Time-tumbled stone... and turds.

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August 19th 2009
Published: July 25th 2010
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By 7 a.m. we are again drifting and wading in the tranquil pools of the Széchenyi Medicinal Baths in City Park, and again we are the youngest among very few patrons. We openly wish that we could begin each day in this relaxing manner - indeed, it will be an element we will miss most when it comes time to leave Budapest.

We take the metro back to the apartment to wash up and then begin the trek across Margaret Bridge to the Buda side. To our right we can peer down to Margaret Island and see topless sunbathers soaking up the already formidable rays, and already people appear to be gathering along the bridge and riverbanks for the Red Bull Air Race which will be raking the Danube later in the day. We intend to watch it too, but not before exploring the ruins of Roman Aquincum in the northern edges of Budapest.

We board the HÉV, the suburban rail network that connects the center of Budapest with its outskirts. As we exit the train we can see the Amphitheater of the Civilian Town beside the stop. It is open to the public for free but is rarely visited and easily missed entirely, and it did not take long for us to realize why. Budapest has a large homeless population that is easily missed in the city center, but throughout the restored ruins of a Roman arena the evidence of their presence is abundant. Blankets, garbage, and all sorts of burnt material can be found stored in the various crevices. Graffiti is abundant in its interior, the most preferred art-form sadly being the swastika. Behind the amphitheater, among the trees that surround it, piles of syringes nearly equal the piles of human feces. Being intrepid seekers of history, we cautiously wander the ruins but take care to remain in the open. The three of us are the only people here, and for all I can imagine we are probably the only travelers to enter for the day, if not many. Depressed by the state of such an historical structure, we begin the lengthy walk down the road to the entrance of the Aquincum park and Aquincum Museum, hoping to find things in much more careful hands.

This area was once the capital of Lower Pannonian province in the 2nd century. The natural hot springs attracted the Romans (Aquincum means, in Latin, “good water”) who flourished here for over a century. From the road, the park looks small and unimpressive; however, we soon find that both the park and museum have a great deal to offer. We first navigate through the Aquincum Museum, whose airy, bright interior presents displays of artifacts excavated from the premises. We are thrilled to find a large collection of pottery spanning from the Neolithic age through the Roman occupation, and eagerly examine each piece for clues to the age and function of the shards we have dug from Gabe’s garage. The closest match we find are from the Bronze Age, even carrying similar etchings, though some Roman prospects seem promising as well.

The Aquincum park is one of the largest archaeological parks in Hungary, and it too offers ample opportunity for exploration that can easily fill more than half a day. Maps help to explain the original layout of the town and the purposes of the buildings, whose foundations, doorways, alleyways, streets, squares and baths can still be easily identified. Countless small lizards sun themselves on the sun-baked ruins and dart across our paths upon approach. Chronoscopes reimagine the town as it once was and funereal artifacts, including sarcophagi, are abundant. Truly, the care taken for these ruins is as far removed from the forgotten amphitheater as we are on this day from the Romans who once stood where I now stand - though thanks to the park experience, those times do not feel as distant as two millenniums.

Gabe and I indulge in the purchase of Roman coins found in the ruins for souvenirs. Before we leave he gets the emails of some of the museum directors so that we might send photos of our shards and have them give us their opinion as to their age. We take the HÉV back to Margaret Bridge in time to catch the tail end of the Red Bull Air Race. We find an open space along the embankment as jets roar above, trailing white smoke, looping and soaring for our enjoyment into the blue, nearly cloudless sky. The Parliament building shimmers majestically on the Danube. Music blares from speakers all along the river. It is enough to allow me to not think of the destruction military planes once caused to this city, and the fear once caused by the thunderous sound of their coming.

After the show the crowds quickly begin to disperse and we walk back to Margaret Bridge to explore Margaret Island, a well manicured, 1.4 mile long natural respite from the city. Originally called the Island of Rabbits because it was practically infested with them (as they couldn’t leave the island), the name was changed after King Béla vowed that his daughter, Margaret, would join a nunnery if he were successful against the Mongol invasion between 1242 and 1244. He was, and Margaret lived the remainder of her life in chastity on the island, which quickly became dominated by religious buildings and Christian orders of all kinds until the Turks destroyed them in the 16th century. Under the Hapsburgs the island became a resort for royalty and it was not until 1908 that the island was opened to the public.

We pass the Centennial Memorial, built in 1973 to commemorate the hundred-year anniversary of Budapest’s unification. Already we can hear the classical music drifting from speakers around a large fountain, timing the water spurts with the rhythm of the piece. The area is alive with loungers and teenagers, the latter of which are dipping bottles into the fountain’s cold water as artillery to drench their peers. Paths meander deeper into the island, flanked by manicured gardens and the shade of trees and populated with joggers and cyclists.

We come to the two remaining stone walls of a 14th century Franciscan friary, a lone gothic window of which once distinguished between outside and in. I run my hands along what used to be the structure’s interior, feeling its course coolness on my fingertips, perhaps seeking the ghostly vibrations of past residents.

It is easy to see why Margaret Island is so popular and beloved by the people of Budapest. We wander to the eastern side of the island, passing soccer games, picnickers, more vibrant gardens, and a small animal farm before walking along the Danube, heading back to Margaret Bridge. The waters of the ancient river are tempting in the summer heat. Though it looks far cleaner than the brown-sludge of the Hudson, the many ferries and barges that glide upon its surface are enough to deter me from wading into it.

Back in Pest break-dancers perform beneath Margaret Bridge and leash-less dogs follow closely on the heels of their masters. We head back to the apartment to wash before dinner, for which we return to Liszt Ferenc tér and dine at the Buena Vista restaurant, named, supposedly, for the Buena Vista Social Club which performed at the location before the restaurant opened. Now serving contemporary Hungarian food, it is the oldest restaurant on the square (which is to say over seven years old) and one of the most popular. We get outdoor seats and take our time eating our meals, taking in the scenes, smells, and sounds of our last evening in Budapest. A British couple sits a few tables over and I realize it may be the last time I understand the words spoken from a stranger for the remainder of our trip. I swallow, smile, and welcome the linguistic isolation.

Note: Some photos were taken by Gabor J. Szabo

Additional photos below
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HÉV stationHÉV station
HÉV station

View from Amphitheater of the Civilian Town.

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