When we announced our intention to move to Bratislava, the first question everyone asked was “why?” Why, at a phase of life when we might buy a beach house or mountain retreat, why during an age where we could slow down and drop hints to our children about grandchildren, why did we instead move to a “third world country”? The question is repeated now that we have moved a few hours down the Danube to Budapest.
Central Europe developed its lesser world reputation through decades of communism. As a kid, we sometimes glimpsed behind the Iron Curtain – when a famous dancer defected to the west or when Lladislav Bielik’s photo of a man challenging a Soviet tank splashed on front pages globally. Bread lines and barbed wire made us forget much of this region used to be an empire.
Before times were bad, they were so very good. Nothing was richer, more opulent, and more refined than the Hapsburg Empire. Mozart opened symphonies in Prague and Franz Joseph inaugurated the subway in Budapest. For over 150 years, coronations of Hungarian kings and queens took place in St. Martin’s Cathedral in Bratislava. From the river banks near our Budapest apartment we look up at their summer palace perched on the Buda Hills. At night, the illumination of the Budapest cityscape is heart stopping: Parliament, the Castle area, Matias Chapel and the Chain Bridge. Look no further than my blog banner photo which my husband snapped from the Margit Hid. That is Budapest.
When we first learned we were leaving the United States to move to Slovakia virtually every reaction was concern wrapped in a thin veneer of doubt. During my French class, a woman editorialized to the news of our imminent move, “Why would you ever move to a third world country?” She and her liberal sensibilities drove away in her Obama bumper stickered Prius. At the time, and still today, it seemed such an oxymoron of philosophies.
We weren’t worried. A summer in Budapest a few years prior provided a sample of things to come; listening to the opera and symphony, dancing to Carlos Santana in City Park, eating at world class restaurants. We vacationed in Poland and Romania. This part of the world didn’t frighten me, or at least not much.
Last weekend we attended the ballet at the Opera House which contains spectacular carved and golden balconies under a masterpiece ceiling which is accessed through a marble pair of staircases. The boulevard out front, Andrassy Ut, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Bars, restaurants and coffee houses line the side streets. The coffee culture is alive and well – and rivals that of our more upscale neighbor, Vienna. Each weekend we try a different one: Gerbeaud, New York, Alexandra, Central and Gerloczky.
Buildings still stand in disrepair and some neighborhoods are down right shabby. It takes time and investment to renovate an entire city from indifference – particularly when the city is a city of palaces. Sure, there is more work to be done. And currently, the local economy is in crisis, projects have stalled, renovations have lost their funding. That doesn’t stop waves of tourists from pouring into this city which they have heard is “one of the most beautiful in Europe”. They marvel at our low prices. They stand awestruck in the middle of the bridge. .
People are free to ask “why?” but I think “why not?” I am not living in some third world hovel. In fact, this used to be an empire.
Categories: Insiders Budapest