András Török is an expert of the Budapest urban scene and the author of the famous book, “Budapest: A Critical Guide”. His contagious love for the city gives a unique profile of the Hungarian capital.
András Török is a writer, lecturer and expert on the Budapest urban scene, into which he was born 60 years ago. He is the author of the cult book Budapest: A Critical Guide, first published in 1989 and now in its eighth edition.
Entering his office in Bedő House, a historical building from 1903 in the heart of Budapest, is like entering a studio from the 19th century. Bedő House is adjacent to the Museum of Hungarian Art Nouveau and reflects its style. Török’s appearance also seems to perfectly fit the atmosphere: his thick grey moustache and vivid eyes, shining with youthful enthusiasm, remind one of photographs of gentlemen from another era.
His love for the city is clear from his very first words as he defines himself as “an urban animal” and explains that despite being invited to many conferences abroad, he declines because he is more interested in Budapest than in traveling elsewhere: “I am a tourist in my own town”, he explains.
When asked how he got the idea of writing a book about Budapest, Török explains that in 1986, during his honeymoon in Vienna, he received an alternative guide book about the Austrian capital that included stories about its people, not only about the buildings. He read it, and he suddenly knew he wanted to write a book about Budapest. While the Hungarian guide books in those years were all lying about how perfect, beautiful and unique Budapest was, for Török it was more important to tell why Budapest is interesting as a mix of different aspects. “A critical guide means that it doesn’t say only nice things about Budapest, but it includes aspects of people’s real lives,” he says.
“I AM A TOURIST IN MY OWN TOWN.”
When writing about the popular shopping street, Váci utca, Török describes it as “overcrowded, commercial, touristy”. And he doesn’t hesitate to call “naff” and “low-quality” the decorations and furniture in highly educated people’s houses. “It can be embarrassing how in Hungary a high IQ and a fine wit are not necessarily accompanied by good taste”.
The first edition of the book was published in 1989, a crucial year for Hungary and Eastern Europe. Budapest’s appearance started changing the moment it regained its freedom. “The greatest difference between pre-1990 and post-1990 Budapest is colour,” says Török. “Until 1990, the city was characterized by very few shades, but over the years it has become a very exuberant, powerful and colourful city.” Walking through Budapest’s most modern corners today, it is easy to agree with the author’s opinion: “Budapest is like a spring that has been building-up pressure for many years, whose energies are finally being unleashed”.
His book has been translated into English, German, French, Italian and has sold more than 100,000 copies. Török’s next goal is to create an electronic version of it. The guide serves as an ambitious and funny portrait of the city. It includes a few black and white photos, “foolproof maps” as its author defines them and five suggested walks. But also funny tips with a wink at the reader, such as the chapter ‘Seven places to meet a lady of your dreams, if you don’t necessarily want to tell it to the world.’ The aim of the book is to introduce visitors to the soul of the city and to literally guide them through it, giving them the feeling of having “an invisible host” accompanying them.
“BUDAPEST IS LIKE A SPRING THAT HAS BEEN BUILDING-UP PRESSURE FOR MANY YEARS, WHOSE ENERGIES ARE FINALLY BEING UNLEASHED.”
From the second decade of the 21st century, Budapest is gradually emerging in terms of contemporary art and design, “a lovely mix of the cherished old and of the celebrated new,” writes Török, that make it a really interesting, lively metropolis. The city is changing very fast, but in his opinion, there is still a sort of “sandwich character” to it: the streets hold “an interesting mix of a slow-paced, eccentric European city and a hectic, cosmopolitan beehive.” If you walk in one direction you can see really old baths and the bullets holes from the Second World War on the facades, but in two minutes you can end up in a cosmopolitan, wealthy area, with wide streets and expensive shops. Budapest is just the right size to be discovered by travelers “and I am writing for travelers, not for tourists”, adds Török.
As an observer of the Budapest urban scene for more than 25 years now, Török explains that public money invested in art and culture is diminishing, so traditional culture is declining, but gastronomy is on the rise. Budapest used to be a café town, with its 400 cafés in 1900. Now some of them are getting resurrected.
The current buzz in the city is also related, to a great extent, to local entrepreneurship: new startup businesses are being created by young Hungarian people and by members of the expat community. The new metro line, M4, is another advancement to the city. Modern, big and colorful, it is “the symbol of the new Budapest, and it summarizes its energy,” states Török.
“I AM WRITING FOR TRAVELERS, NOT FOR TOURISTS.”
Török is cautious and not overly optimistic, however, as he sees the problems caused by the economic crisis mirrored in local and national politics. He considers the city to be very divided and sees no cooperation between political sides. “But when you go around in Budapest you don’t perceive it,” he says. “Budapest and Hungary are like New York and the United States, so different.” Budapest is a surprise for most of the newcomers, and they tend to return with family and friends. “The city is one of the best kept secrets of Europe,” according to Török.
“Budapest and Hungary are like New York and the United States, so different.”
Török’s love for Budapest began in his childhood. His mind wanders back to the years when he traveled to school by tram, observing the city’s renovations taking place along the route.
Since he was already interested in the history of cities, it didn’t take long for him to become passionate about the history of Budapest too, and he soon became interested in Budapest’s art, museums and old photographs. It is not surprising that after enrolling at the Faculty of Mathematics, he decided to change to the Faculty of Arts at the Eötvös University, where he studied History and got a degree in English, American Studies and Modern Greek.
His first experiences as an author included biographies of Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde and other writers, and in the ’80s he considered himself a dissident intellectual under the Soviet Union. He later worked as a translator, teacher and graphic designer, and as deputy minister for Culture and President of the National Cultural Fund after the Fall of the Berlin Wall.
A critic defined “Budapest: A Critical Guide” as ‘the Bildungsroman of the author’, and seeing how his personal life parallels the life of his city, the critic’s comments are understandable. Török is a well-known personality in Budapest, where he is currently the Managing Director of the organization ‘Summa Artium’ for the support of the arts. He also regularly writes a column in the monthly magazine “Budapest” called “Introduction to the contemporary snobbism and hedonism and the art of applied people watching.” He signs with the pseudonym “Simplicissimus,” though most readers know that it’s him.
Once and a while, Török still enjoys organizing guided tours for VIPs, and he proudly points to a thank you letter from a happy client — the actor Paul Newman — hanging in his office. With the same satisfaction, he shows the Wikipedia page dedicated to him, and before saying goodbye, as to remove the idea of a Budapest without him, he adds, “I want to live forever, but it’s not possible, so then I want to live at least long enough to see Budapest become “the hottest cool place in Europe.” And so would many others!