Friday, September 21, 2018
Our special relationship with Budapest
On an amusing note, it was fun to see some of the sculptures in Budapest on a recent trip. Ever since Hungary returned to the European fold in 1989, local artists have been making it known where their allegiances had long lied. This is why you find a life-size bronze likeness of Ronald Reagan in Liberty Square, where a Soviet obelisk still stands in commemoration of the Soviet liberation of Hungary from Nazi Germany. It's kind of hard to get both in the same picture.
The Reagan statue was erected in 2011 with much fanfare and has been a favorite spot for American tourists ever since. There is also a statue of US General Harry Hill Bandholtz, erected in 1936 in memory of the role he played in stopping a gang of Romanian soldiers from looting the National Museum of Transylvanian treasures in 1919. Surprisingly, it wasn't taken down during the Soviet-Hungarian years.
I learned that Transylvania is a sore point for Hungarians, as this infamous region in the Carpathians was once part of Hungary until the Romanians laid claim to it in 1918. It had been part of the Magyar kingdom as far back as the 9th century, but ethnic Romanians disputed this claim, and when the Austro-Hungarian empire disintegrated after WWI, they claimed it in the name of the newly formed Romanian Kingdom.
Of course, we all know Transylvania largely from Bram Stoker's novel, Dracula, which was rather loosely based on Vlad Tepes, the ruler of Walachia in the 15th century. He became known as Vlad the Impaler on account of carefully driving a stake through the anus to the open mouth of his poor victims, leaving them elevated above the ground until they died of internal injuries. This gruesome method was quite common at the time. Stoker took it one step further in his novel by turning Vlad into a blood sucking vampire.
The book has been made into numerous movies, but the 1931 cinematic version remains the most famous, starring Bela Lugosi. You might not see the irony in this until you learn that Bela is a native Hungarian. Essentially, he reclaimed Count Dracula and the Transylvania region in the name of his homeland, for better or worse, and has been duly memorialized on one of the many corners of Vajdahunyad Castle, symbolizing the millennium of the conquest of the Carpathian basin in 895 by the Magyars.
The fairytale castle was built in 1896 at the height of the Austro-Hungarian empire and has many other persons memorialized there. You might struggle to find Bela without a phone app, but persevere as it is worth it. I'm not sure whether he filled a pre-existing niche or if the sculptor carved out a special place for a small bust of him, but Bela seems right at home in this castle. We came at twilight and bats were darting around above us.
Nothing quite prepares you for the life-size bronze sculpture of Peter Falk and his famous Basset hound at the end of the No. 2 Tram on Falk Miksa St. near the Danube, or Duna as they call it in Hungary. What has Columbo, as the statue is known as, got to do with Hungary? The name of the street should give you a clue, as Falk is a Hungarian name, and the sculptor linked the actor to the famous journalist and politician, Miksa Falk. There is nothing to indicate such a connection exists, but Peter himself claimed to have Hungarian Jewish blood, and that was enough as far as the sculptor was concerned.
I think Peter Falk became famous in Europe largely for reprising his role of Columbo in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire. The 1987 movie has a cult following and in many ways presaged the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. To my mind, no movie more evocatively captures the duality of life in Berlin at the time, which is why it is probably better translated directly from its German title, Skies Over Berlin. I don't think too many Europeans, and especially Hungarians, paid much attention to Columbo before then.
There are many more sculptures to check out in Budapest. Here are the ten most interesting according to EUrama. Surprisingly, Shakespeare didn't make the list, who bows before a Starbucks on the east bank of the Duna.