I wanted to write about the places in Budapest that don’t exist any more or, if they do, have a different quality now, or a different mode of being. My point of departure was not to do a research about the Budapest of the early 20th century and visit the remnants of that era that the city boasts of. (The Centrál Café, the Gerbeaud, the Puskin and Uránia cinemas and the Millennium Underground Railway, for example, have all been preserved and may have even regained some of their original glory.) The history of Budapest is very interesting, bien sûr, but instead of setting out to explore it as an object that exists outside of me, I was more stimulated by the way it might affect my present. The notes and mumblings that I present here are about the imaginary, not just about the old Budapest.
Bits of knowledge gathered from here and there usually paint a more colourful picture in my consciousness than a systematic collection of facts could do. All my recent texts are about how facts and what I perceive as facts mingle with my imagination and with the conditions of my life. In the case of Budapest, imagination has an even bigger role to play, because a lot of facts that might be of interest to me are not available in the languages that I speak (and I don’t speak Hungarian). Budapest hosts many visitors now and encourages them to ask questions about itself (and there is a lot to ask about even when one is not interested in the games of imagination). Hungarians love their city, love it when others love it and are usually willing to answer those questions. But many questions remain unasked. Some questions cannot even be posed any more. History is history because it gradually fades away.
That is why I cherish all the more the few facts about the places lost to time that have come through to me. They are not just facts. They are keys to the world where the objective or collective what-has-been and what-is-now are organically intertwined with my own yesterday, today and tomorrow.
An object in a city usually stands out for me either because of its physical or aesthetic attributes, because I have learnt or heard something about it, or because it has been background to the events of my life. The older I get the more things speak to me, more things become known to me, collectively they become my home. By surrounding myself with more and more things known I am like a child that heaps tables, couches and armchairs on top of each other and pads them with cushions, blankets and curtains to build a cave in his parents’ living room. Our life is essentially the reconstruction of our mother’s womb and we die of suffocation.
A novelist may describe a street, its buildings and its inhabitants as vividly as he chooses, but it is often just the mentioning of the name of that street that somehow sums up its essence for me.
The names of the districts around the inner city of Pest – Lipótváros, Újlipótváros, Terézváros, Erzsébetváros, Józsefváros, and Ferencváros – make me think of not only the Habsburg emperors but also of some districts in Vienna, either those that bear the same name (like Leopoldstadt or Josefstadt) or those that could have had the same name, when I consider when the time of their development and the architecture.
Several street names in Újlipótváros are evocative of the places that they refer to. Pozsónyi Road makes me think of the time when Bratislava (Pozsóny in Hungarian) was part of the Kingdom of Hungary and thus could justify a street name in the capital. When I stroll on Visegrádi Street I ponder about the Slavic -grad rather than let my mind wander about the town of King Matthias on the Danube Bend in the north. Pannónia Street conjures up the image of a small guest house in the middle of the puszta named after the Roman province (a ubiquitous name for small establishments in Hungary).
The neatly-arranged rusticated stones on the façade of the apartment building on Tátra Street 17 evoke for me the smell of boiled buckwheat, which is tatar in Estonian, rather than the mountain range in Slovakia and Poland.
Tátra Street 17
The cf in Akácfa utca (Acacia Street) sounds to me like a frightening atavism or a mental disorder and brings in my eyes an image of a child whose face is dirty of her own excrements or one of those earth-eating adults in García Márquez’s Macondo.
I remember from A Book of Memories by Nádas the 1956 revolutionaries marching from Marx Square to Szent István körút. Marx Square is now Nyugati (Western) Square. In 1914-1945 it was Berlin Square.
The main thoroughfares and squares of Budapest had, obviously, other names in the Socialist era. The most important avenue, Andrássy, was Stalin Avenue from 1950 to 1956. In 1956 it was renamed to the Avenue of the Hungarian Youth, but soon after the revolution failed it became the Avenue of the Hungarian People’s Republic. The Octogon Square, where Andrássy út and Erzsébet körút cross, was the 7th of November Square from 1950 to 1990. In the same years, a part of the Ring Boulevard was named after Lenin. Elisabeth Square, from where Andrássy begins, was Stalin Square since 1946 but when Stalin died in 1953, it was renamed to Engels Square.
On Buda side, what is now Széll Kálmán Square was Moscow Square until 2011. I suppose that many older people and those younger not living in Hungary any more still think of this major traffic junction as Moscow Square.
