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Those Magnificent men in Their Flying Machines…

David Holzer tries to take in the ultra-modern Red Bull Air Race and instead finds himself transported back in time.

According to its founders, Budapest is the spiritual home of the Red Bull Air Race. The race, which took place on the afternoon of Sunday July 2 is certainly popular. By the time we got down to Margit híd (Margaret Bridge) to watch the daredevil air aces, its entire length was lined with spectators.

Watching acrobatic aircraft trailing plumes of smoke appear from underneath Széchenyi lánchíd (Chain Bridge) and then dart in and out of markers floating on the Danube was certainly thrilling. For about five minutes.

The thing is, if you treat the race as a race, the pilots’ artistry in the air becomes boring very quickly. I’m sure I wasn’t the only spectator who secretly wished that a plane would crash. Not in a bad way, of course.

I pictured one of the gaily colored aircraft catching a marker with the tip of its wing and cartwheeling down the Danube past the spires of the Hungarian Parliament building. We spectators would hold our breath as rescue teams hurtled to where the plane floated upside down on the water.

Then, of course, the brave pilot would surface. He – or even she – would be plucked out of the water and wave to the crowd. We would be overwhelmed with relief and, in my case, guilt. Within seconds, the film we took of the pilot crashing would be up on our Facebook pages.

Once I realized there was no chance of this happening, I leant on the parapet of Margit híd and enjoyed the spectacle as a kind of art. And I remembered how important planes were to the early 20th century.

Futurist movement as a symbol of terribly exciting modernity. I’m sure one of the Italian Futurists even choreographed an aerial ballet for biplanes inspired by World War 1 dogfights, but I can find no reference to it online.

Seduced by Acceleration

Futurism was an artistic response to the arrival of modern technology. It started with Italian painters, poets and musicians seduced by the sudden acceleration in movement and freedom made possible by all those speeding shiny cars, motorbikes and airplanes.

When the Futurist Travelling Exhibition stopped in Budapest in 1912 it had a profound impact on Hungary’s avant-garde artists. The great poet, painter and activist Lajos Kassák was especially influenced by Futurism. Unlike the Italians, however, Kassák and other Hungarian artists who responded to Futurism were sickened by the atrocities of World War 1 and wanted no part of the ridiculous Italian celebration of war.

Now, it’s hard to imagine the art made by Kassák and the Futurists who inspired him as at all shocking, revolutionary or provocative. Compared to modern conceptual art, their work is more elegant, even charming, than anything else. Which, no doubt, would irritate its makers enormously, were they around to pull their pointy beards.

Musing on the Futurists and their love of light, color and motion, I realized why Budapest probably is the spiritual home of the Red Bull Air Race. The gleaming white spires of the Hungarian Parliament and solid majesty of Budapest Castle are the perfect backdrop to flimsy planes raced by air aces, themselves a kind of throwback to a golden era of bravery.

I was so absorbed in the aerial ballet being performed above the Danube – even the fluffy white clouds seemed to have come from another, more innocent time – that my partner had to nudge me in the ribs to get my attention. “Shall we go to Margitsziget?” she said.

An Island out of Time

The sense of going back in time continued as we drifted from the bridge down onto Margitsziget (Margaret Island). This was despite the fact that everyone had tattoos, even some babies, and a smartphone glued to their face. Even some babies.

We headed for Champs sports bar where we’d been told we could watch the Tour de France. Champs is an enormous outdoor bar, its wooden walls lined with TV screens. Unfortunately, these were all either showing an obscure football match or one of the sláger (hit) music shows. Still, the sound was turned down to leave audio space for thumping techno music – all beat and no rhythm. Forgetting about watching the Tour de France, we headed over to a set of banquettes that lined the river. Above us, an airbus performed stately aerobatics. This was followed by a scream past by a couple of fighter planes. After this, the sky became empty and quiet.

If you’re looking for a simple, friendly place for a mellow Sunday lunch, Champs is perfect. The food is nothing special but it’s not expensive and there’s a good choice of vegetarian options. My partner had a Szarvasi Tudok craft beer which, being fruity, was pink. She said it was delicious.

The afternoon was cooling as we made our way towards the musical fountain. This, if you didn’t already know, is a copy of one of the first ever musical fountains built by Hungarian Péter Bodor in the Transylvanian town of Marosvásrhely between 1820 and 1822. Bodor’s original used the force of water to chime at every hour. The Margaret Island version, restored in 1992, uses mundane electricity to play music.

Just as we were passing, the fountain sprang to life. To the sound of a frankly spooky child’s voice singing something or other over perky music, water rhythmically pumped and jetted.

My partner turned to me and beamed.  “It’s the song from Vuk,” she said. “The Little Fox. Every Hungarian knows this song.” [And every expat with a half-Hungarian child – ed.] And, it seemed, they did. All around the fountain, Hungarians were singing along with big smiles on their sun kissed faces. Even the men.