“Once upon a time I was young and beautiful. I flirted. I was brash. I was elegant. Time changed me. History scarred me. Will you love me still?”
Lying on the banks of the Danube, the twin cities of Buda and Pest are a bygone romantic fairytale draped in swaths of 60 years of communism, and at present the capital of a nation struggling to find its place in a capitalist world. Budapest demands and deserves delving beyond the obvious as one of Europe’s most popular holiday destinations and beautiful cities; if for no other reason than to just believe in fairy-tales again.
The more time I spent exploring, the deeper it drew me in, and I would discover little pockets of neo-classical charm, vividly painted ornate churches, grand art museums, the odd poignant sculpture on the street side, and live classical music performances in its lit up squares. I visited Budapest three times in a span of three months around three years ago, and each time I wished I could hold on to its magic just that bit longer.
Budapest is resplendent with an eclectic mix of World Heritage Sites from its various chapters. These include the banks of the River Danube, the Buda Castle Quarter, Andrássy Avenue, Heroes’ Square and the second oldest railway in the world, the Millennium Underground Railway. Its attractions spill over to comprise the second largest synagogue and third largest Parliament building in the world, and a total of 80 geothermal springs. It is a staggering list indeed! But what forms the crux of its lure is its story–from being a fairytale to finding its song back despite Marxism.
Her fairytale started as a Celtic, and thereafter Roman (Aquincum), and Hun settlement, taking on its medieval allure when it was captured by Árpád, leader of the Magyars, the Hungarian tribe in 896. In 1000 AD St Stephen was crowned as king, becoming the first king of Hungary; Hungary converted to Christianity and became an independent kingdom.
Magyar Budapest gave way to Renaissance Budapest in the 15th Century and it flourished under the reign of Matthias Corvinus. Under his kingship, Buda becomes a focal hub of European Renaissance. The Turks next took over the city in 1541, leading to 150 years of Turkish occupation and the resulting multiple mosques and baths in Buda. In 1686, Budapest came under Hapsburg rule. Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) were crowned in Matthias Church in 1867, and the Austro-Hungarian monarchy of the Danube came into being.
The 18th and 19th centuries were beautiful times steeped in elegance, luxury and a frustrated populace which revolted in 1918-1919 and created the 133 days of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. The ensuing participation in World War II as Germany’s ally in 1941, and formation of the Soviet friendly Communist government in 1948 ended the fairytale for good. In 1989-1990, Hungary transitioned to free elections and a democratic government.
Like all of life, an understanding of a place’s history helps to put things in context. In Budapest, it facilitates an understanding of the scores of homeless that sleep huddled in the back alleys of the city, stripped of social security and now left to fend for their own existence. It explains the romance of Chain Bridge and the Parisian air of Pest, the baroque palaces and churches and squares. It throws light on the various bronze sculptures that dot the city, epiphanies to the common men and women who died in their attempts to have their song heard through the din of war and communism.
The capital of Hungary, Budapest is historically and geographically two cities combined into one—imperial, hilly Buda and bourgeois, flat Pest, separated by the river Danube. The two cities, along with Óbuda merged into one in 1873.
Amidst all the sights and attractions, do take the time to light a candle in St. Stephen’s Basilica during mass or sip a coffee at the legendary New York Cafe, a popular hangout at the turn of the 20th Century for writers and artists. Stop at the moorish 1859 Dohány Street Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe, with a capacity to seat 3,000 people. Be awed with the work of Hungarian artists at the National Gallery. Or walk up to the Liberty Statue or Freedom Statue on Gellért Hill and buy yourself a Hungarian souvenir as you gaze at the lazy waters of the Danube below. And fall in love with Budapest, the city that was, is, and aspires to be, in her totality. And believe in her fairy-tale again.
A visual commentary of the city follows. Enjoy. 🙂
Imperial, wealthy Buda
The former Hapsburg Royal Palace, a backdrop for many a siege and war since the 13th Century, is one of the main highlights of Castle Hill and Castle District, and houses the Budapest History Museum and Hungarian National Gallery. Sándor Palace nearby contains the offices and official residence of the President of Hungary
Detail, Royal Palace a.k.a. Buda Castle. An angel takes passers-by by surprise with his blaring trumpet
Just another street in the Castle District: Baroque residential homes cover historical Roman stones
Left: Baroque-style Old Town Hall; Right: A sole musician lost in her own song at Fisherman’s Bastion, 1902. The Bastion is reminiscent of the ramparts that once stood here during the Middle Ages
Left: Detail, Holy Trinity Column in the Square of Holy Trinity; Right: Across the square is the 700 year old Matthias Church, a neo-Gothic architectural jewel decorated with elegant pinnacles and painted walls (below)
Busy, bourgeois Pest
White bearded ceramic dolls at the Central Market Hall in Budapest, a food and souvenir neo-Gothic marketplace; the market opened in February 1897
Left: Heroes’ Square, where Andrássy Avenue ends, is the city’s biggest and most impressive square. Millennium Monument in the middle of the square is topped with Archangel Gabriel holding the double cross of Christianity and the Holy Hungarian Crown. The square was constructed to mark the 1,000th anniversary of the arrival of the Magyars; Right: Heroes of another kind, a thousand years later. Budapest Jewish Holocaust Memorial—Shoes on the Danube promenade—by Gyula Pauer sculptor and Can Togay film director
Budapest’s 268 metres long neo-Gothic Parliament (1902), containing amongst other treasures the Hungarian Crown Jewels, is the country’s biggest building. It has 10 courtyards, 13 elevators, 27 gates, 29 staircases and 691 rooms
Beautiful ceilings galore!
Left: Detail, ceiling of the 16-sided central hall in the Parliament leading to the Lower House and Upper House chambers; Right: The neo-Renaissance Hungarian State Opera House on Andrássy Avenue, 1884, is considered to be one of the finest opera houses in the world
Left: And another ceiling. 🙂 Dome interior of St Stephen’s Basilica (1906) decorated with gold mosaic. The basilica is the resting place of the Holy Right Hand of the founder of Hungary, King St Stephen (István)
Picture-perfect Széchenyi Chain Bridge (1849), the oldest of the seven bridges spanning the Danube was destroyed during World War II and rebuilt in 1949
Note: This blog post is part of a series from my travels to Central and Eastern Europe in 2012 covering six countries.