The following was originally published in Hungarian on the Mr. Foster blog.
Stories That Time Forgot
Andrássy Boulevard, the Hungarian State Opera House, view from Hajós Street with the terrace of Drechsler Café in the foreground. Photo: FORTEPAN, gift of Gaaboo
I started out like somebody wanting to find treasure. Andrássy Boulevard. What a mystical word! For me, it’s like a red carpet that unrolls before you, unmistakably showing you the way. And even though you are stepping on hundred-year-old stones, it’s as if the soles of your feet still stick to the fresh surface. The boulevard that spans from Deák Square to Hősök Square was named after the prime minister at the time – Gyula Andrássy – who worked tirelessly to realize the plan. Of course, its name was changed countless times after that, until finally in 1990 it managed to win back its original name.
“To list Andrássy Boulevard’s various names in their entirety: from 1883, The Boulevard [Sugárút]; from 1886, Andrássy Boulevard [Andrássy út]; from 1950, Stalin Boulevard [Sztálin út]; from October 1956, The Boulevard of Hungarian Youth [Magyar Ifjúság útja]; from 1957, The Boulevard of the People’s Republic [Népköztársasság útja]; and, from 1990, Andrássy Boulevard once again” [Source: Wikipedia]
Antal Berkes (1874–1938): Andrássy Boulevard
It was Baron Frigyes Podmaniczky who dreamed up the Boulevard, who conceived of the idea of a world-class city in place of the barren plots of land, and whose plans slowly shaped the face of what would become Pest’s Broadway. From 1873 to 1905, the Count was the deputy minister of the Capital City Public Works Commission [Fővárosi Közmunkák Tanácsa], and his life’s work was to bring the capital city to glory. They drew up the city’s master plan, building the ring roads, the boulevards, the river’s embankments, and three bridges across the Danube.
Podmaniczky – who also had a road named after him – had a lively social life and wouldn’t say no to a game of cards (tarokk). In the painting below, Artúr Ferraris captured this interesting social circle (which deserves a post of its own) for posterity: (pictured) Kálmán Tisza, István Nedeczky, Károly Sváb, Mór Jókai, Ödön Gajári, (behind Sváb) Prince Gyula Odescalchy (with the monocle), Lajos Csernátony, Aldzsi Beőthy, Frigyes Podmaniczky, Károly Pulszky, and Kálmán Mikszáth.
Legend has it that they had their own language during these card games:
“If Tisza said, ‘Which water should I drown in?’ it meant that he didn’t have a single in his hand. If one of them scratched his back as he called clubs and said, ‘There are three fleas biting my back!’ it meant that he still had three clubs left. If Tisza lost, as he was leaving he would say, ‘Matyi Ludas will pay this back three times over!’ At the end of the night, as Jókai rightly said, it was the ‘hora canonica’.” – as found in Vilmos Zolnay’s book, The History of Cards and Card Games [A kártya türténete és a kártyajátékok], 1928, where he talks about tarokk card games.
Artúr Ferraris: The Historical Tarokk Card Party [A történelmi tarokkparti], 1894
But where does Pest’s Broadway stand in the middle of the 19th century?
Where the Opera House stands now, there was a notorious dive bar and the neighborhood had been overtaken by weeds. By night, Frigyes tried to rid the area of lowlifes, and by day, he showed off the new construction to the upper crust. Despite there being live entertainment in the city park, in the 1880s there were no tram or bus lines along Andrássy Boulevard. Hired carriages carried the crowds to their merrymaking along Király Street or the Fasor.
“– Baron, sir, what is it that changes a person on the Boulevard?
- I wanted to lay the foundations for freedom. These are bold words, but nevertheless, where can you still find such an open area for riders and pedestrians alike? Here, a person won’t bump into anyone; they can stroll to their heart’s content in their best clothes and show themselves off to the world. Of course, this is all just an illusion. But, a powerful and real one. A public place is built on people’s desires.”
Gyula Krúdy considered the Opera House to be the jewel of Andrássy Boulevard. Its 300-year history stretches back to a time when opera performances were still held in the homes of the elite. As the taste for opera spread, the idea was born to build a venue solely for that purpose. Miklós Ybl designed the Neo-Renaissance style Opera House based on the opera houses in Dresden, Paris, and Vienna. Construction took nine years, with the end result being a shoe-shaped auditorium with outstanding acoustics, and a front façade where four muses enticed those promenading before them. They broke ground in October 1875.
The construction proceeded slowly, to the extent that in 1881 they even temporarily suspended construction on the interior. Finally, in September 1884, it was finished. As one could expect, the cost rose to 3.3 million forint from the original 2 million forint budget. The suspension of work was due to a fire at Vienna’s Ring Theatre, because of which they had to modify the fire safety plans, consequently reducing the capacity from 2,000 to 1,200 people.
The essence of the building can only really be appreciated together with its interior details and its acoustics. But those who might not be able to venture further inside, should at least walk around the building. You will discover 22 significant statues altogether: on the main terrace stand 16 statues of composers (Monteverdi, Scarlatti, Gluck, Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Donizetti, Glinka, Wagner, Verdi, Gounod, Bizet, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Moniuszko, and Smetana); on one side of the arched driveway is a statue of Ferenc Liszt, and on the other side is Ferenc Erkel (both the work of Alajos Stróbl); and in the four corners of the front terrace, statues of four muses proclaim the eternal spirit of art.
Andrássy Boulevard, the Hungarian State Opera House. Photographed around 1890. Photo: FORTEPAN, gift of György Klösz
“I put a passer-by to the test. She could be in her seventies. She is wearing a knee-length skirt with stockings and slipper-type shoes that clack as she walks. She is carrying an old plastic bag.
- Good day, could you to tell me what kinds of muses are here above us? – to make sure she knows which, I point up toward the statues.
- Muses? What kind of creatures are those?
- They are supposed to be the inspiration for art. They’ve stood here on the opera house façade since 1884.
- Who has time to look up? I’ve worked my fingers to the bone for forty years. I have never been in the building, but it sure is very swanky. For me, the movie theatre was always the big treat.
- And if the muses should cast a spell on you one of these days?
- Well, they can go ahead – she says as she goes on her way. I couldn’t convince her of the special nature of the statues.
I can’t get the conversation out of my head; at night I search for the names of the muses. The ladies all stand there in a beautiful row: the muses of dance, comedy, love poetry, and tragedy – Terpsichore, Thalia, Erato, and Melpomene.”
I pledge allegiance to the yellow angel instead of the blue caterpiller
The beauty of being on the metro is that it hasn’t changed. On May 2, 1896, one of Europe’s first underground trains was opened as part of the millennial celebrations. The English were the first to put public transportation underground, but whereas the London metro was steam powered, the Budapest metro was driven by electricity. If you have time, on your journey, you should pay attention to the late 19th century building technology, for which the foundational materials were steel and cast iron. Emperor József Ferenc himself tried out the metro, so that the people of the city would throng to it with excitement.
Today, such throngs are normal, if not crushing on busier days. Nevertheless, I still love this stifling yellow angel more than the sterile blue caterpillar, because its characteristic squeaks and clatters from the track lull me on my way home. I meditate.
Construction of the Andrássy Boulevard Underground metro, 1895. Photo: FORTEPAN.
Andrássy Boulevard and Bajcsy Zsilinszky Street (formerly Vilmos császár), 1908. Photo: FORTEPAN.
Andrássy Boulevard 103. At the Hopp Ferenc world travelers’ garden. Photo: FORTEPAN, gift of Cholnoky Tamás .
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