The travel writer arrived in Budapest in 1934. Author Michael O’Sullivan traces his footsteps.
By Michael O’Sullivan
First published in iNews 25 February 2019.
Standing on Budapest’s Freedom Bridge some years ago, with a Turkish friend who comes from an old Ottoman family, I heard her exhale a long, almost doleful sigh. When I asked if everything was alright, she just stared down the Danube and said, “To think that this was once part of the frontier of our old Empire!” Budapest is that sort of city; a place with a capacity to easily unleash a myriad of complex historical emotions.
Few have realised this so perfectly in print as did a 19 year old English youth who came here in 1934. Patrick Leigh Fermor was, among other things, working off his frustration at having been expelled from school when he undertook what is now remembered as a legendary walk from the Hook of Holland to the place he liked to call Constantinople.
He arrived in Budapest on 1 April 1934. He could hardly have known then, that a mere 10 years later, much of what he saw in this ancient city would be greatly altered by the vicissitudes of war, but also by the brutality which was so often the handmaiden of communism.
Can the traveller to the Hungarian capital today hope to find anything left of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Budapest to explore and enjoy? Let’s start our quest where he did; on the west bank of the river Danube on the Buda side of the city so elegantly bisected by one of Europe’s greatest rivers.
Úri utca (Lord’s Street) is at the very heart of the Castle District and lining this ancient cobbled thoroughfare are the one-time palaces and townhouses of the old Hungarian nobility. Stop in front of number 15, a plain two-storey house, and you will be at the very core of Leigh Fermor’s Budapest. If the owner, Baroness Gloria von Berg is at home, you are likely to receive a warm welcome and a free tour of the very quarters in which PLF slept. It was her father, Baron Tibor von Berg who hosted him in 1934. From this hospitable house he explored Budapest in a way that few English travellers had achieved at that time. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s passport
Go north on Úri utca and at its junction with Szenthármoság tér (Trinity Square) you will encounter an object which carries with it immense superstition for students who are about to sit exams: a statue of Field Marshal András von Hadik on horseback. Closer examination reveals the horse’s testicles to be highly polished. This comes from fervent rubbing by generations of students wishing to invoke good luck before sitting their exams.
You may regain your composure with a leisurely stroll to Leigh Fermor’s favourite vantage point for viewing the Danube, its bridges and the glories of Pest across the river. The Fisherman’s Bastion has all the deceptive appearance of an ancient cut-stone belvedere; however, this amalgam of neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque architecture was erected barely 30 years before Leigh Fermor reached Budapest. On its main terrace an eponymous restaurant, Halászbástya Étterem, offers Hungarian fare. But nearby, for Leigh Fermor devotees are two places of refreshment still thriving since his 1934 visit.
For the traveller seeking the perfect coffee break or a light lunch Ruszwurm (Szentháromság Street 7) was Leigh-Fermor’s favourite café in Buda. Still operating since 1827, it has many of its original Biedermeier furnishings, and its tiny interior offers the perfect Budapest time warp. Those seeking more hearty sustenance should head for the Fekete Holló (black raven) restaurant on nearby Országház Street 10. This is where Leigh Fermor worked with his Budapest mentor Rudi Fischer to shape Between the Woods and the Water into the masterpiece of modern travel literature which it became. Its interior has something of the feel of a Hungarian hunting lodge about it, and its speciality is fish. The fish soup is a meal in itself.
At this point, in order to follow at least some of PLF’s route on the other side of the city in Pest, take the dinky number 16 bus (stops at regular intervals throughout the Castle District) and cross the Danube via the Chain Bridge, first opened to traffic in 1849.
This mighty conduit between both sides of the city was Leigh Fermor’s daily route to Pest where, once he reached Vörösmarty Square, he often stopped at the capitals most famous Café Gerbeaud. Still operating as a café since 1870, today it represents the more expensive side of Budapest’s cafe life.
Opposite Gerbeaud is the former Teleki Palace (now the Bank of China) where Leigh Fermor made several visits to one of Hungary’s most learned Prime Ministers, Paul Teleki, who was on the team of geographers who mapped the Japanese archipelago. The foyer of this bank gives some idea of the former grandeur of this old Budapest palace.
Leigh Fermor described Pest as a modern place criss-crossed by a great swath of Oxford Streets. On one of these streets we find the house which once contained one of Europe’s most legendary nightclubs, frequented by such social luminaries as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. At 20 Nagymező Street is the house which hosted the Arizona. Today, it contains a splendid photographic museum, but a faint sense of what Leigh Fermor described still lingers: ‘’The scintillating cave of the most glamorous nightclub I had ever seen. Did the floor of the Arizona really revolve? It certainly seemed to. Snowy steeds were cantering around it at one moment, feathers tossing: someone said he had seen camels there, even elephants.’’
Despite what war, revolution and communism have done to the physical fabric of Budapest, it is still possible to find a flavour of a city so elegantly described by one of the greatest English travel writers of his generation.
Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania by Michael O’Sullivan is published by Central European University Press.