Mussolini Square (Photo: Sándor Bojár / MTI)
Before the Second World War, too, there were other names. The Octogon was Mussolini Square from 1936 to 1945. Kodály körönd was named after Hitler. What is now Móricz Zsigmond körtér was named after Horthy in 1929.
A stranger that sees the homeless, hustlers and sex workers in the Blaha Lujza Square metro station for the first time may notice a mismatch between its seedy outlook and its beautiful-sounding name. The fact that the square is named after a famous actress might come as a surprise to him.
Lujza Blaha, born in 1850 and died in 1926, was so famous that she even had a nickname – the Nightingale of the Nation. People loved her for her leading roles in folk plays, a lighthearted genre featuring rural characters and comic and sentimental songs. She began her career at the Hungarian National Theatre in 1871, joined the People’s Theatre in 1875 and became a permanent member of the National Theatre in 1901. The square is named after her because the two theatres were located here and because she lived here as well, on the first floor of a corner building where a plaque remembers her.
A more decent square five tram stops away – Jászai Mari Square – is also named after an actress. Mari Jászai – like Lujza Blaha, born in 1850 and died in 1926 – was one of the most influential actresses in the Hungarian theatre in her lifetime. She was famous for her roles in tragedies which included Antigone, Electra, Jocasta, Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth. She became the member of the National Theatre in 1872, where she remained until her death, with the exception of the 1900 season, when she worked in the Comedy Theatre. The vicinity of the square to the latter theatre – just a few hundred meters away – is probably the reason why it was named after her.
The third Hungarian actress of the period that I know is Irén Varsányi. A generation younger than Lujza Blaha and Mari Jászai – she was born in 1878 and died in 1932 – and not having a square named after her, she still stand on a par with the other two in my eyes. She worked for the Comedy Theatre since its establishment in 1896 until her death. She was known for her roles in the the plays of Molnár and Chekhov. She lived just opposite the theatre, on Szent István körút 11, where a plaque commemorates her.
From left to right: Lujza Blaha, Mari Jászai and Irén Varsány (Photos: pctrs.network.hu, mult-kor.hu and wikipedia.hu)
Blaha Lujza Square
What is now Blaha Lujza Square was a major point of animation at the turn-of-the-century Budapest. The centre of gravity here was the People’s Theatre located somewhere where the tram platforms are now. It was built in 1872-1875 in eclectic style. On its façade dominated a median avant-corps with six columns, a pediment enclosing a relief and the name of the theatre in capital letters on the frieze: “Népszinház – Vígopera” (“People’s Theatre – Comic Opera”). The original National Theatre was close to it, on Kerepesi (now Rákóczi) Road. It was demolished in the 1900s. In 1908 it moved to the building of the People’s Theatre.
Old People’s Theatre (Photo: egykor.hu)
The theatre people met at the Café EMKE on the ground floor of the building where Lujza Blaha lived (on Erzsébet körút 2). Opened in 1894, it got its name from a Transylvanian cultural society, which also had coffee houses in Marosvásárhely (now Târgu Mureş) and Nagyvárad (now Oradea). It had a library with books and newspapers but what really distinguished it from the other coffee houses of the time was that music was played there. It was a legend in its time with which only the New York Café across the street and the best coffee houses of Andrássy Avenue could compete. For me it is the most important of them all, I don’t know why, probably because of an association (a real or an imagined?) with Gyula Krúdy’s Ladies’ Day.
There were also luxury hotels on the square and in its immediate vicinity. The Hotel National, opened in 1896, was the most modern and sophisticated of all the hotels in the city at the time. The narrow four-storey hotel had facilities that were very rare at the time: central steam heating, running hot and cold water in the rooms, electricity and the first elevator in the city. The design of the interior was by the best from among the best: the Thonet Brothers designed the furniture, the majolica was from Zsolnay Porcelain Manufacture, Luigi del Pol, an Italian master, took care of the marblework. The hotel soon became popular among tourists, but it was also an important meeting point for the locals interested in the arts, considering its location behind the National Theatre.
Hotel National (Photo: egykor.hu)
Other hotels in the area include Hotel Palace and Hotel Orient. The Hotel Palace was built in 1911 in Art Nouveau style just behind the Hotel National (on Rákóczi Road 43). It had central heating, hot and cold water in the rooms and an electric alarm device. The Hotel Orient, located on Akácfa Street 2, was, according to John Lukacs, one the few hotels in 1900 that also rented rooms for visitors in daytime and was, thus, probably a known place for conducting illegitimate love affairs.
