Historian of Horror: Busted in Budapest

They say it’s less the things you do that you regret than the things you don’t do when you had the chance.

This is absolutely true. 

You’ve probably seen the commercials, either on television or online, for Viking river cruises. A very long boat putt-putts slowly in front of a large, ornate, white, domed building in the opening scene. That’s the Danube River, which really is blue when seen from above. The building is the Hungarian Parliament. The city is Budapest, pronounced Buda-Pesht by the locals. The Hungarian capital was assembled when the cities Buda, Óbuda, and Pest were united in 1873. Buda is on the western side of the river and is hilly and high-rent. Pest is on the eastern side, flat and less expensive. All that’s left of Óbuda is an island in between. Parliament is on the Pest side. I suspect the film might have been shot from the spire of the 14th Century late Gothic style Matthias Church, on the Buda side, which overlooks Fisherman’s Bastion and several other popular tourist attractions.

In the middle of town is City Park, created for the Hungarian millennial celebration in 1896. There, after passing through the entrance from Heroes’ Square, you will find Gundel Restaurant, home to the most lubriciously delicious crepes you will ever put yourself on the outside of; the zoo and botanical gardens; a shallow lake full of mallard ducks; and Vajdahunyad Castle, a collection of recreations of various historical buildings from around the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

One thing you’ll notice about the older buildings all around Eastern Europe is that there are almost always little niches set into the corners and walls for statues. Most are filled with lovely little sculptures. Saints, dragons, horses, whatever strikes the fancy of the locals at the time. On the corner of one building in Vajdahunyad Castle, a niche was empty in 2003 when a German artist by the name of Hartmut Zech was looking for a spot to place a bust he had made and hoped to give surreptitiously to the city.

He had done this before, in other parts of Europe. Most of his gifts had been removed, but he and his friend were undeterred. They snuck in one night in July of that year with the bust of Hungarian-American actor Bela Lugosi that Zech had been lugging around. They put it in the empty niche. It was not removed, and is still there.

And I missed it. The one time I was ever likely to be in Budapest, and I did not see that bust. I didn’t even know it was there.

In 2011, my wife and I celebrated our 30th anniversary by spending a few days in London. We spent half of our first full day at the Tower, ogling the Crown Jewels and the headsman’s axe, block and mask, and other artifacts. Then we rode a double-decker bus around Trafalgar Square, stopped in at St. Paul’s Cathedral, toured the Globe Theater, and rode the London Eye, that huge Ferris Wheel on the banks of the Thames opposite to, and taller than, Big Ben. We walked back across Southwark Bridge to Westminster, then on to our hotel.

The next day, we strolled over to Buckingham Palace, but President Obama was scheduled for a state visit the next day and access was restricted. We did watch the changing of the guards and toured the Queen’s Gallery and Mews, ate bangers and mash at a pub, and sacked out early, as we had to leave for Heathrow at 4:30 to catch our flight for Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany.

We joined a two-week tour of Eastern Europe there, traveling in a very posh Mercedes-Benz bus from Frankfurt to Berlin, then on into Poland. We lunched in Poznan and dined in Warsaw. Then on to Krakow, with a side trip to Auschwitz. That nearly broke me. I stayed on the bus while the others toured its sister camp, Birkenau. I’d had more than enough. Some horrors are just too real.

Then, it was on into Slovakia, a land full of lovely forests and more castles per capita than anywhere else in the world. Not far into the country, we passed by Orava Castle, maybe a mile or two to our right. I took pictures, but from a moving bus in a light rain, it’s hard to make out what they are of. F.W. Murnau filmed part of the classic silent horror film Nosferatu there in 1921. We didn’t stop for a closer look, alas.

We came into Budapest at the end of our first week on the tour. We checked into our hotel and boarded a boat for dinner and drinks on the Danube. At river level, it’s actually more brown than blue, but nobody cared much. The food was good and the champagne flowed freely. Frivolity ensued.

We got up that Monday and went to Heroes’ Square. A military unit was rehearsing for the city’s Memorial Day ceremonies later that day, so we could only look at the square from the perimeter. We went on to tour the Parliament and St. Stevens’ Cathedral, then dinner and drinks and so to bed.

We got into Vajdahunyad Castle the next day and wandered about the buildings, especially admiring the replica of Hunyad Castle, which is in Transylvania and in which Vlad Dracul II was imprisoned in the 15th Century. Transylvania was, in 1896, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It’s now part of Romania. We stopped in the Romanesque chapel for an organ recital, and then on to Gundel for hedonistic pleasure on a plate. 

Our tour guide was an otherwise exceptional Danish gentleman, but he apparently he didn’t know about the Bela Lugosi bust, or I’m sure he would have pointed it out. I’ve checked and rechecked the myriad photographs I took in Budapest, but Bela is not there. I would definitely have taken a picture of him, had I seen him.

Very disappointing.

We went on to Vienna, where we toured the Kaisergruft, the crypt where the Austro-Hungarian royal family was interred in sometimes grandly ornate sarcophagi, from 1633 until the last member of the Hapsburg dynasty born before the Empire’s dissolution following World War I was placed in the last remaining spot just a couple of months after we were there. I have a future column on that deliciously gruesome place in the plans. Stay tuned.

Then lunch in Brno, a couple of days in the gorgeous city of Prague, a look at the Glockenspiel in the town hall of Rothenburg and back to Frankfurt, then London, then home. A most satisfying trip, for the most part.

For the most part. For all the wonderful things we saw, Alas, I regret missing the only chance I will probably ever had to see the bust of one of the seminal figures of horror movies in its natural environs. I hope some of you, dear friends, have the opportunity to travel to Budapest and will take that opportunity to drop in on Bela. It is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and worth seeing for many other reasons, but please don’t omit, as I was inadvertently obliged to do, the chance to venerate so important a figure from the history of our genre. You will regret that omission, as do I.

And so, until next time, fellow denizens of the dark…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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