December 7, 2023

The allure of cities: Budapest has met its rival in Edinburgh

If you ask me what my favourite city is, I will respond without hesitation: Budapest. That is, until now. Now, Budapest has met its rival: Edinburgh.

Having only spent a day and a half in Scotland’s capital, it might be a little premature to dislodge my all time favourite from its pivotal perch. And it is. Budapest is still number one and probably always will be.

It’s home to my first memories, the site of my first pre-school, where I went to my first disco, and later where I would meet my boyfriend, David. It’s the city where I was compelled to study abroad, to move to after graduation, and which now leaves me with a steady heartache when I think of it. I have to live there again. I have to.

Budapest has me at that guttural level. When I lived there three years ago, I would stop mid-step on the pavement to look around and soak up my surroundings. I loved this place. I loved just being there, just standing on the sidewalk.

When I return, I am filled to bursting. This is my city, my city. I remember my Hungarian step-brother saying these words after returning from a hiatus in the countryside. I had said them too. So have many others.

Budapest is a gorgeous city in a funny country in the heart of Europe. Hungarian is only related distantly to Finnish and otherwise Hungary is an island in a sea of Slavs. Hungarians are conscious of their unique, impenetrable language and take pride in their ethnic identity. At the same time, Hungary is unsure whether to identify with Western or Eastern Europe, this struggle dating far back in its history. If you come from the likes of London, Munich, or Vienna, however, you arrive to Budapest and know you are no longer in the West.

There is something dirty, grimy, and delicious about Budapest. Unlike Vienna, it is not trying to be home to the giants of imperialism. Budapest doesn’t put up a façade, doesn’t try to be something it isn’t. It is beautiful and dirty. Stunning 19th century buildings are crumbling, WWII bullet holes bearing witness to a horrific past. Tower blocks at the outskirts of the city rise up in an overpowering reminder of Communism, and the tortured battle over the Metro 5 reminds us that corruption is still rampant in Hungary. The Prime Minister’s courting of the anti-semitic far right signals that all is not right in Europe.

And so Budapest is a transient city. Foreigners come and go, while young Hungarians are leaving the country in droves. But the streets, cafes, bars, and nightclubs team with life, and there is a wonderful vibrancy that you can find in few other places. This city allows you to let go, climb the Buda hills, survey the city below, and walk on islands. All the while reminding you that life happens; it is not curated for you. It is romantic and scary but all the time honest.

Compared to Budapest, Edinburgh is a curated city. It is, after all, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is maintained and well-presented but not necessarily because the government is trying to invite tourism or because Scotland’s capital must look and feel a certain way. The city, itself, demands that it be preserved. And not in a Colonial-Williamsburg-sort-of-way or in an only-rich-people-can-afford-to-live-here-way but in a genuinely romantic sense. Edinburgh is a home to Western romanticism and it cannot be otherwise. Therefore it must be a real place for real people but it must also be Romantic.

While Budapest has the pulsating Danube running through its heart and a castle atop its banks, Edinburgh’s heart is shot through with a giant rock emerging from the earth atop which sits its castle. The land around it slopes and rises so that the city’s streets undulate, providing views and angles that nourish the senses. The city is life-size with its old, picturesque buildings that never loom over you. There is the odd, new building with flat character-less walls but it sits proportionately in its surroundings, relative to those structures around it. And predominantly, the old cobble stone streets and medieval architecture of the Old Town and Georgian design of the New Town remain wonderfully in tact.

Edinburgh was home to the Scottish Enlightenment, that miraculous period in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when the likes of David Hume, Adam Smith, and James Hutton, among many others, helped to revolutionise Western thought, heralding in a new age. The city is also known for its literary figures, including Robert Burns, Walter Scott, and Robert Louise Stevenson.

Stevenson gifted the world with spellbinding compositions that have seized the imagination, locking them in a grip known only to the most enduring folktales, fairytales, and myths. From this genius we have Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the A Child’s Garden of Verses. He was also a man in love with his birth city and although he spent his remaining years in Samoa, he wrote near the end of his life, “I will say it fairly, it grows on me every year: there are no stars as lovely as Edinburgh street-lamps.”

Stevenson played a part in constructing the India buildings found on Victoria Street, one of the most unique and appealing streets in Old Town. In the romantic spirit of the day, it was his wish to contribute to the city’s character as a place of adventure, chivalry, and idealism. Edinburgh is indeed all that is Romantic; with a personality and will of its own, it dictates itself.

But what of other cities, you ask? New York City has me at a guttural level as well. Emerging from the subway, you grab hold of the wall or your companion’s shoulder to steady yourself as you gaze up at the skyscrapers above. Although your feet are planted firmly on the ground as you look up, you feel as though you are gazing down from a steep height, the same giddiness forcing you to steady yourself. As you acclimate your senses to the pace and bustle of New York, you transform and mould into it. New York City seizes you in its own way.

Then there are so many other cities: Barcelona with its boulevards, wide streets, and Gaudi architecture or Luxembourg with its valley of fairies in its centre. But Stevenson died pining for Edinburgh, where he passed his formative years, and I suspect Budapest will always hold my heart in the final analysis. But it is worth spending time and living in some of these most arresting cities, because they will take you up, show you new ways of seeing, and leave you forever changed.

By Andrea Sandor

Andrea Sandor is a Hungarian-American who grew up between continents and has now moved permanently to the UK. She holds an MA in anthropology and writes about her cross-cultural adventures and observations.

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