Hotel Orient (Photo: Ilyen is volt Budapest)
The appearance of the square changed radically in 1965, when during the construction of Line 2 of the Budapest Metro the building of the People’s Theatre was blown up. This was one of the most radical deformations that Budapest faced, one of the biggest mistakes in its urban planning in the 20th century. Only a street name (Népszinház utca) recalls the lost glory but just like Blaha Lujza Square it has a bad reputation now.
Café EMKE burned down in 1945 and then again during the 1956 revolution. Across the street, in place of the Hotel Orient, there is now an office building slightly reminiscent of the Streamline Moderne architecture of the 1930s. Again, it is just the name that has survived (EMKE Offices).
The Hotel National is still there but looks now like an upstart that shows off its wealth in the poor village where he is from. Only the New York Palace a bit further away – not very noticeable from the square – has been restored to its former grandeur.
Old Café EMKE (Photo: egykor.hu)
EMKE building now
In both directions from Blaha Lujza Square along the Nagykörút, or the Grand Boulevard, one finds several other great establishments of the lost era.
A few blocks away in the south, on József körút 17, there is an eclectic building which was home to the Grand Hotel Savoy since the 1910s. Today, the building has undergone a process of renovation and is currently on sale. Desperately, it seems, as it was also on sale, if I remember correctly, when I first saw it in December 2014.
Grand Hotel Savoy
In the north, on Erzsébet körút 30, there was Café Bucsinszky, a fashionable meeting place for politicians, writers and theatre artists in the 1930s. Many coffee houses that were popular at that time had already been established before the First World War and may had become outdated by then. The Bucsinszky, in contrast, established as late as in 1932, stood out for being very modern. It was in Art Déco style and had bright red walls. It closed down in 1948.
Old Café Bucsinszky (Photo: m.cdn.blog.hu)
Building of Café Bucsinszky today
Across the Grand Boulevard from the Bucsinszky spread its wings probably the greatest of the hotels in the fin-de-siècle Budapest: the Grand Hotel Royal. Opened in 1896 for the visitors of the Millennium Exhibition, it soon became the hub of the elite of the time. It was located in the most attractive part of the city and its rooms enjoyed superb views on the Grand Boulevard, which had become the main artery of the city. The architectural style of the hotel building was French Renaissance. It has been restored and operates now as the Corinthia Hotel Budapest.
Grand Hotel Royal (Photo: Szeretlek Magyarorszag)
Corinthia Hotel Budapest
Many important events took place at the Royal. Bartók, for example, often conducted music here. In 1909, the first Hungarian airplane was demonstrated in one of the cours d’honneur of the hotel. It is also the birthplace of the Hungarian cinema. In April 1896, just after the hotel was opened, the first public showing of a film in the country took place in the café of the Grand Hotel Royal. The motion picture soon became very popular, which is why the ballroom of the hotel was soon converted to the Royal Apollo Cinema.
Royal Apollo Cinema (Photo: hetediksor.hu)
Further away along the Boulevard, near the Western Railway Station, was Britannia Hotel. Opened in 1913 by an English coffee merchant, it was famous for its stained-glass windows and historical paintings. Its wonders included central heating, running hot water, hotel laundry, a central vacuum cleaner and an underground parking lot. In rooms above the doors, there were room service signals that informed the staff about the wishes of the guests. In the second half of the 1920s, phones were also put in the rooms. There was a luxury restaurant in the hotel, a pub in the basement, later also a coffee house on the Boulevard. Before the war, the most famous part of the hotel was the Dome Hall, which boasted with its hemispherical ceiling decorated with tulip motifs that could be opened at the push of a button and so transform the Hall into an open-air venue. This is where balls were organised for the elite of Pest’s nightlife. Hit by a bomb in the Second World War, the hotel opened again soon after under the name Béke (“peace”). It soon regained its old reputation. Today it belongs to Radisson Hotels.
