The Birth of a City

We Take a Walk On the Bright Side

We do, from time to time, revisit the question: what kind of city is this?  We have discovered many dark sides of the city which is contemporary Hungarian landscape.

This time, let’s take a walk on the city’s bright side.

On a foggy November 17th day in the year 1873, forward-looking Hungarian magnates, ambitious merchants, and city elders decided that Buda, Óbuda and Pest should form one metropolis.  Budapest, a city of slightly less than two million residents now is almost as diverse as it was in 1873.  Almost – is the operative word here.  Germans and Jews, Serbs and Greeks, Armenians and Slovaks formed the majority of the 1873 population.  Soon each group began to assimilate and become Hungarian.  This process suffered setbacks and led to the dark days of Budapest’s Jewish community in 1944, as the leftover shoes on the bank of the Danube offer testimony to tragic events.

Actually, the decision of unification was already made in 1870, but implementation took a while.  From here onward, the following 45 years marked a period of extraordinary progress and prosperity for both city dwellers and the entire Hungarian population.  Budapest grew rapidly into one of the great cities of Europe.  This was a period of unparalleled progress throughout Europe, as the prominent British historian, Norman Stone, portrays the period between 1879 and 1919 in his book Europe Transformed.  Budapest transformed, too.

One Hundred and fifty years is, indeed, patriarchal age for humans and superhumans, too, less so for cities like Rome, Paris or London.  In 1873, the founders of Budapest had an ambitious goal of turning three small towns into a metropolis that would match the comfort of Vienna built by the crème de la crème of many nationalities of the Habsburg Empire; and the splendour of Paris transformed by the plans of Baron Haussmann.  It would be unjust to say that Hungarian city builders came up short of their ambitions.  For a while Budapest did match the attractiveness of those sisters.  From 1873, Budapest folks got on with many important infrastructure projects.  The first underground on the Continent was built here; the city’s Board of Public Works saw to it that a new system of canalization and hygiene was at a level that still serves the city well today.

A new opera house was built in 1884; Gustav Mahler became one of its first music directors.  The city’s location, with hills in Buda on one side and the plains of Pest on the other, with the Danube running straight through, lent itself to sensible city planning. There were two concentric boulevard rings with four arterial boulevards: one running up to (soon to be landscaped) City Park and the other running into Eastern Railway station. Besides the opera house, many new theatres opened to deliver entertainment to every segment of the city’s ethnically diverse population.  Historian Norman Stone, who spent his last years in Budapest, called the main street of the theatre district (Nagymező utca) Budapest’s Shaftsbury Avenue.  Almost, one might add, but his comparison does tells us that here we walk on the bright side of the city.

As it seems this year, only a handful of celebrations are being offered for the anniversary.  This is because Viktor Orbán’s government is at odds with the city.  To be frank, this is mutual, there is a requited disrespect for the way Orbán’s regime is treating Budapest and its citizens.

In the midst of a few subdued celebrations in the city, one seemingly small event does stand out on the bright side.  It is an exhibition which opened on November 15 in the staircase and lobby of an Újbuda apartment building, organized and curated by one of its denizens at his own pleasure and expense.  If you wish to visit this niche exhibit in one of the noble little streets of Lágymányos, you may send a request in the Comment section of our Blog.

The 14 pictures on display are drawings and etchings of Balthasar Josef Ludwig Rohbock, a German traveller and illustrator.  Most drawings were, in fact, prepared in the 1850s and they capture the sights one would have seen just a few years before unification.  We Budapesters started from here.  The curator prepared photos of every site from the very same spot and angle of Rohbock’s works.  These colour photographs shot in 2023 are displayed at the right corner of each drawing.

The exhibit was opened before 14 visitors by Noémi Saly, a savvy historian of Budapest and its inhabitants.  She explained to us how Pest looked like a market place for produce, cattle and food stuffs; Buda would have been an imposing royal castle and there were prosperous vineyards until the philloxera killed off this industry in the late 19th century.  After the philloxera came the peach and almond orchards, and soon the Buda suburbs, like Rose Hill or Lágymányos, but most of all Sasad, were redolent of the fragrance of peaches every fall.

It would be a spoiler to describe each of the 14 artworks.  Let’s restrict ourselves to a few that this reporter found outstanding.

We have a good drawing of the Dohány Synagogue just before completion.  It was an imposing edifice as completed in 1859.  On the drawing you can see the house where Theodor Herzl grew up in the 1870s.  Another piece on display depicts the bank of the River Danube in front of the Greek Church on the Pest side.  Horse carriages are lining up in front of Chain Bridge; a little bit to the south fishermen in shepherds’ wool coats wait for the next shipment, and a lovely donkey-driven cart is just about to carry three barrels of fish to a city market.

On the Buda side, my darling is the Emperor’s Bath (Császárfürdő) in a period when a small branch of the river’s flow powered water mills.  Ducks and other fowl swim gently in the water.  Not surprisingly the photograph taken by the curator in 2023 shows neither mills nor ducklings, but connoisseurs of this side of Buda recall that on the other side of the building was an open-air café by the name Malomtó (Mill Pond). It operated here thirty years ago, and where, by water lilies and other Monet-like vegetation, one could forget about the angst of a few hard days’ nights.  Love unrequited was an unknown and unlikely outcome here.  Sadly, the café is gone, but the natural hot spring is still there, sprouting the most lovely water lilies.

Memories, however, carry on.

A short film that survived since 1916.

Andras I. Hanak

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