OFF Your Bike!

September 16th-22nd marks European Mobility Week, and for its part Hungary has this weekend closed various roads and organised the so-called Critical Mass bike ride for the 22nd. The organisers state that The aim is to draw attention to the harmful effects of present modes of transport on human health.

Whilst not for a moment decrying or disputing the obvious benefits to both the environment and the cyclist’s health, I am far from convinced that the explosion in numbers of Magyars (and others) wheeling their way in amongst us more sedentary walkers and users of public transport, is a cause for unequivocal celebration. Safe from harm in their fluorescent helmets and resplendent in the latest cycling gear, their unvoiced superiority regales motorists and pedestrians alike, as they shoot up hills and over bridges past queues waiting at bus and tram stops. Yet, while their physical well-being may be improving, those of us negotiating life on the pavement are finding it increasingly fraught with the ever-present hazard of being hit by a bike. Since when have the pavements been declared open to cyclists? Without a bell, akin to adolescents on their skateboards, they silently weave in and out of unsuspecting pedestrians, quite unaware of the danger lurking just behind. However, unlike the teenage skateboarder who can hardly claim to be saving the planet, our errant cyclists, sure that they occupy the high moral ground, feel free to do as they please without fear of censure.

The humble pushbike was hardly if ever to be seen on Budapest streets twenty years ago – it was the transport of the country peasant who could not afford the several years’ salary to buy a Trabant (let alone a Lada), and in areas where buses were infrequent. Villages were full of men and women riding slowly along their streets (not pavements), to and from market – and in evenings, with neither lights nor helmet to protect them, men would wobble drunkenly home from the pubs along dimly-lit roads – a real hazard for motorists.

Today I stood at Jászai Mari tér waiting half an hour for a friend, and counted approximately 45 cyclists pass the sign requesting they dismount, thus enabling pedestrians to navigate the narrow walkway left on Margit hid to walk safely to the island. Of these, just two dismounted. Subsequently, we too took our chances along the same fenced pathway, the risk exacerbated by the fact not only that we had a three-year-old toddler with us, but that my friend is blind and also had a guide dog. Yet only with eyes in the back of our heads could we have negotiated the walk peacefully, as cyclists pedalled inches behind us, waiting an opportunity to overtake. Their selfish disregard for pedestrians can be witnessed everywhere in the city, in spite of the fact that there are increasing numbers of cycle paths provided for them – and which they would not for a moment contemplate sharing with pedestrians!
I agree that the time has indeed come to draw attention to the the harmful effects of present modes of transport on human health – the mode of transport being of the two-wheeled variety. Time they got OFF their bikes!


Time Travel

Last weekend I stood on a somewhat wet and windy Andrássy út to hear a friend play the piano on one of several temporary podiums that had been erected along its length - the occasion being the celebrations of both the centenary of Mahler’s death concurrently with the 200th anniversary of the birth of Erkel. This was a somewhat unlikely tribute by a bevy of highly-talented pianists braving numbed fingers and the electronic amplification of their heroic renderings, to two composers who wrote little if anything for the instrument! This fact notwithstanding, the pianists fittingly selected to play Chopin (whose anniversary is also this year) and Liszt (whose will be next year). The broad avenue was closed to traffic, and all around me I was aware of the many foreign tongues expressing delight and admiration, hands clasping guide books and maps, and young employees of the Hop-on-hop-off bus distributing leaflets with great alacrity.

In recent years, tourism has increased notably, while the months now covered by the presence of foreign visitors in the capital, and the events organised to tempt them here, have grown significantly. The many arts festivals, food and wine festivals, popular and classical music events, to name just a few, have seen Budapest experience the phenomenon of tourism as never before.

How difficult it now is to recall the situation which prevailed when this part of Europe was effectively isolated and forgotten by those whose foreign holidays ended in Vienna. Not that travel to communist lands was outlawed or impossible – but the yards of red tape and a fear of the unknown were enough to keep all but the most intrepid at bay:
An artificially low exchange rate (in 1980) of just 62 forints to the pound, and a return flight of 200 pounds, did little to induce the potential traveller. In addition, one had to procure a 30-day visa from the Hungarian embassy (or endure a long wait and a lengthy procedure at Ferihegy airport on arrival).Then followed the uncomfortable scrutiny by passport control, questions by grim-faced customs officials, and the feeling of insecurity as to the legality of bringing certain items (like jeans) into the country. Within 48 hours one had to register at the local police station – another intimidating experience.

Tourism, both as a concept and as a reality, was non-existent. Aside from East Germans using the only possible method available to them to meet their relatives from the West at Lake Balaton, one could occasionally witness a dirty old coach bearing Russian plates and some party faithful making its was around Heroes’ Square, but that was all. Monuments and bridges lay in total darkness – no illuminations dazzled the eyes of the awestruck tourist on the river bank – there were very few days a year when the expense was deemed justified. The one airport terminal saw as many – or as few – flights in a week as now arrive in a single day. No tourist maps, tourist offices or information, and all else only in the vernacular. A real experience of travel and the unknown for those who were willing to take their chances!

It was thus a real pleasure to now find myself among the hordes of people who had chosen to visit this unquestionably beautiful city, which was for so long hidden in both metaphorical and actual darkness. It is possible that some native Hungarians feel there are now enough tourists – but my suspicion is that like me, they enjoy the feeling that Budapest is no longer ‘’off stage” and that their isolation has truly ended.