Dome Hall of Britannia Hotel with marble fireplaces and illustrations on the themes of Shakespeare by Jenő Harangy (Photo: We Love Budapest)
Radisson Blu Béke Hotel today
When I try to compare the Nagykörút of Budapest with the Ringstraße of Vienna, the first image that comes to my mind is people walking along the first and crossing the second. In Budapest, the Ring Boulevard is an alive place that has a clear practical purpose. It reminds me sometimes, in some parts, of the busy streets around the Central Market of Tallinn, which smell of the overflowing determination and competitiveness of the old ladies there, who only leave their homes once a day, in late morning, to go and buy potatoes, tomatoes and onions from their regular vendor (but who also check the prices at the others at the market, just in case, you know). Half of the population of Budapest passes a section of the Nagykörút every day. Tram Lines 4 and 6, which are very busy day and night, cover it in its entire length. In Vienna, I remember trams and buses that have stopped on the Ringstraße always turning away to somewhere, never spending too much time on the Ring. People move from the outlying districts to the Innere Stadt und umgekehrt but never stroll along the Ringstraße in such crowds as is common on the Nagykörút of Budapest. All this despite the fact that the Ringstraße is essentially a museum street with a big number of important points of interests for tourists (something that the Nagykörút cannot pride itself on, even though it too has things to see). This difference pretty much sums up for me the general difference of characters of Budapest and Vienna.
Andrássy, the greatest among the avenues of Budapest, once had a majestic gate or entryway that prepared the eyes for what there was to follow. That entryway was formed by two domes on top of the first two buildings on the both sides of the avenue. The Stein Palace on the right (on Andrássy út 1), where now large billboards cover the reconstruction work of the façade, had two small hemispherical domes at the ends of its wing facing Elisabeth Square. The Foncière Palace on the left (on Andrássy út 2), which belonged to a French insurance company, had a colourful roof with a dome decorated with dragons, reportedly as tall as 60 metres. They were all destroyed in the Second World War and haven’t been, regrettably, restored. Only a small statue of Hermes on top of the Foncière Palace welcomes the visitors today.
Beginning of Andrássy Avenue before World War II (Photo: BTM-KM)
Beginning of Andrássy Avenue today
Andrássy is the most evocative of the temps disparu on the span from the Opera to the Octogon Square. There were five coffee houses here at the turn of the century, frequented by writers and artists. Only one of them – Művész (The Artists’ Café) – remains today.
First, there was a coffee house at the Opera. (Today’s Opera Café is not, despite its ambience, a historical coffee house; it simply uses the building’s original interior.)
Opposite the Opera, on the three lower floors and in the entrance arcade of the large French Neo-Renaissance style building operated the Café Reitter, later renamed as the Café Drechsler. It had a billiard room, a beer hall, a ladies’ parlor and a bowling alley. Among the celebrities who had visited it were Mahler, Puccini, Leoncavallo, Mascagni and Ibsen. The palace was built in 1883-1886 as a tenement house of the Hungarian Railway Pensioners’ Institute. It was one of the first projects of Ödön Lechner, who later became the most celebrated representative of the Hungarian Secessionist architecture (here worked with Gyula Pártos). The State Ballet Institute and its successor, the Hungarian Dance Academy, were located here from 1949 to 2002. Now it is being turned into a luxury hotel.
Café Reitter/Drechsler (Photo: egykor.hu)
Drechsler Palace today
In the white-plastered Neo-Renaissance building at the corner of Andrássy Avenue and Liszt Ferenc Square, where there are now the Writers’ Bookstore and a student café, was the famous Café Japán. Even though opened already in 1890, its heyday was the interwar period. It was mostly frequented by architects, sculptors and painters, but among the regulars were also poets, novelists, journalists, actors, operetta artists, dancers and caricaturists. The café got its name from the colourful floral ornaments that decorated its wall tiles. It also had a phone booth with an Art-Nouveau-styled window, designed by Miksa Roth following the drawings of József Rippl-Rónai (1904).
Building of Café Japán now
Window of the phone booth of Café Japán (Photo: Wikipedia)
Another famous coffee house – Café Abbázia – was at the corner of Andrássy and the Octogon. It was named after a fashionable Austro-Hungarian holiday resort on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, which was, Jan Morris says, “almost as smart as Nice or Monte Carlo” and which was recommended by “the most expensive Viennese doctors”, whose advice was taken by “the lordliest Austrian valetudinarians, the swankiest Hungarian socialites” and “the wealthiest Triestini speculators” (1). The café was founded in 1888 and was the biggest and brightest coffee house in Budapest at the time. It had big mirrors on the walls, marble and onyx tabletops and Mediterranean plants everywhere. It remained one of the most popular cafés in Budapest until the end of the 1930s.
Café Abbázia (Photo: Szerlmem, Budapest)
Coffee houses with exotic names
The Abbázia was not the only coffee house in Budapest named after a holiday resort.
