The now-familiar outcome repeated elsewhere in Iron Curtain countries followed. Peasants let their land go fallow. State seizures and then collective farming led to huge food shortages. Shop shelves emptied out and rationing followed. The arts, innovation, and simple human drive all went into hibernation.
In 1956 the Hungarians rose up in revolution and for a time it looked like they may have pulled it off. Tanks came rumbling in from the east less than two weeks later though and brutally crushed the effort. Around 2.500 people died, 200,000 fled the country. Scores were executed, including the brief prime minister. Many of their faces are now enshrined in tiles outside the House of Terror, remembered as heroes of the revolution.
In March of 1989, 100,000 people demonstrated in the streets, carrying Hungarian flags, and this time no tanks appeared. It was the beginning of the end for the Iron Curtain. When the Soviet Union officially ran out of gas in 1991, Hungary began its slow climb back into the modern world.
Today the Hungarian Parliament building houses an actual Parliament. "It's way too large for a country of this size though," my young guide Zita confessed. "There are a lot of empty rooms." While the ruling party shows some worrisome power-grabbing tendencies and tussles regularly with the EU, the pervading sentiment seems to be that things are finally getting done and getting better.
To see the state of Budapest today, I toured the city with three of these Underguides. Each was a local resident fluent in English that had a goal of taking me well beyond the sites of a hop-on, hop-off bus tour and forsaking the bullshit legends that get repeated by every hack guide in the city. Agi led me to an obscure art school garden near the corner of Bajza Utca and Szondi Utca. There behind a tree, partially covered by weeds, was a bust of Stalin on the ground. "This is probably the only one left in the city," she said. "But his shoes are in Memento Park,. " Situated well outside of town, this is where the old Soviet statues have gone to die. They're viewed now as laughable period pieces, symbols of a failed system. Visitors pose in front of them for pictures, often imitating the staunch expressions and power poses. The former denizens of terror are now ironic humor elements in a thousand Facebook photos.
We walked to a place labeled as the Museum of Taxation and Customs and found the real draw: a harmonious Art-Nouveau building from 1912 designed by architect József Vágó. We then boarded the oldest subway line in Continental Europe, only one staircase down from Andrassy Avenue. At various stations we found the tower lookout at the top of the Basilica, ate sausages and pickles from a shop that didn't sell much else, and hit two markets where those two items made up half the inventory.
At night another guide took over and we explored the ruin bars of Budapest. Originally these ruin bars started opening up in abandoned buildings with character, places abandoned by the state and sitting unused. Some didn't have a roof (and still don't), but had a big spaces for revelers and solid enough construction to support the crowds. Bar "owner" simply had to set up a bar, get the toilets working, and spread the word. The first ones were a success, others followed, and now they're a fixture on the nightlife circuit-even for the dreaded RyanAir crowds from other European capitals cranking up the verbal volume each weekend.
Some of the new ruin bars are just artsy pubs in a cool building, but all have an aesthetic of being ragged around the edges, with mismatched furniture and layouts left as they were found. Plus with a dozen or two plum brandies on offer for a euro or two, they still feel distinctly Hungarian. Even when the stag party crowds pour in from England, the locals still outnumber the visitors.
I spent a whole day in Buda with Zita, seeing a side of the city ignored by most tourists. Sure, we visited Buda Castle and the Fisherman's Bastion like all the quick-stop visitors coming off their river cruise ships. We took the metro into the hills though and boarded the Children's Railway, a narrow-gauge train system built in the 1950s. It winds past homes, forests, and to what used to be an indoctrination camp for the young communist party faithful. Children aged 10-14 still work on the trains, under supervision of adults, but they're no longer expected to grow up and start torturing traitors.
After climbing up a stone lookout tower to get a view from the highest point in the city, we boarded a chairlift to descend the hills. With new mansions punctuating the waves of green and many construction cranes visible over both Buda and Pest, the current wave of optimism seemed to have roots in reality. I found another reason for the locals to be happy when we finished the day with strudel and cappuccino: the tab was 1/5 what it would have been in Vienna, one country over.
After visiting the House of Terror on my last day, I tried to shake off the blues by acting like a new Hungarian. I rented a bicycle and took advantage of the extensive bike lanes, passing the historic buildings along Andrassy Avenue and exploring residential areas with little traffic. I sat in parks and watched happy couples strolling hand in hand. I watched old ladies who had spent decades feeling glum now laughing and playing with grandkids who can now have a bright future. When I checked out the wares at Sunday flea markets, both the goods and the mood were now on par with cities that had never been behind the Iron Curtain. Instead of household goods sold in desperation, vendors were now selling original crafts, gourmet food, and trendy t-shirts.
We can hope the terror is gone for good, that after a thousand years of shifting domination, Budapest can just be what it is: one of the most beguiling capital cities in the world.
The Budapest Underguides are highly recommended for going beyond the tourist sites, for food tours, and for exploring the ruin pubs. See the Hungary Tourism site for lots of ideas and follow this link for the House of Terror. Search the most booking sites to find Budapest hotel deals at Trivago.com.
Editor Tim Leffel has won dozens of awards for his writing and is the author of four books, including Travel Writing 2.0. See his regular rants and advice at the Cheapest Destinations Blog.
All photos by the author except the House of Terror interior photos, courtesy of the museum.
From Red to Green in Bulgaria by Tim Leffel
Out of Smyrna by Gloria DeVidas Kirchheimer
Notes Towards a True Historie of the Vikings by Edward Readicker-Henderson
Down a Stream in Iran and Up a Creek in Spain by Beebe Bahrami
See other Europe travel stories from the archives
Books from the Author: