Now I have returned from Budapest and I am writing this beside the steady flame of my customary candle. The Cafe Dumas on the Danube embankment, where I last wrote to you, dear reader, seems far, far away now. My travels are over for a while and I am ‘home for good and all’ as Fan, the boy Scrooge’s sister, says to him, when she comes to the boarding school to take him home for Christmas. But I should not be mentioning Christmas yet as we are only into September!
While I was away, I did not spend all my time in Budapest. I went with friends out of the city several times. One of the places I visited was Esztergom, in Upper Hungary, which, like Budapest, is on the river Danube. You can look down on Slovakia on the other side of the river from an elegant promenade. This is behind the imposing Basilica, the largest church in Hungary and one of the largest in Europe, and the remains of the Royal Palace. For Esztergom was where the Hungarian Kings first lived before the royal residence was moved to the Buda hills overlooking Pest. St Stephen, their first King was crowned there and baptised into the Christian Faith on Christmas Day 1000.
Centuries earlier, according to my guide book, it was also where Marcus Aurelius had an army encampment during the Romans’ reign over the territory. It was here, on the banks of the river Hron, which runs into the Danube, that Marcus wrote his Meditations. Sadly I did not have time to write one of my own there myself. I did discern a quietness and stillness about the castle area and the town, however, which was conducive to reflection.
It is that stillness and quietness of the towns we visited that impressed me most, aside from some beautiful buildings and piazzas large and small. As I sit here by my candle it is is the lamps that I remember: ornate and brilliant, beaming on stucco walls of yellow ochre, pink, grey, green and blue.
I was staying at my friend Adam’s apartment in the Taban district of Budapest at the back of the Royal Palace. Behind the block is a road where he parks his car with the Palace towering above it on the other side. There are similar lamps all along the road in the walls, elegant and warmly inviting, making me feel at home as I get out of the car. They remind me of the lamps in chapel quad at Pembroke, my Oxford college. I didn’t notice them much when I was an undergraduate there but I do now when I occasionally return.
Yes it was the lamps that I noticed as I sat one evening in the main square of Szekesfehervar, with my friends and a glass of wine. They slowly became brighter as the twilight faded into evening, their beams warming the yellow stucco walls until in the darkening sky, the square became blanketed in one incandescent comforting glow.
The great French novelist Marcel Proust commented in his masterpiece about memory ‘In Search of Lost Time’ that he would like life to be a series of happy afternoons. For myself, I would like life to be a series of mellow twilights. I image that Marcel was thinking of summer afternoons and I am certainly thinking of summer twilights, for it is only in summer that afternoons and twilights seem to stretch forever.
The square was quiet and quite still with a relaxed atmosphere. There was the low hum of conversation and music playing somewhere, perhaps in another street. The square was pedestrianised so children were running about, playing with their cycles and with water in a fountain.
People were quietly enjoying the evening and each other, sitting in the cafes and restaurants dotted about the square. There I was, in a town in Central Europe, enjoying the peace and quiet of a twilight evening. “Isn’t this what people really want?’ I reflected. To lead peaceful quiet lives enjoying being with their partners, their lovers, their friends,their children; enjoying being with each other? Life can be difficult enough after all. Is not this what the so called ‘European project’ is all about? It is not the ‘European project’ but the ‘European Peace.’ A peace we have shared somehow and not without problems. for seven decades and with which we have also embraced our ex-Soviet block neighbours. In abandoning the European project we should take care not to abandon the European peace.
‘The lamps are going out all over Europe’, said Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary at the start of the First World War. We must do our utmost to make sure they do not got out again.
If you are enjoying my blog, and have not already done so, please sign up below to receive notification of each new blog by e mail. Just add your e mail to ‘Follow’ as it pops up!
And please do pass on the blog address to others who may be interested.
I would also value any feedback on firstname.lastname@example.org or my Facebook page or Twitter.