On Rákóczi Road 17, where there is now a palinka shop, operated from 1894 to World War II the Café Balaton. It was famous for its richly decorated interiors, which included Zsolnay tiles and huge chandeliers.
Café Balaton (Photo: 24.hu)
On Múzeum körút 13 was the Café Fiume, named after Hungary’s most important port on the Adriatic Sea. It was established in 1883, and its owner was the same person who later founded the Café Abbázia. The Café Fiume had the most modern facilities: air conditioning, pool tables and big mirrors on the walls. It was from here that a group of demonstrators proceeded to the Opera and to the National Theatre to halt the performances, when the body of Lajos Kossuth, the hero of the 1848 revolution, was brought back to Budapest in 1894.
Building of Café Fiume today
Names of foreign resorts were used as well. The Café Ostende on Rákóczi Road 20 was established as Café Elite in 1895, but was renamed after the Belgian seaside resort in 1909. In the late 1920s it was known for its great variety of musical performances. The Café Negresco on Vigadó Square 1 – named after the eponymous hotel in Nice – was popular in the 1930s.
Some coffee houses had a more Oriental flair. There was the Café Bizánc (Café Byzantium) on Teréz körút 34. Lövölde Square 6 was home to the Café Cairo, which included bold stylisations of Arab arches in its interior design.
Café Cairo in around 1912 (Photo: Hungarian Museum of Trade and Tourism)
The Danube Promenade
Some of the best hotels of the early-20th-century Budapest were located on the Great Boulevard. Others were concentrated along the Danube Promenade between the Chain Bridge and the Elisabeth Bridge. The Promenade, locally known as Duna-korzó, stands above the lower loading quays of the river and offers a magnificent view on the Buda Castle on the opposite shore of the Danube.
The entrances of the hotels were on Mária Valéria Street, which was named after the fourth and the last child of the Emperor Franz Joseph I and Elisabeth of Bavaria and is today known by the name of János Apáczai Csere, the author of the first Hungarian encyclopedia from the 17th century. The hotel terraces, coffee houses and restaurants stretched out under their awnings along the Corso, which was “high enough over the quays so that the murmur of a thousand people talking and the music of the bands in the afternoons muffled the clangor and the noise of the wharves, save for the occasional hooting of a passing steamer and the shorter, shriller hoots announcing the departure of a “propeller”.” (3)
Near the bridgehead of the Chain Bridge, in the place of today’s InterContinental Budapest, was the Grand Hotel Ritz. It opened in 1913 and later bore the pompous name of the Dunapalota (the Danube Palace). It was destroyed during World War II.
Old Hotel Ritz-Dunapalota (Photo: egykor.hu)
Where today Budapest Marriott Hotel stands there were two hotels: the Grand Hotel Hungaria in the north and the Hotel Bristol in the south.
Old hotels Hungaria and Bristol (Photo: egykor.hu)
The Promenade expands in the middle into a square named after Vigadó Concert Hall. Today there is a rudimentary French formal garden on it with a fountain in the centre, but it was full of trees at the turn of the century. That little park was, until 1932, home to the Hangli, a much-frequented coffee house famous for its glass-endowed kiosk.
Hangli kiosk (Photo: Hungarian Museum of Trade and Tourism)
At Hangli (Photo: Metropolitan Ervin Szabó Library)
Behind the Pest Corso one can find traces of two older hotels. There was the Queen of England Hotel (next to Vigadó), which had been built after the 1838 Pest flood from the rubble of a coffee house that had been there before. It was named in honour of Queen Victoria, who had entered the throne of the United Kingdom two years before. Ferenc Deák, the “wise man of the nation”, whose negotiations led to the Compromise of 1867, which established the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy, lived in the hotel during the years of his active political career. A street named after him begins from here, leading to the square that is also named after him, now the most popular meeting point in the city. The hotel was closed in 1916 and demolished in 1940.
Queen of England Hotel (Photo: egykor.hu)
Plaque commemorating Ferenc Deák on the building on Deák Ferenc Street 1
Another 19th-century hotel is tucked away behind the building of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences on Széchenyi István Square. The neoclassical corner house on Akademia Street 1 was built in 1835 and transformed into the Archduke Stephen Hotel in 1846. It got damaged during the 1848 revolution but was restored quickly after. At the end of the century it became well-known for its restaurant, operated by Johann Gundel from Bavaria, the founding founder of the famous Gundel dynasty. The hotel closed in 1904.
