The time spent not confined in conference rooms in the oppressively classical Academy of Sciences I devoted mostly to sleeping, but I managed to skive off enough throughout the week to see a fair bit of the city.
And Budapest is one beautiful city. It is impossible not to delight in its neo-classical neo-Gothic neo-baroque splendour; in the tranquil beauty of the broad, noble Danube; and in the city's essentially nineteenth-century aesthetic: composed, measured, sometimes exorbitant, but exactly comme il faut.
Its structures are not particularly old: more or less everything is neo-this or neo-that, the city having been flattened by the Turks in the sixteenth century before its recapture by the Habsburgs a century or so later, and then largely destroyed again in the Second World War, and by the Soviet invasion. Not much survives of the city known to the 15th-century king Matthias Corvinus, who (point of national pride) brought the Italian Renaissance to Hungary long before it came to Northern Europe.
On the left bank of the Danube (rien à voir avec la rive gauche de Paris!) is the city of Buda, by turns grandiose — the imposingly classical Royal Palace dominates the city from its place on the hill, and the Matthias Church (Gothic- baroque, self- conscious, pedantic) soars skyward from amidst the throng of camera-brandishing pilgrims — and chocolate-box pretty (witness, for example, the silly confection that is the Fisherman's Bastion, the folly of some crazed fin-de-siècle architect, which is, perhaps, supposed to hark back to some non-existent Middle-European past).
The city of Pest, on the right bank, is the business end of things, but it is nevertheless throughout unrelentingly elegant in the nineteenth-century finery of its buildings and their ornaments. The Parliament building and the Saint Istvan Basilica dominate the Pest skyline, and the view from Castle Hill or the Chain Bridge can be exhilarating, even when le ciel bas et lourd pèse comme un couvercle...
One of the stranger tourist attractions is the Szoborpark (Statue Park) just south of the city, an open-air museum filled with monuments from the time of the Communist dictatorship. Lenin, Marx and Engels preside over the entrance to the park, whose ticket office and gift shop are designed, with bizarre self-conscious humour, to simulate a warped time-warp. A 1950s radio blares out Soviet marching music alongside a sales display filled with crappy souvenirs and commie kitsch.
It is hard to believe that these statues once stood in the streets and squares of Budapest — an affront to the gentility of the city's aesthetic, as much as anything else...
The monuments in Heroes Square are much more in fitting with their surroundings, although they too, like so much else in Budapest, have a sense of somewhat overwrought artifice to them — but are no worse for that.
In fact, perhaps the overwhelming impression I took from Budapest was the sense that here was a city built with the express purpose of being breathtakingly beautiful. Here is nothing like the dirty grandeur of London's organic sprawl, nor yet the geometrical sensuality in old and new one finds in Paris. Not that there is anything 'fake' in it — far too elegant for that — but the city seems to have been created to delight the eye and ravish the senses.
By the way, my half-arsed attempt to learn Hungarian, reported on here a while back, eventually amounted to nothing more than the rote memorization of a few set phrases. I didn't brave morphology: the language has more than twenty noun cases, fer Christ's sake!