A Communist-era car becomes an icon – and our chariot for the day
Trabants were manufactured in East Germany from 1957-1990, and sold throughout the Soviet satellite countries. They are quite iconic – although detested and considered inexpensive junk for most of their manufacturing time, they’re now extremely collectible. Out of 500,000 sold in Hungary, around 50,000 still exist and are sought after. Our guide, Balazs, has rehabbed several, and uses them for both showing visitors around as well as stunt driving shows.
When we met Balazs in front of our hotel, he first told us a bit about the history of the Trabant brand, showed us around the engine (transverse mounted), explained the body (metal frame, but plastic body as there weren’t enough steel sources in East Germany, where they were produced, with a heavy cotton blanket attached under the hood to muffle the engine noise), and also warned us that people would gawk and wonder who the rock stars were traveling in the Trabant, and then invited us into his chariot for our tour of Budapest.
The Philosopher’s Park promotes world understanding through art
He first drove us over one of the many bridges spanning the Danube from Pesh/Pest (east side) to Buda (west, and older side) to see Gellert Thermal Baths and Hotel. This thermal bath complex was built from 1912-1918 in Art Nouveau style and is absolutely divine inside. Balazs walked us around, pointing out interesting details and minutiae that we would never have guessed or known, then told us more of the history of the adjoining park and area as we returned to the car and continued on to Philosopher’s park, which is a part of the Citadella.
This cozy pocket park wasn’t crowded, despite the beautifully sunny day, and is a true hidden gem on the Buda side. Nandor Wagner created statues of various wise people, including Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, and Bodhi Dharma, to symbolize the meeting and mutual understanding of multiple religions and philosophies. Another moving and beautiful piece of statuary depicts the prince (Buda) and the princess (Pesh) clasping hands over the Danube, symbolizing the union of the two cities into modern-day Budapest.
After a nice amble around the park, during which Balazs entertained and educated us, we headed next to Lajos Kossuth Square and walked around, seeing the Parliament building as well as the memorial to the 1956 uprising martyrs, starkly and movingly represented with black bullet-sized balls where the bullets sprayed during the 1956 revolution against the Soviet occupation. Balazs explained the importance of Imre Nagy as well as the Transylvanian flag flying on the Hungarian parliament building n solidarity (hint: Transylvanians are mostly Magyar, like Hungarians, not Slavic, like Romanians).
Fascinating museums, historic government buildings, and art nouveau architecture make this tour memorable
We then walked over to the Art Nouveau Building, which houses not only a cafe but also a museum, Magyar Sezcesszio Haza, the only museum in Hungary dedicated to the Secessionist style, and a wistful look back at Hungary in peacetime, freedom, and creativity, it seemed to me. An exquisite example of the creative flowering in pre-World War I Hungary, the house includes a museum, cafe, and shop with myriad items of art nouveau. The house has been restored to approximate how it looked in 1903 just after building. I’ll definitely return to Budapest to take a longer look at the exhibits, and enjoy again the hospitality and lovely coffee in the cafe.
After a well-enjoyed cuppa, we wandered the No. 5 Vásárcsarnok market, then found Liberty Square, which includes not only a Soviet statue but also a statue of Ronald Reagan. Seem odd? Hungarians are very grateful to the former US president for disarming the USSR, thus lowering Soviet influence in satellite states such as Hungary.
Balazs took us for a spin down Andrassy, which is essentially Budapest’s Champs Elysee to Heroes Square with the Millenium Monument, and showed us where we would be soaking the next day (Szechenyi Thermal Baths) as well as the gorgeous memorial park (and zoo!) then we headed back to the Buda side and the castle district. Balazs arranged to drop us at the Hospital in the Rock attraction, and sadly, our time rock-starring in his Trabant was nearly over. We had just enough time for him to drive us through the castle district (which tightly regulates and taxes vehicle flow to preserve the fairyland feel of the area), then we parted.
What an amazing trip, tailored to our interests (Cars, Art Nouveau, 19/20/21st Century History), with a perfect soupcon of general Hungarian history thrown in to get us at least a little bit up to speed on this mysterious country. Thanks so much, Balazs!!
Magyar Sezcessio Haza, 1054 Budapest, Honved u 3, Ph: 36 1 269 4622 Hours: Monday-Saturday 10am – 5pm Tickets: Adult: 2000 Hungarian forints (HUF) Children/Seniors: 1500 Hungarian forints (HUF), Under 6: free. Free admission to the cafe and shop.
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