Old Archduke Stephen Hotel (Photo: egykor.hu)
Building of the Archduke Stephen Hotel today
Around the Square of the Franciscans and Elisabeth Bridge
Now when the renovation works have covered the façade of the Brudern House, one of the most beautiful buildings in Budapest, the eye wanders from the Square of the Francsiscans to the west, towards the twin Klotild Palaces. They are named after Clotilde of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the wife of Archduke Joseph Karl, who had had them built here in the 1880s. To distinguish the palaces from one another, many people call the one on the right Klotild and the one on the left Matild. For me the name Klotild conjures up the image of the embryotic darkness and the rusty violence of the early Middle Ages (Clotilde was also the name of the wife of the Frankish king Clovis I). The sooty look of the Matild Palace further strengthens that association.
Behind the Matild Palace on the 15th of March Square is an eclectic five-storey building with exuberant window ornamentation. If one compares its appearance today with the photos that show how it looked like originally, one notices that a slender corner tower crowned by an onion-shaped dome has gone missing. That was one of the many domes in Budapest that were destroyed during the bombings of the Second World War. The building was used by the Zsolnay Porcelain Manufacture as its Budapest branch office since the early 1900s. The Zsolnay company never owned the building, but traces of them can still be seen on its façade: the colourful ceramic reliefs between the first-floor windows.
Zsolnay office building on 15th of March Square before World War II (Photo: Index.hu)
Another construction that was destroyed in the turmoil of the war was the old Elisabeth Bridge. It was blown up by the retreating Wehrmacht sappers in January 1945, and it was the only bridge in Budapest that could not be rebuilt in its original form. The current white cable bridge with hexagons reminiscent of the National Geographic logo is from 1961-1964.
The old Elisabeth Bridge was constructed in 1897-1903. It got its name of Queen Elisabeth, who had been assassinated in Geneva in 1898. It was a beautiful bridge, built in eclectic style with elements of Art Nouveau, but it was also a wonder in bridge engineering. Its pillars that supported the portals were placed onto the river bank instead of the river bed, which lengthened the middle span of the bridge to 290 meters, making it the longest in the world for a public bridge for 23 years. The complete length of the bridge was 378.6 metres with the driveway being 11 metres wide and the pavements 3.5 meters each. There were four lanes available for traffic, two rows in each direction.
Old Elisabeth Bridge (Photo: Zöldkalauz)
The Elisabeth Bridge ends in Buda at the foot of the Gellért Hill. Below the bridge there is a noisy and chaotic traffic junction that tourists have no chance of avoiding if they want to reach the Buda Hill in the north. Some may get confused in the mishmash of lanes and by the lack of signs that would indicate the shortest way to the royal castle and may end up in a large park on the slopes of a third hill raising gently (this is Naphegy, the Sun Hill). This inconspicuous area is Tabán, the soul of the 18th- and 19th-century Buda, the most fascinating neighborhood in the city for me, annihilated almost completely in the 1930s.
Old Kereszt Square in Tabán (Photo: Budapest Anno)
Tabán was the real bohemian quarter of Budapest in the 19th century. Its narrow streets on the hillsides were full of restaurants, bars and brothels, which is why it was sometimes called the Montmartre of Budapest. It also had a good reputation among the artists and it was evoqued by a number of poets, writers and painters. Antal Szerb, for example, describes it like this:
“I’m not sure whether it breaches tourist office rules to show you something that isn’t actually there. For in truth, all you will see next is a row of muddy fields that break, like languid waves, against the foot of Gellért Hill. [–] Once, Sir, there were houses here – but what houses! And little streets wandering about between them – but what streets! The houses were all single-storey. In their midst, beside a mulberry tree, stood a washing trough, its watery suds trickling their way down the middle of the street, where they had cut a deep channel between the irregularly-shaped cobblestones.
