Hungarian melancholy

Property 400 – Budapest

I tend to get melancholy at dusk. This is more pronounced in places at high latitudes where the setting of the sun is a prolonged affair. I don’t notice it at first, but as the sun creeps towards the horizon, worries and sadness start to silt up around me. I call this the blue hour. It feels like the dying of the day presages my own death, and is sometimes agonisingly intense. As the sun drops below the horizon I feel like I’ve passed through the veil, and my melancholy vanishes. Once it’s dark I feel like I’ve passed into a new world with different rules, but not one to be fearful of. It was the transition, not the arrival.

Although it had been happening for years, I first noticed this tendency when I arrived in Budapest. I’d been travelling in Romania, and had left friends behind in Sighisoara. I wasn’t happy to leave, but my pre-arranged Czech visa meant that I’d had to get a move on if I didn’t want to be refused entry. Hungary lay in my way, so it seemed like a sensible place to go.

Despite sitting in the middle of Europe, Hungary has always had something of a separate identity. Speaking a language most closely related to Finnish, Hungarians have long felt wedged in by Germans to the north and west and Slavs to the east and south. Folk histories like to portray Hungary as having been settled by rampaging Central Asian horsemen attracted by its grassy plateau. This may have been true, but I suspect that the amount of population intermixing in Central Europe over the centuries has made any difference moot. The Kingdom of Hungary was independent for hundreds of years, before eventually falling under the control of first the Ottomans and later the Habsburgs. It was during this later period of Habsburg control that many of the UNESCO nominated sites in the city were constructed.

The train deposited me in Budapest’s giant train station. I love European stations, especially the old ones. Their soaring ceilings and small region-specific details speak of a time of rapid change but strong regional loyalties. I disembarked and stepped into the street.

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There was an overwhelming feeling of grit at the time that I visited. The year was 2002, but it felt like the post-communist era hadn’t quite been painted over yet. Modern, expensive cars travelled down the same streets as trams that seemed to date from the 1950s. Everything was somewhat grimy, but occasional bright new shops advertised garish consumer goods. McDonalds had arrived too.

I checked into my hostel and went for a walk. The city is split into two parts by the river Danube – Buda, a rocky spur featuring a large castle on one bank, and Pest, a flat urban agglomeration featuring a baroque old town. I quite liked the split between the two – the gloomy castle overseeing the bustling commercial centre. They’re joined by the massive, totally over-engineered Chain Bridge, from which the visitor can acquire excellent views of Pest. There is even a cable car that aggressively ratchets tourists up the side of Buda Castle.

For me, the Parliament building is the standout structure. I don’t quite know how to describe it except to imagine that you had the Duomo from Florence, crossed it with the most florid gothic church you could find in France, then induced it to grow like a cancer and dumped it in Budapest. It would look like a skeleton if it weren’t for the deep burgundy of the roof. The seemingly dozens of spires reach for the skies like stalagmites.

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The Hungarian Parliament

It was while I was examining the Parliament building that the blue hour crept up on me. I began feeling inexplicably sad, and became acutely aware that I was alone and a long way from home. However, for the first time ever I realised that it was something to do with the time of day and the light. Perhaps my declining energy levels had coincided with the dusk.  After all, half an hour earlier I had felt fine. I felt a nearly overwhelming urge to seek shelter indoors, perhaps an atavistic throwback to my hunter-gatherer ancestors.

Knowledge is power, at least if you’re able to take action. I listened to my body and hid inside a restaurant. Then I hid a massive bowl of goulash inside my belly. The goulash was joined by a couple of glasses of Hungarian wine, also carefully hidden.

Once I’d finished, it was dark. Crisis averted.

I went back to the hostel.

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