May 02: the first metro in continental Europe is not where you think it is
2012/05/02 § Leave a comment
On this day in 1896 the Budapesti metró opened.
Not Paris, not even Vienna; it was Budapest that took the first leap among continental European nations to establish that signature of modern city living: an underground metropolitan railway system. The line was developed in general response to the growth of the elegant city, the sometimes-capital of the Habsburgs that had grown into one of the most culturally progressive cities in Europe, and specifically to serve the crowds that were anticipated to attend the Millennium Festivities of 1896. In this year the Hungarians celebrated 1,000 years of Magyar presence in the Carpathian Basin. The metro line was designed to connect the city center to the park where the main elements of the fest were built by running beneath the Andrássy út. This is one of the great streets of the world, developed in the nineteenth century as a boulevard lined with cafes, cultural institutions and smart townhouses. In 2002 UNESCO named this great linear path–the elegant streetscape above the the harbinger of modernity below–as a World Heritage Site.
News of all this wonderfulness oftentimes comes as a surprise to travelers who think of Prague as the easternmost point of European greatness. Indeed, Budapest’s status as the star of Eastern EUrope was sadly short-lived. As Stephen Colbert has noted, it is in one of the war-torniest parts of the world. The fact that a second line was not added to the metro system until 1970 speaks volumes–as is the fact that all subsequent lines have all the charm and warmth associated with Soviet engineering. Indeed, the turmoil to which Budapest was subjected through so much of the twentieth century is a significant aspect of the city even today. Unlike Paris and Vienna, which were more insulated than this eastern European capital, and unlike Prague, which has found a way to spin the gold of tourism out of the dross of its troubled past, Budapest displays the scars left by British and American bombs, Soviet and Romanian artillery, Fascist militias, Communist vandals, and Soviet tanks–even otherwise elegant settings by the Parliament, the major museums, as well as the Andrássy út. On this street, in the midst of the Opera House and cafes and porcelain shops, stands the brooding Terror Háza, museum and memorial of the dictatorial regimes. Taken as a whole, the assemblage is a moving tribute to the dramatic life of a great city: an honest portrait of centuries-old history, legacies of tradition, and emblems of modernity, written in the beautifully sculpted facades pockmarked by bullets, still standing tall over a train rumbling deep under its surface.
Image: Vörösmarty Tér metro station, Budapest (Clio’s)