It feels a little bit like Christmas here in Budapest, in spite of the fact that bare legs and bellies are being lured out of winter hibernation by the warm temperatures and sunshine. I say it feels a little bit like Christmas because it seems as if every week, we get a new present from the government.
Metro 4 was unwrapped recently with its new stations providing ample amusement for the masses. Riding the full length of the line and getting off at each new station has become the latest thing to do. It took a long time to get there. When I was here in 2007, I looked at a flat in what is now Janós Pál pápa tér. The old boy who was selling it told me that the Metro 4 would open soon. I hope he lived long enough to see it. While it was first mooted as a possibility back in 1970, construction didn’t start until 2006. The seven or so kilometres of line took seven years to deliver at a cost of €1.5 billion. The best part of this expensive present though, is that the line is fully accessible at all stations. Perhaps even more than bare legs and bellies will be tempted out of hibernation this summer.
The newly renovated Kossuth Lájos tér has been unveiled and it is looking rather well, dressed as it is to coincide with the second consecutive term in office of the ruling party Fidesz under the leadership of Mr Orbán with what looks very much like a supermajority. (I’m not very well up on my political ideologies but to me, the term democratic supermajority sounds like an oxymoron.) Revamped at a cost of close to €100 million, the eight-hectare area looks as magical to some as the recent pre-election 20% cuts in gas and utility bills look to others. Presents for everyone.
For those with a more artistic bent, the Erkel Theatre (the biggest theatre in Central Europe apparently) has been returned to its former glory over the course of just six years at a cost of €6.5 million. In his inauguration speech a few months ago, Mr Orban noted that ‘opera houses and concert halls are all temples of national culture, where the spirit and intellectual greatness of the nation is made apparent. This is what really determines a nation’s size, significance, quality, smallness or greatness.’ In light of this, then, the continued renovations of other venues like the Liszt Academy of Music (€45 million) and the Pesti Vigádo music hall (€7.5 million) makes sense to many, but perhaps less so to the homeless.
There are lots more presents on the list, too. We can look forward to the opening of the Castle Gardens Bazaar (€31 million) later this summer and work will soon begin the new Museum Quarter (€150 million). The FTC stadium (€45 million) will also open its seats to the football-going public in the foreseeable future. Quite close to me, the Ludovika renovation (€65 million) seems to be plodding along on schedule and I’m looking forward to the seeing the final result. And, of course, this is just in Budapest.
Going back to that speech in November to mark the opening of the Erkel Theatre, Mr Orbán quoted Churchill’s reply when he was told that austerity measures were needed within the fields of art and culture as they have no strategic role. He asked: Then what are we fighting for? And while Mr Orbán makes a point when he says that many indigenous peoples have no economy, no GDP, no import-export balance and often use no kind of currency, but they hang on tooth and nail to their own culture and unique arts, and insist on maintaining their own traditions, I’m left wondering at the cost of Budapest’s facelift and exactly who will benefit.
First published in the Budapest Times 11 April 2014