This is not your usual travel feature that limits itself to highlighting, albeit sugarcoating, the very best of what a destination has to offer. This resembles more an epiphany about a place deemed “more fun,” brought about by a group of countries that has done a remarkable job of progressing from its recent history once veiled by the Iron Curtain.
This is what happened when a Filipino, who has only experienced one other country outside his native land, sees a world that’s gone through similar sovereign struggles, yet has become vastly different from the unprogressive society he calls home.
This is his journey toward discovering Central Europe, and his accompanying realizations of how a proud sovereign state should be.
One of the largest cities in the European Union, and one of the most popular in the world (according to London-based international research firm Euromonitor), Budapest, would be the first stop of the “Discover Central Europe” media familiarization trip organized by the Hungarian National Tourism
organization in partnership with the respective tourism boards of Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland.
Hungary’s political, cultural, commercial, industrial and transportation center, Budapest, has emerged as one of the most attractive touristic cities in the world. And following the short drive from the Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport to the city center along Andrassy Avenue, it was clear why the capital city is as esteemed as it is.
From the more industrial districts that surround the airport, Budapest is quick to transform and show off its beautiful aesthetics, thanks in large part to its preserved architecture that is a majestic mix of all that is world renowned.
From the Gothic and Neo-Gothic (Hungarian Parliament Building and the Matthias Church), to Renaissance and Neo-Renaissance (Hungarian State Opera House, St. Stephens Basilica), to Baroque, Classical, Art Nouveau; Budapest blends them all in a truly unique cityscape where historic and contemporary designs brilliantly co-exist.
Having lived in Central London close to a decade ago, this writer’s eyes wasn’t exactly a virgin when it came to this sort of a grandiose visual treats, but Budapest’s significantly wider and far less condensed streets allowed for its beauty to shine brighter, particularly on that surprisingly sunny mid-March day.
After checking into Hotel Moments (perhaps the newest hotel in the city, and staffed with some of the most hospitable bunch you could find in the world), which is conveniently located in the heart of Andrassy Avenue (a short walk toward the tourist spots like the Opera House, St. Stephens Basilica and Vörösmarty Square), I took advantage of the welcome sun that allowed for Budapest’s hues to come out and play with my foreign senses.
Walking around the streets that surrounded the hotel, one detail was quick to strike. It wasn’t the beautiful architecture that pervaded every corner or its pedestrian-friendly streets and motorists; it was the omnipresence of trash bins, smoker’s poles and ashtrays.
This most likely would not strike a chord in any other tourist, but to a visitor coming from a country of notorious litterbugs, this small (yet crucial detail) struck as a game changer.
Yes, you shouldn’t be smoking anyway, and even if you did, you should have the decency to hold on to your butts until you come across a bin. But coming from a nation so inherently devoid of the common sense to keep your surroundings clean, it opened my eyes to a renewed sense of civic responsibility.
As a note, this wasn’t something exclusive to Budapest during our tour. As we hopped from city to city across Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland (the Visegrád Four), this was the rule rather than the exception. It didn’t matter if we were in a castle, a palace, or any of the several UNESCO heritage sites we visited; you were given no excuse to litter—a collective commitment to common sense, which is unfortunately such a foreign concept to Filipinos.
A similar commitment to architectural heritage preservation was another aspect of Central Europe that both amazed and tugged at me during the two-week trip. While I was continually wowed by traversing cobbled streets not far removed from how it was in the Middle Ages and the accompanying structures from the same period, it also dawned on me how the powers that be back home unfortunately failed to recognize the importance of doing the same.
Bratislava, Krakow, Prague—all progressive cities—have managed to synthesize the changing of the times with respective nods to their histories. Across the V4 countries, Old Towns are clearly separated from New Towns, with legislation often setting height limits for structures in Old Towns.
Imagine if majority of the city of Manila still possessed the charming aesthetics of yesteryears—Spanish subdivisions akin to the walled city of Intramuros, side by side with American colonial districts that characterized Manila of the 60s. It not only visually adds character to the place we call home, but also elicits a sense of pride and an overall feeling of a better quality of life.
Speaking of which, a recent report came out estimating the amount of time Metro Manila residents waste on due to the incorrigible traffic. The report estimates that metro dwellers waste about 28,000 hours of their economic lives stuck in traffic, effectively turning them into prisoners during their daily commutes.
Residents of the V4 countries know no such hell. With a public transportation system comprised of trams, tube lines and electric buses, along with a healthy dose of bike lanes, and pedestrian areas closed out to vehicles, getting around the Central European cities is not only seamless, but a joy to do so.
The realizations expressed in this article do not mean I love the Philippines any less because of what I experienced. They mean that I’ve consciously decided to love it differently; by doing my part, however small it seems, to try and make a difference.
Be it by appropriately disposing of litter or going against the flow and driving less like a character from the video game Grand Theft Auto, I’ve come back home with a revitalized commitment to do my country right. That it happened barely a month before the crucial May 9 national elections is perhaps mere coincidence. Or maybe, a sign of things to come.
The lead up to the tightly contested Presidential and Vice Presidential elections has been crazier than usual – with the public getting invested more in the candidates’ platforms and character as opposed to how game they are to making complete fools of themselves by dancing to the corniest pop music has to offer.
As Richard Heydarian wrote in The World Post piece titled “The End of Philippine Democracy,” the Filipino people are increasingly considering political outsiders – a product of what he coined “democratic fatigue,” which is really exasperation from the oligarchic rule.
And as such, if the surveys are to be believed, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte – he who has been called a crass, classless, federalist – crude Pope comments and rape jokes in tow, have captured the people’s imagination.
Heydarian points out that “the demise of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986 provided a perfect opportunity for the country to rebuild its foundations.” But as the past three decades have shown, the same revolving
door of names have promised freedom (whatever that means), prosperity and peace – promises, which suffice to say, have stayed just that – promises. The V4 countries have done so much more with freedom and sovereignty in a much shorter span of time.
Democratic fatigue could very well then mean an overall reconsideration of what freedoms Filipinos need to embrace. We enjoy great freedom of speech in this country; as well as the freedom to drive after a night of heavy drinking without any real consequences; the freedom to litter and piss anywhere we please.
Unlike Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland, however, we do not have the freedom to go to work without slogging through infuriating traffic; freedom to use our mobile phones without fear of it getting snatched away; and freedom to get sick without it taking away our life savings.
Central Europe has reopened my eyes that what is possible, and what freedoms we Filipinos truly need to refocus on and embrace. That it was a group of countries inundated with beauty and history only adds to the longing for a return trip.
For more information on traveling to the Czech Republic and the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, please contact Menchie B. Gregorio, Managing Director at Travel Excellence Corp. at (02) 892-6006 and (02) 892-6012, or visit their office at Room 421, Peninsula Court Bldg., 8735 Paseo de Roxas cor. Makati Ave., Makati.
By TIMOTHY JAY IBAY