Still as glamorous and grand…
Life seems uneventful along the peaceful road winding up to Gellért Hill, lined with posh residences and embassies. But one look at the Habsburg Citadel and the Budapest Statue of Liberty commemorating defeat of Nazis…and you can sense the reverberations of an unsettling past. From this vantage point, resist the urge to proclaim aloud…“A river runs through it”. Practically the entire map of Budapest stretches across your vision. Bridges over the great Danube stitch Buda on the left river bank, atop leafy hills hiding natural cave systems and hot springs with Pest on the right, crowned with a scene-stealing Gothic Parliament building. Timeless splendour of a timeless city. Best viewing mode: Sepia. So, dive right in.
Buda’s Baroque beauty
Start with Buda’s Castle Hill, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, home to the Royal Palace and Castle District. Dig as deep as you like…each phase of Buda’s rich history is as fascinating…Mongolian invasions, 15th-century golden age, Turkish occupation, periods of ruin, rebuilding of a Baroque city and total destruction during World War II.
Step back in time at Fishermen’s Bastion (Halászbástya), built to commemorate fishermen who once protected this part of the city. Admire the multi-colored Zsolnay mosaic tiles on the newly renovated roof of the 700-year ornate Matthias Church. No ordinary house of worship…it has hosted mega events like the coronation of the last Habsburg king, Charles IV in 1916 and weddings of great Hungarian King Matthias. Its 17th-century Baroque avatar adequately hides the story of its forced reincarnation as a Turkish mosque with whitewashed walls and carpeted floors. Yes, that’s right!
Beyond the green copper equestrian statue of the King in the paved courtyard, count the seven Arabic-tent-like glorious turrets in white marble symbolizing the seven Hungarian Magyar tribes who founded the nation in the year 896. Then, from the tall arches of this lovely colonnaded corridor, indulge in architectural eye candy. The city of Pest across the wide waters of the Danube with the dramatic Parliament House presides like a king on a throne…dozens of pencil-like steeples with sharpened nib-like peaks, a majestic crowning dome and hundreds of windows. Decidedly Gothic, glamorous and grand.
And before you leave the noiseless cobblestone streets of the little town, step into one of the adorable cafes serving creamy coffees and cakes, browse the cute shops displaying local crafts and hunt out the Baroque houses proudly sporting 14th and 15th-century plaques of their lineage. Buda growing on you?
Pest: Palatial past
Through a long tunnel flooded by car headlights, reach the suspension Chain Bridge (Széchenyi) across the Danube. Two lions with full manes guard either side of the bridge entrance and crests decorate two more arched gates. Most pedestrians enjoying views from the walkways on both sides are clueless that this river used to freeze into an ice floor during winters, stranding people on the banks…until the Chain Bridge permanently connected Buda and Pest in 1849.
On the other side, Pest teems with attractive boulevards and effervescent energy. All the elements of a big city…restaurants, bars, hotels and stores, well-heeled tourist haunts and back alleys lined with famous ruin pubs and dive bars. Twin sisters, Buda and Pest, so unlike each other, yet inseparable.
Stop first to explore the exquisite Parliament building completed in 1902 as the second largest in Europe after England’s Westminster. Limestone walls darkened by air pollution support a spire-stacked Neo-Gothic facade and a Neo-Renaissance dome reaching as high as 96m. That number again! No surprise…the country’s millennium was 1896 and the conquest of the kingdom of Hungary was 896. Make time to visit some of the 691 rooms, stride 20 kilometres of stairs and gawk at the fabled Hungarian crown jewels of St. Stephen. Or, just loiter in the square riddled with bullet holes from the 1956 uprising and rewind to the days when Hungary was a powerful empire, a center of art and culture, grander than Paris, London, Rome and Vienna. It would have taken unimaginable damage to wipe out everything and a slow withering must have continued over the centuries…because the gritty scars still remain as sad reminders.
Not far away, is the largest church in Budapest, St. Stephen’s Basilica…it can hold as many as 8,500 people! Built over 50 years, in Neo-Classical and Neo-Renaissance styles, its dome rises to 96 meters, exactly like the Budapest Parliament Building. Not a coincidence, but a symbolic balance between church and state. Don’t miss the mummified right hand of the patron saint of the church, St. Stephen, the first king of Hungary, kept in a glass case in the chapel to the left of the main altar.
On to the city. Old-world yellow trams roll under tangles of electric cables and uneven-sized apartment buildings edge the roads. Mansions fading in magnificence, fight onslaught of water seepage and peeling paint. Statued, carved façades, arched entrances and decorative iron-rail balconies make desperate attempts at nobility through thick coats of pollution. Fleeting glimpses of a once-flourishing country…1800s Hungarian glory, part renovated, part abandoned. The Hungarians hangover of queuing from the Communist era, the occasional dilapidated post office and the seedy train station still exist. All part of the charm of the pearl of the Danube…no amount of international coffee chains is going to change! Take it all in, including iron-n-glass Nyugati train station (Budapest’s first) built in 1877 by the Gustave Eiffel Company. Apparently, it used to have a separate waiting room for Emperor Franz Joseph himself!
Travel the length of the Andrássy Avenue, the widest and most elegant street in Budapest, and the Hungarian Champs-Élysées, built for the millennial celebrations of 1896, house world-famous luxury brands, the Opera, House of Terror, residential villas surrounded by gardens, embassies, art galleries and cafés. Don’t miss the delicately designed street lamps. At the end of the boulevard, halt at the Heroes’ Square (Hősök tere), laid out in 1896 to mark the 1000th anniversary of Hungary. Study the large stone cenotaph and the 36-metres high corinthian column with the statue of Archangel Gabriel, the symbol of the Roman Catholic religion, the statues of kings and other important historical figures on the colonnades.
Later, shift gears at the pedestrianised shopping mecca of Budapest…Váci utca (‘shopping street’) that runs from Vörösmarty Square to the Central Market Hall. Colorful folk-art embroidery, ceramics, wooden toys, boxes and dolls, as well as Herend or Zsolnay porcelain call out from souvenirs shops. Pick up pair of wooden Hungarian dolls, if nothing else.
Pamper your palate with authentic Hungarian Goulash or Chicken Paprika with dumplings in one of the many traditional restaurants of the area. Then indulge in aromatic coffee at the eclectic Gerbeaud House, under vaulted ceilings, chandeliers, gilded and marble ornamentation, paintings and sculptures. Treat yourselves to a decadent slice of Dobos Torte, which has several butter sponge layers filled sparingly with a light, delicate but intense chocolate buttercream.
As the sun starts to fade, stroll along the river, thinking about this alluring city of 2 million, opulent in some places and dingy in others. Barges slide along the grey waters. On the opposite side, rows of houses glow in the soft sunlight. A sense of quiet hush pervades over the quaint Chain Bridge. It was a ‘gilded age’ when wealthy aristocrats built magnificent palaces and the intellectual and creative elite flocked to be among the action in this country. But you can still picture it all in your mind’s eye, can’t you? In sepia.
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