Budapest is a city that makes an immediate strong impression on the visitor, and not simply because of its dramatically beautiful situation on the Danube. When I came here for the first time 18 years ago, after having spent a previous period in a then moribund Vienna, I was instantly enthralled by Budapest’s gaiety and energy, and by the way it exuded all the scale, grandeur, and excitement of a major capital. No wonder even today, in this post-communist era of rapid change, the visitor will still find here constant reminders of a largely vanished Europe: old-fashioned courtesies and customs, ancient trams rattling down broad boulevards, faded neo-baroque interiors, exteriors pock-marked with shrapnel, streets of granite cobblestones, grand turn-of-the-century Budapest apartment blocks whose elderly inhabitants spend their evenings slowly ascending the stairs that surround the balconied courtyards. As with the ageing bodies lingering in the steam of Budapest’s Turkish baths, this is a city weighed down by memories and openly scarred by history.
But Budapest is also a city of paradoxes that has managed to combine a smiling, dynamic image with a reputation for nostalgic absorption in its past so great that a recent French guidebook to the place has been subtitled “Danube Blues”. It is “the loveliest city on the Danube, has a crafty way of being its own stage-set, like Vienna, but also has a robust substance and vitality unknown to its Austrian rival.” There is such a constant variety and movement in the streets, such a blending of the Oriental with the European, and such a holiday look about the thole population, that it is impossible to feel ennui in the chief city of the Magyars.