“Every second house used to be a famous old restaurant resounding with the old Viennese Schrammelmusik. [–] The Tabán could be visited at any time of the year, in winter or summer, by day and by night. It was always wonderful, always unique. You made your way down its sloping streets, trundling the prospect of some newly-dawning love, one of the sort that occur to you in the early hours of the morning, when it is still dark and you are lying in bed with no prospect of a bath and a shave to wash the sweetly soporific resin that is love from your soul. Yes, here, Sir, there were once real streets, and the spirit of youth.” (4)
John Lukacs tells us more about the history of Tabán:
“That Tabán was truly ancient, unadorned by new buildings and undisturbed by innovations. It was also moderately unsanitary and, in places, disreputable. During the eighteenth century a motley population of Serbs, Magyars, Greeks and gypsies lived there, most of them rivermen. They made their living out of the barges, boats and ferries and by fishing on the Danube; later by transporting grains and food. Their commerce came from the south, from the more primitive and in part still Turkish-ruled Balkans, rather than from the Middle Danubian Europe of Austria and South Germany. They were involved in all kinds of trade, including an episode or two of white slavery. The Tabán had a share of taverns, gambling dens and whores. [–] By 1900 much of that racy population was gone, but the Tabán was still there, catering to men with a liking for good cheap dishes, good cheap wine and (I think in a few instances) good cheap women (though the more famous whorehouses were now on the Pest side). With its swaying oil lamps, unpaved streets and roughly stoned sidewalks, rambling and curving between the one-storied (and here almost always whitewashed) stone houses and hovels with their red tile roofs, with its tiny wine gardens and the ripe mixture of its smells, including the heavy scent of apricots and plums from its nearby orchards in the spring and summer, the Tabán was a very romantic place.” (5)
There is almost nothing left of this romantic world. There is one surviving Tabán house at the corner of Csákó and Aladár Streets. Kereszt Street, which was the centre of the old Tabán, is still there but instead of reminding one of the once happy neighborhood it probably makes one sad. All the houses that aligned it are gone. The park that stretches on the slopes of the Naphegy on its both sides for tens of meters looks like a cemetery. An occasional car passes the street here and then. On a gloomy winter’s day only the shadows of an old man walking a dog can be seen and the frail voice of a mother calling her children can be heard in the distance. But there is also a monument erected to commemorate a Serbian composer and a 19th-century cross stone from a Serbian Orthodox church.
A surviving Tabán house at the corner of Csákó and Aladár Streets
Near the lower end of Kereszt Street stands a horseshoe-shaped corner house named after a relief depicting a golden stag being chased by hounds. The building is from 1811. A restaurant has been operating in it since then. There are also references to an inn located in the same place and having the same name from as early as 1704. In the first half of the 19th century the Golden Stag Restaurant was a popular meeting point for Serbian intellectuals. Today it stands as a lonesome symbol of the romantic era of Tabán.
Relief of the Golden Stag Inn
Tabán was often described as raw and racy. Krisztinaváros in the north-west had a better reputation. But it too was a place to go for pleasure:
“Tucked away in the gardens and the courtyards of the Krisztina were open-air establishments: taverns, wineshops, essentially restaurants, because food could always be had there. Their few remaining examples are the precious survivals of an older Budapest even now. In some of these places, with their simple tables bedecked under large plane, locust or walnut trees, were Hungarian versions of the Viennese garden restaurants in Grinzing or Hietzing, fabled for their small orchestras and the young green Heuriger wine.” (6)
John Lukacs reports that in around 1900 the Marble Bride was the most famous of the Krisztinaváros restaurants. It was established in 1793 and it still stands on Márvány Street 6.
Marble Bride Restaurant today
The most popular coffee house on the Buda side – Café Philadelphia – was also located in Krisztinaváros, not far from the entrance of the Buda Castle Tunnel. It was opened in the summer of 1898 and operated until the demolition of Tabán in the 1930s. It was mostly visited by public officials but occasionally also by writers and artists.
The name of the Café Philadelphia makes me ponder about a certain predilection of Hungarians for the names of the New World at the time when it was popular to call hotels, restaurants and coffee houses after French and English names. There was also New York Palace in Pest. In Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca) in Transylvania, too, the best hotel and restaurant was named after New York.
Plaque on the building in the location of the former Café Philadelphia, Alagút Street 3
The Southern Railway Station is also in Krisztinaváros. The current building is from 1975. The original station was built on the site of a former cemetery and was opened in 1861. The purpose was to connect Budapest across the Croatian mountains with the port towns on the Adriatic Sea and from there to the existing Vienna-Trieste railway line.
John Lukacs informs us that the Southern Station was the starting point of the Trieste night express, which was popular among newlyweds, who boarded its wooden sleeping cars on their first or second wedding night en route to a honeymoon in Venice. In 1900, the train left Budapest at 8:00 PM and arrived in Venice at 2:15 PM the next day. (Reportedly it even gave birth to a well-known proverb, but it seems to have been erased from the collective memory of the Hungarians, since none of them who I have asked about it are able to recall it.)
