Taught by Tököl: A history lesson in the patchy grass

Article published on April 29, 2009
Article published on April 29, 2009
After having been away from the Cafebabel world for a while, I’m obviously spoilt for choice with things to tell you about life in this fair city. I’ve decided, though, to keep it recent.
In the wake of a new prime minister, a non-political bike protest, unusually high spring temperatures and a national obsession with the Hungarian word for hedgehog spreading like wild-fire, I turned the ripe old age of 26. I was 24 when I arrived here at the start of the month-long stay I had planned, and this month I celebrated my coming of age in true eclectic Budapestian style. There’s not room to share it all with you here; but for now, here’s a particular highlight.

The birthday weekend began on Saturday, when my visiting sister and I woke up bright and early to meet Gergely. Gergely’s a close Hungarian friend…he also flies planes at weekends, and this was to be my present. So, after zipping down field-flanked roads in a soft-top Beetle while eating home-made raspberry cake, we arrived at Tököl airport. Tököl’s an old military air-base, used for the last time as such twenty years ago. Since then, it’s been taken over by moss, light-aircraft, weekend pilots, the Red Bull air team, big guys with motorbikes, a Trabant track and some cats.

It may be all smiles and sunshine at Tököl now, but I came face to face with the nearness of Hungary’s Soviet past there with a stark clarity that differs greatly to places like Budapest’s House of Terror or Memento Park (museums concerned with the era). So much at the airport has been left in its original, abandoned condition, without any comfortable, distance-creating info signs or museum rope. In fact, I was able to get closer to Hungarian history than I had done in almost two years of being here. By that I mean real history: the kind you feel breathing down your neck and blowing with the dust in your face.

The rustic gates of the airfield were manned by cheery biker-types, who hailed us in with warm “csás” and smiles. Driving over the patchy grass, we passed around twenty looming, army-green military vans, barely touched by rust. They stood like shards of the past that appeared to have been dropped mid-use. Gergely then pointed out a large building in the near distance, revealing that it was once a secret torture site. A few hundred feet away a group of pilots with sandwiches, families and pushchairs were enjoying a picnic. My exposure to the gritty realia of history, and the startlingly dramatic way in which the country I now live in has changed, had begun.

We went on to discover that our plane’s hangar was one of two once used by a pair of fighter planes held on permanent standby, prepared to soar out in defense of the city. Next to it stands an abandoned military prison. With no guards, tourists or ticket booths in sight, we took it in from the outside first. It stood, barren and bleak, off-set strangely by the blazing sunshine and blossoming trees that had sprouted from its smashed doors and windows. We went inside. We fell fairly silent. The one-storey concrete block was a grim honey-comb of four-person cells. Beds and sturdy steel loops which likely once held chains remained on the flaking, jet-black walls, and small holes let thin slivers of light in from near the low ceiling. It was the stuff of nightmares and photographers’ dreams all at once. It was an utter, chilling privilege.

I think you can imagine how beautiful the city and its surroundings were from the sky, so I won’t go into much detail here. Besides, for me, what I saw on the ground affected me most deeply; despite the utterly spectacular flight. The plane we boarded was tiny, designed for no more than four people. We headed out over Margaret Island first, then on towards János hill, before setting our course for Visegrád and its castle. The castle was breathtaking from the sky, backed by shifting cloud, and as we left it behind we glanced over at the view of Slovakia in the distance. Returning over the city, we headed towards the opposite bank of the river; towards Heroes’ Square and the Parliament building. The latter from the air, by the way, is phenomenal. We also passed the location of the Hungarian Secret Police. But that would be telling. Finally, as we landed, we passed a line of disused military helicopters. Much like the vans earlier, they seemed the result of rushed abandonment. Like remnants of a part of history that made an exit so swiftly the curtains can be seen swaying behind it.

Next to a small lake behind the hangar, I took stock of everything that had just happened. I glanced down at an abandoned rowing boat, and up at a now disused observation tower. I was sitting in the middle of a fascinating country, the history of which I’m only just beginning to understand. To say I felt incredibly lucky to have experienced the past few hours would be an understatement.