An Incredible Intensity – Lviv, Budapest, Krakow, Berlin & Vienna: Explaining Eastern Europe

Eastern Europe, how best to understand such a complex, and conflicted region? Perhaps one should start with the cities, many different cities, in many different countries. Catalog the impressions and then ponder what it means, if anything, if nothing.

Lviv – A Man With No Legs
Travel to Lviv in western Ukraine, that beautiful city frozen in a state of rapturously Austro-Hungarian glory. Stroll through the heart of the historic old town. Listen to the sound of stilettos on cobblestone, voices of desire. Gaze at the bucolically bright mansions surrounding Ploshcha Rynok. Spend at least one single morning watching a man with no legs in a wheelchair. He patiently waits to see if any passers-by scatter a bit of change in the bowl that sits in his lap. The man does not beg, he just sits there patiently. He is not dirty or ill-kempt, but actually rather well dressed, if modestly so, from the waist up everything seems normal. The complete picture is quite different, like the many sides of this city. This drama takes place in the shadow of the Neo-Renaissance Opera House. Operas are fiction, while the dramas played out on the street are real.

The Opera House in Lviv

The Opera House in Lviv – fiction inside & reality outside

Budapest – Beauty, Horror & Grandeur
Go to Budapest. Float down the Danube, on one side the hills of Buda blossom, staked out by the spires of churches and castles. Opposite lies Pest, home to the Hungarian Parliament, that delicious architectural confection of neo-Gothicism, a scene and style that devours the skyline. Disembark on the embankment just before the Chain Bridge, walk a bit upriver on the Pest side, to find a series of sculpted shoes at water’s edge. It was here, that hundreds of Jews were forced during the winter of 1944-45 to take off their footwear just before being shot on the banks of the frozen Danube.  Buda and Pest, here is a city that combines beauty, horror and grandeur in uncertain order.

Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial in Budapest

Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial in Budapest – hundreds of Jews were forced during the winter of 1944-45, to take off their footwear just before being shot on the banks of the frozen Danube

Krakow – Defying Disbelief
Onward to Krakow, in that main magnificent square, Rynek Glowny, reputedly the largest medieval square in all of Europe, whatever that is supposed to mean. Here, the glory and pageantry of Poland is spread over 40,000 stunning square meters. All that once was, still remains, the Cloth Hall and the Clock Tower, St Mary’s and the Mickiewicz Monument. Could this square, this astonishing slice of Poland’s rich history, really have once been subject to the diktats of totalitarianism? It all seems too bad to be true. Amid such magnificence one tends to forget the more recent and troubled past. A cure for any case of 20th century Polish historical amnesia is just a tram ride away.

Cloth Hall with the Clock Tower in the background at Rynek Glowny in Krakow (Credit: Jan Mehlich)

Cloth Hall with the Clock Tower in the background at Rynek Glowny in Krakow (Credit: Jan Mehlich)

Stand outside the gates of Nowa Huta and ponder the terrible, fierce rust bucket beauty that was still born here. This suburb was what Krakow, Poland and all of Eastern Europe was supposed to become. A whole city, an entire nation and a wide swath of Europe forged out of iron and steel. Factories lauded as the new cathedrals, heavy industry as the master mold of mid-20th century civilization. Nothing lasts forever, but this hardly lasted a lifetime. Nowa Huta still exists, but its glory days are gone, its labor days are not. This place has become a piece of modern art that rusts right before the eyes.

Model of Nowa Huta

Model of Nowa Huta – It seemed like a good idea at the time

Berlin – French Kissing Fear
To understand Eastern Europe, surely one must understand Berlin. Why it is so hip, so youthful, so vibrant, so alive. This used to be the world capital of disunity, but now it is united in revelry. 21st century Berlin is a city that seems to be giving fear a French kiss. It is so interesting, all those places where terrible things happened and now most of them can be seen for free. There is enough history here to last several lifetimes, but the past need not detain anyone, when there is another club to hop. Stand beneath the Brandenburg Gate and ponder Frederick the Great, the Kaiser, the Nazis, West vs. East. This is where both ends met the middle and a nation, became arbiter of a world divided against itself.

Now the traveler can dance until dawn in no man’s land, admire galleries worth of graffiti at any random underpass and glide by, rather than through Checkpoint Charlie. That once formidable barrier, looks so small and stupid in retrospect. What is more illuminating, the helpfulness of Berliner’s who rush to provide directions or the fact that nothing really happens here anymore, unless fun and efficiency is now of world historical importance.

An apartment block in East Berlin - putting a coat of color on the past

An apartment block in East Berlin – putting a coat of color on the past

Vienna – The Madness of Fairy Tales
Final stop, the fairy tale city of Vienna. Like all fairy tales, this one has more than its fair share of madness. The Hofburg, at the heart of the city, imposes splendor and arrogance, refinement and oppression upon the visitor in unequal measure. Here is where the Habsburg’s decided what was beautiful and everyone else had to live with it or suffocate from it. This was a world that made its own rules which the rest of the world was supposed to live and die by. And the Hofburg is just the start.

Vienna is a grand illusion, a magic act made out of marble and sculpted stone. There is more than enough of this to go around and around the Ringstrasse. It is enough to drive someone mad. No wonder this city gave the world Freud, Klimt and Wittgenstein. It was not just Metternich and Franz Josef who strolled through the gardens at Schonnbrunn, it was also Hitler and Stalin, at the same time, long before they became deities of death, these men were plotting and plodding amid the perfectly kept pathways. Modern Vienna is filled with an world of underlying tension, irksome and uptight. This can best be seen in the strained countenances of the Viennese. Those faces that stare away from the traveler. They are forever peering out tram windows, looking at nothing in particular, with an incredible intensity.

