Who Put the Buddha in Budapest?

Good times, beer bikes and historo-enlightenment in the heart of Hungary
by Rosalea Barker

Having arrived on the overnight train from Bucharest too early to check into my hotel, my first little adventure in Budapest is a trip to the tourist office in Deak Ferenc Square to pick up the 48-hour tourist pass that will give me free rides on public transit plus concessions on museum entry and excursions. While there, I also pick up the program for the Budapest Spring Festival, which was in its second week at the time of my visit.

To get to the tourist office, I need to take the subway, which turns out to be a somewhat unnerving experience. Budapest’s subway is the second-oldest in the world (the oldest is London’s Underground), and is very deep beneath the two cities on opposite sides of the Danube (Buda and Pest) that were combined into one in 1873. The escalators are vertigo-inducing steep and move at a hair-raising (hare-racing?) pace so that stepping onto one requires a pause to quiet my nerves with some deep breathing, thereby frustrating the rush-hour commuters who are taking that first step-on literally in their stride.

As it turns out, my stay in Budapest coincides with a new milestone in the subway system’s history—the opening of a second metro line under the Danube between Pest and Buda. Having taken a hop-on hop-off bus tour while still whiling away the time until I could check into my hotel, on the second day I take this new line to the Buda side with a plan to walk up nearby Gellert Hill to the Citadel and then back down and continue along the street beside the Danube to the National Gallery.

I decide instead to walk around the base of the hill and make my way up the far side. In so doing, I come across not just a sculpture showing the joining of the two cities, but also The Garden of Philosophy “For better mutual understanding”. It’s the work of a Hungarian sculptor who moved first to Sweden and then to Japan, and his intention was to have three of these installations around the world—one in Japan, which was completed in 1997; one in New York, which has never happened; and this one in his native Budapest, unveiled in October 2001.

Around the central circle, clockwise from Buddha (with his back to us), are Lao-Tzu, Abraham, Ekhnaton, and Jesus. Down the left side are Mahatma Gandhi, Bodhi Dharma and St. Francis of Assisi. There is supposed to be a third set of statues on the right—statues of the great civil law-givers (Hammurabi, Justinian, Moses, Prince Shotoku)—but they only appear in the Japanese installation.

It’s a great pity to me that, when elements were being chosen for inclusion in the 9/11 Memorial in New York, Nandor Wagner’s beautiful expression of the philosophies that need not tear us apart (but so often do) wasn’t one of them. Wagner died in 1999, but he cast all three of the installations, so there’s one going begging for any city with sense enough to value a garden of philosophy.

With apologies to my friends of Hungarian ancestry, I’ve always had a negative view of that country. For one thing, it had an empire, which is never a good look. And its list of Famous People reads like it was written by the Grim Reaper: Edward Teller, co-inventor of the hydrogen bomb; Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism; and the Budapest intellectual who coined the Hungarian word that was translated into English as “World War”. To be fair, that person used the word in a letter he wrote to members of the Austro-Hungarian ruling class warning them of what was likely to result if they persisted in their oppression of people inside their empire’s boundaries, particularly in Serbia. Events shortly thereafter proved him correct. And to be double fair, Zionism didn’t need to be such a bad thing—as Gabor Mate, a Hungarian writer now living in Toronto recently wrote.

But let’s come back from the gloom and doom, shall we? The photo on the left is of a sweet, milky, spicy drink that I had at a Turkish café opposite Heroes Square, whose Millennium Monument was built in 1896 to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of the arrival of Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin. In 1989, Heroes’ Square was the site of the ceremonial re-burial of Imre Nagy, leader of the uprising against the Soviet occupation in 1956.

Sitting outside on the Café Kara terrace, I was surrounded by lunch patrons taking their time over delicious pita bread sandwiches, and having long, thoughtful talks as they shared the hookah they could rent for their table.

The Ottomans occupied parts of Hungary from 1541-1699, and Budapest was one of that empire’s most beloved cities. (If you want to read about the gloom and doom of the Ottoman period, go here.) A description of the city by a poet-soldier of that time speaks of how the long market of Budapest and the Mosque of Sultan Ahmet in the center looks like the Kaba of Mecca. The full poem, posted by a Turkish contributor to a bulletin board about empires, is here.

It was while I was sitting on that terrace that I saw one of the famed Budapest Beer Bikes go by, powered by a group of Aussies singing at the top of their lungs. The Beer Bike consists of a sober driver up front of a circular bar that has bar stools around it for the punters to sit on while they pedal the thing (or “pretend doing some sport” as this website so cheerily states). You don’t have to go all the way to Hungary to see one: Salt Lake City, Utah, has them too.

Like other big cities in Eastern Europe, Budapest seems to be remaking itself as a party city for the young, while still attracting the older crowd with all the historical sights afforded by being continually overrun by other cultures before becoming the center of one yourself, then being occupied all over again by ideologically-driven forces such as Fascism and Communism.

It was recently voted by Conde Nast readers as one of the world’s friendliest cities, and I find it hard to disagree with that. Though I admit I was a bit perturbed when the first brochure I saw in the Information Center at the railway station was entitled “Safety in Hungary” and featured smiling police officers in a range of genuine uniforms so you’d know when you were approached by a fake one demanding payment of a fine of some sort.

Budapest also has these wonderful Aladdin’s Caves on nearly every block. The one pictured here is on the platform at the railway station. They seemed to be the only places you could buy cigarettes and liquor, and security guards won’t let you in if you don’t look over 18. The walls are stacked floor to ceiling with every type of booze you could hope to buy. Behind the counter, every tobacco product imaginable is on display. And the token-operated coffee machine in the corner has a damned good brew, as well.

Despite my initial reservations, Budapest wasn’t half bad! I even got this great recipe for an “Oriental Fruitsalad” off the back of the trail mix I bought for my walk to the Citadel.