Old Southern Railway Station (Photo: egykor.hu)
There were also a lot of places in Budapest around the turn of the century where one could go to have sex.
Hotels of the time usually did not accept guests just for a few hours in daytime, but some, like Hotel Orient opposite the People’s Theatre mentioned before, did. Hotel Fiume on Lánchíd utca 12 was another option.
Hotel Fiume (Photo: egykor.hu)
On the Buda side, a famous brothel in the era between the wars was located on Hess András Square 3, in the Red Hedgehog House, also known as the oldest building in Budapest (built in 1260). The first tavern of the Buda Castle functioned here and the first theatre performance in Buda was also organised here.
Red hedgehog on the façade of the eponymous house on Hess András Square 3
In Pest, Ó, Zichy Jenő and Mozsár Streets formed a notorious red light district. On Zichy Jenő Street 29-31, for example, there was a brothel with which writer Gyula Krúdy, who lived just next door, must have been familiar with. There were many houses of ill repute on the other side of Andrássy as well (for example, on Király, Akácfa, Dob and Hársfa Streets).
Zichy Jenő Street 31
The part of the 8th district of behind the Grand Boulevard was infamous for prostitution, drug dealing and other crimes in the 1980s and 1990s. About one century before too, this lower-class neighborhood – back then known as Csikágó because of its fast construction – had many brothels. This was an area for poor customers, since the brothels didn’t have indoor bathrooms and the prostitutes too were older. But there were plenty of offices around and together with them many tired public servants and bureaucrats. Rákóczi Square was a popular area. A brothel on Vig (“merry”) Street 42 was famous, just as one on what is now Auróra Street 15.
Auróra Street 15
Magyar Street was home to three houses of pleasure. They were the most exclusive in the city and were visited by men of aristocracy as well as by distinguished foreigners.
The most famous of them was the Maison Frida (on Magyar Street 29 or 34). A well-known joke at the time was was that this was just as indispensable an institution as the Mayor’s Office or the Electricity Works. The elegance and the sexual skills of its girls were famous all over the country. It did not only offer sexual services but also food, accommodation and other types of entertainment. It had luxurious red walls with gold stucco, expensive spirits and Madame Frida waiting for guests until 1926.
Magyar Street 34
Advertisement of Maison Frida (Photo: egykor.hu)
On Magyar Street 20, there was a brothel whose madam Rosalie Schumayer (Pilisy Róza) had literary interests and was in love with Krúdy. It had expensive furniture and themed rooms.
Magyar Street 20
Public comfort stations
I was also curious about the turn-of-the-century pissoirs. John Lukacs was my guide here as well:
“They were serviced by old women, public employees who were in charge of the cleaning and of the keys to the private toilet booths, dependent on a pittance of a municipal salary and on tips. These sheet-metal pavilions, invariably painted pea green, were more private than the vespasiennes of Paris. Tar paint was applied to their urinals, attempting to drench, or at least overcome, the foul smell of their interiors, usually with indifferent results. There were thirty-two of them in 1893 and fifty in 1902, often hidden among the trees and copses of the public squares.”
I had remembered that there were public urinals on Klauzál Square but when I went to verify it I only found a small stone hovel covered with graffiti, not a stylish green-metal pavilion that I had expected. I had the same hopes about Hunyadi Square but there I found a yellow-brick pavilion with Neo-Renaissance arches and a stage-like structure with metallic roof ornamentation.
Klauzál Square pissoir
Old pissoir (now a café) on Hunyadi Square
The pissoir on Almássy Square was made of wood and was mahogany-red.
Almássy Square pissoir
The public comfort station on Ferenc Square corresponded to my expectations entirely.
Ferenc Square pissoir
1. Jan Morris, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, London: Faber and Faber, 2002, p. 144.
2. John Lukacs, Budapest 1900. A Historical Portrait of a City and Its Culture, New York: Grove Press, 1988, p. 149.
3. Ibid., pp. 41-42.
4. Antal Szerb, A Martian’s Guide to Budapest, Budapest: Magvető, 2015, p. 19.
5. John Lukacs, op. cit., pp. 34-35.
6. Ibid., pp. 33-34.
7. Ibid., p. 33.
8. Ibid., p. 61.
written and photos taken between October 2016 and March 2017