The Hungarian capital has entered its most profound period of transformation since its imperial zenith.
If you want to understand Budapest, buy a subway ticket. The oldest electrified metro line in continental Europe lies below the Hungarian capital, running parallel to one of the youngest.
When Line 1 opened in 1896, the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s second city was in its Belle Epoque glory days, complete with opulent cafes, immaculately shaved gentlemen, and parasol-totting young ladies given to hysteria. The new subway typified the prosperity of Europe’s fastest-growing city. Secession-style entrances of wrought iron led down to stations lined with glazed mosaic tiles. The electric-powered cars were clad in polished wood. “Exceedingly handsome,” wrote a correspondent for a London railroad review. “More like the saloon of a yacht than a tram car?’ The two-mile line and its 11 stations took only 20 months to construct. Christened as the Millennium Underground Railway, the system opened in time for a massive celebration announcing the city on the Danube as a hypermodern metropolis of fin de siecle Europe. The original trains were replaced in the 1970s with vaguely antiqued modern cars, but Line 1, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, remains fully functional, a nostalgic thread connecting many of the city’s most lavish imperial sights.
By contrast, Line 4, completed in 2014, was considered a failure before construction even began. The plan to link the medieval village of Buda to the chaotic commercial district Pest, across the Danube, was approved in the 1970s but languished in political deadlock for more than 30 years. After construction began, in 2006, it quickly became an emblem of the corruption and mismanagement that, while less common than in the days of ‘goulash Communism, still affected Hungary. Unexplained delays caused the budget to balloon to US$2 billion. Residents griped that the line connected parts of the city that didn’t need connecting, while doing nothing to solve the city’s chronic traffic jams.