Long Shadows – The Greatest Ill-Fated: Hungarians & The Budapest Metro (Travels In Eastern Europe #26)

Everything I had heard about Budapest, its elegance, style and grandeur would turn out to be true, but my first impression of the city came at the Budapest-Deli (Budapest-South) Train Station. Budapest-Deli is one of those functionalist styled, communist era concrete constructions that give modernity a bad name. It is an architectural step toward oblivion. There are plenty of darkened windows. While the structure’s exterior is mainly in an off white color that suffers from discoloration by grime. The cavernous interior swallows those who traverse its mildew scented corridors. The station’s inner bowels feel like the setting for one of the Death Wish movies. There is nothing remotely pleasant about the place other than the fact that it is safe. To be fair, the station is a byproduct of the horrific destruction caused by the Second World War. During the siege of Budapest, the station and its surrounding area was the setting for a cataclysmic struggle. By mid-February 1945, the Red Army held what was left of the station, which amounted to little more than a giant pile of rubble. It took years to rebuild and it was not fully finished until 1975, during a period that is well known for its architectural low points.

Deli Palyaudvar - another architectural low point

Deli Palyaudvar – another architectural low point (Credit: Attilanagy)

Looming In The Distance – Putting A Name On History
Budapest-Deli connects to Metro 2, also known as the Red Line, which would whisk me from the Buda side of the city, west of the Danube, over to Pest on the river’s eastern side. I only had to go four stops down the line, but each of the names on these stops offered a clue to the tumultuous history of Hungary during the 19th and 20th centuries. The first stop was at Szell Kalman ter, named for a politician that most Hungarians do not even remember. During the Cold War this station had a different name, more indicative of the recent past, Moszkva ter. I later learned that most of Budapest’s citizens still called the station by this name. The long shadow of the Soviet era still hung over some parts of the city. Whether it was in the architecture of Budapest-Deli, a previous name of a metro station or the many tower apartment blocks that framed the city’s outer districts, the looming gray shadow cast by years of communism was never far away.

The next station on Metro 2 was Batthyany ter, named after another Hungarian politician, Lajos Batthyany. Batthyany is much better known than Kalman Szell (the station name is reversed because Hungarian put surnames first), sadly for tragic reasons.  He was Hungary’s first Prime Minister, unfortunately his tenure coincided with the failed 1848-49 Hungarian Revolution. He was sentenced to death by the Austrians for his role in events. Prior to his execution, Bathhyany tried to commit suicide with a small sword that had been smuggled into him by his wife. His attempt resulted in a large loss of blood after he tried to sever jugular veins in his neck. The execution method planned for him was changed from hanging to firing squad. The sentence was carried out in Pest on October 6, 1849. Batthyany is memorialized by, among other things, a mausoleum in the city’s most famous cemetery, an eternal flame at the spot of his execution and having the metro station I passed through named for him. That is all well and good, but his execution is a somber reminder of Hungarian subservience to a foreign occupier.

Széll Kálmán tér station - Metro 2 in Budapest

Széll Kálmán tér station – Metro 2 in Budapest (Credit: Christo)

The Cusp Of Greatness – Kossuth & Deak
From the Bathhyany ter stop, Line 2 rumbles beneath the Danube’s depths before arriving at Kossuth ter, yet another name fraught with historical resonance. Any visitor who spends time in Hungary is confronted by the legacy of Lajos Kossuth. Every city, every town and every village has a street named for Kossuth. Nearly every one of them has a statue of him. It is little surprise that Kossuth’s name was given to the same metro stop as that for the Hungarian Parliament. He is a giant of Hungarian history due to his role in fomenting and then leading the Hungarian Revolution. A brilliant orator, lawyer and journalist, he was the Governor-President of the incipient nation in 1848-1849. Unlike Batthyany, who paid for his support of the revolution with his life, Kossuth escaped abroad. He then spent the last four and a half decades of his life promoting the cause of Hungarian independence abroad. Kossuth’s legacy is in many ways a mirror image of Hungarian history, a meteoric ascent to the edge of greatness followed by a dramatic defeat. Perhaps that is why he has achieved such an exalted status in the pantheon of Hungarian heroes. All Hungarians can see part of themselves in his life.

Deák Ferenc tér - Metro 2 in Budapest

Deák Ferenc tér – Metro 2 in Budapest (Credit: Christo)

My final stop on Metro 2 was Deak ter, named for Ferenc Deak, a famous Hungarian who actually met with great success in his lifetime. He is best known for helping negotiate the compromise which created Austria-Hungary in 1867 and set off a Hungarian golden age of peace, dramatic growth and cultural renown.  It is at the Deak ter stop that the city’s metro lines all converge. This is where the web of Budapest becomes most tightly woven. I navigated this multilevel interchange while dragging a piece of luggage through a crowd of human commotion and energy.  Before long I was taking Metro 3 (Blue Line) a couple of stops to Nyugati Palyudvar (Western Railway Station). It was here that I surfaced in the city.

Nyugati Palyudvar (Credit Bill Dillard)

Nyugati Palyudvar (Credit: Bill Dillard)

A Golden Age – Gilded With Dreams
Nyugati is an unforgettable picture of lost elegance. The Gustav Eiffel designed station still retains the look and feel of its time. Laying my eyes on the station for the first time acted as a wild stimulant to my imagination. If every person in the station had suddenly disappeared and I had been left there all alone, I would have thought time had spun backwards to the turn of the 20th century. Back to that age when Hungary was part of an empire and Budapest was the capital of a Kingdom that stretched from the jagged peaks of Transylvania to the craggy coastline of Croatia. A golden age gilded with the dreams of Magyars reaching for their potential. This station, like the city that surrounded it, aspired to greatness and in that imaginary moment, realized its attainment.

 

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