A Hungarian Night to Remember

Laura Bennett

Copyright 2007 by Laura Bennett

Photo by Charles from Pixabay.
Photo by Charles from Pixabay.

Hundreds of us were huddled under the arches, squeezed in, shoulder to shoulder. Those nearest the edges were struggling to balance, trying to keep every inch of their bodies dry. I felt water drop off my neighbour’s bag and stream down my arm.

It had happened so quickly. I was still waiting for my thoughts to catch up with my senses. As I was fighting off both fear and exhilaration, more and more people were trying to jostle their way under our much coveted shelter. Through the masses I could still see people dashing for cover outside, using whatever they were carrying as makeshift umbrellas - soggy newspapers and shiny handbags being the most popular choices. One rather ambitious father was attempting to shelter his young son under the fingers of his outstretched palm as they both jumped the overflowing roadside gutters, the child struggling to match his father’s strides. Still the rain was hammering down, turning into surging streams along the pavements right before our eyes. There was screaming from all directions and the echoes of glass shattering and tiles smashing in the distance.

August 20th is always a memorable day in Budapest. Hungary’s day of national celebration, it commemorates the day on which the relics of the first king of Hungary, St. Stephen, were transferred to the city of Buda. Traditionally this public holiday culminates with a magnificent fireworks display at 9pm in the nation’s capital.

I had been oblivious to this when planning my business trip to Budapest. I work in Study Abroad and the dates had been dictated by the arrival of the students for the start of the fall semester. It was only after the trip had been organised that I happily realised my visit would coincide with this annual event. Due to arrive in the early evening I hoped that I would be able to get to my riverside hotel in time to see the highlight of the day in its full splendour.

My flight left London on time but we were a little late arriving at Budapest’s Ferihegy airport due to some extreme turbulence caused, according to the pilot, by some particularly dense storms sitting over Eastern Europe. At the transfer shuttle desk I was told there would be a worryingly imprecise wait of “up to an hour” as they were short of drivers because of the public holiday. Certain areas of the city centre had also been closed off to traffic due to the festivities, but they promised to get me as near to my hotel as possible. Having never visited the city before this made me a little anxious but I had a map with me so I assured myself instinct would kick-in and I would find it in the end.

Eventually the shuttle arrived. It was packed full with impatient business men and curious tourists who, like me, by this time had been waiting for well over an hour. As we drove through the suburbs towards the city centre I saw flashes of light in the sky and, in passing, wondered whether the fireworks had started a little early, by now it was getting closer to 9pm. Lost in the music of my i-pod, my mind was elsewhere until we began the intermittent stops to unload my fellow passengers and their bulky luggage at their respective accommodations. Peering through the tinted glass, I could make out the crowds of people, all hurrying in the same direction as the hour of the great firework display drew ever closer. As always seems to be the case in these situations, the group dwindled around me and I was left trying to get my bearings through the rear window. Eventually, just before 9 o’clock, the driver motioned towards the only other remaining passenger and myself - the time had come for us to strike out on our own. I looked around for something that would trigger some kind of recognition, but could only see the flashing neon signs of hotels which were not mine, and a large traffic intersection which was unnaturally teeming with pedestrians, having been cordoned off to traffic.

I repeated the name of my hotel to the driver and he pointed in the direction of what I supposed to be the river. I set off, wheeling my small case behind me, as an increasingly persistent wind seemed to blow up out of nowhere. Hurrying down what looked like a main street, with all its shops safely closed and locked up, I recognised the sound of the first firework explosion. Knowing that I couldn’t be that far away I smiled to myself, thinking that I’d just make it to the hotel with time to enjoy most of the display. The wind whistled up the broad street, fiercely insistent. At the very moment that I realised that the weather had taken a turn for the worst, the first heavy drops began to fall from the sky.

Lifting my suitcase I ran to the nearest shelter, taking care not to slip on the already treacherous pavements underfoot. As more and more people joined me undercover I waited for what must have been at least an hour. The hammering sound of the rain and deafening claps of thunder mingled with the bangs and flashes of the firework display which was carrying on stubbornly above us. There were occasional let-ups in the rain, but each time I began to consider getting myself together and trying to set out for the hotel the rain would lash down forcefully. Eventually I sensed that it was beginning to ease, bravely put up my flimsy umbrella and tentatively stepped out. People were still running all around me, mostly in the opposite direction to mine: away from the river. Fighting my way through, on more than one occasion I tried to turn down a side-street only to find that it was blocked with impassable puddles of water several feet deep. There was nowhere else for the water to go as the drainage system was by now well filled to capacity. I ploughed on, getting wetter and wetter, and increasingly concerned as I failed to find my destination. I wanted to stop and ask for directions but everyone seemed to be preoccupied with keeping dry and getting out of what was now beginning to feel like a war zone.

As I was contemplating what to do next I turned a corner and saw a shining red light illuminating the name of my hotel. The relief was overwhelming. As I walked into the lobby I was greeted with utter chaos – screaming children being enveloped in fluffy towels by their parents; spiky dislocated umbrellas cast aside in every corner, and sheer dismay on the faces of hundreds of people. Thanks to its position on the river the hotel had turned into a makeshift refuge for those caught up in the storm.

Thankfully a smiling hotel clerk eventually checked me in and gave me a friendly warning about watching my feet on the now sodden, shiny marble floor. When I finally made it to my room, ironically looking straight out over the river, I could hardly believe the events of the past hour. I called home straight away, desperate to share my experience with someone.

The following morning there was an eerie quiet about the city. Uprooted trees straddled the pavements; broken tiles littered the roads, some of which were still closed to traffic. The local English language newspaper, the Budapest Sun, was full of news of the event, accompanied by some fairly dramatic photos of the panic that had surrounded the sudden storm. I found out that three people had been killed, hit by flying debris, and a further two were reported missing feared drowned in the Danube after falling from bridges in the midst of the confusion. It was a sobering thought to realise that this was being dubbed the most momentous night in Budapest’s history since the revolution fifty years earlier.

My stay in Budapest eventually turned out to be a very pleasant one and thankfully I was able to squeeze in a little sightseeing. Highlights included climbing the dome of St Stephen’s Basilica to admire the architecturally stunning skyline – the city is a mixture of styles with everything from neo-Renaissance and neo-Gothic to Art Nouveau and some very modern glass and metal structures. The fast flowing, murky Danube runs through the heart of the city, separating the previously independent cities of Buda and Pest. I often found myself crossing it, catching a tram alongside it or contemplating it from one of the many high vantage points across the city. The thermal springs beneath Budapest have long been revered for their healing properties and I was able to try them out for myself at one of the largest and best known spas – the Gellert.

I considered myself lucky to have emerged unscathed from the experience of my first night in the Budapest. It gave me a real insight in to how it feels to be swept up by such an unexpected event, not quite feeling as if it’s real, yet somehow knowing that something very serious could be unfolding. Sometimes things happen so quickly we don’t even get a chance to take them in until it’s over and all we can do at the time is to trust our instincts and hope for the best.

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