detracts from any perceived allure I am still unable to say, perhaps because I feel bound to point out that Hungarian pronunciation means that the "h" in "shop" is unnecessary. But perhaps "Szex Sop", or even "Szex Sap", would be too much for western brains.)

But this kind of thing doesn't bother me one way or the other. What is interesting is the striking architecture of the city, especially (I am being perverse here) the more populated business area, Pest. This is laid out in Haussmannesque Parisian lines, except more grid-like: solid 19th-century stuff, but with more mid-European flourishes and occasional flashes of fairy-tale whimsy. Their national poet, Sandor Petofi, wrote a poem learned by all Hungarian children, which, among other conceits, proposes that France is further away than India, several days' journey by sea from the plains. Which, in a sense, it is.

Go to hilly Buda over the Danube and you will find more evidence of their attitude to the deeper past: classiness in their eyes is often a matter of medieval solidity, stony baronial heaviness, like something from King Ottakar's Sceptre, or Hollywood's idea of King Arthur's court. It seems almost bogus at first, but it is done in earnest, and at odds with the classic 19th-century poise of the commercial part of the city.

Like anywhere else, there is a big difference in attitude between city and countryside, rural folk looking on city dwellers as effete, untrustworthy snobs and city dwellers looking on their country cousins as barbarian yokels who would slit your throat for two pins. The differences, the clashes and the congruences, are remarkable and unsettling.

All halfway decent cities offer views which convince you that you have foreseen them in a dream: but Budapest seems to have more of these than others. And you will dream of the place intensely for some time afterwards.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Nick Lezard flew as a guest of easyJet (0871 750 0100 www.easyjet.com).

Where to stay

He stayed at the Corinthia Grand Hotel Royal, Erzsebet Korut 43-49 (00 36 1 479 4813; www.corinthiahotels.com)

Further information

Hungarian Tourist Office (020-7823 1032; www.hungarytourism.hu)

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