Water Under the Bridge: Reflections on Budapest

Culture, Travel

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One of the most worthwhile things I did on a recent trip to Budapest was take time to walk around the city and admire its diverse architecture.

In the past, like much of central and Eastern Europe, the city endured occupation by fascist and communist forces, suffered countless deaths to these totalitarian regimes, and was destroyed and rebuilt during and after WWII. Unlike some other places though, that are so palpably aware and painfully remorseful for their own tragic history that you can sense a determined distance from it, Budapest didn’t just acknowledge or betoken bygone times. It allowed me to feel for a moment that I had stepped back into the past, and entered into a reality that no longer exists.

On the first evening, Gavin and I strolled across Margaret Bridge and looked out southward on the Danube. From there, we had a perfect view of the Hungarian Parliament on the East side of the river, and Castle Hill, the Fisherman’s Bastions, and the Royal Palace to the West. Their lofty, pointed towers and rounded domes were mirrored in the still, wide channel, the reflected image occasionally obscured by a passing tour boat. They were the configurations of a fairytale. After taking some pictures that could surely do the view only a little justice, we turned and walked down to Margaret Park: a large island that rests between the divided city of Buda and Pest.

In the darkness we sat with other tourists by the park’s fountain, waiting for the evening music and lights show to begin. We settled ourselves facing a backdrop of tall trees with rich canopies that craned over the pool of water, reflecting the changing lights of the fountains. At a minute before 9 o’clock, the water dropped suddenly, and tension mounted.

Then, the first few bars of Vivaldi’s Spring from The Four Seasons rushed from the speakers, the central jet rose slowly in vivid red, smaller green ambient spouts sprang into the air, crashed and broke into little sparkling droplets, and I was hypnotised. With a motley repertoire that included pop-hits from Simon and Garfunkel, The Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival and X-Factor finalist Rebecca Ferguson (definitely an interesting choice) along with Brahm’s Hungarian Dance No. 1, Strauss, and Verdi’s Chorus of the Slaves, the mood shifted after every song, captivating the audience for the best part of an hour.

Afterward, we chatted about how moving the spectacle had been. We were both a little embarrassed to admit we’d gotten shivers during different parts of the performance. When it came down to it, it was just a fountain with some lights and spouts programmed to keep time with music, so why were we so intensely thrilled? The answer was simple: the transformative, cathartic, spell-bindingly graceful movement of water.

It was the circular pops and surges that piped in with each short note of the violin that delighted us, the burst of sparkling waterworks that enchanted us, and the cloaked white watery figures with their heads bowed to a stoically erect centerpiece that gave us quiet reverence.

In a city famous for its baths, built on and divided by the second-longest river in Europe, that has only recently beaten the raised fist of communism, it seems fitting that answer should come in the form of the weaving, shoulder-shaking, head-bobbing streams of sparkling liquid, the grand head-sways, and the gush of the mighty central geyser rising slowly with the orchestra’s crescendo.

To every observer dotted on the surrounding park benches, it was the cyclical journey of the water that kept us suspended together momentarily. And it wasn’t until the cycle returned to the tapping percussion of the second rendition of “Cecelia” that the spell broke and we slowly made our way back to the bridge.

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