A tram in Vienna - An incredible (and troubling) intensity

A tram in Vienna – An incredible (and troubling) intensity

A World Turning Inward On Itself
The man with no legs, candy colored baroque buildings, shoes sculpted from stone, forty thousand square meters of magnificence, the heavy heart of heavy industry, a world that bordered on the apocalypse and now on frivolity, the weight of history at the Hofburg and so many other things. These are the impressions that help the traveler understand Eastern Europe, its peoples and it cities. What does all this amount to? There is no clear answer, there never will be. Eastern Europe is complex and conflicted. It is filled with the joys and horrors of life. As in the present, as in the past, it is forever turning inward on itself.

A Maze of Imagination: The Hungarian Parliament Building

There is hardly a more fantastical structure in the whole of Europe than the Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest. Sitting astride the Danube, on the Pest side of the river, this architectural wonder is an eclectically astonishing mix of neos: Gothicism, Medievalism, Renaissance and Baroque. Viewed from the Buda embankment, it looks as though it is literally floating on the slate gray river waters of the Danube. When the sky is blue and the sun is shining bright, the building’s reflection unfurls upon the ripples of the river, a shimmering image, sparkling in lustrous splendor. If Disney’s Magic Kingdom was ever to have a stone and mortar counterpart, than surely this must be it.  The building looks as though it is out of a fantasy, a reimagining of grandeur on a scale that can be interpreted as confident, prideful and chauvinistic. It is a symbol of both independence and rebelliousness, infused as much by emotion as symbolism. More than anything, it stands as a singular reflection of the people for whom it was built.

A Maze of Imagination - the Hungarian Parliament

A Maze of Imagination – the Hungarian Parliament

A Transformative Optimism – The Building of Budapest
By the early 1880’s Budapest was in the throes of a transformative belle époque. The trigger for this golden age had taken place a decade and a half earlier. A compromise with the Austrians in 1867 led to the creation of the Dual Monarchy. The emperor of Austria was also crowned as the King of Hungary. At the same time, Hungary was offered virtual independence. One result of the compromise was that Hungarians were allowed their own parliament to practice self-rule.  In 1873, the three cities of Buda, Obuda (Old Buda) and Pest were consolidated into one. From this agglomeration came the city of Budapest. Soon it was the fastest growing metropolitan area in the whole of Europe. People poured in from the countryside, leaving the landed estates behind, while looking to take advantage of the industrial revolution.

The city was literally bursting at the seams with economic activity. Hungary was now an equal part of an empire and virtually independent. The Magyar people, having been liberated from what they believed were centuries of oppression by foreign interlopers, cultivated an economic and cultural renaissance. Much of the newly created wealth went into architectural projects. Banks, universities, market halls, churches and a grand basilica rose from the flatlands of Pest. These constructions were the result of a tremendous optimism. The Magyar nation was ascendant. What followed would be the most optimistic construction project in Hungarian history, a brand new Parliament Building.

Crowning acheivement - A Renaissance dome under siege by Neo-Gothicism (Credit: Alex Proimos)

Crowning acheivement – A Renaissance dome under siege by Neo-Gothicism (Credit: Alex Proimos)

Medievalism Without Reason – A Parliament For the Ages
A contest was put on to see who could create the best design. The competition was fierce. Among the runners-up was Alajos Hauszmann, the famed architect who had designed numerous palaces and would go on to lead the renovation of Buda Castle. All was not lost for Hauszmann. For his entry in the competition would become the Ministry of Justice. This building, along with another runner-up which would become the Ministry of Agriculture, occupied positions directly across from the new Parliament. While each of these might be called stately and grand, they were dwarfed in size, scope and scale by the winning entry from architect Imre Steindl. One critic in the late 19th century termed the prize winning creation, “medievalism without reason.” Some of its stylistic elements certainly seemed to recall the Middle Ages, yet more than anything it redefined architectural possibility. It showcased a broad array of styles placed adjacent or piled on top of one another. For instance, the renaissance dome was topped with a gothic spire. It was a little bit of everything and a whole new thing. It was a building both of the ages and for the ages.

The style was both elegant and grandiose. Its size was otherworldly. This became readily apparent to those who visited the interior. The place seemed endless and unknowable even to those whose job brought them to work within its confines. There were no less than 691 rooms, a third of which were offices (big government was around in the 19th century as well).  The main entrance led to the first of 29 staircases, so many in fact that if stretched end on end they would cover twelve miles. Public officials could enter through 27 gates, use up to 13 elevators and relax in one of ten courtyards. It took over two decades to finish construction. It was finally completed eight years after it was dedicated. The architect, Steindl, went blind and died before it was finished. This hardly mattered, since his vision had little to do with sight and everything to do with imagination.

The Grand Staircase - the path to splendor

The Grand Staircase – the path to splendor

The Art of Possibility – A Building and Its People
Beyond the splendor, the building is, as it was at the time, really about a reverence for the past. It was everything Hungary had been. It looked back at various golden ages in Hungarian history. Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture were all inspirations. On the walls facing the Danube every former ruler of the Kingdom of Hungary, leader of Transylvania and famous Magyar military figures was sculpted in stone. On and on it goes. The message is clear. Hungary and Hungarians represent greatness, it is the architecture of exuberant nationalism.

The building may have been officially finished in 1902, but it never really will be complete. It seems to be in a constant of becoming. Renovations have occurred throughout its history and there are, few if any times that it can be viewed without intrusive scaffolding. In this way, it mirrors the Hungarian nation, which is still a work in progress, never quite complete. The building is reflective of the people it was built for. Magnificently seductive, bursting with creativity and filled with a fierce, energetic pride, it is Hungary and the Hungarians, a nation and a people redefining the art of possibility.