Budapest: Drawing back an Iron Curtain

By Sisi Tang

In parts of eastern Europe, the memory of communist rule is still fresh, writes Sisi Tang.
This statute of Lenin was dispatched to Memento Park on the outskirts of Budapest after the end of Soviet rule. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user Shane Lin
This statute of Lenin was dispatched to Memento Park on the outskirts of Budapest after the end of Soviet rule. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user Shane Lin

Among the emotional reactions following the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, many of Budapest's granite and stone giants were swiftly uprooted and carted off to a field 30 minutes from the city to become a sculpture park.

Save for a cubist rendition of Marx and Engels flanking the entrance, Memento Park is an open-air depot of rusty socialist-realist statues, arranged inside a walled area lined with pebbles.

The Republic of Councils Monument, a giant statue of a worker charging forward and the most inadvertently comic of the instalments, is even the butt of irreverent jokes: some say it looks like a running beachgoer, others say a cloakroom attendant. Beyond that, however, the grounds are meant to serve as grim but honest reminders of 40 years under communist regimes.

In Budapest, once seen as the Western gate of the Eastern bloc, an unknowing tourist's interest in communist history is sometimes regarded with suspicion, even by those too young to have memories of the country's bygone era.

Driving from the airport to the city reveals a smattering of unrestored, sometimes crumbling residential monoliths, dating to a period when the Government was developing large-scale low-cost housing. In these flats, insulation was poor and kitchens were deliberately small to keep politically subversive dinner conversations at bay.

The city's various walking tours, including communism-themed tours originating from Vorosmarty Square, will drop travellers off at some of these dives.

Tours include the Jewish quarter, home to several 19th-century synagogues. In World War II the Nazis created a walled ghetto here from which thousands of Hungarian Jews were sent to concentration camps.

Soviet soldiers drove the Nazis from Budapest in 1945, and a monument dedicated to them sits in Freedom Square - an unlit, 5m obelisk.

There is nothing here to mark the turn of events 11 years later, however, when Soviet troops invaded Hungary again - this time to crush opposition to communism. An irony not lost on Hungarians is that the United States embassy is in the same square, as is a larger-than-life bronze statue of Ronald Reagan in mid-stride facing the Soviet World War II monument from behind.

Budapest's Liberty Statue at Gellert Hill is one of the last communist-era structures to have avoided being trucked off to Memento Park, but the monument has changed over time.

It was erected in 1947 to commemorate the end of the Nazi occupation. Its height - a 14m statue of a figure holding aloft a palm leaf, atop a 26m pedestal on a hill - makes it a prominent feature higher than structures around it and easily seen from a boat cruise on the Danube. Once a tribute to Soviet troops, it's now a memorial for those who died for Hungary's freedom.

The most poignant place on the city's post-communist landscape is the House of Terror on 60 Andrassy Ave, which chronicles Hungary's occupation first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets.

The reconstructed Beaux Arts building was the headquarters of both the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross party and later the communist secret police. Its three-floor Art Deco interior hosts a permanent exhibition complete with evocative soundtracks and lighting and a wealth of images.

The tour ends when visitors descend to the basement into reconstructed prison cells. The museum tour is not a harrowing remake of political terror, but a candid way of dealing with the country's past.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Emirates flies daily to Budapest from Auckland, connecting via Dubai.

Places to visit: Memento Park and the House of Terror.

OFurther information: See gotohungary.com.

- AAP

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