Adrian Bridge, The Daily Telegraph, April 06, 2012
When the creative spirits of Budapest want to take time out to contemplate life, the universe and the considerable charms of one of the most exquisite spots on the Danube, they are spoilt for choice.
Traditionally, the literati of the city – and at the peak of its powers it was a formidable grouping – would retreat to one of its grand coffee houses to read, write and engage in abstruse discussion of a Mitteleuropean nature. Or some discreet flirting. The Café New York, a wonderful Art Nouveau gem, recently renovated, was a favoured gathering place.
Alternatively, they would stroll along the banks of the majestic river that divides and defines the city and reflect on the starkly contrasting character of its two sides: bustling, urban, urbane Pest; leafy, dreamy, hilly Buda.
Some might then retire to one of the many bathing establishments fuelled by the underground thermal springs with which the city is blessed: the Lukacs was (and still is) a popular spot with the arty/intellectual crowd – a great place to enjoy a rejuvenating outdoor swim before moving on to the hot-water pools and steam-room pleasures within.
Budapest is a city that cannot fail to fire the imagination. So it is little surprise that, as part of the expansion of the Hay Festival to cultural hotspots across the globe, the organisers have chosen the Hungarian capital as the venue for their first venture into what was, until quite recently, the closed world of the communist East.
Hay Festival Budapest will take place over the weekend of May 4-6. Among those participating will be Jung Chang (of Wild Swans fame), the Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri, the novelist, playwright and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi and Tibor Fischer, the British-born writer of Hungarian parentage whose widely-acclaimed novel Under the Frog was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Sir Bob Geldof will be doing the honours at the opening-night concert.
"Hungary has a rich literary tradition and it seems a great place to explore the stories of Mitteleuropa," says Peter Florence, founder of the Hay-on-Wye Festival. "We have worked for many years with colleagues in Berlin and Moscow, but this is our first foray [into the former East]. All writing is a form of dissent, and many of the countries of the former Soviet bloc have a tradition of subtle and brilliant fiction. The focus of the festival will, as always, be on storytelling, on freedoms and love and death."
Contemporary Hungarian writers to have impressed Florence are Peter Nadas and Peter Esterhazy. He is also a great fan of Fischer, who in Under the Frog took a wry look at how two basketball players made the best of things under communism (the title of the book was derived from a Hungarian saying that the worst possible place to be is "under a frog's arse down a coal mine").
It is hard to go far in Budapest without being reminded of its literary luminaries. In addition to a prominent statue, there are numerous streets and squares named after Hungary's greatest poet, Sandor Petofi, a man who urged his countrymen to rise up against Austrian rule during the revolutions of 1848 and who, aged just 26, was killed a year later in one of the last battles of the War of Independence.
Petofi did not die in vain. By the end of the 19th century Budapest had become a joint partner with Vienna in an Austro-Hungarian Empire that controlled great swathes of central and eastern Europe.
You can still sense the glory years when strolling along the two-mile long Andrassy ut, one of many expansive boulevards built to reflect the city's enhanced status and an avenue designed to rival the Champs-Elysées. The former prosperity and significance of Budapest can also be seen in its Art Nouveau splendours. (If you can't afford to stay at the sumptuously restored Four Seasons Gresham Palace hotel, do at least pop in for a drink.)
But there is more to the city than its literary and architectural prowess. Budapest also has some great art (the Hungarian National Gallery for locally produced works; the Museum of Fine Arts for paintings by, among others, Raphael, Goya, Gainsborough and Renoir) and some compelling museums (the House of Terror creatively showcases the horrors of Fascist and then Communist occupation; Memento Park is where all the unwanted, unloved statues of Lenin, Marx and other Communist worthies were dumped).
This is also a city of music: the symphonic poems and rhapsodies of Ferenc Liszt, the rousing strains of Johannes Brahms's Hungarian dances; the atonal challenges of Bela Bartok.
The years following the fall of communism have not been easy, and economic difficulties and political tensions have been pronounced in recent months, but for all the current turbulence Budapest has character and its people resilience. They have, after all, come through worse: centuries of Ottoman rule, followed by periods under the Austrians, Germans and Soviets.
Hungarians can occasionally be a bit melancholy. As Fischer observes in Under the Frog: "The Hungarian Second Army, like all Hungarian armies, had the unfortunate habit of getting wiped out." But their unique history – and language (connected faintly to Finnish and Estonian) – give them a pretty original perspective on – and thirst for – life.
They certainly still know how to have a good time. Budapest remains one of the great cities in which to sample the coffee-house culture of central Europe (when I lived in the city in the 1990s, two of my favourites were the Ruszwurm in the Castle district and the Angelika close to the river); to indulge in the guilty pleasures of creamy Kremes cakes, foie gras and glasses of Tokai ("the king of wines and the wine of kings"), to wander along the Danube (particularly spectacular at night in the glimmering lights of the Chain Bridge) and to take to the waters (in addition to the Lukacs, I'd recommend the Szechenyi, the Gellert and the Ottoman-era Rudas bathhouses).
The rich cultural – and historical – mixture should provide plenty of food for thought for those taking part in the Hay Festival Budapest next month. "Our recces suggest that Budapest is a great venue for a party, with sensational food and drink and a generous welcome for visitors," says Peter Florence. "In addition to the formal festival events we envisage a wild social whirl."
Airlines flying to Budapest include British Airways (from Heathrow; ba.co.uk ), Wizz Air (from Luton; wizzair.com ), EasyJet ( www.easyjet.com ; from Gatwick and Luton), Ryanair (from Stansted, Dublin, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol; ryanair.co.uk ) and Jet2.com (from Manchester, Leeds, Bradford and Edinburgh; Jet2.com ).
Gresham Palace (0036 1 268 6000; fourseasons.com/budapest ): double rooms from about €300 (£250); Palazzo Zichy (0036 1 235 4000; hotel-palazzo-zichy.hu ): double rooms from about €85 (£70). Breakfast included in both.
Hay Festival Budapest
Under the Frog by Tibor Fisher (Vintage, £8.99); Budapest: A Cultural and Literary History by Bob Dent (Signal Books, £12); Budapest City Guide (Bradt Travel Guides, £9.99)
Further information hungary.com